For prosecutors handling sex-trafficking cases around the country, the charges against Jeffrey Epstein are a welcome relief.
On Monday, federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York announced criminal charges against the billionaire money manager, alleging that he “sexually exploited and abused dozens of minor girls” between 2002 and 2005. The indictment alleges that Epstein worked with several employees and associates to entice girls as young as 14 to come to his homes in New York and Florida to perform sex acts in exchange for money. He used some of the girls to recruit other minor victims by paying them, building a “vast network of underage victims for him to exploit.”
The charges were especially welcome in light of reports that former Miami U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta, now the U.S. Secretary of Labor, had let Epstein off easy in 2008 with a lenient plea deal, and then failed to notify the victims as required by law.
Sex trafficking is a heinous crime. Predators use vulnerable victims, often children, as commodities for profit or pleasure. One would think that in light of the cruel facts of such cases, prosecutors would find convictions easy to obtain. That assumption is far from the case.
When jurors hear “sex trafficking,” they conjure up images of victims bound by chains, subjected to physical force and imprisonment. While some cases include those aggravating facts, more often, the victim instead chooses to stay with her assailant, who preys upon a vulnerability. Defendants recruit victims in a variety of ways and then force them to engage in sex acts with them or with paying customers. Jurors are sometimes persuaded that if the defendant was truly engaging in sex trafficking, the victim would have simply run away or called the police.
As a former federal prosecutor, I have seen cases of sex trafficking, and none of those cases involved victims in ropes or chains. More often, the cases involved runaways, undocumented immigrants, or victims of sexual abuse.
A high-profile case like Epstein’s provides a teachable moment for American jurors. The indictment notes that some of his victims returned to his home to perform sex acts for money, even after they knew full well what was in store for them. The indictment also notes that the victims were “for various reasons, particularly vulnerable to exploitation.” That is the secret sauce of sex trafficking.
Predators look for victims who have some vulnerability that can be exploited. Often the victims are runaways who are homeless and have nowhere else to turn. Sometimes the victims are dependent on illegal drugs, and rely on their captor to provide them. Some victims are undocumented immigrants who are threatened with reports to authorities or physical harm to family members overseas. Mental illness, language barriers, and lack of economic resources also create vulnerabilities that sexual predators prey upon. And once a victim has gone down the road of engaging in sex acts in exchange for money, drugs, or refuge, their captor has leverage over them. Captors tell their victims that if they tell the police what happened, they will disclose the victims’ involvement in the commercial sex crimes, landing the victims in jail. As a result, these victims often see no alternative to staying with their assailants and participating in more sex acts.
Sex trafficking is particularly egregious when it involves children, as in Epstein’s case. Children by definition are unable to consent to sex. In Epstein’s case, girls were lured to his home for sex with promises of hundreds of dollars and the prospect of modeling careers — offers that can be head-spinning and irresistible for a young teen.
One of the reasons that we prosecute crimes is to deter others from committing similar acts. By seeing criminals punished for wrongdoing, others learn from their example. Another potential benefit of the Epstein case is to educate the public that not all victims of sex trafficking are found in chains. Here is hoping that jurors will learn from this example.