In 1972 or 1973, I went to the circus with my friend and afterward her father picked us up. We were 9 or 10 years old, and while we had been enjoying the circus, her father and his new girlfriend had gone to see the porno Deep Throat, which at the time was a groovy thing to do. The film was a phenomenon. News accounts depicted couples cheerfully waiting in front of theaters in broad daylight, a signal of their open-mindedness. The New York Review of Books described the film’s fans as “middle-class intellectuals and bohemians and their feminist wives and girlfriends.” Film critics called the movie “porno chic.”
We lived in New Haven. Everyone’s parents, including our own, were affiliated in some way with Yale, and everyone was striving to be “brilliant.” “Do you know the plot of Deep Throat?” my friend’s father asked as he drove. No, of course we didn’t. “It’s about a woman whose clitoris is in her throat.”
There was something wrong here, but identifying the source of the grinding feeling in my gut was beyond me, so I gazed out the car window into darkness. I had never heard the word clitoris before (though I figured it out from the context), and there was something about the friendly, medical-rational way my friend’s father went on to describe the entire plot of the movie that made me think he was trying to edify us somehow. What he was saying, it seemed, was that for the physically healthy, open-minded, enlightened people in this car, such clinical descriptions of sex parts and sex acts from a movie designed to sexually arouse adults were suitable, even worthy, topics of intergenerational discussion.
I thought of this incident last week, as accounts of Jeffrey Epstein’s atrocities flowed through my feeds like lava, touching — scorching — everything but leaving the most important question unanswered. How could this have gone on and on? Why so much silence for so many years? Why did no one tip off the authorities or issue any but what must have been the most whispery warnings to close personal friends about Epstein’s pyramid-scheme approach to abusing an apparently infinite number of teenage girls? That Bill Clinton and Trump might play dumb is understandable, if reprehensible. But Larry Summers? Alan Dershowitz? Leslie Wexner, Bill Barr, Ken Starr (!); journalists Katie Couric and George Stephanopoulos; Eva Andersson-Dubin, who founded Mount Sinai’s breast-cancer center? Not to mention their spouses and partners and the people who manage their calendars and the Harvard finance men and women accepting his millions? The whistle-blowers in the Epstein case have not been the high and mighty who can afford to hire lawyers and publicists but the victims themselves, and their families, evoking nothing more than the Catholic Church sex-abuse cases, in which grandmas and aunts spent decades writing letters and knocking fruitlessly on bishops’ doors. “What is so amazing to me is how his entire social circle knew about this and just blithely overlooked it,” says Vicki Ward, the reporter whose 2003 discovery of Epstein’s abuses she alleges were scrubbed by Vanity Fair’s then editor, Graydon Carter. Everyone who knew Epstein mentioned “the girls,” Ward told the New York Times, “but as an aside.”
Part of that answer has to do with the clubby collusion that comes naturally to the rich and powerful, of course. But part also has to do with the mind-set of Epstein’s generation around sex. The sexual revolution gave Americans much, most notably the precious ability of women to control their reproduction and civil rights and marriage for gay and transgender people. But in other ways its legacy has been destructive: insidious, pervasive, and long-lasting. The sexual revolution gave the elites and the circles orbiting them intellectual permission to downgrade sexual violence to a matter of taste.
“The sexual revolution,” writes Maurice Isserman in America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s, “was an insurgency rooted in the conviction that the erotic should be celebrated as an utterly normal part of life.” This conviction, though admirable in concept, has mostly failed in practice. A generation of entrepreneurial and “brilliant” men took the job of defining the “erotic” for everyone else, without consulting or including the intepretations of women, and then purveyed to the masses an eros that degraded women and girls while pitching it as “healthy.” And then a generation of high-minded consumers accepted that definition — together with their belief in their natural right to be titillated — without making any meaningful distinctions between preferences and kinks and crimes. (Well, except men having sex with men, which remained taboo for decades more; lesbian sex was appropriated by the pornographers.) “Everybody’s going to be what they are, and whatever they are, there’s not going to be anything to apologize about,” wrote Tom Wolfe in his era-defining book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Thus one man’s fetish for shaved pubes was another man’s rape factory and all was acceptable in the name of satisfying the healthy (and formerly tragically suppressed, in the brilliant men’s view) male drive. “What is pornography?,” the Penthouse founder Bob Guccione asked a reporter for Rolling Stone in his dying years. “Censorship is pornography. Repression is pornography.”
So pervasive was this blasé shrug about the sexual proclivities of men, especially men in the brilliant (but also rich and powerful) categories, that it was an attitudinal requirement for anyone who hoped to rise among them. This mind-set formed the primeval slime in which Epstein’s — and R. Kelly’s — compulsions were allowed to flourish. In the late 1970s, around the same time that Epstein stopped teaching math at Dalton and Roman Polanski raped 13-year-old Samantha Geimer at Jack Nicholson’s house, a young Anna Wintour worked for Penthouse founder Bob Guccione’s porn empire — “and then was as surreptitious as she could be about her former employer,” according to Wintour’s unofficial biographer, Jerry Oppenheimer.
Guccione might have been a template for Epstein. Astronauts dined at his table with the country’s most celebrated writers — Seymour Hersh, Abbie Hoffman, Studs Terkel, Gore Vidal, Michael Korda, Philip Roth — published in his magazine, and no one ever said a thing about the “girls” he kept in a dorm upstairs in his mansion on the Upper East Side (four blocks from Epstein’s haunted manse on 71st Street), limiting and allegedly recording their phone calls, enforcing curfews, refusing their visitors, and having sex with them on an as-needed basis, a designation he made himself determined by his legendary sex drive. “Everyone knew,” Guccione’s daughter Nina told Rolling Stone, “but you didn’t say anything about it.”
In 1975, over student protests, Brandeis University ushered Guccione into the ruling class, giving him its Publisher of the Year Award for “his editorial attention on such critical issues of our day as the welfare of the Vietnam veteran and problems of criminality in modern society.” Ten years later, Guccione chose 15-year-old Traci Lords to be the centerfold of his magazine, and the legitimate equivalency between male achievement (power, money, intelligence, brilliance) and sexual transgression was established.
The world in which I sexually came of age was one where high-school teachers had sex with students and camp counselors molested campers, and all this was known, but not openly discussed, and few kids even told their parents because the parents were part of the problem. They were the ones who taught us that the relationship between Elvis and Priscilla Presley was romantic, even though she was 14 when they met and throughout the years when she should have been in high school was instead imprisoned at Graceland, while he was out twirling his hips and having sex with his Hollywood co-stars. Her own parents (much like the parents of Michael Jackson’s prey) seemed to have been helpless to stop it all because Elvis was Elvis and, more than that, a symbol of everyone’s liberation, so what were you going to do?
All around us, the silence surrounding the predatory behavior of men was normal — encouraged, even — manifesting as a peer-group pressure not to appear square. It reminds me of a story I heard about the Clintons in their law-school years, living not so far from where I grew up. Bill resided in what was essentially a beach house, selectively attending classes and drinking beer. When Hillary would show up there, Bill’s roommates would roll their eyes. Hillary was a buzz-kill, a label that stuck to her henceforth, even when her husband was discovered to be sticking a cigar up an intern’s vagina in the Oval Office, all in the name of boyish fun. Indeed, most of the political left wing, including myself, raised this defense of Clinton at the time. Who’s to judge a man at play? Clinton’s “appetites,” like his late-night pizza binges, were part of his appeal — or at least that’s what I reasoned at the time. (Now, of course, when Epstein equates molesting an underage girl to “stealing a bagel,” this analogy has a different flavor.)
The high-minded purveyors of eroticism co-opted words like naughty, flipping them around so that they meant “hot,” depriving us of the vocabulary we might have used to resist. “Raunchy means sophisticated sexiness,” Guccione told Vanity Fair. With my peers, I went to see Last Tango in Paris in college, an obligatory outing for the intellectually and sexually adventurous, and I ignored (again) the grinding feeling in my gut when Brando mounted his conquest from behind. When I learned decades later that this act of sadism had been orchestrated by Marlon Brando at the height of his fame and Bernardo Bertolucci, an art-house god, without the prior knowledge or consent of the 19-year-old actress, Maria Schneider, I cried.
The least surprising thing about Epstein has in my opinion been the friendship with Woody Allen. Epstein kept a photo of Allen on his wall and was photographed perambulating with him on the Upper East Side (a region that has over the past few days lost all of its gloss of blue-blood gentility and now holds the possibility on every awninged block of hidden sex dungeons behind thick limestone walls). The intersections between Allen and Epstein are unspeakably grotesque. For years before his relationship with Mia Farrow, Allen carried on with a 16-year-old girl he met at Elaine’s named Babi Christina Engelhardt, who in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter said she had sex with with him hundreds of times, often together with Farrow. “The whole thing was a game that was being operated solely by Woody so we never quite knew where we stood,” she said. She added: “The curtains were always drawn.”
Engelhardt went on to become Epstein’s assistant. In The Hollywood Reporter, she said she was the inspiration for Manhattan, Allen’s 1979 movie about a man in his 40s who dates a high-school student that was nominated for two Academy Awards. In art-house style, the movie pretends that Isaac’s appetites are sympathetic, existing somewhere along a spectrum of hopelessly romantic and evolutionarily indisputable. The fictional 17-year-old, Tracy, it must be said, goes to Dalton.
And when, in 2001, Walter Isaacson interviewed Allen for Time magazine about his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, Mia’s adopted daughter, Allen responded with the words that might be the slogan for the whole sexual revolution gone awry, the ultimate rationale for unacceptable or inappropriate or even criminal sexual behavior. “The heart wants what it wants,” he said. Gay Talese was at least more honest about which organ was in command. “The penis,” he wrote in 1981 in Thy Neighbor’s Wife, “knows no moral code.” This is obviously true in Epstein’s case, only his penis knew no legal or criminal code either.
Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing the matter with eroticism or sexual pleasure. Transgression and vulgarity can be sexy. Power (whether in the form of brilliance or money or beauty or strength) can be sexy. Bosses and their assistants sometimes fall in love, for real, as do teachers and students. The objectification of other and self is a fundamental dynamic in most sex, something people don’t cop to enough, imho.
But what the Epstein case raises is something else. The sexual revolution at its most destructive abetted the annihilation of human people on the receiving end of unwanted sex acts, who were trapped, forced into sex — whose own ideas of pleasure and desire and liberation were overridden, obliterated — because of the incontrovertability of a “brilliant” man’s desires and the inability of that man’s social circle to see his victims as anything but collateral damage or nameless prey. That’s why R. Kelly’s victims were so overlooked: Not just young and female, they are also women and girls of color. That’s why the repetition of the phrase “the girls” in all the Epstein stories is so soul crushing. Because they represent a category of no-ones, some as young as 14 years old.
It turns out that Linda Lovelace, the female star of Deep Throat — the man-built fantasy of a woman who gets off giving head — said she was beaten by her husband and manager, Charles Traynor, during the filming of the movie that so many sophisticated intellectuals checked off their to-do lists to prove their enthusiasm for liberated sex. Nearly a decade later, in 1980, Lovelace still had the scars, which she showed a reporter for the Washington Post. And she was living on food stamps. Lovelace’s co-star Harry Reems said he never saw evidence of any beatings, and in a denial, Traynor called his ex-wife’s claims of abuse “ridiculous.” He said: “You would think she would be at least grateful for a few moments of glory, even if they didn’t last.”