Many years ago, when I was a broke graduate student living in Europe, I was asked to organize a “database of women” for an extremely wealthy American businessman.
He’d hired me initially as a secretary, explaining vaguely that he worked in “international finance.” At first, I performed ordinary duties — correspondence, errands, phone calls — from his center of operations, a palatial apartment in an exclusive, silent, heavily guarded residential neighborhood. Once in a while, his much-younger fashion-model wife and her friends would breeze into the office, resplendent in the kind of jewelry and haute couture I’d only ever seen before in magazines. I was dazzled by the atmosphere of luxury and grateful to have found a way to earn money in such posh surroundings.
After some time, though, my duties changed. The businessman decided I should concentrate on just one task: organizing the “file of women.” It was a big job: I was to read through hundreds of hard-copy profiles of young women and create a database of them.
In each profile, a woman was identified by name, age (they were all of legal age), nationality, and profession (mostly they were actresses, models, or beauty-pageant winners). Some files contained special details or instructions, such as “Lives with mother, have a woman phone her home to avoid suspicion.” Others listed which plastic-surgery procedures had been promised to a given woman, and which super-wealthy client would be footing the bill. These notes did not bother with elegance or discretion; a typical one read: “Mr. X. agrees to do Ms. Y’s boobs.”
No one needed to explain to me the purpose of this database. These women were business associates of a special sort, a crucial element in the high-flying transactions that are negotiated not at conference tables but over cocktails on yachts cruising the Adriatic, in private planes, and at country villas. Such lavish recreations would mean far less for the men involved (and it was always men) without the additional pleasure of beautiful young women, hanging out, sipping Champagne, bikini-clad and splashing in the sea, and then, presumably, disappearing discreetly into hidden bedrooms with whichever latter-day Nero requested it. These women functioned essentially as live bait in the fishing expeditions of global capitalism.
And what did the women get in return? Well, I do not think they were paid outright. My impression is they received benefits they hoped would enhance their lives and careers: visibility, connections, plastic surgery, perhaps expensive jewels or clothes. Some might even have married one of the powerful men they were meeting.
But no one seriously cared about the women’s career plans. They were simply luxury commodities — barely different from the myriad other valuable objects that floated through this world.
I was horrified by this “database,” but I did not quit my job. I needed the money, but more than that, I admit I was dazzled by the cinematic world I’d stumbled into. I loved the furnishings, the clothes, the jewels, the models, and learning the inside gossip about the famous people who attended the parties. I was seduced by the fairy-tale glamour of it all.
Lately, the Jeffrey Epstein saga has had me remembering that long-ago job. My employer was not an Epstein. He was not a criminal or a pedophile. But he did occupy a similar stratum of society, and his business did rely on an objectifying and transactional view of young women (though they were all between the ages of 18 and 30). And I was drawn to it all, despite my feminist principles.
That even I could have found myself in that universe helps me understand Epstein’s decades of success. Epstein trafficked not just in underage girls but in the pleasures of vicarious consumption. He’d built himself a fantasy world that held familiar resonance for anyone raised on American success fairy tales. I’m thinking of books and movies ranging from The Great Gatsby to Pretty Woman to The Bachelor, the Playboy empire (and its television spinoff, The Girls Next Door), up to and including Fifty Shades of Grey — tales of a regular guy who becomes a self-made prince and stocks his castle (or mansion) with consumable pleasures. Of course, princely pleasures always include princesses, selected for their youth or beauty or charm and whisked off into a heady world of luxury.
Epstein seemed a classic example of just such a prince. His biography hit all the requisite notes: born to humble circumstance (a working-class family in Brooklyn), evincing early brilliance (apparently he’s a math whiz), impressing powerful men who opened doors for him, and finally emerging a captain of high finance (though leaving scant trace of exactly what he did in his profession), a billionaire (maybe), friend and adviser to presidents and global titans. It didn’t hurt either that Epstein, let us admit it, was good-looking — tall, square-jawed, and rangy. He inhabited his role well. And he surrounded himself with every luxury cliché: yachts, private jets, mansions, his own island, and of course lots and lots of women, or in his case, girls – dozens, even hundreds, of disturbingly young (often underaged) girls.
Epstein reminds us of how stories that showcase rich men and their enviable possessions meld very easily into stories of rich men and the enviable women they possess — women regarded as objects to be displayed and dominated, and sometimes used, and abused. Fifty Shades of Grey is especially relevant here since, like Epstein’s story, it combines two kinds of porn: the sexual variety (albeit soft-core) and what is often called “wealth porn.” Like Christian Grey, Epstein hid a troubling sexual secret beneath the shimmering surface of his wealth. While Grey was just getting kinky with legal adults, Epstein seems to have been an outright criminal, allegedly amassing an army of underage girls whom he “tutored” in his preferences and then exploited as sex workers (or “slaves,” in some accounts), servicing not only him, but, according to accusations, an international cadre of his rich and powerful buddies.
For weeks now, the media has been asking how Epstein could have gotten away for so long with crimes of this magnitude (and even after getting caught, the first time, receiving that derisory, sweetheart deal of a prison sentence). After all, there were so many witnesses — employees, pilots, chauffeurs, neighbors, colleagues, party guests, and of course the girls themselves. Surely Epstein could not have hushed up or paid off all of these people. No. It takes a village to make a monster like this. And here’s where our own cultural presumptions play a part.
We know that Epstein had a penchant for uncanny home décor — a chessboard with life-size figurines, prosthetic breasts he kept in his bathroom (for fondling in the tub). But the most telling of Epstein’s creepy curios is the collection of framed, prosthetic eyeballs that graced a hallway of his Manhattan mansion. These “decorative,” unseeing eyes offer the perfect allegory of how Epstein got away with so much: The world turned a blind eye to his crimes. After all, we don’t question the right of rich men (like my former employer) to collect and display young women as if they were luxury goods. We don’t even “see” it.
We are equally inured now to the presumption that beauty equals extreme youth. To a beauty standard that prizes a nearly prepubescent femininity: hairless, lineless, hipless, smooth, and wide-eyed. Just look at most couture runway shows, with their assembly lines of stick-thin, pouting baby-girl models, many still in their mid-teens. Epstein even allied himself with the modeling world, using his relationship with Victoria’s Secret to lure girls with promises of modeling opportunities.
And so, however reprehensible Epstein’s actions may have been, they were cloaked in the signs and symbols of many beloved American myths about wealth, men, women, beauty, sex, and youth. (Myths, I dare say, that have sustained our current president’s image as well.) Naturally, it was hard to notice when this one sociopath stepped over the line into criminality. He gave such great parties! He knew models! So what if his luxury-commodity girls were “on the younger side,” as Donald Trump once said.
But if from the outside, Epstein’s collection of modelesque girls seemed lavish or high-end, Epstein may have had a distinctly different view. In 2011, in a rare acknowledgment of his crimes, Epstein told The Post’s “Page Six” that he was not a “sexual predator” but an “offender” — which he explained as “the difference between being a murderer and a person who steals a bagel.” With this remark, he reduced all those girls he’d harmed to a single, infinitely available, inelegant breakfast food. There could be no more vulgar, reductive image of female sexuality than this: a cheap, edible circle of dough. A consumable hole.
There’s a terrible truth in Epstein’s bagel metaphor. For all his fine taste and storied connoisseurship of beauty, he regarded human girls as little more than fragmented body parts, not unlike his collection of rubber breast toys—holes to use and dispose of.
But this kind of dehumanizing view sustains so much of our cultural fantasies. There is very little difference between seeing women as rarefied luxury commodities and seeing women as bagels. A thing is a thing. But the ubiquity of wealth porn and our ongoing romance with a certain glamorous vision of male success and power continue to blind us. Even women are susceptible to this vision of ourselves. With every “anti-aging” product we buy, every fashion magazine or romance novel we read, every young fabulous celebrity we compare ourselves to, we perpetuate some part of the myths that also sustained Epstein.
Jeffrey Epstein may have been a terrible criminal. But his particular crimes, the world he built, and the image he cultivated exist on a continuum that includes many of our everyday beliefs and recreations. Few of us — including myself — are exempt from the attractions with which he armed himself, attractions he used to deflect suspicion. Epstein’s world may be crumbling now, but the culture that permitted his rise remains intact. We can see it, if we open our eyes.