Jeffrey Epstein isn’t just accused of sexually abusing young girls. He’s accused of manipulating those girls into bringing him more victims, both widening his alleged sex trafficking ring and assuring victims would stay silent.
Victims reported that Epstein paid them when they were hard up for cash — and paid extra when they brought new girls. He offered them affection, or promised to boost their future careers. That’s what kept them coming back to his palatial Palm Beach estate for years.
That line of thinking isn’t uncommon for victims of human trafficking rings, experts say, and it can take years for survivors to realize they were victimized twice: once sexually, and a second time through manipulation with money, power, or praise.
“They’ll often talk about the extent to which they have agency in their own decision, but they don’t see themselves as being exploited,” said Rachel Lovell, sex trafficking expert and assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University. “They see themselves as being in love, as making the best decisions with the limited circumstances that they have.”
Over time, behaviors that may seem blatantly abusive — like luring underage girls into sexual services — can become so normalized to victims that they struggle to see it as problematic. And mimicking those behaviors might seem like a promising way to earn favor — or even something resembling love — from their abusers.
“Victims will never use the word ‘trafficked,’” Lovell said.
Long after the physical abuse ends, the circumstances binding someone to their abuser can be psychologically real and perpetuate violence for years. The process where a victim is brainwashed into emotional or economic dependence with their assailant is often referred to as “grooming,” or “recruitment.” And often, that attachment stops kids from turning against their abuser.
“Trying to get kids to see themselves as victims can be very challenging,” Eliza Reock, a strategic advisor at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. “Unfortunately, people who traffic children are very aware of how to exploit those vulnerabilities.”
Epstein was charged with human trafficking and conspiracy in a Manhattan courtroom on Monday after allegedly molesting and abusing a network of girls — some of them as young as 14 — across his Manhattan and Florida estates from 2002 to 2005.
Some of these unnamed girls are referred to as “victim-recruiters” in Monday’s indictment, since they brought him more teens in exchange for cash. And many of the victims were particularly vulnerable or impoverished when they met a fabulously wealthy and powerful Epstein, according to a November 2018 investigation by the Miami Herald.
“They think by moving from a position of someone who is enduring the actual abuse to recruiting pushes them out the abusive situation, when in fact it pushes them deeper down the rabbit hole,” said Camille Cooper, vice president of public policy at the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. “Their brain only wants the abuse to end, and they reach for the recruitment as a way to get the abuse to stop.”
Jennifer Araoz, who came forward to NBC’s “Today Show” on Wednesday, said she was 14 when another young woman — maybe in her 20s, she said — approached her outside her high school in New York City and invited her to meet a wealthy, kind, middle-aged guy. At the time, her family didn’t have a lot of money. Her father had died of AIDS when she was young.
"She was saying he's very powerful, he's very wealthy, he's a great guy," Araoz told NBC. "He's almost like a fatherly figure to her, which had meaning for me at that time because I was maybe longing for that."
She was invited to Epstein’s gigantic Manhattan townhouse, where he listened to her recount her personal dreams and family life. It took a few visits before he asked her to massage him while he masturbated, Araoz said. She continued for about a year. He allegedly raped her when she was 15, after which she never returned.
In some instances, Epstein’s alleged co-conspirators offered the girls modeling jobs or promised to help their future careers — leaving the girls feeling attached or indebted to Epstein by economic necessity, according to the Herald.
At least two girls told Palm Beach police they were in love back when the alleged crimes were first investigated. (Federal prosecutors finalized a plea deal over the child sex abuse allegations with Epstein in 2008 that allowed him to plead guilty to lesser prostitution charges and serve about a year in jail.)
“We just wanted money for school clothes, for shoes.”
“We just wanted money for school clothes, for shoes. I remember wearing shoes too tight for three years in a row,” one unnamed woman, who said she was abused and recruited by Epstein at age 14, told the Herald. “We had no family and no guidance, and we were told that we were going to just have to sit in a room topless and he was going to just look at us. It sounded so simple, and was going to be easy money for just sitting there.”
Epstein would allegedly bring girls into his homes under the guise of “massages,” which would often lead to molestation and abuse.
“It was never enough”
Courtney Wild, for example, was a braces-wearing 14-year-old and “pretty much homeless” when she met Epstein in 2002, she told the Miami Herald. She later recruited “70 to 80 girls who were all 14 and 15 years old” in exchange for more cash. Epstein paid in the hundreds.
Wild and other recruiters would find new girls at the mall, school parties, or other places where teenagers hung out.
“If I had a girl to bring him at breakfast, lunch and dinner, then that’s how many times I would go a day,” Wild told the Herald. “He wanted as many girls as I could get him. It was never enough.’’
What’s important to recognize, Reock said, is that the children were allegedly directed to recruit more girls by Epstein and didn’t have much room to refuse him. Children bond with their abusers on a frequent enough basis that girls recovering from abuse or entering group homes might run away and bring other children with them.
“Whether it be coping mechanisms, connection to their trafficker, distrust to their system — they’re not identifying as victims. As adults, it’s important to make sure we’re targeting the right perpetrator,” Reock said.
Cooper agrees, adding that “minors are never complicit in their own abuse.”
The people who scheduled and maintained the abuse, meanwhile, were allegedly Epstein’s adult, female employees. He also allegedly had hired a madam who would teach the girls about sex and pleasing men, according to the Herald. Although women and girls make up the majority of trafficking victims, women comprise nearly 30 percent of convicted perpetrators of human trafficking, according to the United Nations.
Cover: One Jeffrey Epstein's alleged victims, Courtney Wild, exits the courthouse after the billionaire financier appeared for a hearing on July 8, 2019 in New York City. According to reports, Epstein will be charged with one count of sex trafficking of minors and one count of conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking of minors. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)