jeffrey epstein

#NoFilter: Social Media, Sex, and the Untouchable

In the #NoFilter series, private sector engagement interns Ashley Solle and Nicole Phocas discuss youth, social media, and society in the context of the recent Jeffrey Epstein case.

The recent death of Jeffrey Epstein, who was indicted on child sex trafficking and child pornography* charges, has pushed conversations on the link between power and child sexual exploitation in the United States out of the shadows, at least for a minute. 

This is far from the first case in recent history of a wealthy, powerful man abusing his standing to manipulate and coerce children to participate in sexual acts; Robert Kraft, Terry Richardson, Larry Nassar, and R Kelly are just some of the other names that come to mind. These men abused their positions and targeted children -- usually teenage girls -- from vulnerable populations. They exploited the vulnerable child’s weakened emotional state and took advantage of problematic societal norms surrounding the over-sexualization of youth. Of course the blame lies with the abusers, but these cultural standards we’ve created have taken on a new life with social media, contributing to the ease with which traffickers can recruit victims. The problem involves youth of all genders, but since Jeffrey Epstein abused girls and since most of what we’re criticizing is based in sexist and patriarchal norms, we’ve chosen to take a female-centric approach. Besides, as women ourselves -- from the first generation to grow up with social media, no less -- we can’t help but call out how platforms like Instagram encourage certain unattainable ideals for young girls in particular. 

Like anything, social media can be a wonderful tool to access information but it also has unintended consequences. The popularity of platforms like Instagram and Snapchat has paved the way for body positive and sex positive social movements which promote a healthy snapshot of what a relationship should look like. However, posts on these platforms tend to only show the beautiful and glamorous side of life. This can be an especially damaging thing for a teenage girl in a vulnerable position, whether it’s an unstable family life, history of abuse, poverty, or lack of opportunities. When she sees the perceived happiness of their favorite Instagram influencer or celebrity, she is willing to take steps to get to this lifestyle of private jets, yachts, expensive dinners, and celebrity. When a wealthy, powerful, charismatic man like Jeffrey Epstein or R. Kelly pays attention to her, says he loves her, and offers her these things, how could she say no? Why would she want to? 

Sex-positive images posted on social media by teenagers are not an excuse to sexualize them without their consent. By ignoring the problem, we are telling these children that their bodies are not their own.

The impunity that society gives wealthy and powerful men for sexual exploitation goes way beyond the individual. Our culture has an enormous problem with the over-sexualization of teens. Just to be clear, there is a massive difference between sex positivity and sexualization. Sex positivity encourages and promotes the expression of sexuality as a healthy and natural occurance when placed in the context of consent and autonomy. Sexualization is related to assigning sexuality to someone or something else, regardless of the subject’s knowledge or consent. For example, if a teen girl chooses to embrace her sexuality and post a photo on Instagram in a bikini, she has every right to do that. Regardless of her intent, no one should be sexualizing the image without her explicit consent. By contacting the girl who posted the photo, under the assumption that because she posted the photo she automatically wants sex, the viewer is over-sexualizing that person. We’ve both had instances of men, both older and our own age, harassing us on social media for innocent photos we posted, even when we were underage. There has been an issue with sexualizing teenage girls for ages: “sexy schoolgirl culture,” the young age that lingerie models begin high profile careers, and countdowns for underage female actresses turning eighteen. Because of the anonymous nature of social media, this sort of behavior is becoming more normalized. Sex-positive images posted on social media by teenagers are not an excuse to sexualize them without their consent. By ignoring the problem, we are telling these children that their bodies are not their own. 

The oversexualization of teens is not just happening online, however. These norms and ideals perpetuated by social media are manifesting into real, physical transactions between teenagers and older adults. Our next blog will discuss this more, but one thing is certainly becoming a trend at this point: older men who use their power and wealth as an excuse to rape and traffic children face little consequence, and their friends are often involved. While we can’t entirely blame society for the actions of child predators, the twisted promotion of teenagers as an oversexualized ideal is certainly not helping change the narrative.

Wealthy, powerful men like Epstein coerce and exploit vulnerable youth by promising a lifestyle they see as unattainable. Cultural standards that validate exploitative behavior have existed for decades, but with progress comes new ways to trick, coerce, or force children into dangerous situations. Social media is a platform that normalizes these standards even further, but we can’t blame the platform for the culture. Change comes by recognizing that we live in a country where justice favors powerful men over vulnerable children and by reminding these men that they are not untouchable. 

*A note on language: While the legal term related to his charge is child pornography, ECPAT-USA urges society to move away from the term child pornography because it equates child sexual abuse to a legal industry and reduces the severity of the crime. Instead, we advocate for the use of the term child sexual abuse material (CSAM). Review our Terminology Guidelines here.

READ MORE:

#NoFilter: Media Coverage of the Epstein Case 

ECPAT-USA Statement on Jeffrey Epstein’s Death

Grooming: Is R Kelly Using the Same Tactics as Human Traffickers to Control His Victims? 

ECPAT-USA Report on Child Sexual Abuse Material

ECPAT Terminology Guidelines

As Child Sex Abuse Cases Fill the News, Don’t Be A Bystander

Coming Soon - #NoFilter: Seeking Innocence in an Online Dating Culture



#NoFilter: Media Coverage of the Epstein Case

In the #NoFilter series, private sector engagement interns Ashley Solle and Nicole Phocas discuss youth, social media, and society in the context of the recent Jeffrey Epstein indictment.

There are literally millions of images and videos depicting child sexual abuse on the internet right now, and findings of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) are growing exponentially. Between 2015-2018, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children's (NCMEC) CyberTipline noted a 4 fold increase in CSAM reports, from 4.4 million to 18.2 million. In the last few years, we have heard countless stories about wealthy, well-connected men abusing their power to exploit children. These men include household names like R Kelly, Bill Cosby, Jerry Sandusky, Kevin Spacey, Jared Fogle, Harvey Weinstein, Jimmy Savile, Woody Allen, Larry Nassar, and countless religious leaders. The recent MeToo Movement has exposed the systemic sexual harassment and abuse of women and children which has been going on for centuries. In past blog posts, we have gone into depth on the sexualization of youth in our culture. And then we have Jeffrey Epstein, the billionaire businessman who sexually exploited, trafficked, and raped children for decades without consequences. He has been given a pass by the media, who have portrayed a diluted version of the events that played out. Even now, after his apparent suicide, the media are focusing more on promoting conspiracy theories than on getting justice for the children he abused. 

Mainstream media outlets such as Rolling Stone, Boston Globe, and Forbes, to name a few, use a variation of the phrase “nude photos of underage girls” in reference to child sexual abuse material found in Epstein’s Manhattan mansion. The words “nude photos” and “children” should not exist in the same sentence. Nude photos of children are not art and they are not okay. They should be portrayed as what they are: illegal child abuse imagery. One article from the New York Post, which we honestly thought came from the Onion when we first opened it, even used the phrase “kiddie porn.” Need we say more?

Beyond more extreme phrases like “kiddie porn”, even the most reputable news sources still have a long way to go in terms of highlighting the severity of the sexual exploitation of children. A commonly used term is child pornography; however, we prefer the term child sexual abuse material (CSAM) because it both demonstrates the severity of the problem and ensures that child abuse is not equated with the legal pornography industry. Refer to our terminology guidelines for more information on phrasing. 

From the New York Times to New York Magazine, the media regularly use the term “sex with underage women” in reference to the Epstein case and many cases like his. These are not underage women, they are children, and for someone Epstein’s age, this is not sex. It is either rape or trafficking. On that same note, why is it that we call adult women “girls” when we are trying to silence them, but call young girls “women” when it is convenient to the patriarchal narrative surrounding sex? These are children. This is abuse. 

The media has a duty to bring light to injustices. By not emphasizing what happened to the child, but rather diminishing it to a neutral, problematic, or clinical phrase, they are silencing the victim’s story and diminishing the severity of the abuse. The media is expected to sensationalize and dramatize events and crimes, but when they have the opportunity to talk about a case that is already dramatic, dark, and horrifying without any exaggeration, they don’t. Call it like it is: rape, children, exploitation, international child sex trafficking ring, child sexual abuse material. This story does not end here. Do your job and tell it right. 


Don't Let Epstein's Enablers & Associates Escape, ECPAT-USA Says

Jeffrey Epstein, who was arrested on charges of sex trafficking in July, was found dead by suspected suicide Saturday morning. The indictment in his case alleged that from 2002-2005, Epstein sexually exploited minors, some as young as 14 in Manhattan and Palm Springs.

“Jeffrey Epstein’s death should not be the end of the story. We must also bring to justice his enablers and those who joined him in abusing young girls,” said Carol Smolenski, Executive Director of ECPAT-USA, the country’s leader in fighting child sex trafficking. “By all accounts, there were dozens, if not hundreds, of young girls involved and also other men involved in sexually exploiting them. There were many people who aided or enabled Epstein, including in the criminal justice system. There can be no justice and no end to the Epstein case until everyone involved is held to account. There were also many people who saw what was going on and were suspicious, but said nothing. This case makes it clear why it’s essential to speak out to save children.”

Statement from ECPAT-USA on Secretary Alex Acosta

It is an affront to young victims of sex trafficking everywhere for Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta to remain in his position, especially in the aftermath of his press conference in which he defended his behavior overseeing the criminal prosecution case of serial child sex predator, Jeffrey Epstein.  

Portraying himself as a hero, Mr. Acosta deflected all the blame toward the State of Florida and the Palm Beach state prosecutor’s office.  Mr. Acosta remained unapologetic to the victims.   

Since the press conference took place, the former state's attorney in Palm Beach County, Florida issued a statement saying that Acosta’s office had drafted a 53-page indictment against Epstein that it never filed.   

ECPAT-USA has worked for 29 years to ensure that children are protected from sexual exploitation. The federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act became law in 2000 and is the premier tool available to federal prosecutors to indict people who sexually prey upon children. This law and other federal anti-trafficking legislation drew bipartisan support because there is broad national agreement that children should be protected from sex trafficking.  But bipartisan and broad agreement means nothing if prosecutors are not willing to use these laws against those who abuse children.   

Acosta’s press conference left open a number of unanswered questions and anomalies in the case that other federal prosecutors have raised since he spoke.  We call on the Trump administration to live up to its stated commitment to fight human trafficking by asking Mr. Acosta for his resignation.  

ECPAT-USA, the nation’s leader in eradicating child exploitation and trafficking, remains determined to keep this issue in the public eye and to ensure that Mr. Acosta is held responsible for his irresponsible actions as U.S. Attorney.

We All Have a Role to Play to Protect Children, But First Acosta Must Be Removed and Investigated

If you looked solely at international reviews, you would see that United States always gets high marks of its legal infrastructure to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation.  It has all the bases covered: criminalizing and prescribing high penalties for child sex trafficking, child sexual abuse material (child pornography), and child abuse.  

However, the excellence of our laws means nothing of course, if they are consistently undermined by a criminal justice system that refuses to hold the rich and powerful to account.  Of course this is a reference to the financier Jeffrey Epstein who has been indicted by the U.S. Attorney in New York for sex trafficking of children.  Soon, no doubt, charges of creation and possession of child abuse imagery will be added to the indictment.  

The Epstein case has all the elements that are the hallmark of a child sex trafficking case:  identifying vulnerable children and youth, preying upon their vulnerabilities, gradually wearing away any resistance to sexual exploitation and abuse, paying them for sex, asking them to recruit other young girls for sex, and offering them to other men. 

ECPAT-USA has spent many years working to make changes to a system that has allowed these forms of abuse in the United States to continue.  Through our long-time advocacy in cooperation with numerous other organizations around the country, we have built a movement that did two things.  First, it began with building community knowledge about the horrific crime of child sex trafficking in the United States, and what we need to do to stop it. Second, it moved on to advocating for our elected officials to make changes to laws and systems to protect vulnerable children. We continue to be successful in building a strong network of federal and state laws, but clearly, as shown by the Epstein case, we failed to ensure that the criminal justice system firmly enforces those laws.

The fact that the former U.S. Attorney for the Miami district, Alex Acosta, the current Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor, signed off on a sweetheart deal for Jeffrey Epstein in 2008 shows the depth of the corruption of the system.  It was a secret deal that failed to follow the law by informing the victims that a plea bargain was being negotiated and accepted. The punishment he received was the gentlest slap on the wrist.  It is clear now there were many, many more victims in more than one city, and the criminal justice system let those victims down.    

Powerful men have long been protected for their abhorrent behavior, even for actions as universally scorned as child sex abuse and child sex trafficking. ECPAT-USA will soon publish a report about child sexual abuse material in the United States with recommendations for how all sectors of society have a role to play.  Importantly, we must not continue to let powerful national leaders evade responsibility.  ECPAT-USA calls for the removal of Mr. Acosta from his position as the head of a federal agency and further calls for an investigation into his role in the favoritism revealed in the sweetheart, hush-hush deal that he gave Mr. Epstein.

Thanks to the critical work of journalists at the Miami Herald this story was unearthed and received renewed attention. Today, we sent a letter to the White House calling for Mr. Acosta’s resignation and a full investigation because we believe our criminal justice system should place itself in a position to offer protection and hope to victims, especially children. Raise your voice to help protect children across the country by writing your own letter or supporting our programs working toward a world where no child is bought, sold or used for sex.

We cannot - and will not - let this case slip under the radar again.

Cover image via U.S. Department of Labor

The Ordinary Complicity That Puts All Children At Risk

In 1961, Hannah Arendt coined a phrase that seems so very poignant to today’s headlines.  While covering Adolph Eichman’s war crimes tribunal in Jerusalem for The New Yorker, she subtitled her subsequent book, The Banality of Evil.  The work is a meditation on how ordinary people, doing very ordinary things, can participate in monstrously evil acts.  

The Miami Herald’s blockbuster report about the Jeffrey Epstein case reminds us of how profoundly true Arendt’s observations were.  Implicated in the Miami Herald’s reporting is former U.S. Attorney, and current Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta. But Epstein’s crimes, like so many human tragedies, go far beyond Acosta’s malfeasance and cowardice in the face of a wealthy child predator. For this outrageous pattern of child sexual abuse to work, many, many people had to be involved.  Drivers, schedulers, cleaning staff. All of them did their jobs. All of them turned a blind eye to what they knew was happening in front of them. “Not my problem” is the human reflex that turns many people into accomplices to tragedy.

Nor is today’s headline the only one. The outrages keep piling on.  The Catholic Church’s hierarchy has covered up thousands of cases of abuse by its clergy of both boys and girls across the globe.  In so many cases, this was done with a wink and a nod from prosecutors and law enforcement who were informed of what was going on, but were not interested in rocking the boat.  The USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar abused children under his care for many years, and while the rumors were everywhere, coaches failed to act. In 2011, Penn State administrators were discovered to have  covered up abuse by assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.  The failing in all of these cases is that it is easier for society to point at the monster than to reflect on how our culture enables these monsters to grow and succeed.   

Beyond child trafficking, an even more bleak picture emerges from recent research showing the number of children whose rape and torture is captured in images (often called child pornography) and then shared in large numbers on the internet. How many people are involved in the creation and distribution of this material who say absolutely nothing?

We find again and again, in institutions we rely upon to protect and nurture children, a banality of evil.  An institution is in fact, a collection of individuals. And each of those individuals, whether at a Federal prosecutor’s office, or in a Catholic Bishop’s Diocese, or a child welfare agency, has to make that same decision to ignore the harm being done to children -- keep their heads in the sand, and pretend like nothing is wrong.    

Society’s disinterest in child welfare runs deeper still.  Who do we turn to, to provide witness and protection, to bring child molesters and child traffickers to justice?  More often than not, we place that responsibility on the victims themselves. For example, without the bravery of child trafficking survivors telling their stories while pursuing cases against enablers like Backpage.com, we would not be anywhere in Congress and the courts. Supporting survivors and giving them a platform must surely be one of the ways that our society can begin to undermine the silence that allows these systemic abuses to remain in place.  

But it cannot be the only step we take.  

Our nation is embarking on some soul-searching about sexual violence thanks to the #MeToo movement.  But we also need to have much more stocktaking and a concrete acknowledgment that it is not a child’s role to protect themselves from predators.  It is society’s job.

Our country is defined by our freedom and liberty, our Bill of Rights, our Constitution.  But in 1789, the rights of children were not under deliberation. Children belonged to parents, and little further consideration was given to their rights or legal status.  It was a very English, and property-driven view of childhood. That same 18th century view of children still echoes into our law today. And it is this view that makes it easier to live in a society where children are exploited, but for all of us to say “not my problem.”  

Ultimately, for our country to seriously tackle child sexual exploitation, we need a concrete acknowledgement that children have rights.  And our society has a responsibility to protect those rights. That responsibility is not just a parent’s job. It is not a child’s lawyer’s job nor is it just the teacher’s or school counselor’s.  It falls on all of us, every day. If we see a child being exploited, we have to find the fortitude to speak up. What a better world it would be if good, rather than evil, was the banal expectation for the lives of our children.