Kate Bradley reviews a documentary series focusing on giving a voice to the survivors of Jeffrey Epstein.
Epstein: Filthy Rich is an unusual ‘true crime’ documentary. If you have seen late-night crime channel documentaries on serial killers or sexual predators, you probably expect the same formula: graphic and gruesome accounts of crimes, in-depth psychological profiles of the criminal by ‘experts’, narratives from police officers explaining their own heroic efforts in catching the perpetrator. It is rare to find a documentary that couldn’t be described, in some sense, as ‘trauma pornography’. Epstein: Filthy Rich manages to avoid this cliché, putting real, sustained effort into platforming the voices of many of Epstein’s survivors and highlighting the failures of the US justice system in their prolonged mishandling of the victims’ cases from the 1990s onwards.
The story, which many of us know from news articles, is a horrifying one. Throughout several decades until his arrest in the mid-2010s, Jeffrey Epstein – a multi-millionaire who made his money in a fraudulent Ponzi scheme – abused and trafficked hundreds of teenage girls all across the world. Some were young teens, some slightly older, but whether or not they were underage by whichever jurisdiction’s age-of-consent laws, all were in an incredibly unbalanced power relationship with him. Epstein had vast amounts of money, and he used it to dazzle those he wanted to abuse, to reward them, and eventually to try and shut them up – either by paying them off, or by threatening to use it against them if they tried to speak up. Most of Epstein’s victims were very young, lacking in money or resources, and vulnerable. Many of them had suffered abuse before.
Because it contains the testimony of so many young women, Epstein serves as a very useful myth-buster on the impacts of sexual violence on victims. In court and the media, voyeuristic attention is always paid to survivors’ reactions, girded by the idea that there is a ‘right’ way for a survivor to react if their testimony is to be believed. And yet these women, whose testimonies are so numerous as to be irrefutable, report hugely differing responses to the trauma, from numbness and passive acceptance, to shame and self-harm, to (in some cases) falling in love with their abuser. The documentary shows that there is no single legitimate reaction to sexual violence. Survivors will react differently, and so picking through their responses to trauma is unlikely to result in any great revelations or determinations of their honesty.
An important takeaway from this documentary is about the role of the police and the court system in dealing with issues of sexual violence. Although there are clearly some police in the documentary who sided with the victims and didn’t give up on pursuing Epstein, overall the police and FBI systematically failed Epstein’s survivors, repeatedly abandoning investigations or failing to follow through on convictions. Eventually, in 2009, after years and years of police investigation, the then-Attorney General Alexander Acosta accepted a notoriously unsatisfactory ‘plea deal’ from Epstein’s defence team. Seeing examples of the justice system’s systematic failings should push us to envisage other ways of dealing with sexual violence which don’t fall back so heavily on the police and the state, and re-traumatising victims in the process.
It is a limitation of the documentary that it pins so much of what went wrong with the justice system to Epstein’s wealth and power. In reality, Epstein provides a distorted example of how sex crime is dealt with by the criminal justice system, because it shows a defendant that has undue power, not only over his victims but over the court system as a whole. What the programme doesn’t show is that, even in the case of average perpetrators of sex crimes, the odds are already stacked in the favour of the defendant. The percentage of convictions for rape are vanishingly small, here and in the US. In Britain in 2019, only 3.3% of all reported rapes ended in a conviction. In other words, Epstein’s inordinate wealth is not the only reason he got away with it for so long. Epstein was also helped by wider societal sexism: the demonisation of his victims as ‘just prostitutes’ (this was his main argument during his plea deal), survivors being made to feel ashamed and guilty for his acts of violence, and the bystander effect created by the people around Epstein who ignored – or facilitated – his sexual predation.
Despite the ‘carceral’ focus of the documentary, the series actually offers an alternative space for the victims to be heard: a space where, rather than being cross-examined in the witness box to scour their words for potential untruths, they are given the space to remember, to voice their experiences of trauma, but also to explain how their lives have moved on since then. But the documentary isn’t just an act of ‘witnessing’ or therapy for the victims. It also brings into the spotlight some powerful men who are yet to be held to account for what they have done. Virginia Giuffre (née Roberts), one of Epstein’s longer-term victims, accuses a large number of high-profile men, including Prince Andrew, who she claims had sex with her multiple times while she was only 17, after she was trafficked by Epstein to his private island. There is even a photo of Prince Andrew with his arm around her waist. This has had an effect, albeit small, on Prince Andrew – after he tried to defend himself in a car-crash interview with Emily Maitliss in October 2019, he is now being retired from royal duties – but other high-profile predators, like Donald Trump, appear to have got away with whatever they got up to in Epstein’s company.
Overall, Epstein is a timely intervention in conversations around power and sexual violence. It would be hard to imagine such a documentary being made before the #MeToo movement in 2017. Indeed, at least one of his survivors mentions the #MeToo moment as a turning point for her. I left the documentary hoping that the slow-motion domino effect of #MeToo will topple a few more of the powerful men Epstein exposes.