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Opinion | Swanee Hunt

#MeToo women punished in ways they feared

Jennifer Araoz, 32, who claims that Jeffrey Epstein raped her in his New York townhouse in 2002 when she was 14, spoke to the media Tuesday with her lawyer after leaving a New York court house.SPENCER PLATT/GETTY IMAGES

Two years ago, the Harvey Weinstein story broke. One year ago, Christine Blasey Ford gave riveting testimony during Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Since then, the women who stepped forward in the #MeToo movement have in fact been punished in the ways they feared. They have lost jobs, confronted death threats, faced financial ruin, and had their reputations smeared. But powerful men have, after an insipid period of penance, still received book deals, a Netflix special, public sympathy, and even a lifetime appointment to the highest court in our land, and probably in the world.

Last weekend, the Globe reported how this same asymmetry between abused women and entitled men has played out in the Florida prostitution case involving New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Though he’s pleaded not guilty to the charges, Kraft did issue an apology for disappointing “my family, my close friends, my co-workers, our fans, and many others who rightfully hold me to a higher standard.”


Some of the women from the 10 day spas raided, including the one where Kraft was accused of soliciting prostitution, have been charged with felonies. Some had been promoted to management roles in the spas where police say they acted as madams — yet participated in sex acts. Others were low-level employees, with no power at all. But legally, if a woman is a victim of “force, fraud, or coercion” and/or under 18-years old, she is, by federal standards, trafficked. Of course, we have no idea if the women had been coerced. What we do know, as reported in the Globe, is that one woman collapsed under police questioning while describing being raped by her supposed “non-trafficker.” After being held for months on $428,000 bond, she eventually pleaded no contest to racketeering, a felony, while all other charges were dropped.

Similarly, some weeks ago, we learned more about the girls and women whom accused serial trafficker Jeffrey Epstein brought to his private island, allegedly for the amusement of rich and famous men. In 2008, he had pleaded guilty to solicitation of prostitution from a minor in a sweetheart deal with Florida prosecutors and in August of this year committed suicide in a Manhattan jail while awaiting sex trafficking charges. In November 2018, the Miami Herald reported that the girls had “parents and friends who committed suicide; mothers abused by husbands and boyfriends; fathers who molested and beat them. One girl had watched her stepfather strangle her 8-year-old stepbrother ... Many of the girls were one step away from homelessness.”


Court documents describe rapes and other assaults. Yet it may be that some of the girls came voluntarily to make money. And some allegedly lured other girls into Epstein’s web. Some may have covered all three roles.

Victims like those in the Kraft and Epstein cases make terrible witnesses — a fact not lost on voracious attorneys. The law, however, is meant to protect the vulnerable, not the rights of the entitled at the expense of those less fortunate. In the recent Kraft case, our system tragically sides with the men accused of buying. (Approximately nine out of 10 of those picked up for prostitution are the girls and women. The victim is revictimized, often scores of times.)


Away from the witness stand, Epstein told Fox reporter Charlie Gasparino that his behavior was similar to Kraft’s. In that conversation, Epstein comes close to suggesting Kraft’s charge was worse because he had actively gone out to a massage spa. As Gasparino relates Epstein’s comments, “What happened to him ‘wasn’t that much different than what happened to Bob Kraft.’”

How did this become about “what happened to him?” According to recent research by Demand Abolition, “him” refers to one in five men in our country who have bought illegal sex. In a telling conversation this summer, a group of women who had been in the life sat around my dining room table and debunked the myth of men’s innocent ignorance. Not once, they said, during their many years being prostituted, did a man ask their age, or if they were being forced. Or defrauded. Or coerced.

But the message from buyers has always been: I never bought anyone who had been trafficked. Buyers are simply men being men. It’s a victimless crime.

This isn’t about victimless anything. It’s about power. The power of men with privilege. “Privilege” isn’t about huge fortunes like Kraft’s (Forbes estimates $6.9 billion) or Epstein’s (guesses are in the hundred millions). Their zeroes are irrelevant to a woman forced to bring in $1,000 a day. She’s focused on survival, not her buyer’s line of credit.

And now the twist, worthy of O. Henry. With ironic symbiosis, Epstein, as monster, provided cover for Kraft, as everyday man. And Kraft, as a guy just being a guy, provided cover for Epstein, when Epstein insisted they were morally equivalent.


We’re complicit too, when we hide behind the myth of consensual sex between “equals.” Once again, justice is thrown out the window, leaving girls and women to pay the price. There’s nothing equal about that.

Correction: An earlier version of this column stated the wrong month Harvey Weinstein committed suicide. It was August.

Swanee Hunt is the founder of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University. As US ambassador to Austria (1993-1997), she led the US delegation to the European Union Conference on Trafficking. She is the founder of Demand Abolition, holding men accountable for buying women and girls.