Pass the abolitionist Equality Law: Do not decriminalize the sex trade
Arrest the demand
The arrest in July 2020, of Ghislaine Maxwell, the British socialite and heiress who became a confidante of disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein and was later implicated in his alleged sexual crimes has revived hopes that the Epstein’s victims, may at last get justice and closure. Maxwell is accused of helping Epstein groom girls as young as 14 years old, going back as far as 1994. Prosecutors say she was in the room during — and took part in — the sexual abuse of three underage girls at Epstein’s Upper East Side townhouse, his Florida estate and his ranch in New Mexico. She faces up to 35 years in prison.
Epstein committed suicide and will therefore not face trial for sex trafficking. Epstein is accused of:
- Sexually exploiting dozens of underage girls from 2002-2005 at his townhouse and Florida mansion
- Luring girls into his homes on the pretext of giving him massages, paying them in cash – some as young as 14.
Although Epstein had pleaded guilty to a single Florida state charge related to sexual misconduct in 2008, Epstein is said to have paid $350,000 towards 2 possible co-conspirators to silence them. A last trove of lewd photos of young women were found in his New York residence. Since the arrest of Maxwell, more may be revealed if key documents from a settled civil lawsuit involving Maxwell and victims alleging sex abuse and trafficking by the late Epstein are unsealed, as ordered by a federal court judge on July 23rd.
This is an important case in the global campaign to end sex trafficking and prostitution, particularly as it throws light on some of the worst abuses of power by wealthy and influential individuals, who often go unpunished for their crimes. The late billionaire sex offender was “a notorious prominent figure with ties to many powerful men. His abuse was methodical, followed strictly ingrained patterns, and was left unchecked for decades as he leveraged money and proximity to power to get away with assaulting scores of underage girls” (Dry J, 2020: ‘Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich’ Review: Middling Netflix Docuseries Is a Waste of Time).
Many men who are named in the Epstein sordid story of abuse – including Presidents Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and Prince Andrew of the UK – remain in powerful positions and seem untouchable. For the sake of the victims and the global effort to end men’s violence against women, these men must be held accountable and the impunity must end.
Most survivors of the sex trade suffer serious psychological trauma and illnesses as a direct result of their repeated physical and mental abuse, which they experience in the sex trade, including repeated rapes, forced abortions, beatings and verbal abuse. They feel let down by the criminal justice system that has targeted them while the powerful men who abuse their position of vulnerability are granted immunity and allowed to carry on with their lives as husbands, business executives, political elites, academics and lobbyists for the decriminalisation of the abusive and exploitative system of prostitution.
Globally, there is mounting evidence which points to the direct links between the sex trade and sex trafficking. The facts that have emerged in the Epstein case is that while many of his victims were American, some came from France, the United Kingdom and Spain. In countries where prostitution has become normalised or decriminalised, the demand grows, often beyond the local market. Women and girls are trafficked to meet the demand. Decriminalising sex buyers, pimps, brothel owners/keepers would amount to giving a free license for the sexual exploitation of persons made vulnerable by a combination of socio-economic factors, including gender inequality, economic marginalisation, family neglect, childhood sexual abuse and men’s violence against women.
Countries that have worked towards eradicating demand include Sweden (1999), Norway (2009), Iceland (2009), Canada (2014), Northern Ireland (2015), France (2016), Ireland (2017) and Israel (2018). The legislation is variously called the Nordic Law, due to the majority Scandinavian countries leading the way; the Sex Buyer Law because the buying rather than selling of sex is criminalised; and the Equality Law because it addresses gender and socio-economic inequity. By targeting the demand and facilitating exit from the exploitative prostitution system, the Equality Model is the only coherent strategy for ending men’s violence against those who are bought, exploited and sold in the sex trade. Hopefully South Africa will be the 9th country in the world to pass the Equality Model Law, which will make us the first in Africa to do so. The time is now!
Madlala-Routledge is the co-founder of Embrace Dignity, a South African feminist and abolitionist, human rights advocacy NGO established in 2010.