As a female trafficker, Ghislaine Maxwell is not an aberration

protesters holding signs outside of the courthouse at maxwell's trial
Photo by: NDZ/STAR MAX/AP Images

Horrendous as her actions were, Ghislaine Maxwell fulfilled a traditional gender role when she recruited sex trafficking victims for the late financier Jeffrey Epstein.

“In some parts of the world, women trafficking women is the norm,” United Nations investigators said in a report on trafficking that came out more than 10 years ago.

The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crimes report said sexual exploitation made up the most common form of trafficking and expressed surprise that in 30% of the countries providing information about the gender of traffickers, women made up the largest proportion of offenders.

Still, little is understood about the phenomenon, which researchers say is often tied to the abuse and economic disempowerment of women, resulting in a complex feedback loop in which victims can become offenders.

“Often, women become involved in recruitment and grooming as a way to escape exploitation or carve out a role that will offer them more protection and the possibility of advancing out of exploitation themselves,” says Amy Farrell, professor of criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern University.

“It often isn’t a simple story,” says Farrell, who co-directs the university’s Violence and Justice Research Lab with criminology professor Carlos Cuevas.

Northeastern Director and Professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice Amy Farrell poses for a portrait. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

While men make up the overwhelming majority of sexual predators, “very often you do have female collaborators when it comes to trafficking,” Cuevas says.

“They might be victims who have come to be an assistant in the trafficking business,” Cuevas says.

Their gender makes it easier for them to take on the role of recruiter and to approach girls and young women who might feel threatened by a man, Cuevas says. 

“Ghislaine very much served that role for Epstein,” Cuevas says.

Maxwell trolled trailer parks and spas looking for teens and young women, presenting herself to them as a kind and caring upper class socialite. 

In a victim witness statement, Virginia Giuffre called Maxwell a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and said she used her “femininity to betray us.”

“You joked that you were like a new mother to us,” Giuffre wrote. “As a woman, I think you understood the damage you were causing—the price you were making us victims pay.”

Carlos Cuevas, professor of criminology and criminal justice and co-director of the violence and justice research lab, poses for a portrait. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Little is known about female sex traffickers in the United States because most of the research on women who exploit other girls and women—and sometimes boys and men—comes from findings in Asia, Africa, Australia, India and Europe, according to a March 2021 report in the International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice.

“None described female traffickers in the U.S.,” the report says.

But the trial and sentencing of Maxwell—who appealed both her trafficking convictions and 20-year sentence—is not the first high-profile case involving female traffickers in the U.S. in recent years.

margo lindauer
Margo Lindauer, director of the Domestic Violence Institute at Northeastern’s School of Law, poses for a portrait. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

In 2019, “Smallville” actress Allison Mack pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering and racketeering conspiracy in connection with alleged sex trafficking by the NXIVM cult, according to the Insider

Former NXIVM leader Keith Raniere was convicted of several charges including sexual trafficking of children and sentenced to 120 years in prison.

In addition to Mack, other women in the cult pleaded guilty and admitted to detaining sex slaves and recruiting women to join NXIVM, also known as DOS or the Vow, the Insider says.

Women traffickers not only recruit victims but also play roles in managing the sexual exploitation business by guarding and transporting victims and securing counterfeit IDs and hotel rooms, according to the 2020 International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice report.

Sometimes trafficked women are promised they will no longer have to perform sex work if they take on an organizational role, even though that promise is often violated, the report says.

The report called another category of female trafficker the “partner-in-crime.” These women tend to be  of higher status and  “appear to commit acts of sex trafficking on a voluntary basis in the context of a partnerships (romantic, familial or business) with male sex traffickers.”

Epstein’s one-time girlfriend, Maxwell appears to fall squarely in this category, according to prosecutors, victim statements and a Miami Herald investigation, “Perversion of Justice.”

“It was very clear Ghislaine made the first contact, was the point of contact and was a buffer for (Epstein),” says Margo Lindauer, a clinical professor of law at Northeastern University’s School of Law and director of the law school’s Domestic Violence Institute. “It wasn’t just a one off. It happened over and over. In this situation, it was very clear (Maxwell) played the role of this fake nurturer. It was so premeditated.”

Lindauer says that while Epstein “was the one perpetuating the majority of the physical harm,” she doesn’t buy the idea that Maxwell served in court as a  proxy for prosecuting him.

“I don’t think it’s true,” Lindauer says. “He would not be able to do what he did without her.”

“The Maxwell case is more clearly a situation where she occupied a role as a perpetrator, utilizing her own privileges to recruit and garner the trust of women that she and Epstein would exploit,” Farrell says.

Maxwell benefited from the  trafficking scheme “and clearly should be held accountable,” she says.

But, Farrell says, “women’s involvement in recruitment is rarely this simple.”

In many other cases, contemplation of prosecution of female traffickers “forces the justice system to recognize that people can occupy complex roles both as victims and offenders,” she says.

The investigation of Epstein showed he paid some of his victims to find other teens for him to abuse. Teens from poor families testified that the finder’s fee seemed like a lot of money to them. 

The U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime’s fifth global report on human trafficking in 2020 draws a clear connection between poverty and trafficking and warns that the already growing problem of human trafficking, including forced labor,  is bound to get worse with the economic devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Criminalizing trafficking—as the U.S. did in 2000 with federal legislation—will help, as will raising social awareness, the U.N. report says. Reparations for victims is another consideration, it says.

Making educational and job opportunities available to young people and removing  structural inequalities that leave women and girls the primary victims of trafficking also will combat trafficking, the report says.

“These are complex situations where someone’s victimization and the duress of that experience must be recognized, while also realizing that there is accountability for the victimization of others,” Farrell says.

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