Three Takeaways from the Jeffrey Epstein Sex Trafficking Scandal

DecorativeOn July 6, Jeffrey Epstein was arrested and taken into federal custody on multiple sex trafficking charges. In some ways, the Epstein saga runs the risk of reinforcing dangerous stereotypes about human trafficking in the US: If we expect all trafficking victims to be blond haired, blue eyed girls under the age of 18, we will overlook the vast majority of survivors. Survivors of human trafficking (meaning both labor and sex trafficking) are migrant laborers, restaurant workers, and housekeepers. They are men, women, transgender, and gender non-conforming. They are all ages and all races. And their stories are complex.

That caveat aside, here are three important lessons the Epstein scandal illustrates about what domestic sex trafficking looks like, the overlap between victims and offenders, and changes we must make to the criminal legal system to meaningfully address the needs of survivors.

  1. Sex trafficking survivors in the United States: Epstein allegedly recruited dozens of girls, most of whom appeared white and prepubescent. While the true population of domestic trafficking victims is far more diverse than the ones Epstein allegedly targeted, their circumstances at the time of recruitment are often similar. Like Epstein’s alleged victims, many survivors of domestic sex trafficking (as well as people who engage in survival sex work) start at a young age, at a time they are experiencing vulnerability. Whether by choice, coercion, or circumstance, many young people who engage in the exchange of sexual acts for money are US citizens who have experienced poverty, homelessness, been in the foster system, and/or have experienced extreme trauma.


  1. The sex trafficking victim/offender overlap: Epstein allegedly targeted girls and women not only to perform sexual acts, but to recruit others girls to do the same. This scenario is not uncommon in sex trafficking situations. As a public defender in the Human Trafficking Intervention Court in New York, I represented many clients who were recruited to engage in the sale of sexual acts for money, but ultimately “worked their way up” to becoming recruiters. These clients took the opportunity to exit the daily hardships of direct sex work. They found that recruiting others meant they were more likely to obtain protection or gain favor from their exploiters. As victims themselves, they did not identify as sex traffickers, although many ultimately ended up being charged as such. The existing research suggests that this phenomenon, often called the “victim-offender overlap,” is common in the human trafficking arena. One 2014 study by Finn, Muftic, and Marsh found that within a sample of women involved in sex work in the US, there was a significant overlap between trafficking offenses and trafficking victimization. A 2010 study found that of 25 people convicted of trafficking interviewed in Chicago, 68 percent reported a history of trafficking victimization. Additionally, shared risk factors have been identified between becoming a victim of commercial sexual exploitation and becoming an exploiter (e.g., history of physical abuse, sexual assault, childhood alcohol use, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse in the home, family member involvement in sex work, and running away from home due to abuse).


  1. The criminal legal system is often not a source of justice for survivors: The Epstein case is rife with examples of miscarriages of justice, including his 2008 plea deal that violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act. However, turning away from the man in the spotlight and looking instead to the lived experiences of the girls he allegedly exploited, we see the far-too-common mistreatment of survivors when embroiled in the criminal legal system. Take Courtney Wild, who reports that as a result of the trauma from her experiences with Epstein, she developed a substance use disorder, started working as a stripper to make money, and ultimately served three years in prison on drug charges. How, one might wonder, could the criminal legal system have punished her for behavior that was so clearly linked to and the result of her traumatic victimization? The truth is that the criminal legal system, as it currently operates, often re-victimizes survivors who have been arrested for criminal acts arising out of their victimization, trauma, and/or poverty.

To reduce harm to survivors of trafficking, we must first understand that like all other humans, they are complex, nuanced people. Like most of us, they likely won’t fit into any cookie-cutter, let alone that of the “perfect victim.” Trauma necessitates creative, varied, and sometimes desperate mechanisms of survival, which can lead to arrest. However, that doesn’t make survivors any less deserving of compassion, agency, or resources. By accepting survivors holistically as complex people and embracing trauma-responsive methods to meet the needs they have identified for themselves, we can begin to meaningfully support survivors, honor their voices, and prevent their re-victimization.

Click here to learn more about the Justice Programs Office MOSAICS (Maximizing OVC’s Survivor Assistance in Court Settings) training and technical assistance project to assist courts in implementing trauma-responsive policies to identify survivors of human trafficking who are facing criminal charges.