The distressing normality of Jeffrey Epstein's depravity
If money manager Jeffrey Epstein is guilty of the crimes of which he's been accused — crimes that include sex trafficking of underage girls for use in the satisfaction of his lusts — then he is obviously a world-class scumbag.
But just how much company does he have in that class?
We know it's far more than many of us would like to believe, and probably far more than those with less … extravagant appetites ordinarily assume. Leaving legalities aside to focus merely on morals, it almost certainly encompasses the current resident of the White House as well as his Democratic predecessor from just 20 years ago. For all we know, it may also include several of the names on the passenger manifests from Epstein's private plane, which was widely known by its lascivious nickname, the Lolita Express. (Just how arrogant was Epstein? As arrogant as a well-known coke dealer who names his yacht "Blowin' in the Wind.")
Add in Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Les Moonves, and dozens of other disgraced media men and it begins to seem like the ranks of world-class depravity are mighty crowded.
And that's just the start.
It's tempting to scan the tawdry headlines of the past two years — or past two decades — and conclude that we're living out some post-sexual-revolution nightmare in which the male libido has been unleashed from cultural and religious constraints, mixed with a heaping dose of privilege, entitlement, and misogyny, and produced a world ruled by uniquely rapacious predators.
But what has changed and what has stayed the same?
Pederasty was widespread in ancient Greece, often involving behavior so exploitative it makes Kevin Spacey's alleged actions with young men sound vaguely ascetic by comparison. In ancient Rome, prostitution was legal and widespread, and acting on sexual desire toward underage boys and girls considered perfectly normal. During the medieval and Renaissance periods, popes were occasionally accused of hosting orgies, while the aristocratic classes of Europe in the centuries leading up to the French Revolution were rumored to be bastions of sexual decadence and debauchery.
Closer to home, there was the distinctively appalling behavior of liberal icon John F. Kennedy. As Caitlin Flanagan noted in an essential 2012 Atlantic essay titled "Jackie and the Girls,"
John always had girls: there were girlfriends and comfort girls; call girls and showgirls; girls on the campaign trail and girls who seemed to materialize out of thin air wherever he was. There was also the occasional wife of a friend, or the aging paramour of his randy pop, for those moments when the fancy ran to mature horseflesh or masculine competition. His penchant for prostitutes demoralized the agents assigned to protect him: "You were on the most elite assignment in the Secret Service," the former agent Larry Newman told a television interviewer a decade ago, "and you were there watching an elevator door, because the president was inside with two hookers." [Caitlin Flanagan, The Atlantic]
And then there was Mimi Alford, the 19-year-old White House intern who says she was seduced by Kennedy on her fourth day on the job. For the next 18 months, Alford was "worked into the rotation" at the White House and on the road. Alford says that once, the president commanded her to perform sexual acts on his friend Dave Powers in the White House pool while he (Kennedy) "stood in the pool and watched."
Epstein's alleged behavior is appalling. But it isn't uniquely appalling. One might say that it's "of a kind." Yes, some of the details have changed: the lechers and their powerful friends now circle the planet on private jets like kings of the world, treating it (and the people in it) like their private playground, to be used and abused at will. (Globalization does have its downsides.) But at a deeper level, these patterns of behavior are much the same as they've always been.
What's changed is the rest of us — our moral judgment of the behavior and those who perpetrate it, but also our willingness to look at the ugliness when it's exposed and place blame, at long last, where it belongs. Everybody in the White House knew what JFK was doing in his free time, and so did the White House press corps. But they turned away and perpetuated the silence, as if it were understood by all that one of the perks of the office was the freedom of the president to do anything he wanted with any woman he wanted, secure in the knowledge that the public (like his wife) would never be informed. If Kennedy used a college student to fulfill his craving for pleasure and cruelty, that was his business and prerogative.
Not so much anymore. Thanks to the slow evolution of our understanding of power, and the power of publicity to expose its workings to the world, we're shining a brighter light than ever on acts of exploitation, and judging them more harshly, recognizing them for the acts of abuse they clearly are. And with this clearer condemnation of the abuse, its victims are becoming more willing to come forward, shouldering less of the shame that burdened them in the past, keeping them silent.
Ours is not an age of virtue. But it's not entirely wrong to judge this evolution in our moral sentiments as a sort of virtuous feedback loop that will lead to greater justice for accusers and the accused alike. With any luck it will also help to create a world with somewhat fewer men like Jeffrey Epstein and his repugnant predecessors and peers.