A criminal indictment against Jeffrey Epstein that was unsealed a couple of weeks ago claims the financier sexually exploited dozens of underage girls over nearly two decades. The details of his case are shocking (except to his friends and acquaintances). But as the president of a national anti-human trafficking organization, I can tell you that his horrific crimes are anything but uncommon. He’s just the one who’s been caught.
Epstein’s wealth and power only brought into the spotlight a crime that tens of thousands of men are engaging in across the country. Not every man can afford to lure dozens of girls for sex in lavish New York City or Palm Beach homes, as Epstein is accused of doing. But most American men can afford to buy sex — and a staggering one in seven already have, according to a 2014 study in the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology.
For every billionaire like Epstein, there are many other men with far less wealth and notoriety who perpetuate the abuse. They often use a guise of respectability to cloak perverse, predatory intentions. Stories like Jennifer Araoz’s — who last week accused Epstein of taking advantage of her as a fatherless 15-year-old girl and raping her at his home — are heartbreaking, but they are all too common.
Instead of pursuing voluntary adult sex partners, these men exploit the most vulnerable women and children they can find. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, for example, estimates that approximately one of every seven runaways is a probable sex trafficking victim. And Immigration and Customs Enforcement reports that thousands of undocumented immigrants are trafficked in the United States for sex and labor, where “traffickers frequently take away the victims’ travel and identity documents, telling them that if they attempt to escape, the victims or their families back home will be harmed.”
Trafficking happens all around us — at bus stops, at hotels, at schools and at churches. These outlets willfully ignore the scourge of modern-day slavery with their rhetoric.
Anyone who knowingly turned away from the suffering Epstein has purportedly inflicted on these teenage girls is complicit and should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But it’s not just Epstein’s victims who deserve justice. Every victim — no matter their age, sex, race or citizenship status — should be treated with compassion and dignity, given extensive resources for their recovery, and know that the law is on their side. America needs to do everything possible to prevent men from sexually exploiting and raping women and children.
It’s time to change the status quo. Former U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta, who arranged Epstein’s plea deal in 2008 and later rose through the ranks to become the U.S. secretary of labor, has already resigned amid the scandal. By holding Epstein and others accountable for the crimes they have committed, both in our communities and in our justice system, we can create a new precedent — one in which the safety and innocence of our children matter more than the momentary pleasure of the powerful.
But the fight cannot end there. We must look beyond the courtrooms to our own backyards. Epstein’s power and fame might have helped him escape punishment the first time, but it also made his crimes easier to detect. Most sex trafficking, by contrast, is essentially invisible. Until we learn the signs and keep a lookout, tens of thousands of others will fall victim to the same fate as the women Epstein is accused of abusing as girls — women such as Jennifer Araoz, Virginia Roberts Giuffre, Courtney Wild, Michelle Licata and Sarah Ransome — but we’ll never know their names. And until we teach our boys to aspire to better things than sexual dominance, we’ll continue to be disillusioned with our leaders.
Let’s take our righteous anger off social media and into our communities. Let’s do what’s actually needed to fight this crime, rather than looking to score temporary political points. Only when ordinary Americans like you and me make this cause our own can we hope to end sex trafficking.
Kevin Malone is the president and co-founder of the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking, a nonprofit, faith-based organization in Tampa that is committed to ending human trafficking in America. He is also the former executive vice president and general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers.