Jeff Epstein died Saturday morning. The authorities are reporting that the cause of death was suicide. Epstein’s death has robbed his victims of any sense of closure or justice. He was perhaps the most high profile man currently in prison; this should not have happened.
When it comes to Epstein, there is a lot that should not have happened.
As I’ve read about Epstein’s case over the past several months, I’ve been struck especially by the very large number of people who were aware of is interest in young girls, but did nothing. The more I read the more I became convinced that Epstein’s behavior was not reported because it was seen as normal; and because, to the extent that the wealthy, privileged men Epstein surrounded himself with didn’t have his revolving door of girls, they wished they did, and perhaps aspired to.
Jane Coaston summarized my feelings as well as hers when she said on The Weeds that, the more she read about Epstein, the more convinced she becomes that Andrea Dworkin was right about everything. Andrea Dworkin was a second wave feminist whose 1987 book, Intercourse, is widely seen as arguing that all heterosexual sex is rape. Coaston’s comment, said to laughs, may have been in this vein. But Dworkin disagreed with this interpretation of her work, calling it slander.
In a 1995 interview, Dworkin was asked to respond to reviewers who accused her of saying that all heterosexual intercourse was rape. She said the following:
No, I wasn’t saying that [all heterosexual sex is rape] and I didn’t say that, then or ever. There is a long section in Right-Wing Women on intercourse in marriage. My point was that as long as the law allows statutory exemption for a husband from rape charges, no married woman has legal protection from rape. I also argued, based on a reading of our laws, that marriage mandated intercourse—it was compulsory, part of the marriage contract. Under the circumstances, I said, it was impossible to view sexual intercourse in marriage as the free act of a free woman. I said that when we look at sexual liberation and the law, we need to look not only at which sexual acts are forbidden, but which are compelled.
The whole issue of intercourse as this culture’s penultimate expression of male dominance became more and more interesting to me. In Intercourse I decided to approach the subject as a social practice, material reality. This may be my history, but I think the social explanation of the all sex is rape slander is different and probably simple. Most men and a good number of women experience sexual pleasure in inequality. Since the paradigm for sex has been one of conquest, possession, and violation, I think many men believe they need an unfair advantage, which at its extreme would be called rape. I don’t think they need it. I think both intercourse and sexual pleasure can and will survive equality.
It’s important to say, too, that the pornographers, especially Playboy, have published the “all sex is rape” slander repeatedly over the years, and it’s been taken up by others like Time who, when challenged, cannot cite a source in my work.
She’s right. Our societal paradigm for sex is broken.
When Epstein paraded around teenage girls on each arm, it wasn’t seen as a red flag. Instead, it was a sign that he had succeeded at the game of life. And it’s not just Epstein. In our society, the ability to squire around beautiful young women adds to a wealthy man’s prestige; a man’s success in life has long been measured in part by the youth and beauty of his wife or girlfriend.
Why the blazes do we still have beauty pageants? Dworkin was writing in the 1980s, but it’s almost 2020 and we still do this. We still maintain contents where women are casually judged and ranked for their youth and beauty. Sure, we’ve started adding talent section to many beauty pageants—but why not just make them talent shows and dispense with judging personal appearance at all?
I have a daughter who is fast approaching adolescence. There’s a part of me that wants to cling to her girlhood, not because I want her to stay a child but because of how painful it is to think about all of the times men, often much older men, will view and summarily judge her based only on her appearance—based only on her ability to visually please the men around her.
Of course, a lot has changed. Coming of age in the 2020s will be far, far different from coming of age in the 1980s. Her ability to have a career will not be questioned, except in a few select fields. The opportunities available to girls today are far wider than in the past. And yet.
I want to live in a world where a powerful man squiring around beautiful young women selected only for their looks is stigmatized and socially frowned on. I want to live in a world where using women as eye candy is universally seen as abnormal and problematic. I want to live in a world where a wealthy man who preys on young girls and then tries to get out of the charges by hiring powerful attorneys immediately loses all social respect, and has the book thrown at him.
We don’t live in that world, yet, as Epstein has so painfully reminded us. But maybe, someday, we will. Like Andrea Dworkin, I believe it is possible.
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