Speaking out about the sexual abuse of powerful men including Jeffrey Epstein and Prince Andrew takes real courage. In last night’s Panorama, Virginia Roberts Giuffre gave us a real lesson in bravery.
We all like to think that we have the courage to speak out against injustice; to go public about wrongdoing; to tell truth to power. Until called on to do so, we all like to believe that we have the mettle to confront anyone from politicians to landlords, bosses to ex-boyfriends, bank managers, headteachers, priests, bouncers, letting agents, colleagues and local councillors.
And yet, over the last few years, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, we have learned that doing so is never simple, never without risk. Even I - a white, middle class, university-educated woman with all the explicit and unspoken privilege those markers afford me – cannot imagine doing what Virginia Roberts Giuffre has done. I wish we all had her courage; and that no woman would ever again suffer her experience.
Last night, BBC1 finally aired The Prince and the Epstein Scandal; a delayed episode of Panorama that investigated the unsavoury friendship between Prince Andrew and serial sexual abuser Jeffrey Epstein.
Within that story – that ties together President Donald Trump, Ghislaine Maxwell (the daughter of the infamous media mogul Robert Maxwell) Prince Andrew and Jeffrey Epstein – exists a more urgent, more disturbing story; that of the vulnerable young women who were sexually assaulted by people with enough money and power to consider themselves above the law, above morality and above justice. A story that pulls back the curtain on aristocracy, money, titles and exclusivity to show something rotten, something inhumane, something full of disdain.
It is still remarkable, in 2019, to see a woman on screen criticise the institutions that we think we understand, trust, and perhaps even respect.. And yet, by telling her story, Giuffre calls into question the actions of the royal family, the FBI, the Metropolitan Police, the entire social and financial construct that allows people like her to be trafficked on private jets and used for sex on private islands and in luxury resorts. Hers is a story that takes us into corners of wealth and privilege that – by design – we are not supposed to know about. She is accusing the very people we used to consider beyond accusation.
That Virginia Roberts Guiffre was sexually abused and trafficked by Jeffrey Epstein as a teenager and young women is undisputed; it has been proven by a court of law. The question of whether she was also forced to have sex with Prince Andrew, through an association with Jeffrey Epstein’s then-girlfriend Ghilaine Maxwell, is for a greater court than us to decide; Andrew himself denies that any sexual relations with her took place.
But what does deserve our attention is the simple bravery it must take to sit before the public and accuse some of the world’s most powerful institutions of wrongdoing. To describe your moments of greatest vulnerability and – because of the unhelpful way we think about sex and power – sharpest shame. To describe being sweated on, giving massages, to speak of feeling “horrified” and “dirty” after having sex with someone you barely knew and didn’t like, to describe being “passed around like a platter of fruit” by people on whom you were financially dependent. To ask what happened to the evidence you produced, to question the motive of all those who turned a blind eye, to single out the people who abused you and to remind us all that this “is not some sort of sex story… but a story of abuse”.
That is hard. That is brave. “These powerful people were my chains,” Giuffre told reporter Darragh MacIntyre, “the powerful people allowing it to happen and participating in it.”
There will, of course, be people who simply dismiss such stories as lies; so uncomfortable are we made by the idea that people with power may use that power to do wrong and then cover that wrong up. They will be unconvinced by the apparent removal of evidence in public cases, by photographs, by private emails. And that is for them to wrestle with.
For me, and I suspect for a great many women, people of colour, disabled people, poor people and others who are disenfranchised, depleted and dislocated by the current systems of power, Giuffre’s words seemed courageous. She took a risk. The consequences were significant for her, her family, her ability to work and her reputation. To speak out against something as rich, as powerful, as universally-recognised and widely-respected as the royal family; to name names and face the consequences; to turn your time of greatest suffering into an opportunity for justice is remarkable. It is, I’ll say it again, brave.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the #MeToo movement is showing us that there is no individual or institution that can be insulated from the consequences of their actions entirely by money. That with support, protection, sympathy and understanding, the truth will out. Any victim of sexual abuse, trafficking, sexual assault or rape who speaks out about their experience is brave. They deserve to be heard.
And so let us now put our scrutiny on the system that allows such abuse to happen, and take it off those who point out its existence.