Money, sex, power and moral certainty.
The Epstein scandal has been a gift-wrapped treat for the media: it reads like the plot of a beach thriller. A perfect combination of money, sex, power, Royals – and better yet, a Royal no one much likes. We love to see the wealthy and powerful fall from grace; we are fascinated by the notion of rich people being able to afford to shag anyone they please. We dress it up as concern, but its real name is prurience. “We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality”, said Macaulay, and he had a point, although the Americans may actually be enjoying themselves more: they sniff a chance to smackdown the Clintons and leap on it. Can’t blame them. We all take our fun where we can.
The story bears uncanny echoes to W T Stead’s The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon of 1885, in which the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette researched the trafficking of young women into the sex industry, eventually buying a girl for £5 himself to prove how simple it was, which bold journalistic stunt won him 3 months in the nick and a place in history – I reckon most writers would still describe that as a win. Stead drew upon melodrama, Victorian pornography and Gothic fairy tales to weave his narrative and entrance his readership, and made more money from the plight of young working-class girls than any brothel keeper. The story of the wealthy elite making merry with the “daughters of the people” so enthralled the populace that riots broke out at the Pall Mall Gazette offices, born of a frenzied despair to read the latest edition, and when WH Smith refused to carry the paper, George Bernard Shaw, overjoyed to see the upper classes exposed as brutes, offered to hawk the paper himself throughout London so that the truth might out. Sex scandals have sold ever since, but particularly those which make the privileged seem decadent twerps.
The law was changed in response to Stead’s campaigning. The age of consent was raised to sixteen, while police were given greater powers against bawdyhouse keepers and street prostitutes. One could make the argument this was the first example of government by journalist, which now we entirely accept as inevitable, part of the natural order: of course, whoever Rupert Murdoch supports will win every election, while the rival candidate will be demonised.
The upper-class male seducer and passive, beautiful young victim are melodrama staples. They are designed to evoke pity and outrage. Ghislaine Maxwell has rather baffled this convenient narrative by being female and attractive herself, but hey, she’s really posh, so that’s something, and her dad was Robert Maxwell, the ultimate panto villain; nonetheless, there have been efforts in the press to portray her as a victim too, terrified and crushed by her father’s bullying personality, patently riddled with daddy issues, rather than simply evil. We laugh at Victorian morality, but we still prefer to think of our women as pure: confused and wronged by horrid nasty men, with their terrifying, uncontrollable libidos.
For me, this is the most disturbing element of the Epstein/Maxwell/Prince saga: how keen we have remained to see teenage girls as victims. That’s the narrative, and no one dare deviate from it. Stupid innocent girls, forced to endure a well-paid trip to a private island to massage a millionaire, so vile an experience they kept doing it over and over and brought their pals along too. Do you remember being fifteen? I do. I was a canny little madam. If that offer had been made to me I’d be skipping along to the airport before you could say paedo. It reminds me of the regularly breaking scandal that teenage girls are managing to access Onlyfans and make a killing taking selfies – because we know how teenage girls hate taking selfies – when what they should really be doing is working zero-hours contracts selling overpriced trainers made in sweatshops by Taiwanese children: now that’s a career path to boast about. Unfortunately at £4.55 an hour, you’ll be a while becoming independent, but hey, at least you’ll stay pure and protected in your parents’ house, the way girls should.
In Stead’s narrative and in Maxwell’s, we see a heightening of the fear of sexual danger for women combined with a heightening of public outrage against it. Girls are pure and must be protected! Men are evil and must be stopped! The truth is probably something rather more subtle and interesting, perhaps even uniquely different for every girl Epstein screwed, but you’ll struggle to hear it above the deafening roar of moral panic, combined with purring schadenfreude, as the wealthy elite get a good kicking.
Melissa Todd is a contributing editor to Blue Nib, managing editor of Thanet Writers, and the director of Hags`Ahoy Theatre Company. She lives in Kent. @MelissaRTodd