Ghislaine Maxwell is an agent of the patriarchy; not a victim of it

A lawyer for the convicted sex offender recently said, “It’s all about men abusing women for a long period of time … and it’s only one person in jail – a woman.”
No Ghislaine Maxwell is not a victim of the patriarchy
New York Daily News Archive

This article references sex trafficking, sexual abuse, and suicide.

If you’re a woman living in the world, you’ve probably dealt with misogyny. And yes, that includes powerful women who cause harm, too.

We know that someone can be an oppressor and simultaneously be a victim of certain oppressive systems, but context is key. This week, convicted sex offender Ghislaine Maxwell – who worked alongside deceased financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein to traffick, groom and abuse girls – cried “misogyny” in order to manage perceptions of her crimes and her character. As someone who commits their life to disrupting misogyny and sexism, Wow, I am tired.

As part of Virginia Guiffre’s 2015 lawsuit, hundreds of pages of court documents on the Epstein case were recently made public, and they set the internet alight as users and journalists began connecting names, dates and details to the newly-released information. More than 100 influential people were either revealed or reiterated, including Prince Andrew – who has denied any wrongdoing – along with Jean-Luc Brunel, magician David Copperfield, former US President Donald Trump, and many others. Note, the inclusion of a name in the documents does not mean said associate has been accused of any wrongdoing in relation to Epstein.

As the story grew, Ghislaine Maxwell – while serving a 20-year prison sentence for her crimes –decided to add her voice to the narrative via her lawyer: “If you look at this crime, this overall crime”, Arthur Aidala told TV network NewsNation last week, “it’s all about men abusing women for a long period of time … and it’s only one person in jail – a woman”.

For ease, we could put this claim to bed right now because two men associated with Maxwell had literally been sentenced for their crimes when they died in prison. Jean Luc-Brunel died by suicide while awaiting trial for rape and suspected trafficking of minors, and Epstein was awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges when he was found hanged in his cell, with the Justice Department Inspector General ruling his death also as a suicide. Therefore, Maxwell’s suggestion that her sentence is sexist has less to do with patriarchy and more to do with the fact that the two men who were in jail alongside her are no longer alive.

“Patriarchy works hard, but my god, creating a global system and economy to abuse girls for decades will work harder.”

Despite this obvious kryptonite to her claim, picking apart why her framing is so exhausting and harmful is important. Patriarchy is the ideological system that both puts cisgender men in a position of dominance and continues to keep them there to the detriment of everyone else, and misogyny is the enforcement arm of patriarchy, a hatred of women for stepping outside of patriarchal expectations for their femininity and for what they represent.

We seem to forget often that misogyny is not entirely predicated on the reality that “a woman was treated differently to a man” because power dynamics and context make it much more complex than that. Case in point: Maxwell is not a woman being oppressed, exploited, or hated for stepping outside of the confines patriarchy set for her, her femininity or for what she represents. In this context she is much less a victim of patriarchy and, in fact, is very much the opposite: the white, wealthy, misogynistic, privileged patriarchal woman with disproportionate power whose actions are in direct opposition to feminism and social justice. Her attempt at a feminist-passing hot-take to victimise herself is laughable, because feminism – the challenger to misogyny and sexism – was created to liberate people from oppression, restrictive gender ideals and inequality (see: the very girls she exploited), not a tool to elicit sympathy for patriarchal facilitators that continue a system of dominion and sexual violence. Maxwell is the most clear example of an agent for the patriarchy you can get.

And look, if I’m really stretching (and I don’t know why I am), then I can see that Maxwell is probably frustrated that her associates are free. Yes, it’s true that imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (a term coined by bell hooks to describe the interlocking oppressive systems that rule our society) – is helping these men evade the authorities, but just because a system is benefitting some alleged perpetrators, doesn’t mean the accountability another has experienced is victimisation. Patriarchy works hard, but my god, creating a global system and economy to abuse girls for decades will work harder.

Equally frustrating this week was right-wing UK media figure Julia Hartley-Brewer shutting down Palestinian physician, activist, and politician Mustafa Barghouti. During the TalkTV interview, it was noted by many viewers that Barghouti, who is a secular figure and bears no connection to Hamas, was being treated as if he was connected to them just by virtue of being Palestinian. Julia, who was in a position of power as the host of the show, challenged Mustafa in ways that felt unfair and contemptible and, as the debate heightened, shouted that he wasn’t “used to women talking”. At the close, she doubled down by muttering “sorry to have been a woman speaking” implying that Mustafa debating her – which he was hired to do – was misogynistic. Julia painted herself as a victim by framing Barghouti as misogynistic, as well as treating him as an ally of Hamas: these are two stereotypes of a Palestinian man that very clearly point to racism.

It’s moments like this where powerful, patriarchal women manipulate feminist language in the media, that deeply skews the public’s understanding of what misogyny and patriarchy actually are and how they operate. Equally, they muddy the waters on what feminism was built for, what it should be employed for, and why it exists.

To build movements, we need to help people build literacy, and we can’t do that when powerful, dangerous women are manipulating it. That’s why it’s our obligation as feminists to say clearly – and without hesitation – that no, being sentenced for sex-trafficking children does not equal being a victim of misogyny even if some of your associates have not, and being a woman in a position of power using bigoted stereotypes to shut down fair debate about current atrocities is not being harangued by a sexist man. These women are neither who we should be focusing on, or who we should be advocating for, and our literacy and understanding of feminism must be rigorous to avoid the definitions being blurred.

Maxwell and Hartley-Brewer are patriarchy in heels and their gender doesn’t give them a feminist get-out-of-jail-free card, especially when their own misogyny is louder than their claims.

For more information about reporting and recovering from rape and sexual abuse, you can contact Rape Crisis on 0808 500 2222.

If you have been sexually assaulted, you can find your nearest Sexual Assault Referral Centre here. You can also find support at your local GP, voluntary organisations such as Rape Crisis, Women's Aid, and Victim Support, and you can report it to the police (if you choose) here.