Why Do Rich and Powerful People Become Abusers? Because They Can

Article @ Novara, published 14 January 2022

In the last decade, hundreds of brave women and men have helped uncover a series of high profile sexual abuse cases, triggering a change in the way we relate to manipulation, assault and survival. From the crimes of USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar to the Catholic Church’s worldwide abuse of minors, there has been a reckoning with the relationship between sex and power in our society. And yet, upon the conviction of Ghislaine Maxwell last month, many pundits were still given time to air their shock or disbelief that the then young, rich and beautiful woman acted as a procurer for her financier boyfriend.

Maxwell was found guilty of sex trafficking and grooming girls as young as 14 to provide sexual services for millionaire Jeffrey Epstein in December last year. Much of the coverage of her month-long trial revolved around the question of why the “socialite” had ever gotten involved with and abetted the convicted sex offender. In the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland branded this an utmost important question, but dismissed Maxwell’s relationship to power and wealth as an “unsatisfying” explanation. Sky made a documentary series about her fall from grace, while The New Yorker explored Maxwell’s ego, mentioning in passing how extreme wealth corrupts, but ultimately framing her actions as those of individual, “brutal self-interest”.

This near obsession with abusers’ motives is not only infuriating, but utterly unhelpful. If we are to use the tragedies these people have enacted as examples of horrors never to be repeated, we need to confront the systemic facilitators of abuse, rather than zooming in on a few bad apples. The Yewtree scandal wasn’t just the product of a handful of creepy sex pests who met each other at the BBC. Hollywood’s mega producer Harvey Weinstein’s repeated assaults of young actresses can’t simply be blamed on personal perversion.

On the contrary, these crimes were often repeated precisely because the perpetrators were protected by the professed respectability of their positions in society. Many of the sex abuse scandals brought to light in the last ten years relate to (in their majority) men who made their fortunes with the rise of the neoliberal hegemon. That’s to say, men who got very rich at a time when being very rich had not only become an aspiration but a virtue. And while Bret Easton Ellis did his best to showcase the pathological violence inherent to yuppieism in American Psycho, the real Patrick Batemans of this world were seen as paragons of integrity. At its peak, neoliberalism heralded men like Epstein, whose gravitas was expressed through his opulent lifestyle and the many famous (and equally rich) friends he insisted on being photographed with. At its peak, superstars like Epstein and Maxwell could do no wrong.