Last week, billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein was arrested on charges that he trafficked dozens of minors for the purposes of sex between 2002 and 2005. The news of his arrest made international headlines, as Epstein previously received a lenient sentence for similar charges in Florida after making a sweetheart deal with then-prosecutor Alexander Acosta (who recently resigned from his position as the Secretary of the United States Department of Labor). His arrest also led to speculation that Epstein would flip on his well-known friends, including Presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump.
The Epstein case is important, and it is vital that Epstein — and anyone involved with him in raping and/or trafficking girls — be prosecuted.
Yet for all of the press that it has received, the Epstein case is just one of many sexual violence cases that either goes unprosecuted or where the perpetrator is not brought to justice. In recent months, judges across the country have made rulings in sexual assault/rape cases that demonstrate a broader problem in our criminal justice system. For example:
A judge in Fort Worth, Texas approved a plea deal where a defendant facing four sexual assault charges, with a sentence of 2 to 20 years plus a $10,000 fine for each offense, pled guilty to one count of unlawful restraint, to a sentence of 3 years of probation and a $400 fine. The defendant did not have to register as a sex offender.
A judge in Ramsey County, Minnesota sentenced a man convicted of one count of first-degree criminal sexual conduct to probation for repeatedly raping a 15-year-old relative. The presumptive sentence for first-degree sexual assault is 12 years.
A judge in New Jersey refused to try a 16-year-old as an adult for raping a classmate, despite the perpetrator videotaping the assault and describing it as a rape to friends, because he came from a “good family” and attended an “excellent school.” An appeals court later overturned the decision.
A judge in Missouri sentenced a 22-year-old man convicted of third-degree child molestation for sexually assaulting an 11-year-old girl to 5 years of probation; this crime is punishable by between 3 and 10 years of incarceration.
On that same day, the same Missouri judge sentenced a 21-year-old man to 5 years of probation after the man pled guilty to the statutory rape and sodomy of a 12-year-old girl.
In February, the same Missouri judge sentenced a man to 5 years of probation after he was convicted of rape while one month into his probation for a previous statutory rape conviction.
These are just some of the hundreds of news stories available about light sentences handed out to convicted abusers. Of course, the majority of perpetrators of sexual violence — 99.5% — will never spend a day in jail. Just 23% of all sexual assaults are reported to police. Only 20% of the cases referred to the police lead to an arrest (approximately 1 out of 5). If a suspect is arrested, there is only a 19.5% chance that the case will be referred to prosecutors. For every 1,000 sexual assaults, just 4.6 rapists will be incarcerated (4.6%).
These stories and statistics show us that while Jeffrey Epstein is a problem, he is not THE problem. Throughout the United States, our criminal justice system does not take sexual assault seriously. The reason why is simple: we live in a rape culture.
Rape culture is a society where rape is prevalent and sexual violence against women and girls is both normalized and excused in the media and pop culture. The use of misogynistic language, objectification of women’s and girls’ bodies, and the throwaway use of sexual violence as a storyline in TV and movies all perpetuate rape culture, helping to create a society where women’s and girl’ rights and safety are disregarded.
In a rape culture, a judge thinks more about how a rape charge will affect a rapist’s future than about how the assault impacted the victim. In a rape culture, a judge makes excuses for an abuser’s behavior. In a rape culture, abusers are given light sentences, even when they repeatedly commit acts of sexual violence. In a rape culture, rape and sexual assault are so commonplace – with minimal consequences for perpetrators — that the majority of victims never report their abuse to the authorities.
We need to talk about Jeffrey Epstein, but not only about him. Sexual violence is a bigger problem in our culture — and acknowledging this reality is the first step in combatting it.