History, Law, recent, Sex
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Jeffrey Epstein and All the Others: An Explainer

Jeffrey Epstein is the model villain for this cultural moment. He stands at the nexus of three of our hottest flashpoints: male sexual assault, capitalism’s oligarchs’ greed, and corruption, and the vulnerability of children horribly mistreated in Manhattan townhouses and private Caribbean islands as well as along our Southern borders.

So it’s understandable that a lot of people have looked at Epstein’s venality primarily through the lens of these contemporary themes—understandable, but myopic. Epstein’s crimes present an opportunity to consider larger historical, anthropological, cultural lessons about the seemingly endless, whack-a-mole reappearance of men with his obsessions. The truth is the attraction of older males to young females on the cusp of maturity is not so much the story of rich capitalist scumbags exercising droight du seigneur, as it is a universal urge for reproductive success likely grounded deep in our primitive brains. This is in by no means to excuse or forgive any grown men who seek sex with young girls. On the contrary. They violate one of the modern world’s key moral principles. And therein lies a serious dilemma for post sexual-revolution, liberal-minded Americans.

Without a doubt, the parade of powerful men credibly accused of having sex with underage girls in just the past few years is enough to shock the most cynical: R Kelley and Roy Moore are only the boldest of the bold-faced recent examples. Their sexual preference is shared by many big wigs outside the decadent, capitalist West: Kim Jon Il, the father of Kim Jong Un, kidnapped a 15-year old from her classroom to use as his personal sex slave. Mao had a virtual harem of young teens when he was well into his 60s. Gandhi slept nude next to adolescent girls to test his vow of chastity. He passed his test, though notice that he seems to have believed teenagers represented the greatest sexual temptation.

But contra many of the recent takes on Epstein, the rich and famous are far from unique in their attraction to pubescent and post-pubescent girls. (I don’t include very young children in this discussion; pedophilia is rarer and far more inexplicable in evolutionary terms.) Sexual offenders of all ages and all classes prefer younger victims. Richard Felson of Penn State and Richard Moran of Mount Holyoke have uncovered data in Quillette showing that the highest risk of rape in the U.S. is during the high school years; even younger girls are at greatest risk of other sorts of sexual assault. A miniscule number of them flew to their assignations in private jets.

Ordinary men, from striving middle class to poor farmers, are drawn to post-pubescents across the globe. The sexual abuse of teenaged girls, usually by an older male relative, is commonplace in villages of Latin America, according to a European Union report; worse, girls above age 14, the age of consent in most countries in that part of the world, are viewed as at fault for any sexual contact including rape. Sex tourism remains a commanding height of the Thai economy. Men around the world—but especially from nearby Asian countries—take advantage of discount airlines to go to Bangkok where young girls (and boys) are hired to walk the streets or sit in go-go bars to service them. In Japan, “high school dating” does not refer to 10th graders who go to the movies together; it’s a phrase used to describe the many middle-aged men who pay girls to dress up in school uniforms and go out with them. Other salarymen simply go to peep shows to watch the girls in uniform taking poses that they request. The encounters in both cases commonly end in some form of sexual contact.

The neglected truth is that for most of recorded history, sexual relations with girls barely past puberty was widespread. For evolutionary foes, this observation is tantamount to giving the practice an all-clear. This example of what G. E. Moore labelled “the naturalistic fallacy” represents a commonplace misunderstanding of society’s role in constraining and shaping human urges. Affluent modern societies had the resources to provide a protected space for individual growth and development for children and, later, adolescents.

Up until the industrial era, such an idea would have made no sense. As soon as they were big enough to fetch water or hold the baby on a hip, sons and daughters were recruited to help maintain the family economy. Few children went to elementary school much less high school. No one could have imagined a half-child-half-adult stage of life—what we call adolescence—set aside for education and continuing adult protection. At puberty, children graduated directly from childhood to sexual maturity much as in the animal kingdom; in many cultures, girls were, and in many pre-industrial groups still are, being readied for a marriage bed. Never mind consent; their own desires were often of little consequence.

In fact, our enlightened notions of girls’ bodily autonomy and their right to freedom from sexual coercion were hard-fought ideals, emerging only gradually over the course of centuries primarily in the Anglo-American western world. English common law introduced the idea of statutory rape and criminalized sex with young girls as early as the 13th century. The British colonists imported these protections to America. (They would do the same when they settled in India in the 19th century, though the laws, violating ancient local traditions, were ignored especially in rural areas and among the poor.) Progressive as they were for their time, laws in early America were hopelessly lax by modern standards: they did not include slave girls and they deemed 10 and 12-year olds, depending on the state, capable of consent. Brides of 13 and younger were not uncommon in the 19th and even early 20th century, particularly in the Southern states.

The social purity movement was a late 19th-century social movement that sought to abolish sexual activities that were considered immoral according to Christian morality.

It wasn’t until the later 19th century, that the sexual vulnerability of adolescent girls got the sort of attention that is a moral imperative for us. That attention, again primarily in England and the U.S, took the form of the very quaint sounding “Social Purity Movement,” whose membership eventually joined ranks with the better-known temperance and suffragette activists. The movement consisted of church leaders, early feminists and other moral reformers. Their goal was to attack “male depravity” by ending prostitution and by raising the age consent to 18; in both countries, resistance was strong enough that crusaders were eventually forced to settle for age 16, the most common age of consent in the United States today.

Most of the purity warriors were women from the ranks of America’s growing middle class. They were especially on guard against working class immigrants crowding America’s cities. The greenhorns’ rough manners grated against the reformers’ bourgeois sensibilities, but they also were onto something: single women, many of them quite young, with no other means of support were taking to the streets of urban working class districts and to the lumber camps of northern Michigan and the mining districts of the West. If the activists could be priggish about sex and bigoted towards working class immigrants—especially immigrant men—their sensitivity to exploitation and women’s right to autonomy represented a great moral leap forward, widening the arena of public sympathy and respect. Those ideals became consensus in most of American and English society for at least a half century.

Does that consensus still exist today? The outrage over Epstein, R. Kelly, et. al. suggests it does. But since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the taboo against sex with minors has had to wrestle with the sometimes-foe of sexual liberation. Some sexual revolutionaries took the new freedom as permission to enjoy time with “jailbait,” a term that would take on an ironic tinge as norms liberalized. Rock stars were at the forefront of that liberalization: David Bowie notoriously deflowered a middle schooler named Lori Mattix; a member of a posse of known in LA as “baby groupies” she also slept with Jimmy Page and Mick Jagger among other counter-culture celebrities. When the Rolling Stones sang “I can see that you’re fifteen years old/ No, I don’t want your I.D.” in “Stray Cat Blues,” they weren’t just whistling Dixie. Some radicals at the time—the North American Man-Boy Love Association or NAMBLA was the most prominent— promoted legalizing pedophilia. In 1977, Michel Foucault, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Derrida, Simone de Beauvoir and dozens of other French intellectuals lobbied the French government to abolish age of consent laws and to decriminalise ‘consensual sex’ between adults and minors under the age of fifteen. In response to a trial of three Frenchman accused of having sex with 13 and 14 year old boys, 69 French intellectuals signed a petition arguing for their release.  German radicals, including Daniel Cohn-Bendit, now a prominent EU politician, said kindergarten teachers should encourage sexual exploration. “You know, a child’s sexuality is a fantastic thing,” Cohn-Bendit said on French television in 1982 according to Spiegel Online. “When a little five year old girl starts undressing, it’s great, because it’s a game. It’s an incredibly erotic game.”

The earlier sisterhood would have called for smelling salts had they known all this, but second wave feminists were more conflicted. They saw freedom from male exploitation and control a crucial tenet of women’s liberation, but they viewed women and girls’ ability to “explore their sexuality” as an equally important moral imperative. Perhaps predictably, men who agreed with the latter were prone to paying only lip service to the former. It wasn’t just rock stars who gamed “consent” with naïve and inexperienced flower children. The feminist, social critic Rebecca Solnit wrote about growing up near San Francisco in the 1970’s: “…once you were twelve or so hippie dudes in their thirties wanted to give you drugs and neck rubs that were clearly only the beginning, and it was immensely hard to say no to them. There were no grounds. Sex was good; everyone should have it all the time; anything could be construed as consent; and almost nothing meant no, including ‘no.” Coincidentally, or not, these were the years the Coney Island-born Jeffrey Epstein, son of a groundskeeper and a housewife, was elbowing his way into elite Manhattan private schools and finance circles and eventually, the sordid world of sex-trafficking.

Now Epstein and the others find themselves caught in a #Metoo moment when the balance between sexual freedom and adolescent vulnerability is being re-calibrated yet again. It turns out to be a tricky task. Judging from the uproar, most of us would like to see Epstein spending a very long time upstate, as we New Yorkers say about the state prisons. At the same time Teen Vogue -target audience girls, 11 to 17—publishes an article on the pleasures of anal sex: “It is often described as a feeling of fullness, which can be delightful…It’s NOT a big deal.” Do we condemn Conde Nast, or applaud them for “empowering … young adults to do what they want with their bodies” or pretty much ignore the whole thing as, with a few exceptions, seems to have happened. Similar questions apply to Desmond Napoles, a pre-teen “drag kid” who has performed in gay bars and has been the subject of an admiring profile on “Good Morning America” as well as a celebratory blog post by a convicted pedophile. When is a child fully capable of autonomy? Age of consent is inevitably arbitrary—you may have in mind a mature, thoughtful 16 year-old and her long-term 17 year old boyfriend while someone else is thinking of a manic-depressive, boundary-pushing girl with a daddy hang-up of that age. How, in this post sexual-revolution era, do we etch out laws and policy, not to mention norms, that apply to both?

Most people are not ambivalent about Jeffrey Epstein’s case. The same cannot be said about the many questions it puts before us.

Correction: An earlier version of this article listed Roman Polanski as being among those “credibly accused of sex with underage girls in recent years.” Polanski committed a sex offence in 1977 but has not been accused in recent years. Quillette regrets the error. 


Kay S. Hymowitz is a City Journal contributing editor, the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and the author of Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys. Follow her on Twitter @KayHymowitz


  1. Repulsive beyond belief.

    What a sick dirty scum bag this author is.

    Why has Quillette published this? The editors must let everyone know.

  2. There’s a few elements missing from this analysis: The first is the undeniable question of Female Agency in enabling Epstein. All his chief ‘procurers’ (Ghislaine Maxwell, Rachel Chandler) were women. Why do women do this?

    And the real answer to that question takes us beyond the realm of sexuality and into Power. Complicity in Elite Child Sexual abuse is a Loyalty/Reward program - the complicity in criminal acts ensures silence and loyalty, like any model of Mafia. A pedo-mafia, if you will.

  3. Not a bad article, but I tire of a woman’s perspective on sex. We just had another one a few days ago. That’s all we hear; that’s all that’s socially allowed – except for a shamed man’s perspective every once in awhile, which always sounds like it comes from a virgin “ally”. An article about sex from a man’s perspective who isn’t apologetic, shamed, or pathetic would be nice to see.

    The overwhelming majority of women in the West are enjoying sexual experiences with non submissive men (dare I say prefer it, which we all know but can’t talk about). It would be great to hear about that for once and how women’s preference for it (greatly) contributes to the stuff feminists complain about, yet that preference will never go away. (Dare I also mention taking responsibility for this?)

    It’s pathetic beyond belief the only exposure adolescent boys have to unashamed dominant sex is porn.

  4. @Codadmin - If this is sarcasm you have missed the mark… If not, your not making any sense… This article is a ligit subject for Quillette!

  5. Jeffrey Epstein isn’t that bad! All men want to have sex with young girls! It’s embedded in their monkey brains! So don’t blame Epstein! That’s “myopic”! Blame evolution! Blame G-d even!

    “This is in by no means to excuse or forgive any grown men who seek sex with young girls. On the contrary. They violate one of the modern world’s key moral principles.”

    Ah, so that’s all Epstein did. He sought sex with young girls. He didn’t actually have sex with them or anything. He didn’t “groom” them. Entice them with lots of money. Didn’t force the issue when they were very scared and alone and even said “no”. No, nothing like that.

    Why, even Gandhi - GANDHI! - wanted to have sex with young girls!

    You know, if you think about it, every man who has ever lived wants to have sex with young girls! So just what is this big fuss about? I mean, really!

    “The neglected truth is that for most of recorded history, sexual relations with girls barely past puberty was widespread.”

    You see, plenty of men in human history had sexual relations with “underage” girls. I mean, yeah, that was only after they married them, and only after getting permission from their brides’ parents and all…but still! What Epstein did was basically not that different! Can’t you see!

    And besides, childhood was invented in the 19th century! Everything’s relative you see! So stop being so damn judgmental about my fellow Jew Jeffrey!

    Oh yeah, and before you start throwing stones, don’t you dare forget about SLAVERY! Really, you white Americans just amaze me. How you people can presume to cast aspersions on ANYONE after that whole slavery business is just beyond me!

    Hell, in the 60s “consent” could mean anything! Even a twitch of the eyelash! And Jeffrey is just a child of that era, after all! So cut the guy some slack! Can’t you see he’s just a victim caught in a weird cultural moment?

    Seriously, we live in a sex-crazed society don’t you know! So it’s no use blaming someone like Epstein for being a little bit sex-crazed himself! No use at all!

  6. What a strange reading of the article.
    Surely the author’s is point is that many older men desire teenage girls under the age of consent, and that unfortunately society is in a way enabling that desire by sexualising girls at a much younger age than previously. This means that creeps like Epstein feel entitled to groom and have sex with vulnerable girls under the age of consent. Society makes it easier to happen it will happen. This is not a question of law, so much as one of convention. If we do not raise an eyebrow at the idea that 14 year old girls should consider the joys of anal sex, then we really shouldn’t wonder why so many people were prepared to look the other way for so many years whilst Epstein carried on corrupting young girls.

  7. …I thought it was strange too Peter. And Codadmin’s comment is similar in its exhibition of extreme “disgust” at even mentioning this human behavior. Disgust is an understandable reflex, but being disgusted at reality, only leads to more bad behaviors. Worth remembering that it was “disgust” at certain “others” that lead to the Final Solution last century.

  8. @codamin. Well, you are pretty much demonstrating my point about where the "disgust’ reflex leads. (Even when deployed by trolls.) Unfortunately, this is very much human behavior, by one particular human, and a tiny minority of other debased humans perhaps. But for an article to discuss it rationally, is not to normalize it. On the Contrary, discussing it as abnormal behavior, is important to the re-marginalization of the behavior, in the face of the awful distortion of human sexuality which has been wreaked by radical feminism.

  9. Missing from this whole discussion is that there is a purpose for male sexuality, which includes being attracted to young women. And that attraction does not change with the age of the man. None of us would be alive if that were not the case. You can’t say the same about homosexual attraction to young boys. However, there is a great variety of male sexuality, and that variety does also have a purpose.
    Historically, mankind understood the purpose of male sexuality, as well as female sexuality, and channeled it in productive ways through marriage rather than demonize it. They could not afford to demonize it, because they needed all of the babies they could get, raised with both fathers and mothers.
    While the authors talk about “shaping human urges,” they are only talking about shaping men’s urges, and that is the only acceptable way to talk about it these days.
    But historically, it was about shaping men’s and women’s urges, in different ways. And there was the recognition that while the young need protection, there is nothing inherently evil about male or female sexuality. Protection of innocence is important but not an absolute, and needs to be balanced with a recognition of purpose and the good things that come from sex (even sex involving teenage girls). In you go back not very far in every one of our family trees, you will find teenage mothers.
    I guess the new moral theorists would redefine every one of our family trees as evil. That’s blindness and hubris, and I don’t think we should trust it.

  10. The authors also imply that morality itself is unchanging, that there are principles that were always there but we only recently began acting upon them. In fact, morality is based on philosophy. If the philosophy changes, the morality changes, and philosophies will come and go. The need for humans to reproduce and raise their young will not.
    Someone commented that only women’s opinions on sexuality are acceptable today. I think that’s because the woke progressive philosophy, including modern feminism, has defined an entire sex’s natural inclinations as toxic and immoral to the point that even the honest voicing of opinions on the matter are toxic to the theory. Right now men simply can’t get their honest thoughts out of the Overton window.

  11. True.

    What they have in common - sexual reproduction and much of the associated behaviour - is a product of natural selection.

    Not true: as I have explained before, sexual selection is an independent selection process which can ensue only if natural selection selected out (so far) the individual for mere survival.

    The logic is the following:

    (1) if the individual is naturally selected for (survives up to the point) then
    (2) if the individual is sexually selected for (finds a reproductive mate) then
    individual reproduces

    The 1st condition (survival of the natural selection process) is a necessary condition: dead individuals can’t reproduce even with willing mates.

    The 2nd condition (finding a reproductive mate) is a sufficient condition: when satisfied, the individual reproduces (or at least gets a stab at reproducing).

  12. Sexual reproduction evolved because it increased the fitness (ability to both survive and reproduce) of the species in which it evolved. The greater genetic diversity generated by sexual reproduction resulted in the production of more offspring that were better able to survive (more fit), and thus were naturally selected for. It’s a product of natural selection. Mate/sexual selection is a corollary to the development of sexual reproduction. In some species with sexual reproduction there is no discrimination between mates, therefore no sexual selection. However, in species where sexual selection has arisen, it must have at one point served to increase the chances of survival of these species, or it would not continue to exist. In cases where we see sexual selection taken to extremes (e.g. birds of paradise), these species tend to live in environments where there is little selective pressure (abundant food sources, favorable climate) and so the mate selection process seems to have been able to go off the rails since the genetic load carried by having ridiculous plumage and wasting energy on mating rituals isn’t associated with a significant loss of fitness. However, in some species from environments with strong selective pressures, sexual selection is closely tied to fitness because if a female selects an unfit mate, her offspring are likely to die before they can reproduce. I would agree with @Klaus then that sexual selection is a product of natural selection even though promotion of reproductive success can be at odds with promotion of survivability in some instances.

  13. Klaus: There is no purpose in breathing. As such it just performs a function that enables organisms to survive.
    Martin28: There is a very important purpose in breathing. It keeps us alive.

    I suspect if you took a poll, 99.9 percent of people in the world would say that breathing performs an important function for them. And if you started to cut off their air, 100 percent would agree.

    The fact is, nobody would be alive without breathing.

    Your statement adds nothing logically, it just obscures the point, especially with regards to sexuality.

    IVF or ICI. Doesn’t matter. Sexual intercourse keeps us alive not just because it is efficient and costs nothing, but we are driven to have sex. I say again that mankind would not survive long depending on any artificial or medical means of reproduction. Right now it is less than 1 percent of reproduction, and mostly in the rich parts of the world where we are now reproducing at less than the replacement rate! Even in the rich parts of the world, it is a tiny fraction of reproduction.

  14. I somewhat disagree here. When you are saying that a lot of our sex does not involve reproduction, that is absolutely true. That does not mean it does not have a function. In fact, women are specialized for the type of sex and sexual appeal that does not involve reproduction all the time. This is why:

    1. Women have breasts. Females of other species do not have nearly the size of fat pads in their mammary glands that ours do. The thought is that they are specific sexual attractors meant to attract men, because when we stood up, you could no longer see the female labia and know when she was in season.

    2. Women have cryptic ovulation. One of the things that, if I’m a monkey or a chimp, is really useful to me is staring at a female monkey butt. Don’t believe me, look at the groundbreaking research done by Michael Platt at Duke. The reason for this is that when you can see the labia, and can see that they are engorged with blood and pink, you know she’s in season and can try to mate with her. The rest of the time you leave her alone because she’s not going to be interested.

    This is not true with humans. If you stare at a woman’s labia, you do not know whether or not she is in estrus. In fact, many women do not know whether they are in estrus. Thus, women are able to have sex without having kids, and without the men knowing that they can’t have kids. This allows quite a bit of cheating on their part as well, but we’re going to leave that alone. If you want to know more, you can take a look at sperm Wars or any number of really interesting books and articles.

    1. The reason that women provide sex, and are able and ready to have sex, is that it keeps men around. In other words, this kind of non reproductive sex is really important in building larger family units and in allowing the survival of young. It also helps produce larger social units. This is critically important, since our young are helpless for so much longer than the young of every other species around. We cannot walk reliably for some years, while some species can do it in hours! I’m not counting toddling here.( I also realize that married men may have some comments about women’s sexual availability, but by then the other bonding mechanism should have taken hold, such that they have kids and are willing to stay around for that. At least, that’s what usually is supposed to happen.)
  15. You may already be aware that 90% of prison inmates are men.

    You’re right. We really need to even out these numbers. Subvert democratic processes and appoint more women as heads of state, and subvert the criminal justice system and put more women in prison. Unless maybe there are general psychological differences between men and women that lead them to make different life choices in general which in turn results in the numbers you cited? Or are you saying that it’s a result of different choices made by men and women that lands more men in prison, but not a result of these different choices that lands more men in elected office? In other words, when there is a negative statistic associated with men, it’s because of bad behavior of men (e.g. criminality), but when there is a positive statistic associated with men, it’s because of bad behavior of men (e.g. oppression of women). Does that seem fair?

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