A few years ago, I wrote a column about Malala Yousafzai, around the time the young Pakistani activist was shot in the head by the Taliban. She was targeted for death simply because she wanted to help give girls the same educational opportunities as boys.
Instead, Malala survived. She became a symbol of fierce and principled defiance in the face of an oppressive regime, a true patriarchy.
That column garnered a lot of criticism, because my central point was that women in this country did not understand what true persecution looked like. It even got me a spot on the Atlantic’s list of 50 Worst Columns of 2012, an honor I proudly shared with luminaries like Peggy Noonan, George Will, David Brooks, Thomas Friedman, and Maureen Dowd.
Seven years later, and our gauge of what counts as true abuse against women hasn’t gotten any better. I blame #Metoo, which has robbed us of the ability to see things in context. The frat boy antics of Al Franken, Joe Biden, and by then wheelchair-bound George H.W. Bush were condemned as if these men committed aggravated felonies. The mere accusation of date rape is enough to deprive young male college students of due process. Unearthed stories from three decades ago almost scuttled the judicial nomination of a man whose only proven bad behavior is - horror of horrors - liking beer.
This is why the indictment of Jeffrey Epstein for sex trafficking is so important. First and foremost, it begins to introduce justice for the dozens of young women he abused. Beyond that, his case provides an opportunity to highlight the overreach of the #Metoo movement - which has morphed into a white, upper middle-class crusade that turns outraged women into avenging mohels - and how that movement has hijacked our perspective on sexual assault and abuse.
The majority of the “victims” publicly championed by the movement have been in their 30s, 40s, and even senior citizens with sharp memories. Very little outcry has focused on children.
Over 40 years ago, Roman Polanski was convicted of statutory rape, and immediately fled the country to avoid incarceration. Lots of people in Hollywood supported this great “artist” and seemed unsure about what was so wrong about a middle-aged man sleeping with a 13-year-old. Meryl Streep gave him a standing ovation when he was awarded the Oscar in absentia. And Whoopi Goldberg argued that what he had done wasn’t really “rape rape.”
But guess what? Polanski’s actions were “rape rape,” as is what Jeffrey Epstein has been credibly accused of doing. It is the type of sex trafficking that normally occurs in third world countries where young women, desperate to escape their impoverished lives, apply for jobs as domestics and au pairs and are instead sold into slavery. It is the type of financial transaction that occurs when the coyote drags a young Honduran girl across the border and sells her to the highest bidder. It is what happened to the young woman I met from Mali who cried through an asylum hearing last week when she told the judge that her “uncle” made her service his friends until she lost consciousness. And it is a persecution as profound and scarring as the attack on Malala, because it reduces young girls to commodities.
Despite what #Metoo advocates teach, persecution is not being subjected to risqué jokes in the workplace. It’s not being interrupted by a man while trying to read a letter on the floor of the Pennsylvania Senate. It’s not willingly having sex during a date and then convincing yourself it was “nonconsensual” the next day. It’s not being kissed on the back of your head without your permission. And so on.
The crimes and sins of Jeffrey Epstein, if proven to be true, will ultimately dwarf those of Harvey Weinstein, because they are attacks against the most innocent. Just as the Catholic Church scandal was a reckoning with the most immoral and obscene human violations, so is the corruption of young girls by rich and politically connected men.
This is our chance to stop watering down the meaning of harassment, abuse, and persecution. Let’s stop wasting energy on the excesses of #MeToo, and focus on saving the real victims.
Flowers is an attorney and a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and can be reached at email@example.com.