Beyond Jeffrey Epstein: The Hidden Reality of Sex Trafficking in America

Geoffrey Berman, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, speaks while standing next to a poster displaying the image of fund manager Jeffrey Epstein during a news conference in New York, U.S., on Monday, July 8, 2019.

Geoffrey Berman, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, speaks while standing next to a poster displaying the image of fund manager Jeffrey Epstein during a news conference in New York, U.S., on Monday, July 8, 2019. (Louis Lanzano/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

July 8, 2019

The allegations are disturbing: Jeffrey Epstein, a wealthy financier, lured girls as young as 14 to his properties in Manhattan and Palm Beach for sex. He’s accused of specifically seeking out minors, enlisting some of them to recruit their friends.

According to allegations in a federal indictment that was unsealed on Monday, that’s how Epstein operated a sex trafficking outfit involving dozens of female minors between 2002 and 2005.

The billionaire was arrested over the weekend on charges brought by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, and has pleaded not guilty to charges of sex trafficking and sex trafficking conspiracy. His arrest came months after an extensive investigation by the Miami Herald traced how he allegedly built “a sex pyramid scheme,” but then evaded federal prison thanks to a plea deal involving U.S. attorney Alexander Acosta, who went on to become the secretary of labor in the Trump administration. As part of that deal, Epstein pleaded guilty in 2008 to Florida state charges involving soliciting a minor for prostitution. On July 12, President Trump, appearing with Acosta outside the White House, said that Acosta was resigning as labor secretary. “I do not think that it is right and fair for this administration’s labor department to have Epstein as the focus, rather than the incredible economy that we have today,” Acosta said.  

Epstein’s high-profile arrest catapulted sex trafficking into the headlines. As FRONTLINE explored in a documentary and related reporting earlier this year, the sexual exploitation of women and girls has been a persistent problem in cities and towns across the country.

For a look at how one American city is combatting sex trafficking, watch the FRONTLINE documentary Sex Trafficking in America. Two-and-a-half years in the making, the documentary offers an eye-opening look at sexual exploitation and the evolving battle against it in Phoenix, Arizona. It features the stories of survivors like Kat, who at age 16 was abducted and trafficked by men she met online. It also explores how traffickers groom and recruit women and girls —and then make it difficult for them to escape the trade.

To learn more, revisit FRONTLINE’s companion reporting — which examined what makes some minors especially vulnerable to recruitment for sex trafficking, and how social media has shaped both the practice of sex trafficking and the fight against it.

This post has been updated.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



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