Opinion I survived Epstein and Maxwell’s sex ring. Then the gaslighting began.

Sarah Ransome addresses the media on June 28, 2022, outside the U.S. Federal Courthouse in New York, where Ghislaine Maxwell was sentenced to 20 years in prison for trafficking charges related to her time working with Jeffrey Epstein.
Sarah Ransome addresses the media on June 28, 2022, outside the U.S. Federal Courthouse in New York, where Ghislaine Maxwell was sentenced to 20 years in prison for trafficking charges related to her time working with Jeffrey Epstein. (Justin Lane/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Sarah Ransome is the author of “Silenced No More” about her ordeal in Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell’s sex trafficking operation.

When I heard the eerie clink of shackles as Ghislaine Maxwell entered her sentencing hearing in a New York courtroom last month, I thought: “I will never doubt myself again.”

Maxwell was sentenced to 20 years in prison for helping financier Jeffrey Epstein sexually abuse underage girls, and she continues to insist that she is being punished for his crimes, even after the jury’s guilty verdict. I read a statement at the sentencing to make clear that Maxwell is guilty of her own crimes, and to speak up for all victims — both underage and those, like me, who were “of age” when trafficked.

News coverage of Epstein and Maxwell’s sex crimes has mostly focused on the young girls recruited near Epstein’s Florida mansion and the rich and powerful men who visited his Caribbean island. I struggled with this because the trafficking operation snared not only underage girls, who were coerced into nude massages, masturbation, oral sex and intercourse. There was also a large group of women like me who were trafficked and raped for more than three decades. I was 22. And when you’re a legal adult, you face a barrage of “you should have known better” victim-blaming and “you deserved it” gaslighting. Since coming forward in 2016, I have been called a “gold digger,” a “whore” and a “prostitute." Even my own father said, “You made your bed, you can lie in it.”

I didn’t know the FBI began investigating Epstein in 2005. I wish I had. I was recruited in 2006 by a woman I thought was my friend. She told me Epstein and Maxwell could help get me into fashion. I didn’t know I’d have my passport and phone taken away when I boarded Epstein’s private plane to his island. He wasn’t some old geezer in a bar saying, “Come to my island.” It was a carefully scripted, well-oiled machine. This was a professional sex trafficking ring. Epstein and Maxwell taught girls to recruit girls, women to recruit women. They knew what they were looking for.

I was born into a generationally dysfunctional family. Alcoholism runs in my family. I was first sexually abused when I was 11 by a man my mother brought home. At 14, I was raped by another student. All I’ve ever known is rape, abuse, trauma. Being a child like that, you don’t know what’s normal and what’s not. Your boundaries are broken down.

I was the perfect target. But even if you were from a “good family” you could be snared. Several women over 17 or 18 who were abused by Epstein and Maxwell have stated that they were offered work as Victoria’s Secret models through a scouting agency run by Epstein’s associate, Jean-Luc Brunel. Both men were jailed on sex crime charges they denied and hanged themselves in prison while in custody awaiting trial

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People can judge survivors and say we should have done more to speak out or that we should name more names. Doing so threatens a group of wealthy, well-respected powerbrokers with influential friends and lawyers trained to silence accusers.

I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. I’ve had my dignity stripped from me. I’ve had to question my own mind, my own thoughts. I have been ridiculed by lawyers and ignored by law enforcement. I tried to kill myself twice throughout this. The first time was when Epstein’s lawyers, including Kenneth Starr and Alan Dershowitz, made a secret deal with Miami’s U.S. attorney, then Alexander Acosta, that protected Epstein from federal charges and allowed him to work at his office during the day throughout his 18-month sentence for state crimes. Acosta later became Donald Trump’s labor secretary.

I think a lot of survivors don’t come forward because it’s one thing for a stranger to judge you, but it’s another when your loved ones join the victim shaming and law enforcement says you don’t qualify as a victim because of your age. The re-traumatization can undermine your efforts at recovery. I know it did mine.

Among all the survivors, only seven gave victim impact statements at the sentencing. Having the judge allow me to read mine in court even though I didn’t fall squarely within the contours of the charged conspiracy and seeing Maxwell sentenced was life changing. It went a long way to restoring the self-worth and dignity that Epstein and Maxwell took from me.

Still, I do not think that justice has been completely served with Maxwell’s sentencing. There are so many others involved in the crimes who have not been held accountable. No survivor should have to go through the journey from hell and back that I went through. That’s why I wrote to all 150 members of the New York State Assembly to urge passage of the Adult Survivors Act. I’m pleased they listened and passed the law. Now, survivors who were over 18 when they were sexually assaulted can sue without defendants skirting away on a statute-of-limitations defense.

This is not just about young girls, I can assure you. Every survivor of rape and trafficking deserves compassion. Your age, sex, gender, skin color and class don’t matter. What happened to me should never happen to any human being. My job now is to make sure others — victims, perpetrators, law enforcement and society at large — know that, too.

As told to Washington Post Opinions senior producer Kate Woodsome.