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Ghislaine Maxwell’s Trial Centers on Allegations of ‘Grooming’ Young Girls. Here’s What That Means

8 minute read

When the first accuser in the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell took the stand on Nov. 30, she spoke of meeting Maxwell and her longtime associate Jeffrey Epstein at a summer arts camp when she was 14 years old. Identified by the pseudonym “Jane,” she testified that Epstein and Maxwell approached her while she was eating ice cream with friends and introduced themselves as donors. They invited her and her mom over for tea and she became friends with Maxwell, who took her to the movies and shopping.

In her emotional testimony, Jane said it took time for Epstein and Maxwell’s real intentions to emerge. Jane recalls Maxwell taking her to Victoria’s Secret to browse for underwear, and Maxwell and other women lounging topless by the pool in front of the teen. Jane says that Maxwell eventually taught her how to give Epstein erotic massages and sometimes observing as if it was “not a big deal.”

Jeffrey Epstein was accused of abusing dozens of girls and women before he died by suicide while awaiting trial in 2019. Maxwell is now on trial on charges that include enticing a minor to travel to engage in illegal sex acts, conspiracy to entice a minor to engage in illegal sex acts, transporting a minor with intent to engage in criminal sex acts and sex trafficking. (She has pleaded not guilty to all counts.)

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Key to the prosecution’s case against Maxwell is the idea that she systematically groomed victims for Epstein. “From at least 1994 through at least 1997, Ghislaine Maxwell assisted, facilitated, and participated in Jeffrey Epstein’s abuse of minor girls by, among other things, helping Jeffrey Epstein to recruit, groom, and ultimately abuse victims known to Maxwell and Epstein to be under the age of 18,” according to a federal indictment.

The term “grooming” only entered common parlance relatively recently. Researchers began to use it in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, but Elizabeth Jeglic, a clinical psychologist who studies sexual-violence prevention at CUNY, says it wasn’t until the Jerry Sandusky abuse case in 2011, in which the Pennsylvania State University football coach was found guilty of sexually abusing underage boys, that the term became more well-known.

Along with her colleagues, Jeglic wrote the standard definition for grooming: “The deceptive processes by sexual abusers to facilitate sexual contact with minors or vulnerable victims while simultaneously avoiding detection.” And in her research, Jeglic outlines five stages of grooming: (1) Selecting a vulnerable victim (2) gaining access to and isolating the victim (3) developing trust with the victim, and (in some cases) their guardians and their community (4) desensitizing the victim to sexual content and physical contact and (5) once the abuse has happened, using maintenance strategies to facilitate future abuse opportunities and/or prevent the victim from telling anyone about the abuse.

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Any victim of abuse can also be a victim of grooming, experts say, and grooming can take many forms. “When we think of grooming, we typically think of a male abuser and a child victim,” says Jeglic. “That’s beginning to change.” Psychologists now recognize that adults can also be groomed by an abuser.

In 2015, Daniel Pollack, a professor at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work at Yeshiva University, outlined for the American Bar Association some of the dozens of strategies that groomers use for abuse of children in particular. These include frequently creating opportunities to be alone with a child; fixating on a child; finding opportunities to buy a child gifts; walking in on a child changing; tickling a child and “accidentally” touching their genitalia; suggesting activities that involve removing clothes like massage or swimming; playing games that include intimate touching like playing doctor; talking about sexually explicit things under the guise of education; and showing a child sexually explicit images.

“The groomer very often knows that one size does not fit all,” says Pollack, who currently sits on the Blue Ribbon Commission to examine the institutional responses to sexual abuse by former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. “They instinctively know what they have to say, how they have to behave in order to capture their target. It’s very chameleon-like. They’ll blend in and do whatever it takes.” Jane says Epstein took an interest in her particular musical talent, positioning himself as her benefactor and paying for her voice lessons and schooling.

A lot of victims of sex trafficking are financially vulnerable, Jeglic says. Many have run away from home, are homeless or in the juvenile justice system. “And so they’re looking for someone like a mother figure or big-sister figure, or if someone’s offering them money, food, presents, that can be very enticing and lead to gaining trust.” A 2016 investigation by the Miami Herald found that many of Epstein’s victims came from low-income families or foster care, “one step away from homeless.”

What the abuser is really doing is laying a trap. “It’s kind of the foot in the door,” Jeglic says. “Once you say yes, the demands increase and become increasingly sexual in nature. But you think, ‘Oh, I’ve taken this from this person so I kind of owe them or have to give them something.’ So it becomes easier to then manipulate the person into sexual abuse.”

“For Epstein, it was the jet-setting lifestyle,” she adds. “It was very appealing to travel on this big jet, to go to these parties with all these important people.” But all that travel also allowed Epstein to isolate his victims, allegedly taking them to his New Mexico ranch or a private island. Experts say that abusers specifically try to remove victims from their support networks so they will be less likely to seek help if they feel uncomfortable.

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Prosecutors have claimed that Maxwell helped lead the victims to these abusive situations by spending time with them, discussing their classes and families and gaining their trust. In her testimony, Jane said Maxwell started out like an older sister to her before starting to talk more about her sex life and veer into more inappropriate territory.

One of the most shocking aspects of the Epstein case is how long his abuse went undetected. In part, this was because Epstein’s lawyers settled certain claims of abuse for millions of dollars in an effort to keep his accusers silent. But predators also rely on shame to silence their victims.

“There’s a lot of guilt and shame that goes along with the grooming process. Because they took money, took presents, went along to these places and had this lifestyle, even in some cases recruited other girls to come participate, they feel complicit,” says Jeglic. “When actually they were manipulated.” Particularly for older children who feel more responsible for their actions, the feeling of complicity can keep them quiet.

Experts also say that abuse can be hard to spot because grooming behaviors may be subtle and may not initially appear inappropriate. Giving a teenage girl presents or asking about her schoolwork in a vacuum can seem innocuous or even like mentorship. It’s often only after the abuse has taken place, with the benefit of hindsight, that social workers and psychologists can recognize grooming behaviors.

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Pollack says that people in positions of power or authority are particularly well placed to groom victims –“it happens with priests, it happens with rabbis, it happens with scoutmasters,” he says – but their status can also make it harder to recognize the abuse. He says some of the most disturbing testimony he has heard while on the Nassar commission has been about young gymnasts being abused while just steps away from their mothers, many of whom assumed because he was a doctor that he would never perpetrate such an act. “Remember, the groomer isn’t just grooming the abused,” says Pollack, “but also the community and the institution.” He emphasizes that background checks and monitoring adult behaviors around children are the best way to catch grooming before the abuse takes place.

Three more of Maxwell’s accusers are expected to take the stand at trial. Maxwell’s attorneys have said they will argue that she was merely being kind to these girls, not grooming them for abuse. The prosecution will try to show that Maxwell was not just offering friendship but intentionally putting young girls at risk.

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com