Between a Trade War and a Sex Scandal (Part 2 of 2)

By: Micky Lee, Suffolk University

This is a two-part series that discusses how gender can be used as a lens to connect events that occur in different spaces. Two such events are the ongoing China-U.S. trade war and the sex scandal of Jeffrey Epstein. In the second part, I use the case study of Jeffrey Epstein’s sex scandal to show that news stories rarely asked in what kinds of financial markets did Epstein make his money. Instead they focus on the nature of women who associate themselves with Epstein. Women are said to lie and cheat to gain favour in patriarchy. While Epstein used young women as a form of currency between men, the press is only interested in the survivors because of the men with whom they sexually engaged.

Sex scandal

In early August 2019, disgraced former financier Jeffrey Epstein was found death in his prison cell. Before his suicide, he was awaiting a trial of sex trafficking of minors. Many survivors who were involved in the prostitution ring believe that justice has not been served because Epstein did not stand trial so they continue seeking prosecution of Epstein’s co-conspirators. Public interest of Epstein’s sex trafficking case has not waned after his death; the press continues to publish stories of the survivors, the whereabouts of the co-conspirators, and the suspects who had received sexual favours. It is not a surprise that the fall of Jeffrey Epstein has attracted so much attention from the public, illicit sex and dirty money are elements of Hollywood movies and gossip magazines.

One thing however is missing in the press about Epstein: while his wealth was emphasised, how did the wealth that he acquired reflect the financial markets since the mid-1970s when he first became active in trading? The absence of a historical view of financial markets where Epstein amassed his wealth and influence gave the illusion that the reproduction and circulation of money in financial markets has been the same in the past few decades. While some may argue that the financial markets in which Epstein made money are not as important as his wealth, this ahistorical view of finance capital implies that the power relations constituted by finance capital remain unchanged as well. At a broader level, static power relations imply that human nature does not change throughout history: there were immoral wealthy men in the past, and they are still immoral wealthy men in the present. In this viewpoint, temporality and spatiality do not matter because human nature transcends any time and any space. Because power relations are static, immoral wealthy men have fixed social relations with others; they do not commit the immoral acts alone, they are aided by women of questionable characters. In Bubbles and machines (2019), I argue that deceptive and dishonest women play prominent roles in the lives of these wealthy men because women’s untrustworthy nature muddles black and white morality.

One Epstein’s conspirator who is pursued by prosecutors is Ghislaine Maxwell. Maxwell is accused of recruiting under age young women for the ring. Maxwell’s whereabouts is unknown; but even if she is located, she may not tell the truth of Epstein’s crime because she is described as an imposter and a habitual liar in the press. For example, Vanity Fair, a glossy high-society entertainment magazine, published an article about Maxwell (Grigoriadis, 2019) in which she remains an unknown in Epstein’s story. As suggested in the subtitle, she is a “mystery”. The byline further suggests that she is a quixotic dreamer who “possibly hoped to marry [Epstein]”. In the body text, she was described to be elusive (“authorities are having a hard time locating her”), secretive, and deceptive (“’even though Jeffrey told [a former girlfriend] they didn’t have a sexual relationship, she’d drop under her breath that she was sleeping in his bed from time to time’”). She is also said to be an imposter after her father went bankrupt (“Maxwell was a former [Epstein’s] girlfriend fallen on hard times, and that he had taken it upon himself to maintain her position in society”). Finally, she was described to love men in power and desperately seek their approval (“’Ghislaine was in love with Jeffrey the way she was in love with her father. She always thought if she just did one more thing for him, to please him, he would marry her”). In this Vanity Fair story, gender is effectively used to show the destructive power of a woman who was associated with a wealthy financial man. Maxwell’s sins may appear to be her harming under age girls, but her destruction is said to be her inclination to lie and deceive.

In the Vanity Fair story, Maxwell’s deceptive character is conveniently explained by her complete lack of power in a (patriarchal) moneyed world. She was born to great wealth but her father lost it all. To maintain her guise as a society woman, she had to lean on to another wealthy man so that she can maintain her status. But as an imposter, she has to constantly please Epstein, a powerful man, so that he does not disown her. Her tactics to maintain power is to exercise it over other women who have even less power, such as those from an impoverished background.

Even though the public may have more sympathy for the survivors than for Maxwell because of their powerless status, the survivors are sometimes said to be liars as well. For example, one survivor alleged that Epstein has offered her and other young women to Prince Andrew, then a friend of Epstein. Responding to the allegation, the British Royalty spokesperson has repeatedly denied any sexual contact between the young women and Prince Andrew. The spokesperson stated that “’any suggestion of impropriety is categorically untrue‘” and “’any claim to the contrary is false and without foundation” (Austin, 2019; emphasis added). The implication is clear: the women, despite being victims, lied.

Even though the press may appear to be more sympathetic towards the survivors, the focus of their stories to be on the famous men that were involved. In the stories about the survivors and Prince Andrew, the prince and the sex acts in which he was engaged are the focal points. The titles of news stories reflect just that: The Independent wrote “Prince Andrew took part in orgy with nine girls on Jeffrey Epstein’s private island, alleged victim says” (Austin, 2019); The Sun wrote “Prince and the pedo: Andrew, Epstein allegedly in orgy with nine ‘young girls’” (Hunter, 2019); Newsweek wrote: “Prince Andrew involved in orgy with Jeffrey Epstein and nine girls on billionaire’s private island, accuser claims in TV expose” (Palmer, 2019). All these titles are less interested in the women, they are simply called “victim”, “girls”, and “accuser”. As victims, they are passive objects in the ring; as girls, they are dependent beings; as accusers, they are troublemakers. These young women are currency when they worked for Epstein, and they continue to be currency when interviewed by the press. To Epstein, who these women are do not matter, what matters is that they are used as a form of exchange between men. To the press, who they are also do not matter, what matters is with whom they had sexually engaged.

Gender as a lens

The women factory workers in China may never have a chance to talk to the survivors of Epstein’s prostitution ring, they experience different spatialities. A gender lens however shows the intricate ways of how capital works through gendered labour and gendered representation. In the first part, I have demonstrated that women’s labour in China has been exploited to prevent a global economic recession from occurring because factory workers have been producing consumer goods that stimulate economic growth. This labour is however often hidden by objective trade figures. In the second part, I have demonstrated that the immorality of a financier is testified by the deceptive women who aid his rise and downfall. Even though Epstein made his money in financial markets, the news stories have conveniently ignored how finance capital works. Instead, they focus on the deceptive women who chose to associate with the men. These women are said to knit a web of lies that confuse and deceive others; they do so in order to gain favour in patriarchy. In the Epstein’s stories, women have no real power, they only serve as a currency, a form of transaction between men. Using gender as a lens, I argue that the hidden labour of Chinese factory workers and the gendered representation of Epstein’s women is connected. When women’s labour has been obscured and devalued in the global economy, women’s economic contribution is unrecognised. The perception of women’s lack of economic power means that their value is determined by the men who own their labour, whether it is performed on a factory floor or in a bedroom in a private island. To this end, there is much connection between a trade war and a sex scandal.


Austin, H. (2019, October 22). Prince Andrew took part in orgy with nine girls on Jeffrey Epstein’s private island, alleged victims says. The Independent. Retrieved from

Grigoriadis, V. (2019, August 12). “They’re nothing, these girls”: Unraveling the mystery of Ghislaine Maxwellm, Epstein’s enabler. Vanity Fair. Retrieved from

Hunter, B. (2019, October 22). Prince and the pedo: Andrew, Epstein allegedly in orgy with nine “young girls”. Toronto Sun. Retrieved from

Lee, M. (2019). Bubbles and machines: Gender, information and financial crises. London: University of Westminster Press.

Palmer, E. (2019, October 21). Prince Andrew involved in orgy with Jeffrey Epstein and nine girls on billionaire’s private island, accuser claims in TV expose. Newsweek. Retrieved from

Micky Lee is an associate professor of media studies at Suffolk University, Boston. Her latest books are Alphabet: The Becoming of Google (Routledge) and Bubbles and Machines: Gender, Information and Financial Crises (University of Westminster Press). Bubbles and Machines can be downloaded for free at this link.

Featured image: “onells_837909” by glocalproject.