As defense attorney Bobbi Sternheim delivered her opening remarks in the ongoing trial against Ghislaine Maxwell a few weeks ago, she adapted an old story, adding her own spin. “Ever since Eve was accused of tempting Adam with the apple,” said Sternheim, “women have been blamed for the bad behavior of men.” Sternheim rounded out this bizarre conflation of Maxwell with Eve by blaming Jeffrey Epstein’s accusers for their own involvement in being victimized. The attorney seemed to hope she could use Maxwell’s gender as an obscuring cloud, muddling up matters and, perhaps, raising more-or-less reasonable doubts.
The trial resumed Thursday, and the prosecution (which rested its case last week) hopes the jury sees it another way: that being a woman does not, and should not, exempt a person from potential complicity in sexual assault, including grooming, procuring, and perpetrating. And in fact, it is not uncommon for women to do these things, as Lara Stemple argued in Slate last week. If sexual abuse is, at least in part, about the exercise of power, then why wouldn’t some women—especially those in need of money or leverage—take part? And if that female participation was integral to making that abuse possible, as recently argued by scholars and lawyers in the Washington Post, gender certainly shouldn’t absolve someone who did what Maxwell is alleged to have done.
As historians, we see a deeper track record here. From the time of Adam and Eve (whenever on earth, or in paradise, that might have been), there have always been women willing to help men—especially rich and powerful men—sexually abuse other women and girls. These women have played a role often recognized as critical in grooming the victims. Unfortunately, as history has shown, too many people like Ghislaine Maxwell get away with it: not just because of wealth and power, but also, at least for women, because of their gender. The presumption that women must be innocent of serious crimes—even sex crimes—runs deep.
History, in fact, offers ample precedent for all the things Maxwell stands accused of. The historical record is full of accounts of women aiding and abetting the sexual exploitation and abuse of other women and girls by men, usually powerful men. We can take as one more recent example the story told in historian Julia Laite’s book The Disappearance of Lydia Harvey. In this early-20th-century history of global sex trafficking, the woman who succeeded most effectively in escaping justice was not the trafficked victim Lydia Harvey, but the prostitute and procuress Veronique White, who solicited and groomed her.
The tall, beautiful, fashionable, and charming White, part of a husband-and-wife trafficking team, lacked Ghislaine Maxwell’s education, family, and connections. There are otherwise quite a few disturbing resonances in this account of a woman facilitating and participating in the sexual abuse of another woman. Beautiful clothing, gifts, an older woman who makes light of sexual encounters, even a parrot to attract young girls’ attention (in the place of Maxwell’s adorable Yorkie)—all these aspects round out a disturbing picture of enabled, normalized abuse. And Veronique White’s gender made it easier for her to disappear as needed, as she so often and so effectively did.
As in this 20th-century case studied by Laite, quite often women who trafficked and procured seem to have evaded prosecution and punishment, as did the men they worked for, but sometimes we can find evidence of efforts to bring them to justice. Medieval Christian Europeans certainly shared Sternheim’s interest in drawing lessons for humanity from the story of Adam and Eve, and the history of this time period is useful for thinking about the question of female enablers of male abuse. While brighter than often imagined in modern popular culture, the Middle Ages was also rife with the kinds of social and gender inequalities that all too easily create circumstances for sexual coercion and assault.
While we may hesitate to believe that women might do such things to other women, medieval people understood well that women could, and did, play a vital role in the coercion of other women. They were divided on whether they believed this coercive aspect to sex was a phenomenon to be condemned or simply a part of life. The guides to “courtly love”—or seduction—that overpopulate medieval literary writings, drawing on the earlier work of the Roman poet Ovid, often explained the importance of a go-between or procuress, a woman whose vital help would facilitate seduction or rape, or both. Despite the objections of some theologians and moral authorities, such as the brilliant 14th-century poet and writer Christine de Pizan, these kinds of guides to seduction and rape had a shockingly central role in medieval cultural life, and in education. Readers and auditors young and old, boys in schoolrooms or in universities, and courtly audiences listening to songs or poems were told how a man could, especially with the help of a woman, obtain the woman he desired—by force if necessary. A stock figure in Iberian literary writing, for example, referred to as the “convent-trotter,” helped monks and priests with their “conquests.” Sometimes families would hire other women to protect their daughters, acting as so-called duennas, but those women could quickly become suborned—for a price—into acting as go-betweens who facilitated the very seduction, abduction, and rape that these families sought to prevent.
In the judicial court records, we find examples of how actual women profited from exploiting other women. In the year 1463, municipal authorities in Dijon, France, collected testimony about the activities of a woman named Symonne, wife of Jean Rouhet. A young orphan about 17 years old, named Jacotte, explained to these authorities how she had come to be raped. Jacotte said that her family had sent her to Dijon to work, and she had secured employment in a hospital. One morning, she left the hospital to fetch some bread for a little girl staying at the hospital and encountered in the street the woman named Symonne, who asked her if she wanted to find a better position. Jacotte said yes, and Symonne told her that she knew a good place where she would be better provided for, housed safely with other women, and given a new dress and a hat. But it was a trap. Jacotte was beaten and raped by Jean Jeannin, a nobleman’s valet about 34 years old and married, who had paid Symonne to lure Jacotte away from the hospital.
In an even more harrowing story, about a decade later, Perrenotte, another orphan, only 13 years old and working as a servant in a home in Dijon, was lured away from her position with the promise of better employment in the home of a priest. One of the priest’s servants, a widow named Alison, gave her a promise of a better pay and a new dress. Perrenotte testified that she was kept in the priest’s home for seven weeks, sometimes sharing a bed with Alison, and was repeatedly raped by the priest. The priest, benefiting from his powerful position and protected status as clergy, escaped justice while the women confronted each other in court. Tortured, Alison finally confessed.
Women like Alison and Symonne had an omnipresent role in facilitating men’s extramarital sex in Dijon, capital city of the duchy of Burgundy. In his history of prostitution in late medieval France, Jacques Rossiaud highlighted the predominant role of women like Simone in facilitating unlicensed prostitution. He explained, for example, that of 83 private illegal brothels he found records of in Dijon, 75 were kept by women. These were often tiny operations, in which a woman housed one or two other women or girls whose services she sold. When located outside the municipal brothels, which offered at least in principle some protections for the women who worked in them as licensed prostitutes, the women and girls in these informal situations were far more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation as well as to prosecution for adultery or fornication.
Some women, including Symonne and Alison, met with prosecution and punishment for their roles in these seductions, assaults, and rapes. Regardless of what Maxwell’s attorney said about Adam and Eve, in some abuse cases involving women we find only the female procurer being punished—in many other cases, the man, and in some cases both. Most often, however, we do not know the outcome of the investigation at all. Both Symonne and Alison, at least, convicted for pandering, were subject to public punishment. This included whipping and being publicly displayed on the scaffold, and forced to wear a straw hat that illustrated the procurement and sale of a woman to a man. This is one of the many moments in a historian’s life when one might wish for artistic renderings of these punishments, or for the better survival of medieval straw; as it is, we can only imagine what this might have looked like. After this public humiliation and violence, the women were banished from the city.
As for the rapists, Jean Jeannin was arrested and interrogated, along with Symonne, but while she confessed her role, he continued to deny the rape. As is so often the case with medieval court records, we do not know his fate. The priest aided by Alison, meanwhile, claimed his privilege as clergy and his right to be judged only in a church court. Other men who did not flee, or who did not manage to claim some sort of judicial exemption or privilege, were, like Symonne and Alison, beaten and banished or in some cases even executed. But lest Sternheim think we are making her case for her about the regular blaming of Eves for the sins of Adams, let us also point out that the recorded prosecutions and punishments of men for sexual assault, abduction, or seduction far outnumber those for any female accomplices. That said, we can also find many examples of men who obtained pardons or otherwise escaped punishment for these offences, especially wealthy and powerful men.
These few examples from the rich court records of Dijon are very much tied into the history of late-medieval urban poverty. The disruptions of plague, famine, and warfare brought more and more young women to the city in search of whatever work they could find, and informal sex work was an essential, if dangerous, component of their struggles to survive. But similar patterns of abuse also played out in the homes of the medieval elite. In the final years of King Charles VII’s life, before his death in 1461, France’s last mistress, Antoinette de Maignelais, was said to have sought to retain his favor by procuring adolescent noble girls for him. As one chronicler, admittedly no friend of King Charles, wrote, the lady Antoinette always arranged things so that the king had at least three or four young and extremely beautiful women in attendance with her, arrayed in the best and most ostentatious finery at royal expense. The chronicler writes as well of how noble families, knowing the risks for their daughters’ virtue but also aware of the gains for their families, acquiesced in sending their daughters to the royal court. He describes one young and beautiful woman from the provinces in tears at her departure from her paternal home, and adds that the young woman was received with great joy by the king and his mistress.
It’s no surprise that men who perpetrated sexual crimes in medieval Europe often managed to avoid detection or at least evade prosecution, but it’s not because the Middle Ages were so very backward or barbaric. As happens today, powerful men escaped accountability for their sexual predation because power brings privilege. But also as happens today, some medieval women who assisted in sexual predation, or who were predators themselves, were able to profit from gender norms to escape punishment even as their gender had made it all the easier for them to entice their victims. Most women involved in selling other women went unpunished, and few of those victimized and abused would have been willing to take the risks of coming forward with an accusation. All this brings us neatly back to Sternheim’s defense of Maxwell: that she’s just being made a scapegoat because she’s a woman, and we should really be blaming both Epstein and his victims alike, because these younger women are unfairly accusing Maxwell.
How will a modern jury make sense of the accusations against Maxwell? Will they be able to imagine a woman who looks and acts like her as capable of sexual coercion and aggression? We seem to be just at the cusp of thinking about ways to hold enablers accountable, even as we recognize that all these famous serial predators whose actions are becoming public in the age of #MeToo had such enablers: people—men and women—who brought victims, locked the doors behind them, or looked the other way. Our modern judicial system and our fellow humans seem just as capable as their medieval equivalents of letting power and gender norms interfere with justice, as they so often have. But while it’s vital not to blame the victims, as our gendered systems of “justice” so often permit us to do, it’s also vital to not let gender enable the perpetrators to escape from accountability. We’ve seen that story play out too many times before.