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The women should never have met.
Virginia Giuffre lives in Australia with her husband and three children. Teresa Helm, a mother of two, spent time in her 20s in New York and California but now resides in Ohio. Rachel Benavidez moves around for work—she’s a travel nurse. But her home base is in New Mexico. Marijke Chartouni lives in Washington State. Sarah Ransome is in Spain.
Still, in late October the five women—four in person, Ransome on the line from Barcelona—gathered in New York to share their stories with Glamour. It was this group’s first face-to-face conversation ever, a fact belied by the ease among them. One holds a mirror so the other can touch up her lipstick. Two share a plate of food. Giuffre brushes lint off Benavidez’s jacket. The closeness looks like decades-old friendship; in the room, it feels like sisterhood.
Giuffre first came forward in 2015 and her account is best known; in a sworn deposition taken in 2016, she said she was introduced to the financier Jeffrey Epstein through Ghislaine Maxwell, daughter of the British media titan Robert Maxwell. (Epstein, charged with sex trafficking girls, some just 14 or 15, reportedly committed suicide in jail over the summer.) Giuffre was 16 at the time, spending her summer as an attendant at the spa at Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump’s resort. According to the deposition, Maxwell told Giuffre she wanted to hire her as a masseuse. She promised Giuffre travel and an education. Giuffre accepted the offer. The abuse, she recalls, started soon after, with Epstein demanding sexual services for himself and some of his friends.
In the deposition Giuffre said, “My whole life revolved around just pleasing these men and keeping Ghislaine [Maxwell] and Jeffrey [Epstein] happy. Their whole entire lives revolved around sex.” (Maxwell has denied the allegations.)
Helm, trained as a massage therapist, encountered Epstein at 22, arriving at his mansion on the Upper East Side for what she believed was a job interview. She and Epstein were alone when he asked for a foot rub. She obliged, but balked after he started touching her. She tried to leave; he overpowered her. After, she fled the house—and New York. She buried the experience for close to two decades, until news of Epstein’s arrest made headlines this summer.
Benavidez was hired fresh out of school to work as a masseuse at Epstein’s palatial New Mexico ranch. She was 25. At first Maxwell was her client. The abuse began after she was introduced to Epstein, and it didn’t end until she refused to sign an NDA. At that point, she was 27.
Chartouni, then 20, was still new to New York in 2000; she’d moved the summer before, she remembers. A friend whom she’d known for a few months invited her to come to Epstein’s townhouse one morning, a detail she remembers because she figured the three would just have coffee. But the friend led her into a dark room, where both she and Epstein took off Chartouni’s clothes and assaulted her. Chartouni froze, waiting for it to end.
Later that week, someone from Epstein’s staff reached out; he wanted to see her again. She declined and distanced herself from the friend, whose deep breach of trust astounded her. She left New York in 2002 and buried the incident until this past summer, telling the police before she told her own husband. Is it “better” now? Chartouni isn’t sure; she hasn’t found the words to name it. She’s heard others describe it as “healing,” but the term feels too loaded with expectation. “Trauma recovery,” she offers. “That might be a better word.”
Ransome was 22 and recruited into Epstein’s operation in New York in 2006. A woman approached her one night, claiming that an older philanthropist had helped her and might help Ransome, who was then desperate to break into the fashion world. Ransome met Epstein and soon accepted an invitation to vacation on Little St. James, his private island. The abuse was constant; Ransome has said she was sexually abused throughout the six months she spent there. She tried to escape once but was persuaded to come back. She left Epstein in New York in 2007.
These are the details that make it into court documents and news alerts; these are the narratives that animate press conferences. But the sentences in isolation can’t capture how the women’s experiences with Epstein and his enablers have reverberated throughout their lives. How it feels to make dinner or wake up for work, turning over memories that months of nonstop news attention have dredged up. What it’s like to explain what happened to your children. (You have no choice; they’ve seen your face on TV.)
Over and over, the women search for the most precise phrases, language that will make sense of the incomprehensible. But when one falters, another fills in the gaps. And so their voices form a chorus; harmonies that form an anthem of grief and trauma and hope. There are no perfect soundbites or neat summations. It’s impossible to characterize their relationships to each other or even to what happened.
“We are not just the stories,” Helm insists.
“We are normal people, living our normal lives,” Benavidez adds. “But we’re dealing with something huge.”
The Power of Sisterhood
Virginia Giuffre: What does it mean for me to have this sisterhood of amazing, strong women sitting behind me and sitting next to me and sitting in front of me? It means the world to know that we have this bond that we built, not knowingly. We went through something very similar together. We were all abused by the same person. And although our stories differ from place to place or person to person, we—without even having to ask each other, “What happened to you?”—we already get it. We already know.
And let’s try and change the world for the better. I don’t want my daughter growing up in this world where this is the biggest epidemic. It’s not even an epidemic; it’s a pandemic happening. And I refuse to let my daughter grow up in a world that this is acceptable or okay.
Teresa Helm: Absolutely.
Giuffre: We should not be afraid to talk about this subject. If there’s a drug trafficking problem, we’re happy to say, “Oh, my God, did you hear that? They seized 10,000 kilos of heroin overnight,” or something. That’s not taboo. But why is it so scary to say, “Sex trafficking is an $100 billion industry.” We should be talking about it at dinner parties, and we should all be thinking of how to initiate a change in the response from other people. For me, one voice turns into many. Your strength and your strength and your strength—we can all add something to the impact of changing the world.
Rachel Benavidez: This is important stuff, and this is an important sisterhood that we have. And Virginia said, “Well, we want to focus on moving forward,” which absolutely, I do. I want to move forward with this, and help other women and children.
Giuffre: That’s what we were.
Benavidez: So, it’s very important. For me, I’m still in that phase of healing and trauma, and processing that. But I want to move forward. And I feel like with my sisterhood, with these women, and all the other hundreds who aren’t here, that that can really help me. So thank you, Virginia, for putting yourself out there on all levels, and providing this opportunity for all of us.
Giuffre: It means the world.
Benavidez: You’re beautiful. And you’re so strong. And I love when you speak, you’re like, “Yeah, and what about going after that bitch.” [Laughter.] It was like, yeah, yes. I’m just happy to be here, and I’m happy to share my story. But I’m very teary, so I’m sorry. And I’m a ugly crier.
Giuffre: Don’t worry!
Benavidez: It’s not too pretty.
Helm: Speaking about the sisterhood of everyone gathering throughout these, this time? I don’t even know how to put it. These times, this time? What is this?
Benavidez: It’s a time warp. It feels like I’m in a time warp, actually.
Giuffre: It’s a past, present, and future topic.
Helm: It is. It is a past, present, and future. I mean, it’s been nearly two decades since this all began. Who knew that nearly two decades later, I would be sitting around discussing this now, going through it, seeing the events unfold as they have? And who knows how they’re going to continue to unfold?
But what I do know so far is coming together with everyone—for me, it’s enabling me to continue. I came forward on my own to start. And I couldn’t imagine doing anything at this point on my own. In those moments when I’m having doubt or fear or hesitation, or wanting to just break down, I just know that I can look around [at the women] standing alongside me. I feel like we are all standing, arm in arm, like a chain. And I hope just as much as I’m holding onto their strength when I need it, I hope in return that I can [provide] strength to them as well.
Giuffre: It’s about being there for each other when we need it. And sometimes it takes that shoulder to cry on. Sometimes it takes that ear to listen. Sometimes it just takes a box of tissues and a bottle of wine. I think we’ve formed a beautiful relationship thus far. And I know for me, when you talk about the self-shame and anger and hate and the horrible feelings that go along with that—over time, it does transcend into a better place. Because by helping out, by speaking out, by taking these long strides, we then become stronger for it and better by it. And we can learn to deal with those horrible things that happened to us so long ago.
Giuffre: I made the decision [to come forward] on January 7, 2010. It was the day my daughter was born. And not that my boys don’t matter, but I looked at this baby girl, and before we even named her, I just had this overwhelming [feeling]. My husband has pictures of me crying over this little girl. I just couldn’t imagine bringing her into a world where I know what happened to me, and I know what I went through. When you have this child in your arms, it then becomes your responsibility not just to protect her, but to protect others as well. When I saw her, that was the turning point. That was when I said, “We’ve got to do something. We’ve got to hold these people accountable.”
Marijke Chartouni: I haven’t talked about this in public, I don’t think. But someone close to me had a sexual assault over the summer. And that was before I had even unpacked this—what happened to me. And it just happened, the timing. That incident had just happened when I saw the headline—that Epstein had been arrested. And I was jet-lagged. But I was like, “It’s time to make that call.”
Guiffre: I’m so glad you came forward.
Chartouni: We are processing our traumas differently. Both of our traumas are very different, and it’s interesting to kind of do this on a parallel. And we’re proud of each other. You have to speak uncomfortable truths. You have to make uncomfortable truths not uncomfortable anymore.
Helm: I think people need to stop thinking that they can just do it and get away with it. That’s such a big problem. They do it because they can. Because society has enabled it. Our culture has enabled it, you know? Especially for people who have money and power. I think that’s what it boils down to.
Ransome: I have to speak here, because I’m from a very different part of the world. I’m from Europe. For me, on this side of the world, we’re not there. I feel we have come forward. I feel that victims are finally being heard. But it shouldn’t have taken since 2008 to be heard. It should have taken one girl to come forward. At the end of the day, who’s accountable?
Giuffre: This is not an American problem. It’s an international problem. And it’s a very old way of thinking. I’ve talked to people who’ve said, “Well, I really don’t understand what you’re complaining about. Because once upon a time, it was totally cool to marry a 12-year-old or a 14-year-old.” Do you know what I mean? And so many people are still stuck in that mind frame. When, no. We all know morally it’s not right.
So how do we change that? What’s the gap to fill in there? Great question. That’s what we’re all trying to find out, how to change [people’s] minds on that. I mean, it does take a lot of voices to stand together and say, “Well, we don’t think it’s right.”
Coming to Terms With It
Benavidez: People that are suffering sexual abuse as children [are still] carrying it. [It’s still treated] as a secret and shameful. It’s just so bewitching. It’s awful. It’s almost like having a disease. You feel like you reek of that. Everything you do in your life is kind of—
Benavidez: Impacted. And it’s like a stamp. I feel very scarred. And a lot of the things that I’ve done in my life have been because of child sexual abuse. So I think that this is really important work that needs to be done. And it’s going to be work. That’s the thing.
Giuffre: It is a lot of hard work. And it’s a lot of emotions. But it’s a lot of strength, and it’s a lot of courage. And it’s also about reclaiming that power back from what they took from us. This is not our shame. They did something wrong. And I think that’s the idea that needs to be changed right there. We have been told for so long, “Don’t talk about it. This is shameful.” We don’t want to go to dinner parties with our friends and talk about sexual abuse or sexual trafficking, or anything like that. But it’s not our shame. This happened to us.
The way we talk about victims. The whole idea needs a different concept. And I think we’re getting there. But it’s gonna take a lot of us standing together and continuing to talk about it. Continuing to say, “We’re not gonna shut up. We didn’t do anything wrong here. These perpetrators did this to us. They hurt us, and now we’re standing up for it.” The tide is going to turn, but it’s going to take a lot of work.
Helm: There definitely seems to be a power struggle going on, where it seems as though a lot of people grow up with a false sense of power, and it’s almost like they’re taking it and stealing it in places. And it just doesn’t belong to them. Because they have not cultivated that within themselves.
And then as people like us sitting here—we still have the power. And it is just a matter of unearthing that power again within ourselves and bringing it out. We don’t need people to empower us. We don’t need this high person or whatever federal whatever. We don’t need that empowerment from them because we all have it inside of ourselves, already. So we just need to nurture that a bit and allow that to come out.
But once we are standing, we’re not going anywhere. We don’t need to ask permission. We don’t need anyone to tell us we can. We just are. We are powerful, and we will continue to stand and move forward.
Finding the Words
Ransome: What really offends me is the language that was used against Virginia, especially when I was going to come [forward]. There were many times that I was going to come forward in the last 14 years. But the one thing that really, really upset me was the phrase sex slave. It is so horrible. Really horrible.
Again, bearing in mind that I speak from a British perspective, a European perspective—the different [words] that are used and different tabloid newspapers over this side are just really derogatory towards us survivors.
Giuffre: I 100% agree with you. And I think that’s the tide that I was talking about turning now. Language is a huge importance to this topic. I mean, are we sex slaves? No. Are we victims of sexual abuse and trafficking? Yes, we are. But what we’re doing now, sitting around this table is we’re redefining those words.
For me, I love the fact that we are soul sisters, survivor sisters. And I also think we’re avengers. We really are. We all deserve those big capes because what we’re doing is changing the world the way it needs to be changed. And Sarah, you’re absolutely right. It’s really sad. The name-calling isn’t about support of the victims. It’s about shaming them even further. And that’s what needs to change, hugely.
Benavidez: What about the word victors?
Giuffre: Victors. I like that. I do. I’m down with that.
Helm: When you’re a victim, people can, as you said, put you in a box. And they can evaluate that box and say, “This is what you are. This is what you’re not, because we have a box to put you in.”
I feel the same with survivor. There is a mentality with, “Well, I’m not a victim, I’m a survivor.” There is a mentality that goes along with that. And people can still basically objectify you within that box and say, “Well, she&aposs a survivor of this.” You go back to what you were victimized for. And I want to [go] beyond that. I don’t know what the proper term is, so let’s make one. Past survivor. Moving on. Moving forward.
Searching for “Normal”
Benavidez: So, this is my second time meeting the gals and my first time meeting with my attorney [in person]. I reached out to my attorney, like, maybe three weeks into July.
It’s been not anticlimactic, but it is anticlimactic in a way. Like, [I think about] when I get home. This is all great, and this is an experience, and it’s fueling me and it’s healing me. It’s great. And it’s exciting. I get to come to New York and come to this incredible building and see these beautiful things and experience it all.
But when I get home, it&aposs just—ugh. Because I am alone.
The first time I met the women it was when we filmed Dateline, and it was great. I really bonded with those women. And it was nice to have, and so important. I felt like they were my besties, you know? But there is a sense of ugh. You get home, and it’s like, “Okay. Back to life again.” And so being given the opportunity to be a part of your cause—
Giuffre: Our cause.
Benavidez: Well, you started it, sister. It’s going to be great, because then that gives me an outlet to that feeling of, like, “Well, where do I go from this? I just sit around and wait for my lawyer to tell me any new developments?” It’s deflating.
Giuffre: We do text each other. Sometimes we call each other to update each other, or have investigation ideas. We’re there for each other. We lend an ear and sometimes a shoulder.
But when you ask about frustrations, and what gaps we could fill in terms of, like, what&aposs going wrong with this issue. For me, from the very beginning, it’s always been the statute of limitations. I think we need to put so much pressure on the need to change the laws all over the United States.
It’s just ridiculous. I mean, compare rape and murder, or being sexually abused and murder. There’s no statute of limitations on murder, right? But [with sexual abuse] you’ve just basically taken a person’s life away. Like I said, these scars never heal. And not only that, but it takes so many years to want to [come forward] because we carry that shame. We carry that shame, we’re told we’re the bad ones. We’re told we’re the dirty ones, and it’s our secret to hide. But that’s what needs to change.
Benavidez: It needs to be gone.
Giuffre: That’s why some acknowledgement, I think, is a really big part of starting to feel a little bit better. I know Jeffrey’s not alive to give us that acknowledgment anymore. And I believe the government is trying to do right by us this time. And maybe that’s the solace. I think if they were able to provide that—that security, that sense of acknowledgement—it would be a great step in the right direction. We don’t expect everyone to stick their hands up and say, “Well, I’m sorry. I did it. My bad.” That’s not going to happen. But acknowledgement, for me, is a huge part of what I’ve been waiting for. And it’s never happened, and it may never happen. But that’s all I can hope for.
Helm: Acknowledgement, without all the judgment attached to it. There’s so much judgment on us.
Ransome: I’m sorry. I don’t need to see acknowledgement. I want to see, actually, people go to jail. I want [them] in prison. That’s what I want. Until I get to do those little visits there to prison, wherever [the perpetrators] are, so I can be like, “Surprise! Hello.”
Because these people? They’re still a danger to the public. I mean, they’re still walking the street. You know, I don’t want recognition. I don’t want a pat on the back. I don’t want to “be heard.” I want something. Ghislaine [Maxwell] is still walking the streets. Jean-Luc [Brunel] is still walking the streets. It’s not good enough just to be heard.
There are some people who need to be stopped. Because if they’re not stopped, they will move to Brazil, France, South Africa, and perpetrate there. Because if they’re not [stopped], they’re going to continue to hurt more and more girls. So that’s what needs to change. These people need to be behind bars, where they can’t hurt anybody else.
Giuffre: Sarah, very well-said.
Helm: Can I raise another point? Just to explain and help people understand about not coming forward. If you look at the statistics, easily one in four women is sexually abused as a child or under the age of 18. Why are so many women willing to be silent? Because it’s not the first time it’s happened. It’s not the second time, sometimes. Sometimes it’s not even up to the fifth time that it’s happened throughout their lives. That is really important.
When you look at how many women and girls have been involved or were involved, or are victims or survivors within this organization—how many of them had previously been sexually abused? Why is it easy to prey on girls? Because a lot of us have already been sexually abused. Eight years old was the first time for me. A lot of us have been sexually abused. And that’s why we can be revictimized. There’s a world of people being abused all the time. All the time.
Giuffre: We all have different stories, but we’re all so much alike. And it takes a whole bunch of us to help heal the world.
Anyone affected by sexual assault can find support through the RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline. To reach out to the confidential service, call (800) 656-4673 or visit RAINN&aposs website for additional information and resources.
Mattie Kahn is the culture director at Glamour.
Originally Appeared on Glamour