Horrendous as her actions were, Ghislaine Maxwell fulfilled a traditional gender role when she recruited sex trafficking victims for the late financier Jeffrey Epstein. “In some parts of the world, women trafficking women is the norm,” United Nations investigators said in a report on trafficking that came out more than 10 years ago.
The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crimes report said sexual exploitation made up the most common form of trafficking and expressed surprise that in 30% of the countries providing information about the gender of traffickers, women made up the largest proportion of offenders. Still, little is understood about the phenomenon, which researchers say is often tied to the abuse and economic disempowerment of women, resulting in a complex feedback loop in which victims can become offenders.
“Often, women become involved in recruitment and grooming as a way to escape exploitation or carve out a role that will offer them more protection and the possibility of advancing out of exploitation themselves,” says Amy Farrell, professor of criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern University. “It often isn’t a simple story,” says Farrell, who co-directs the university’s Violence and Justice Research Lab with criminology professor Carlos Cuevas.