Nabokov's Nymphet Remains Misunderstood by a Culture that Winks at the Sexualization of Children
I don’t care about Jeffrey Epstein. I care about the girls. I see the term “Lolita Express” in the news alongside passenger logs that include the names of rich and famous men, most of whom are white, and the only relief I feel is that Epstein did not have the audacity to give that name to the aircraft himself. The reference to Nabokov's famous novel came from the press, as did the nickname for the 72-acre island he owns in the Caribbean—"Orgy Island."
Cute, but it's not funny
Lolita is a tragic figure. She is completely undone by the lust of a sophisticated, well-educated adult, who by possessing the object of his desire transforms it into something entirely different, initiating her demise. The novel is a double tragedy. It is the story of Lolita's ruin and that of her putative stepfather and abductor Humbert Humbert.
Consider what it means to call Espstein's airplane "Lolita Express." Especially when the alleged sex trafficking of underage girls is part of the equation and an alleged open secret.
This is no snickering matter, regardless of how satirical the term is intended to be. It's about the girls. The ones already marginalized by society who become the recruitment pool for this kind of operation.
"The desperate truth of Lolita's story," says Azar Nafisi in Reading Lolita in Tehran, "is not the rape of a twelve-year-old by a dirty old man, but the confiscation of one individual's life by another."
Sex is always about a story, says author and psychotherapist Thomas Moore in The Soul of Sex. It may be a story of loneliness, lust or abuse. It may be a story of transference and projection, as with Nabokov's narrator, Humbert Humbert. But just as often sex is a story about power.
There is some doubt, apparently, as to whether Epstein is actually a billionaire. Celebrity Net Worth estimates his wealth at $1.5 billion. But he has never appeared in Forbes Magazine's annual list of billionaires. What he does have is a client list of actual billionaires, which has never been made public. When the financier put together this list, he refused to accept anyone with only $500 million. The figure was too small to participate in the investments Epstein could arrange.
Because I do not have a billion dollars, it takes me a moment to understand how much money that is. It's the same as having one million dollars a thousand times. But I don't care about that. And I certainly don’t care about the two American presidents whose names appear on flight logs for Epstein's plane. What interests me is the kind of power that gets you a ticket to ride on that particular private jet, whether you were part of any misconduct or not.
Certainly, it is power that has allowed Epstein's alleged sex pyramid to go unprosecuted for nearly two decades. Here's how it works: An underage girl is "recruited" to give some guy a massage. She gets paid up to $300 for her services, which may turn out to be something other than a massage. No problem if she doesn't like what happens. All she has to do is invite some other girl(s), who might not mind it so much. Her friend gets paid $300, and the first girl gets paid $300 a second time.
Call it a finder's fee. Also call it disgusting.
That's why I don't care about the damage done to Epstein's $77 million New York townhouse when federal agents used a crowbar to break in, seizing his stash of photographs depicting nude, underage girls. I do care that US Attorney Alexander Acosta brokered a plea deal with Epstein's attorney, Alan Dershowitz, which was kept secret from the eleven victims named in the 53-page federal indictment against him in 2008. I care that Acosta's record in this scandal did not make him ineligible to become Secretary of Labor in Trump's cabinet, a post he's been forced to resign now that his part in the deal has been made public. And I also care that it took six years for a judge to declare the plea deal illegal. Because in the end, it's really about the girls.
You see, they're minors. Not yet fully adult. Children. But they're already sexually active, you say. At least they're getting a few hundred bucks. So what could be so wrong? It's not as if they can say, along with Nabokov's Lolita, "I was a daisy-fresh girl and look what you've done to me."
Perhaps all of the girls in Epstein's alleged sex pyramid cannot say that. But there is another line from Lolita, which they can say with biting accuracy and complete moral certitude. It's the one delivered by Humbert Humbert to justify the murder that lands him in jail. "You took advantage of my disadvantage."
According to the PBS NewsHour, most girls targeted by these organized solicitations are already vulnerable. They are runaways. They come unstable homes or the foster care system. The victims are often kids who have experienced extreme childhood abuse. They come from the childhood welfare system and are sometimes homeless. Sex pyramids and similar schemes exploit their vulnerabilities. Exploiters know these are the kids no one really cares about. They are the least likely to be believed even if they do come forward.
One bit of good news generated by Epstein's indictment on new charges is that it shines a much-needed light on the pervasiveness of a wide but mostly hidden sex-trafficking trade across America. According to the above-noted PBS NewsHour report, 80% of all confirmed sex trafficking cases are U.S. citizens, 40% of which involve children. These other cases, known only because the victims have sought assistance from caseworkers and other providers, bear a few similarities to the Epstein scandal. The Johns involved are usually wealthy white men.
But let’s not forget similar decades-long allegations regarding black musician R. Kelly, who was arrested on federal sex-trafficking charges within days of Epstein’s arrest. Kelly’s elaborate hush-money settlements, like Epstein’s, enabled him to get away with similar alleged crimes for years. Then there’s the Oprah-backed TV series Greenleaf, now in its fourth season, which deals with teen sexual abuse among African-Americans. This is a crime that cuts across racial identifiers.
It's been estimated that as many as 100 girls have been victimized by Epstein's trafficking circle. Which may not sound like a lot until you realize that it's the tip of an iceberg, a microcosm that catches headlines because of its wealthy and influential defendant. The guy with the high-profile friends, who owns an island in the Caribbean and has enough dough to live at the "most expensive townhouse in Manhattan." A man with a private jet nicknamed Lolita Express.
There's irony in that word express. If you're talking about planes, trains, and busses, an express ensures a fast track to your destination. In Nabokov's novel, Lolita is fast-tracked into a withered adulthood by the time she's seventeen. She's a "faint violet whiff and dead-leaf echo of the nymphet," Humbert says. Isn't that what happens to sex-trafficked underage girl when their lives are confiscated by exploitative pimping schemes?
But express also means to communicate. Although she talks a lot, Nabokov's Lolita is deprived of the opportunity to express herself on the most important issue of her life. "He broke my heart," she tells Humbert. "You merely broke my life." So the Lolita Express is really a "don't express." "If you tell, who will believe you? You're nothing but a runaway, a prostitute, and I'm a highly regarded man of means."
I resent the hypocrisy of morally self-righteous people who fight to ban books and films like Lolita, while turning a blind eye to a cultural zeitgeist that winks at the sexualization of underage kids all the time.
Nabokov's Lolita has become a meme more focused on the allure of adolescent sexuality than the tragedy that is her life. Even Lana Del Rey, whose hit single "Lolita" makes direct reference in its video to the two films based on Nabokov's novel, failed to look beyond the teen's budding sexuality, casting her exclusively as an adolescent seductress. It perpetuates a wrongheaded notion of what it mean to be a Lolita.
I resent the murder of six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey, who was heavily made-up and frequently photographed as if she were an adult cover girl. Although we've been hearing the truth about them ever since The Big Sleep, I resent the fact that markets for child porn still exist.
I am also troubled by the photographs of Sally Mann (such as “Candy Cigarette”and “Jessie at Five”). They are acknowledged works of highly professional art. But they exploit childhood sexuality, even as they excite a near-pornographic interest in the subject matter. They ask the viewer to look at those children as sex objects.
It's that same cultural hypocrisy that made it okay to be Jeffrey Epstein's "friend," even though his interest in underage girls has been an open secret for nearly twenty years. Even if I had a billion dollars and could afford a ticket to ride on the Lolita Express. the price would be too high.
I wouldn't want a friend like that no matter how many private islands he owned. At some point the slime factor would kick in. It's about the children, you see. That's who I care about.
I like big books, and I cannot lie. My background includes talk radio, newspapers and TV news. I've hosted a morning-drive classical music program on the California coast and published nationally in Reader's Digest, the Christian Science Monitor, and Playboy. I've won awards for my journalism and my fiction. One of my essays even made it into an anthology for college English courses. For real? Yes, for real.
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