Ghislaine Maxwell's 'Grooming' Behavior Explained by a Forensic Psychologist

As the jury deliberates on the case of Ghislaine Maxwell, the public is left to stew on a damning portrait of a 59-year-old British socialite who maintained her innocence before accusations of her integral role in late financier Jeffrey Epstein's sexual abuse of teenage girls.

Maxwell—who was accused of recruiting and grooming underage girls for sexual encounters with Epstein—pleaded not guilty to sex trafficking charges regarding alleged interactions with a number of teenage girls between 1994 and 2004. Four accusers testified during the three-week trial in a New York federal court.

Maxwell's legal team insisted she was made a scapegoat for the sex crimes of Epstein, who killed himself in jail in 2019. This leaves observers wondering: what exactly is grooming, and how closely does Maxwell's alleged behavior resemble known tactics used to lure underaged victims?

Newsweek spoke to Dr. Darrel Turner, a forensic psychologist who specializes in psychopathy, predatory behavior and violent crime, and has consulted for the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and local law enforcement agencies across the country.

"Grooming can be defined as behaviors an offender engages in to gain access to potential victims, maintain access to those victims, and prevent those victims from disclosure," Turner said.

Turner characterizes grooming by three main elements. The first is isolating victims from their "normal social system" such as family and friends, in order to have them "enmeshed into the social system of the offender," a network that includes other victims, other offenders, and anyone who normalizes these sexual behaviors.

"This is so that other people cannot confront or question what they may perceive as strange or inappropriate behavior, talking, and touching between the offender and the victim," Turner told Newsweek.

"So, by isolating the victim across time, the offender ensures that the only thing the victim hears and sees is what the offender wants them to hear and see."

The second element is "normalizing" sex between adults and children. And once predators successfully isolate victims, the third element creeps in: a gradual pace.

"In that context, where no one else can raise questions about their behavior or their statements, the offender will slowly—in a graduated manner—normalize sex," Turner said.

Offenders do so by casually talking about sex (and teasing victims who question such behavior as "prudes"), inquiring about victims' sexual history, being casual with nudity, and using pornography — including child pornography, in which "the children are made to smile as if enjoying the acts." Newer victims can also be brought in by other victims.

In the context of Epstein's predatory acts, Turner said: "Ms. Maxwell is there, a woman, ensuring [the victims] all is well and normal."

During the trial, victims spoke of trusting Maxwell, who, they said, was the point person in introducing them to Epstein, giving them instructions, setting up "appointments," and buying them gifts.

The court heard stories of the socialite teaching the girls "massage" techniques Epstein liked, in addition to instructing them to massage the financier in his presence, sessions that allegedly turned sexual. The victims were offered payment and asked to recruit their peers.

One victim said Maxwell touched her breast and examined her naked body when she was 14 years old. Another similarly reported Maxwell touching her breasts during a massage when she was 16.

"Over time, without any outside social network to counter what the victim is being taught, the victim comes to think that this type of behavior is 1) good, 2) normal, and 3) universal," Turner told Newsweek. "It is for this reason that victims frequently state that they did not disclose the abuse because they believed they were in a loving relationship."

"Offenders also frequently lead victims to believe that they will be in an equal or even greater amount of trouble as the offender if anyone found out," he continued. "Maxwell and Epstein ensured this type of thinking by having victims bring other, newer, victims along with them for money."

Maxwell Dec 10
This courtroom sketch shows Ghislaine Maxwell, center, seated in court at defense table between two U.S. Marshals seated in foreground, watching proceedings in her sex abuse trial in New York, Friday Dec. 10, 2021. AP Photo/Elizabeth Williams