There is almost no schadenfreude in the Matt Gaetz downfall. The latest chapter unfolded Monday, with the Florida congressman’s ostensibly now-former wingman, Joel Greenberg, pleading guilty to sex trafficking a minor and promising his cooperation in a federal investigation reportedly involving Gaetz himself. During the proceedings, a plane flying near the Orlando courthouse dragged a banner reading, “Tick Tock Matt Gaetz.”
The vast majority of men facing federal sex trafficking charges in the United States do not hold such political power. Nor do they wield the kind of brute influence once wielded by someone like Jeffrey Epstein, who courted billionaires and philanthropists and sometimes men who were both. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates was apparently one of them, a relationship that may have even been a factor in his recently announced divorce. As in the example of Gaetz, the alleged sex trafficker Gates met with repeatedly was hiding in plain sight.
The Epstein and Greenberg cases bear little resemblance to the pop crime depiction of a sex trafficking ring, a fact that may (rather belatedly) help unwind the influence of a two-decades-long war on sex trafficking fueled by salacious myths and racialized caricatures. And contra QAnon and centuries of associated sex slavery panic, there is no nefarious elite cabal orchestrating a great sex trafficking cover-up. The Gates and Gaetz stories may expose a more uncomfortable truth: The people who associate with such high-profile men accused of or involved in sex trafficking may see no disconnect between those relationships and their own claims to be fighting sex trafficking.
When Gates was being entertained by Epstein at the financier’s Manhattan townhouse, several years had passed since a sex trafficking investigation resulted in Epstein’s very publicly pleading guilty to charges of soliciting a minor for prostitution. “Gulliver’s playfulness had unintended consequences,” Epstein told The New York Times a few months before his brief incarceration, likening himself to the narrator of Jonathan Swift’s novel, all in the course of being interviewed on his own private island. “That is what happens with wealth. There are unexpected burdens as well as benefits.” It was a “burden”that meets the federal definition of sex trafficking. Since then, the Department of Justice has charged many more men who were alleged to have solicited commercial sex with the crime of sex trafficking. In 2019, according to the Human Trafficking Institute, 103 people faced sex trafficking charges for soliciting sex—about 10 percent of all federal trafficking defendants.
Both Greenberg and Epstein appear to have explicitly cultivated relationships with powerful people both to enrich themselves and as cover. Just before Trump left office, Greenberg pressed Trump associate Roger Stone for a preemptive pardon. “They know he paid me to pay the girls and that he and I both had sex with the girl who was underage,” Greenberg wrote Stone. (This was some months before Gaetz’s connection to the Greenberg sex trafficking investigation was first reported.)
Greenberg had reason to believe this could work; Trump had elevated Gaetz as something like an heir and so would be personally invested in protecting that investment in his own political future. Trump also talked a big (and unfounded) game about being the toughest president on trafficking, something Greenberg apparently did not perceive to be an obstacle. In fact, the more Trump touted his anti–sex trafficking initiatives, the more he seemed to alienate the anti-trafficking movement, a rare and early indication that this kind of professed “commitment” to fighting sex trafficking was empty and damaging.
Epstein, meanwhile, according to the Times, met multiple times at his townhouse with staff of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest private charitable organization in the world; he also pitched the foundation on a “multibillion-dollar charitable fund—an arrangement that had the potential to generate enormous fees”—for himself, along with the attendant good publicity.
Over the years, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had poured millions of dollars into anti–sex trafficking groups, among many other causes, including $5 million to the evangelical group International Justice Mission, which is perhaps most known for conducting dramatic brothel raids in Southeast Asia. At the time, international sex workers’ rights groups condemned the grant and IJM, but nearly no one else drew attention to the traumatic arrests and threats of deportations alleged by sex workers whose workplaces were raided. Nick Kristof, an influential mouthpiece for anti–sex trafficking groups, including IJM, celebrated the raids, a bit predictably. Such efforts were lauded again in his 2015 column titled “Bill and Melinda Gates’ Pillow Talk,” which according to Kristof includes items like “the utility of empowering women.” Why wouldn’t Epstein want in on that brand association?
Gates now denies that his relationship with Epstein bore at all on his divorce. In May, a Gates spokesperson told the Times that the two hadn’t ever socialized and that “Bill only met with Epstein to discuss philanthropy.” Gates apparently regretted that, too, admitting through a spokesperson in 2019 that “entertaining Epstein’s ideas related to philanthropy gave Epstein an undeserved platform that was at odds with Gates’s personal values and the values of his foundation.”
A few years after the Gates Foundation’s grant to IJM, a former Epstein staffer, Melanie Walker, went on to work as the foundation’s deputy director for global development. The Gates Foundation had been one of the few charitable organizations in a position to make a $5 million gift to any anti–sex trafficking group, something for which it was rewarded. This was apparently not considered incompatible with the foundation’s decision later to consider a joint venture with Epstein. The philanthropic nature of their relationship was invoked to deflect from other more salacious concerns. But to grant it that credence requires another kind of looking away.
In addition to the charitable work of the Gates Foundation, for Microsoft, Gates’s company, the cause of fighting sex trafficking has been a useful platform through which to demonstrate its purported commitment to protecting women and children from exploitation. Microsoft hackathons, going back to 2012, have spawned surveillance tools meant to detect sex trafficking, like one that scraped sex workers’ phone numbers from online advertisements, according to Wired. Microsoft staffers worked with a group called Seattle Against Slavery to create a chatbot that targeted sex workers’ prospective customers by imitating sex workers. (One of Seattle Against Slavery’s earlier anti–sex trafficking tech ventures, reportedly also with Microsoft, involved marshaling the Business Cat meme to spread the message, “You think buying sex is cool? You gotta be kitten me.”)
A 2019 New York Times story offered screenshots of the bot, pitched as an anti–sex trafficking tool: It asks a potential customer how old he is, something incredibly uncommon for a sex worker to ask, and then asks him explicitly about what kind of “service” he wants. Then the faux–sex worker bot “reveals” that it’s a 15-year-old—except it’s not that, either. The tool may have helped Microsoft recover some reputational costs, after the company “stumbled with its Tay research chatbot that accidentally started talking dirty”—Wired’s way of describing the artificial intelligence’s racist responses to people on Twitter. The developers also claim that “the sex-trade bot does not learn from people it talks to in the same way.”
Such tools are a response to an “opportunity,” as a 2011 Microsoft Research draft framework on technology and sex trafficking framed the situation for the tech giant. “The wide availability of digital data is both a blessing and a curse,” the framework document states. “It can help law enforcement investigate criminal activities, but there is often too much for law enforcement to manage. This creates new opportunities for thinking about how to manage data traces at scale.” The former Washington state attorney general, Rob McKenna, lauded the chatbot effort in 2019. “I’ve had a front row seat at several technology innovations developed by Seattle Against Slavery and their team of Microsoft volunteers,” wrote McKenna, referring to tools those Microsoft volunteers helped develop using Microsoft Azure. “I’ve seen these innovations come together into a holistic supply-and-demand disruption package.” Needless to say, given how these tools operate in a cloud of law enforcement secrecy and, in the case of the chatbots, outright fantasy, it is impossible to say how or even if such technology has detected or prevented sex trafficking.
Microsoft can help turn out apps it says are for fighting sex trafficking in part because so few people are inclined or able to dig too far under such an unimpeachable surface. After all, who is against fighting sex trafficking? This dynamic also explains Ashton Kutcher’s stature as the co-founder of the tech-to-fight-trafficking nonprofit Thorn, another Microsoft partner. The star of Dude, Where’s My Car? can get an invite to Congress to testify to his own alleged expertise fighting sex trafficking through tools that scrutinize sex work ads—not directly assisting victims but empowering cops who think there might be sex trafficking behind an escort ad. As law enforcement was partnering with Microsoft and scraping the internet looking for trafficking victims, meanwhile, federal prosecutors had walked away from charging Jeffrey Epstein with sex trafficking—this, even when they had multiple young women and girls saying he had victimized them willing to testify when they offered him a plea to a lesser charge in 2007. As the Miami Herald described the fallout, they “essentially shut down an ongoing FBI probe into whether there were more victims and other powerful people who took part in Epstein’s sex crimes.” All this is to say, sometimes A.I. sex trafficking victims can get more corporate, philanthropic, and law enforcement resources than actual victims.
Joel Greenberg’s alleged role as Matt Gaetz’s Venmo-enabled procurer points to something else quite damning about the nature of sex trafficking prosecutions. For all of law enforcement’s claims that technology has allowed traffickers to operate in the shadows with near-impunity, rhetoric that anti–sex trafficking groups like Seattle Against Slavery bolster, the reality is that Gaetz may well have implicated himself. As The Daily Beast reported, his Venmo feed was public, including a note on a transaction with Greenberg, “hit up ___,” in which ___ was a nickname of one of the three young women Greenberg then paid in turn, with the memos “Tuition,” “School,” and “School.” This is not the work of criminal tech masterminds. “The arrogance of these guys,” noted a forensic accountant who audited the county that had employed Greenberg. “They just felt they were above the law. I’ve never seen it this bad.”
While foundations, cops, and tech companies spent decades fixated on surveillance and sex workers’ ads, Epstein was right there in the company of some of the world’s wealthiest and most politically connected men, and Greenberg—an elected official—was posting selfies and leaving his alleged commercial sex transactions public in his social feeds. To point this out isn’t meant to dignify the kind of QAnon-y grift peddled by Tucker Carlson, who is now pointing to the alleged Gates-Epstein relationship as proof of the cult’s conspiracy theories. The truth is far more dull and dangerous: Power is still very good at not looking like a crime.