Opinion: We must address the mixed messages sent to women and girls

Tell me, into which America are young girls to put their faith?

The one that has wholeheartedly celebrated the outstanding athleticism, the steely grace and unshakable comradery of sisterhood that is the U.S. women’s soccer team?

Those are the uplifting headlines to female empowerment. They’re the easy ones to absorb.

But another image of how some of America’s most powerful men regard women and girls was also unfolding as the team made their remarkable run, winning their fourth World Cup. And that image is deeply disturbing.

Thankfully, most budding athletes probably aren’t following the alleged sex trafficking horrors of Jeffrey Epstein, which has not only enveloped this White House but also puts in question the social ties of many prominent men.

Two very conflicting messages, each equally weighty, have been illustrated.

First, the loving enthusiasm that has showered the women’s team has been akin to a pep rally for girls, 18 years and younger.

“Equal pay!” has been the echoing rallying cry. It was on full display during the jubilant parade held in their honor in New York on Wednesday, July 10. The president of U.S. Soccer was there for it all, giving a nod in his podium remarks to the impending negotiations about the imbalance between what the women’s team earns compared to their male counterparts, who have been paid far more, while winning far less.

At day’s end, the team had been flown to Southern California and paraded again for national television viewers. This time, the sisters of soccer streamed onto the stage of the ESPYs and accepted the Best Team honor.

But in between, another performance was televised nationally. And that one, likely watched more by adults than children, imposed a far less supportive message for young girls.

I studied both. It was like a Rorschach test. A jubilant celebration to feminine possibilities, dashed by current truths.

R. Alexander Acosta, friend and confidant of President Donald Trump, stood before the Department of Labor, where he presided as a Cabinet secretary until resigning on July 12, and proceeded to convey to young girls that men like him might not stand up for them when it matters most.

Acosta banally deflected the criticism over the lenient plea deal he once carved for financier Epstein. A different era, he claimed of 2008. Society knows so much more now about the trauma of sexual assault, he said.

Acosta was then the U.S. Attorney for Southern Florida. Most people, certainly a federal prosecutor, knew a decade ago that sex trafficking young girls, some as young as 14, was wrong.

Epstein is now charged by federal prosecutors with sexually abusing and exploiting dozens of minor girls at his Manhattan mansion and other homes. He’s accused of luring the young women to recruit others for his sexual pleasure.

Many of the allegations, the testimonies of victims and other evidence, are not new.

Yet Acosta allowed Epstein to plead guilty to prostitution charges and serve 13 months with the cushy option of leaving a county facility for 12 hours a day, six days a week.

Yes, Epstein is an extreme example of horrific alleged crimes.

But as the current case goes forward, it will likely be shown that Epstein carried on, while others either ignored or make excuses for his behavior.

Many have termed the adulation surrounding U.S. Women’s soccer as a watershed moment for all women and girls going forward.

I’m more concerned with those who don’t have world class athleticism and the platform it offers. Ordinary women and girls who have to negotiate fair pay and wonder what men really say behind their backs, what type of behavior and comments they are willing to dismiss.

Let’s hope America learns from both examples. And moves forward standing up for women and girls, in every way, in all the fields of life.

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Writes for Tribune Content Agency