This article addresses the sensitive topic of sexual violence and may be upsetting to some readers. Reader discretion is advised.
A Peruvian mother is given a choice by a family court judge: have sex with him or not have custody of her son. A woman struggling for survival in cyclone-devastated Mozambique is asked for bribes in exchange for food. She has no money so – like many of her neighbours – has to have sex for bags of rice. Three male asylum seekers fear that they will be deported if they don’t let a Norwegian governor sexually exploit them. This goes on for seven years. A struggling student in a United States school is propositioned sexually by her teacher to improve her grades.
All of these people were sexually exploited by people in a position of power, an abuse of trust known as sexual extortion, or “sextortion”. Today, Transparency International released a report titled, Breaking the Silence around Sextortion – The Links between Power, Sex and Corruption.
What is sextortion and who is affected?
Sextortion happens when people are coerced into paying a bribe with sexual acts rather than money. Sexual extortion is a common but largely invisible form of corruption. Until recently, it was never discussed or recognised as a distinct phenomenon by anti-corruption experts and policymakers, as well as their counterparts working against gender-based violence.
Long lacking a name, sextortion wasn’t a priority and few research projects, strategies and laws were developed to address it. Barriers to reporting sextortion and obtaining effective redress further contributed to keeping it invisible.
Sextortion occurs everywhere in the world, affecting both children and adults, and both vulnerable individuals and established professionals. While women are disproportionally targeted, men, transgender and gender non-conforming people are also affected. It can happen to anyone, especially those who are weakest in the power chain.
What does evidence say?
Due to the invisible nature of sextortion, researchers have failed to ask those affected the right questions to properly understand this offence; statistical systems lack the appropriate categories to register the few cases that go to court, and many complaints have been poorly handled and failed to achieve justice.
The Global Corruption Barometer, our survey of citizen’s experiences of corruption, shows how common and widespread sextortion is. In Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East and North Africa, one in five people has experienced or knows someone who has experienced sexual extortion when accessing government services such as health care or education.
In Zimbabwe, a 2019 survey found that 57 per cent of the women asked reported that they had needed to offer sexual favours in exchange for jobs, medical care and even when seeking placements at schools for their children.
Channels of redress for victims/survivors
A lot more research is needed on sextortion, but anecdotal evidence suggests that those affected can suffer serious, sometimes life-changing, consequences. These include dropping out of school, pregnancy, leaving a well-paid job and enduring abuse with physical and psychological effects.
Many people who are harmed by sextortion don’t report it because social stigma and cultural taboos make them scared of being shamed, excluded or even attacked. They risk being re-victimised, incurring financial costs and sometimes being prosecuted as a bribe giver. Importantly, many are put off reporting because of the danger of retaliation – "if I report my manager for sextorting me, will he get me fired?"
Those that try to report it often fail to do so because safe, confidential and gender-sensitive reporting services are hard to find or non-existent. It is rare that the services that are available connect sextortion victims/survivors* with vital physical and psychological support as well as advice about the legal risks and potential costs of reporting this crime.
Victims/survivors also find it hard to get redress because many justice systems and legal frameworks are poorly equipped for prosecuting sextortion. Despite the harmful consequences, many anti-corruption frameworks do not explicitly criminalise coerced sexual acts as forms of bribery, abuse of authority or corrupt wrongdoing. Even when anti-bribery laws could be interpreted to include these acts, this rarely happens, due to long-held perceptions – including among justice officials – of corruption as a financial crime.
What is more, it is hard to prosecute sextortion under gender-based violence frameworks because of the difficulty of finding evidence and some laws not recognising non-physical forms of coercion. So reports of sexual extortion often fall between the cracks of legal systems, leaving victims/survivors without support and justice, and sometimes further harmed.
Making headway on sextortion
To enable adequate prosecution of sextortion and get justice for those affected, all governments should develop a legal definition and framework for sextortion. Existing legal frameworks have too many gaps and leave some forms of sexual extortion unaddressed. Governments must implement legal training programmes to ensure that judges and prosecutors are aware of sextortion and how to prosecute it. Sextortion also needs to be integrated into both anti-corruption and gender-based violence policies, programmes and regulations to ensure greater cooperation.
More needs to be done to encourage victims to come forward, speak up and seek redress. Governments should launch public campaigns to raise awareness about sextortion and what people can do when affected by it. They must also provide safe, confidential and gender-sensitive reporting mechanisms that give survivors/victims access to appropriate support resources, such as physical and psychological health services and legal advice.
Of key importance, governments should protect those who report cases of sextortion against retaliation and ensure that they are not prosecuted as bribe givers.
There’s much more to be done to gather data on and understand sextortion. Judiciaries must reform their statistics systems to address the lack of data about sextortion cases. At the same time, researchers should gather disaggregated data on sextortion through corruption surveys and other data gathering tools, by asking specific questions, in the right format and using appropriate categories to organise the information.
Further research is needed on how sextortion manifests, what legal framework is the most effective, and what works in addressing sextortion and providing redress to victims/survivors.
There are many people whose rights are being abused behind a wall of silence who need and deserve reforms, protection and justice.
Read Transparency International’s report, Breaking the Silence around Sextortion: The Links between Power, Sex and Corruption.
*Language is an important component of respectfully articulating the experiences of those subjected to sextortion and gender-based violence where questions of agency and lived experience are paramount. We acknowledge that there is not one term that adequately identifies the experiences and realities of every person affected by sexual violence and abuse. In our communications, we have chosen to use the term “victim/survivor” to encompass the fluid and intersectional nature of these experiences, recognising both marginalised groups who historically have never been seen as victims by culture and the law and who find empowerment in using the term “victim”, as well as affirming the ability of people who have been violated to survive beyond trauma and embark on a healing/recovery process.
Image: Ellice Weaver © Transparency International
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