Sextortion: Name it, Fight it
“Sextortion” may sound like the tawdry title of a made-for-TV movie, but the phenomenon it describes is very serious. The term was coined by the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ) to refer to the abuse of power for sexual benefit—“a form of corruption in which sex, rather than money, is the currency of the bribe.”
These abuses happen at many levels of authority. The imbalance of power that is leveraged for sexual pressure has been documented in many professions: among teachers, border guards, law enforcement officials, and politicians, among others.
However, there’s a significant difference between the term’s use by integrity-promoting organizations such as the IAWJ and Transparency International and how it is sometimes used in the popular media. Some news outlets use the word in cautionary tales about online indiscretions, in which victims—mainly men—are blackmailed into keeping their sexual photos or misdeeds a secret. These violations are often framed as an invasion of privacy or a matter of duplicity related to sex, rather than a form of corruption involving sex.
Complicating matters is the fact that, in addition to news organizations, law enforcement agencies have competing uses for the term. One U.K. police force treats “sextortion” as webcam extortion, while in the U.S., the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children uses it to refer to online sexual exploitation of children. The FBI’s definition is more general: “a serious crime that occurs when someone threatens to distribute your private and sensitive material if you don’t provide them images of a sexual nature, sexual favors, or money.”
Why does terminology matter?
With a label to shelter under, victims of abuses of power would find it easier to name—and advocate against—such crimes. Just as many Americans did not consider marital rape to be rape until it was explicitly defined as such, sextortion may be seen as isolated incidents, not patterns of behavior that hinge upon (often gendered) vulnerability.
The IAWJ puts this plainly: “Without a vocabulary it is difficult to conceptualize, discuss, and analyze a problem, let alone solve it. The word ‘sextortion’ creates a vocabulary to describe a pervasive phenomenon.”
What are some examples of sextortion?
Ghada Zughayar is the director of the Middle East and North Africa Department at Transparency International. She calls sextortion a “silent crime” due to many victims’ fear of coming forward. The potentially stigmatizing nature of this abuse makes it hard to fight.
So does the element of psychological rather than physical coercion. Zughayar says that, in her experience, it’s often the case that “the woman will be blamed at the end of the day, whether she is a victim or isn’t. At the same time, the male offender is always considered to have been seduced by the woman.”
One recent case that did have an impact involved a woman in Lebanon who sought to have her employment contract renewed by the regional governor. He demanded sexual favors to carry out this routine responsibility. She took her documents to other officials, but they all referred her back to the governor. Eventually she confronted him while hiding a recording device in her purse. She recorded him making statements like “When I like a girl, I prefer the easier the better.”
The woman called up the advocacy and legal advice center run by Transparency International in Lebanon. The organization’s legal advisor helped her to submit an official complaint, which was picked up by the national media. Less than one month after the media pressure began, the regional governor resigned.
In the U.S., another case that came to light only because it was recorded involved a Colombian immigrant in Queens. An immigration official insisted on oral sex and additional sexual encounters in exchange for the processing of her green card application. The immigration agency didn’t have a channel for confidential complaints, and the victim didn’t trust the police, so she went to The New York Times.
What is the media’s role in exposing sextortion?
These incidents show the power of the media to call out sexual bribery. The press isn’t always effective, of course. Zughayar recounts that in Egypt a female TV presenter’s series exposing sextortion was halted by government officials.
But given the confusion around the term and concept of sextortion, the media has an important role in raising awareness. Zughayar notes that this role is especially useful in countries where legal frameworks don’t yet recognize sextortion as a form of corruption or abuse. The media can also be a recourse in contexts where people see the judiciary and public officials as being corrupt themselves. Thus, Zughayar urges, “Media outlets should give more attention to this issue and make it a priority on their agenda.”
For this to happen, media organizations will need to find some consistency in the way they use this term.
How is sextortion being addressed?
Within countries, anti-corruption organizations such as the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and chapters of Transparency International are spreading awareness of the problem, to encourage affected people to come forward. And they’re working to simplify complaint procedures and make it less intimidating to report sextortion. For example, judges in the Philippines have worked in villages (bangarays) so that sextortion complaints can be registered and managed at this very local level, rather than at a level that is harder to access.
Campaigners are also urging people to examine legal frameworks in their countries to identify possible legal mechanisms for prosecution. The challenge is that even where it’s clear that an ethical violation has occurred, tying this to a specific law may not be straightforward. Sexual harassment laws may only cover employees. Sexual exploitation regulations may not extend to cases of psychological or financial coercion. And international anti-corruption agreements don’t specifically refer to sexual benefits.
There are individual examples of laws and codes that can be applied. In U.S. education, for instance, Title IX prohibits sex discrimination, including quid pro quo harassment. And the criminal code of Bosnia and Herzegovina refers specifically to “sexual intercourse by abuse of position.” But without an overarching framework for understanding and criminalizing sextortion, either nationally or globally, many victims will be left wondering if there’s any redress for them.
One such framework was proposed last month by a legal author, Sarah Gitlin. Gitlin is calling for a global ranking of countries, according to the prevalence of sextortion and policies to tackle it. Other international indices—whether of finances, living standards, or monetary corruption—have galvanized attention to measurement and improvement. Applying this idea to sextortion may seem unlikely, but naming and shaming at a global level may be a useful tool to force people to stand up and pay attention.