Sextortion is a gendered form of corruption where sex is used as a currency for bribery. It has emerged as a serious threat to those seeking access to basic public services.
Sextortion is about abuse of authority and it happens all over the world. Even though victims and survivors are mainly women, it also affects children, the LGBTQ+ community, migrants, and men. It impedes access to basic services, blocks the full realisation of the human rights to water and sanitation, while undermining institutional integrity. And yet, despite its prevalence, sextortion remains taboo, camouflaged in silence.
In this Integrity Talk, we explored how sextortion impacts the delivery of water, sanitation, health, and education. We looked at its implications for the well-being of women and marginalised groups. We zoomed in on the need for visibility and awareness raising, safe reporting mechanisms and better data, as well as the need for legal reform and the ways specific legislation can be drafted. The key is in how principles of integrity can help prevent sextortion and secure equitable and safe access to basic public services.
With special guests:
Nancy Hendry (International Association of Women Judges, IAWJ); Robert Gillanders (Anti-Corruption Research Center, Dublin City University Business School); Ortrun Merkle (Maastricht Graduate School of Governance/UNU-Merit); Jorge Alberto Arriaga Medina (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, UNAM); Diana Gómez (Consultant, UNAM); Dolores Calvo (Department of Government, Uppsala University); Sareen Malik (The African Civil Society Network on Water and Sanitation, ANEW).
Moderated by Alana Potter, (End Water Poverty, EWP).
This is an edited summary of the main discussion points of Integrity Talk 7 on Sextortion, which took place online on June 7, 2023.
Recognising and communicating about sextortion as a form of corruption: Sextortion is not just gender-based violence and it is not just corruption. It is a specific act with different drivers and long-lasting impact on health and society. It gains from being recognised as such, so that it can be reported and addressed more effectively, and to discourage perpetrators. What we don’t look for, we don’t see, meaning sextortion is too rarely a focus of research or compliance efforts. This needs to change.
Holding those in positions of power accountable for their actions and abuses: When implementing measures against sextortion, it is crucial to emphasise the responsibility of the person abusing their authority, shifting the blame away from the victims.
Adhering to integrity principles: Incorporating integrity principles in legislation and policies or adopting clear standards of conduct in institutions is crucial to combat sextortion and ensure accountability from those exploiting their authority.
Raising awareness about sextortion: where poverty is internalised, where disrespect and violence against women is normalised, sextortion will happen and continue to rarely be reported. Education and awareness raising on sextortion, on rights, and on the need and availability of safe reporting mechanisms is crucial.
“When we think about corruption, the image that usually comes to mind is money changing hands. And that economic mindset has largely shaped integrity efforts and until recently also limited our ability to see and address other threats to integrity. And in particular, what we call sextortion.”
– N. Hendry, IAWJ
How does sextortion manifest in the delivery of basic public services?
Nancy Hendry (IAWJ): Sextortion involves the abuse of authority by government officials. Individuals are forced to provide sexual favours to access services they are entitled to. It occurs across sectors in many forms. Sextortion has been reported in the water sector, for example, when the staff of a water utility demands sex in exchange for water services. There are many known examples from the education sector, where individuals are forced to provide sexual favours for academic success or opportunities. Law enforcement also sees cases of sextortion, where officers use their badge to extort sex in exchange for favourable treatment. In migration services, there are known examples of officers demanding sexual acts in exchange for granting permits or status. It is a pervasive and global problem that we have only begun to document, but the anecdotal evidence is compelling.
Diana Gómez: Sextortion involves a quid pro quo arrangement, where individuals are forced to provide sexual favours in return for receiving the services they are entitled to. This creates a transactional relationship where access to essential services becomes contingent on engaging in sexual acts, further perpetuating power imbalances and gender-based violence.
Ortun Merkle (UNU-Merit): In our study conducted on sextortion in Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) services in rural and urban areas in Bangladesh, we found that women do experience sextortion when accesing WASH services, especially water, rather than bathing and toilet facilities. The study shows that factors such as poverty, water insecurity and low literacy are risk factors for sextortion. Gender norms play a big role in how the issue manifests and is taken seriously or not. We know that WASH access is highly gendered and women face an increased risk of violence when access is not guaranteed. But we still don’t know enough about where and when this violence takes place, and who is affected (women, men, LGBTQIA+).
Jorge Alberto Arriaga Medina (UNAM): In our research about sextortion in Ciudad de México, we found that sexual violence has been normalised and is taken as a given. For example, jokes are regularly made about this practice. There is a general presumption that this exchange is voluntary, hindering the visibility and recognition of the coercive quality of this type of sexual exchange. In addition, there is a social judgment on women who are victims of the practice and not on the person abusing power.
How do norms affect sextortion in service delivery?
Ortun Merkle (UNU-Merit): Lots of the the reasons why women are vulnerable to sextortion are similar to why they are vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence. But they are not always the same, and that is why it’s important to research them separately. Gender norms play a significant role in determining who can be a victim or perpetrator, and in influencing social responses. We found that these norms play a very important role both in determining who is vulnerable, how stigma is attached to the act, and whether sextortion will be reported and taken seriously as a form of corruption that needs to be punished.
Robert Gillanders (DCU): We found that none of the traditional causes of corruption seem to predict the rate of sextortion across the world. But what really matters for the rate of sextortion is the level of corruption, or the perceived level of corruption. Corruption within institutions undermines other norms and creates accountability deficits, allowing individuals in positions of power to exploit their authority for personal gain. This abuse of power opens the door for sextortion, especially targeting vulnerable groups such as women and migrants.
In the context of female entrepreneurship, power imbalances are evident. Our research reveals that women entrepreneurs who wish to exploit business opportunities are discouraged by sextortion because of the significant costs to which they may be exposed. On the other hand, women involved in entrepreneurship for necessity, driven by survival, are not discouraged, underscoring their vulnerability.
Dolores Calvo (Uppsala Uni.): Something important about Tanzania, where we do our research, is that there is a specific paragraph of the Anti-corruption Act that criminalises extortion and only holds the perpetrator liable. Organistions we’ve looked at in education also use definitions of sextortion that clearly focus on the person abusing the position of power. But there is still often a gap between the definition and the measures proposed to address sextortion, which focus on the responsibility of the students to say no to sextortion. We must keep in mind structural, organisational factors that enable sextortion. This might be regulations and normalised practices of corruption.
What can we do about sextortion?
Sareen Malik (ANEW): First you have to see. It’s essential to look beyond the surface and recognise the prevalence of sextortion. It’s important to understand what has been normalised or internalised. Secondly, it is important to pay attention to the role of advocacy and media. At first no one took us seriously. The #MeToo movement contributed to changing that. I think we have all contributed to changing the terms of the discussions. It’s not about whether sextortion happens or why we bring it up, but what we can do. We have done awareness raising in communities, we focused on psycho-social support for victims. Now we are looking at what can be done in terms of legislation.
“You need to see what is going on. That queue is not innocent. That bowser coming in is not innocent. That yellow jerrycan, the guy who’s pushing it, those water tanks. A lot more needs to be done, but in terms of innovation, what is it that we can do to make sure women never have to fetch water again?”
– Sareen Malik, ANEW
Nancy Hendry (IAWJ): The absence of specific laws remains a challenge in combating sextortion. Cases have to be brought under statutes that encompass sextortion conduct but call it by a different name: corruption, bribery, breach of trust, extortion, sexual harassment. And the result is often an imprecise fit and has legal risks for victims.
There are, however, things we can do to address the issue. We can raise awareness and work to assure that women know their rights and feel empowered to assert them. We can provide safe, confidential, gender-sensitive reporting mechanisms and whistle-blower protection. We can work to change institutional cultures by adopting clear standards of conduct and reinforcing them through education and training.
There not only needs to be a clear understanding that sextortion is a form of corruption, but integrity efforts need to look for sextortion, find it, report it, and impose sanctions for engaging in it.
How can the principles of integrity help prevent sextortion and secure equitable and safe access to basic public services?
Ortun Merkle (UNU-Merit): Understanding and defining sextortion as a form of corruption can shift the way integrity efforts are directed at combating this issue. Raising awareness of sextortion and incorporating sextortion into data collection efforts are essential steps in understanding its scope and impact.
“It is very important to keep in focus who is responsible for abusing power for sex. Always the person abusing the position of power is responsible. This is important both to enable accountability and prevent impunity for perpetrators.”
– Dolores Calvo, Uppsala University
Dolores Calvo (Uppsala Uni.): Holding those in positions of power accountable for their actions and abuses is essential to prevent sextortion. Additionally, recognising and addressing gender norms and power dynamics that enable sextortion is crucial to ensure safe and equitable access to basic public services. Integrating integrity principles in legislation and policies can help cast a wider net in combating sextortion and ensuring accountability for those abusing power.
See the videos
Introduction – moderated by Alana Potter, EWP
Framing presentation: What is sextortion and what to do about it, by Nancy Hendry, IAWJ
“Sextortion is not a new phenomenon. We have always known it existed, but we didn’t have a name for it, and it wasn’t something we talked about or addressed as an integrity issue. It wasn’t a focus of research or compliance efforts. And what we don’t look for or gather data about, we don’t see, and we don’t take steps to address. We didn’t draft laws or codes of conduct that specifically addressed sextortion, and we didn’t seek to hold perpetrators accountable. Impunity was the rule.” says Nancy Hendry
Sextortion, Corruption, and Female Entrepreneurship, by Robert Gillanders, DCU
“We can show, I think quite strongly, that even controlling for the level of corruption and cultural factors and economic development and the kind of regulatory burden, the rate of sextortion across countries is a strong deterrent to female entrepreneurship.” says Robert Gillanders
Sextortion in WASH in Bangladesh, by Ortrun Merkle, UNU-Merit
“We found that women across all the areas face sexual and gender-based violence when accessing water and sanitation services. And, the likelihood of being exposed to sexual and gender-based violence was roughly the same across across all areas. But women in water insecure households had a much higher risk of being exposed to sextortion.” says Ortrun Merkle
Extorsion sexual por accesso a los servicios de agua y saneamiento en la Ciudad de Mexico, by Diana Gomez and Jorge Arriaga, UNAM
“We found that the different forms of sexual violence are normalised. There are jokes and expressions that suggest the practice is common and socially acceptable. There is no questioning of how public service authorities exercise power in relation to women generally. There is the notion that it is a voluntary exchange, which hinders visibility.” says Diana Gomez
Sexual abuse of authority: taking action against sextortion in Tanzania, by Dolores Calvo of Uppsala University
“We believe that a key to combatting sextortion is to focus on professionalism. Persons in positions of authority are obligated to exercise this authority fairly and according to pre-established criteria. It is important to stress the responsibility attached to a position of authority and the professional ethics that must come with such a position of entrusted power” says Dolores Calvo.
Campaigning for change in Kenya, by Sareen Malik, ANEW
“We got calls from legislators about what’s happening with that bill because not only is the water sector actually bringing up the issue documented, this is all actually going to have implications for all sectors, to address the issues of sextortion” says Sareen Malik.
Discussion part 1 on legal reform
With thoughts on how to prosecute sextortion, bespoke laws, asymmetric liability and reputational risks.
Discussion part 2 on reporting mechanisms and support to women
With thoughts on the long-term consequences of sextortion, the need for better and safer reporting, and the challenges of coming forward when violence is an accepted part of life.
Discussion part 3 on striking takeaways
With thoughts on the role of mothers, the need for visibility, and the need for representation of women in positions of power.