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"Sextortion": An old form of corruption gets new attention

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 3 Dec 2013 12:00 AM
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Makerere University students take a break between classes at the college's main campus in the Ugandan capital Kampala. A 2010 survey by, a global anti-corruption organisation, found that 22 percent of students at Makerere University had been asked to provide sex, money or alcohol to lecturers or administrators in exchange for passing marks or simply to have paperwork processed. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/James Akena
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NEW YORK, Dec. 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation)  - A young woman files for refugee status in Canada, only to have her immigration adjudicator invite her to a coffee shop where he makes approval contingent on her agreeing to have sex with him.

A domestic violence victim in the United States finds her cell phone flooded with sexually explicit texts from the district attorney prosecuting her ex-boyfriend for trying to kill her. The messages imply that if she, "a young, hot nymph", refuses "secret contact with an older, married, elected DA", the charges against her abuser may be reduced.

An art teacher in Bosnia offers free lessons to a talented young girl and a reference to support her application to the Academy of Fine Arts. But there is a price: conduct a secret affair with him or he will block her entry to the academy.

When those in positions of authority get caught taking cash or gifts to exercise their power for the benefit of those who pay the bribe, prosecutors often have hard evidence and clear anti-corruption laws under which to charge them.

When the currency of the bribe is sex, not money, the path of the law is murkier, evidence more elusive, prosecution harder and victims less eager to come forth, legal experts say.

A global group of women judges is determined to change this by shedding new light on a very old, apparently widespread but still rarely challenged form of corruption, a quid pro quo involving sexual favors that they call "sextortion".

Through heightened awareness, the judges hope to see sextortion get the same sort of serious attention and penalties that sexual harassment and domestic violence, other crimes once mostly ignored or unquestioned, now command.

"Sex in exchange for something is an old concept," Nancy Hendry, senior advisor to the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ), told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"In part, because it's an old concept, people tend to dismiss it as, well, that's just life. Which, in my view is what they used to say about sexual harassment. Now, you have human resources people who focus on this and we've changed our whole attitude. Certainly, you can see it with domestic violence."

But experts say change comes slowly.

"The ills of sextortion have only been recently publicized," Justice Engera Kileo, chairwoman of the Tanzania Women Judges Association, told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an email. "People are slowly realizing how grave the problem is."

Together with the Association of Women Judges in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Philippine Women Judges Association and the International Association of Women Judges, the Tanzanian judges investigated sextortion in a three-year program that ended last year.

The study resulted in a 48-page guide for judges, prosecutors, lawyers, law enforcement officers, advocates and others involved in justice systems around the world.

The goal was to identify legal provisions under which sextortion can be prosecuted and encourage changes in laws if needed. Most basically, the judges wanted to give a name to a problem that happens everywhere but falls under diverse laws. And so the term "sextortion" was born.


As defined by the IAWJ, sextortion is an abuse of power involving a demand for sexual favors.

The demand can be explicit or implicit and usually employs fear rather than physical forms of coercion. It needn't involve sexual intercourse or even physical touching. It could be any form of unwanted sexual activity, including exposing body parts or posing for sexual photographs or videos, the IAWJ says.

The term sextortion has also been applied recently to cybercrimes involving the posting of sexually explicit material on the Internet to blackmail former intimate partners.

Had the men in the Canadian, U.S. or Bosnian cases asked for money, no one would have any question that they were dealing with corruption, said IAWJ's Hendry. "But when you ask for sex, suddenly people look at it a little differently."

There are no laws to date specifically against sextortion, which often falls under an array of different statutes, and there is nothing simple about prosecuting it, experts say.

Take the Canadian immigration adjudicator who offered to approve a woman's refugee status in exchange for an affair. He wound up convicted of breach of trust under the Criminal Code and of violating the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. The woman's fiancé had videotaped one of her meetings with the officer.

The American district attorney who "sexted" a domestic violence victim was not charged with a criminal offense because prosecutors couldn't prove he "committed a specific violation of a criminal law". The victim filed a lawsuit alleging the district attorney had violated her constitutional right to equal protection under the law; the suit was settled earlier this year but no details were released.

The Bosnian art teacher who demanded sex from his student in exchange for his academic references was convicted under Bosnia's Trafficking in Persons law and sentenced to five years in prison.


Many sextortion cases happen in the workplace or in educational institutions, where, if they are prosecuted, they may come under sexual harassment statutes.

Statistics are hard to come by but corruption prosecutions for sextortion remain relatively few for a variety of reasons, prosecutors say.

For one thing, there are rarely witnesses. Evidence, short of a video or audio recording, is difficult to get in what are often private meetings.

Many victims are reluctant to come forward out of fear of stigma or repercussions. Even those who are raped often won't report it because they were forced to consent through fear, not by the kind of physical violence that would show up in a forensic examination. 

Victims also may not know that there is any legal redress.

"It was not until 2007 that the solicitation of sexual favors through abuse of authority became recognized as a form of corruption in Tanzania," said Kileo, the Tanzanian judge.

"I think any form of corruption is difficult to handle. In sextortion though, it (prosecution) requires extra boldness on the part of the victim. Some may see it as a shameful thing having happened to them and may hesitate to report it, fearing damage to their character and standing in the society."

Those same feelings of shame fuel the spread of "sex for marks", a form of sextortion common in many universities and schools, according to Nathan Samuel, founder of

The global anti-corruption organization has launched websites for students in Uganda and Kenya to post reports on the performance of their professors, including incidents such as the demand for sex in exchange for improved grades.

A 2010 survey by found that 22 percent of the students at Uganda's Makerere University had been asked to provide sex, money or alcohol to lecturers or administrators in exchange for passing marks or simply to have paperwork processed. About 9 percent involved sex, Samuel said.

The survey found that 95 percent of the students failed to file a complaint either because they thought it futile or they feared repercussions. So far, no report on the sites has led to a prosecution as the vast majority of the students choose to remain anonymous, Samuel added.

In nearby Rwanda, 51 percent of people in a 2011 Transparency International poll said sextortion was a problem in the public sector, while 58 percent said it was a problem in private sector. The survey found that women were victims 84 percent of the time with sex most commonly solicited from first-time job applicants or those seeking a promotion.

The fears and difficulties that keep victims from coming forward not only harm them but perpetuate the notion of corruption with impunity, Justice Teresita Leonardo De Castro, president-elect of the IAWJ, said.

"Sextortion is an affront to human dignity and damages one's self-worth. It causes mental anguish and psychological injury that may last a lifetime," De Castro told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an email.

"The offender is more dangerous because he can hide under the cloak of his ostensible legitimate position of authority in a public or private office or institution. For this reason, he can commit the offense repeatedly against a victim or multiple victims undetected for an extended period of time."

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