Beyond Sextortion: How Corruption Uniquely Affects Women

A teenage girl at a refugee camp in Sierra Leone applies to the camp administrator for the food, soap, and medicine she’s entitled to and needs to survive. He falsely tells her that “your name is not on the list” but, instead of demanding money – the classic corruption scenario — he demands sex and she has no choice but to comply.

Corrupt sexual extortion (dubbed “sextortion” by the International Association of Women Judges) is not hypothetical and it is not rare. For example, a report from Human Rights Watch last September found that sexual exploitation by Burundian and Ugandan soldiers in Somalia is “routine and organized.” A refugee in Sierra Leone said “If you do not have a wife or a sister or a daughter to offer the NGO workers, it is hard to have access to aid.” Another refugee said “In this community no one can have access to CSM [a soya nutrient] without having sex first.” According to Transparency International, “the perception that women do not have the money to pay bribes may mean that they are not asked for payments… Instead, compensation may take the form of sexual favours.” This corrupt sexual exploitation often has a far greater adverse effect on victims than monetary corruption, not only because of the act itself–which can be extremely violent and is always a violation of personal dignity and human rights–but also because of the possibility of disease, pregnancy, and, all too frequently, social ostracization, victim blaming, and loss of prospects in the marriage market.

Yet despite occasional references to corrupt sexual exploitation by anticorruption activists, most major anticorruption groups have neglected this topic, focusing instead on monetary corruption. This is a mistake. The anticorruption community should recognize sextortion and other forms of corrupt sexual coercion as a distinctive and devastating form of corruption, deserving of special attention and appropriately-tailored responses.

The claim that the major anticorruption groups have neglected the problem might first seem unfair, and it is true that this issue has not been entirely ignored. Transparency International, for example, agrees that “sexual extortion is a good example of gender-based corruption” and that “corruption hits women hardest.” Yet this occasional acknowledgement is usually not reflected in more general discussions of corruption in various sectors. For instance, despite TI’s finding that “good grades are offered by teachers in return for sexual favours” and that 10% of female students in Botswana had sex in such scenarios, their main education page mentions only that “grades can be bought.” The phrasing Transparency International uses also minimizes the coercion involved. “Good grades are offered by teachers” sounds like a present the teachers are giving the students or that the students are voluntarily prostituting themselves. A more accurate phrase would be “teachers demand sex from students in exchange for grades.”

Moreover, while anticorruption groups occasionally mention quid pro quo sextortion, they ignore several other ways that corruption affects women through sex or violence. In the monetary tradition of corruption, it is corrupt if a police office walks into a store and tells the owner “pay me $100 if you want to keep your business permit.” But it is also corrupt if the same officer simply walks in and takes $100 out of the cash register without a quid pro quo–after all, the implied quid pro quo in that situation is “you let me take this and I won’t make trouble for you”. Likewise, just as it is corrupt if a police officer, soldier, or someone else in a position of public authority demands sex in exchange for some good or service to which the victim is entitled, it is also corrupt sexual exploitation if someone in a position of public authority forcibly rapes a woman who is more afraid to resist or report it than she would otherwise be if her assailant had not had power. As a refugee leader in Guinea put it, when it came to sexual exploitation, “NGO workers have so much power that … the community cannot challenge them.” Similarly, certain strains of domestic violence–particularly by law enforcement officers or other powerful officials–should also count as corruption, at least when these officers implicitly rely on the fact that their victims will have a harder time reporting domestic violence, being believed when they do, or escaping.

The failure of the anticorruption community to recognize and prioritize many of the ways in which women experience corruption is preventing us from fighting sextortion, rape, and sexual violence effectively. Many of the methods for fighting monetary corruption (like following the flow of money) do not have direct corollaries in fighting sextortion. At the same time, looking at this problem as a form of (systemic) corruption (and not only a collection of individual crimes of violence or coercion) might help us develop new tools for addressing the problem. For example, by conducting interviews or asking people to anonymously report in, we could create “heat maps” of sexually corrupt offices or organizations. Even without enough evidence to prosecute individuals, we could signal to foundations and governments where to avoid funneling money, giving the targeted groups an incentive to crack down on sextortion in their own ranks. Of course, we would need to find a way to accomplish this without negatively affecting the women who need services, such as by identifying a less corrupt organization to step into the breech. Finding creative ways to tackle sextortion as a corruption issue could then dramatically affect safety and well-being for women.


14 thoughts on “Beyond Sextortion: How Corruption Uniquely Affects Women

  1. 1. I totally agree with Sarah on sexortation as a corrupt practice but there is also a flip side of the coin – that is, women using “sex” as a currency of corruption to buy positions. We should not forget that the acts of sexual harassment applies to both sexes – males and females.
    2. While studying gender and corruption, in addition to focusing on “male-female” interactions, we still have know about what happens between “female-female” interactions. Ages back, I read in the newspaper that at International Airport in Kathmandu, travelling female passengers complained about female security guards more corrupt than male security guards. I is reported that they pick up anything – from lipstick to pocket money – from lady’s purse when they perform security checking. We need to be cautious with the idea that “women are less corrupt than men”. In Nepali politics, there are cases where clean image of a husband politician is tarnished by the corrupt image of his wife. A kind of corruption trade-off between male and female may very well exist.
    3. I read somewhere that when it comes to taking bribes, women police officers prefer to take bribes in kind rather than in cash. Because receiving cash gives a flavour of selling sex. This finding is worth further investigating.

    • Interesting points.

      On your first point, while I agree that it’s possible that women might use sex as a currency of corruption (acting as the corrupting agents rather than being exploited) and that women might sexually harass men, I have to say I’m skeptical that these problems are anywhere near as prevalent or as serious as the kind of corrupt sexual exploitation of women that Sarah describes in her post. And I think there’s a danger that saying things like, “Both men and women are the victims of sexual harassment” might (perhaps unintentionally) obscure the fact that the much more pervasive problem is the corrupt sexual exploitation of women.

      On your second point, the anecdotes are interesting, and I think you may well be right that we need to be careful not to make broad generalizations about women being less or more corrupt than men overall. But at the same time, I also think we should be careful not to conflate Sarah’s point — that women are often the victims of corrupt sexual exploitation — with the claim that women are less corrupt than men. Other than the fact that both claims touch on the potentially gendered nature of corruption, they really have very little to do with one another.

      Your third point is interesting; I hadn’t heard that before. Do you happen to have a source for that claim? As you say, it would be interesting to explore further.

    • I agree with you that we need to be cautious with the idea that “women are less corrupt than men”. Corruption involving women is a hidden epidemic and only becomes obvious when investigated with the lens of corruption. This is the case in Nigeria

  2. Sextortion (and other forms of sexual corruption) surely do not get enough attention from the leading anticorruption organizations. That said, I think your post highlights a tricky problem: how do we define “corruption”? (I, of course, try to run from any similar definitional exercise except when exploring the legal elements of corruption-related criminal offenses.) I think much of the problem you identify can be traced to the fact that modern anticorruption campaigns have been built around a specific problem: combatting abuses of power related to illicit transfers of monetary wealth. Money, be it dollars or dinars, has always been viewed as the currency of corruption, so it is not particularly surprising that anticorruption efforts have traditionally focused on money-based corruption. Our ability to explain this myopic focus does not, however, excuse it. You’re right to call for more attention on the problematic intersection of power and sex, and to push us to recognize that sex can also be a “currency of corruption”. But I imagine we’re going to have to spend a lot of time thinking about how to target abuses of power for sexual gain precisely because it is not the anticorruption war we’ve been fighting for so many years. There may be overlap in the nature of the problem and the solution, but as you suggest, I would expect that fighting sexual corruption will prove to be a largely unique challenge.

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  4. I think there’s an elephant in the room, which probably has something to do with why sextortion has not been addressed head-on by the anti-corruption community. Is this rape?

    If it is rape, are we doing a disservice to the victims by treating it as an un-addressed corruption issue? A better question may be, how can the anti-corruption community approach sextortion without whitewashing what is arguably the more grievous offense?

    I think you’re absolutely correct that a heightened awareness of sextortion is incredibly important, and that the anti-corruption community needs to (as you suggest) develop tools to prevent it from happening. But we need to tread carefully. There’s a danger–particularly given the historic emphasis on monetary corruption and the natural inclination to take a method that’s worked in one scenario and apply it to another–that we will end up treating sex as a commodity, as something of value which can be exchanged for something else of value, and in so doing we may end up exacerbating what for women is already an incredibly lopsided playing field. Without wanting to get into the arguments of the pros and cons of legalized and normalized sex-work, I think it’s pretty clear that in the situations you describe (refugee camps, high schools), we do not want sex to be commoditized.

    It’s important that the anti-corruption world get better at recognizing the who, what, when, where and how of sextortion, and relevant agencies should take a hard-line (cutting funding, informing donors, etc.) upon discovering instances of sextortion, but it may be better to treat it not as a corruption question, but as a separate crime that becomes more prevalent in situations vulnerable to corrupt acts anyway (in the way that human trafficking is a crime that is easier to commit in situations of weak governance and high corruption).

    • Mel’s point gets at something that I was thinking about as well. Let me see if I can make it a bit more general:

      The world is full of horrible problems (a trite truism if there ever was one), and a lot of these problems overlap or interrelate in various ways. So we often have choices about how we frame those problems, and what we emphasize. This is especially true with something like corruption, which is usually defined broadly as the abuse of public (or entrusted) power for private gain, and which can therefore encompass a vast range of malfeasant behavior. So we’re making political/rhetorical choices when decide whether to call something “corruption” and focus on it in a corruption frame, and when we choose to call it something else.

      The scenarios that Sarah describes in her post seem to me to amount to rape, or at the very least sexual harassment. We already recognize those as bad things (though we don’t do nearly enough to stop them). They also seem to me to clearly fit the definition of “corruption”–if extorting money in exchange for a government contract, police protection, social services, or something similar can count as corruption, then extorting sex ought to count as well. It seems to me, therefore, that the question isn’t really whether “sextortion” is “corruption” or whether it’s rape/sexual harassment. It’s both. The question is whether it makes sense to talk about it as a corruption problem, have the major anticorruption organizations focus on it, integrate the fight against corrupt sexual exploitation as part of national anticorruption strategies, etc., or whether it makes sense to treat it as a distinctive problem, requiring distinctive responses.

      I realize framing it that way may make it seem like too much of an either/or, when really it may be more a matter of emphasis/degree. But still, I think Sarah’s post and Mel’s comment nicely frames the basic issue at stake–particularly since I think you share similar normative commitments and beliefs (and I think I share them as well). One of the things I like about this post is precisely that it gets us (at least it gets me) thinking harder about these issues of framing and rhetoric. I need to think harder still before I have anything substantive to say on those issues.

      • As both of you point out these instances are also rape and/or sexual harassment, and as such are recognized wrongs separate from the corruption angle. I agree that we have to be careful that we do not ‘trivialize’ these crimes by conceiving of them as corruption. However, we would be missing something crucial from our arsenal to fight them if we do not realize that do motive and mechanism behind them is the same as it is when the extortion is for money.

        Over the last decades, there has been a movement to have some rapes recognized as torture in international law. There were objections that doing so might hide the actual experience of rape, and so could hinder fighting it. Ultimately, however, recognizing that these crimes are the primary (but not exclusive) ways that certain other scourges — torture and corruption — affect women can open up many of the tools used to fight torture and corruption for use combatting rape and sexual harassment.

        One question that demands further research is to what degree monetary corruption and sexual corruption are interchangeable. It would make sense to think that most officials who demand sex would instead be mollified if offered enough money (assuming the woman has the ability to pay, which she often doesn’t). Therefore, is there a risk that if we become successful at fighting petty monetary corruption while ignoring sexual corruption, we could actually increase the amount of sexual corruption occurring? Officials might be no less corrupt but would prefer to demand sex, which they can get away with, instead of money, which they cannot.

      • I tend to agree with Mel’s assessment but I also like the integrated approach Matthew posits. I think framing sexual exploitation as an issue of corruption, rather than rape alone, could help to characterize it as a punishable wrong. In some contexts, women bear the brunt of the blame for rape. Emphasizing the quid pro quo element and tying the exploitation to abuses of power that may already be perceived as improper could help to reframe thinking about forced sex. Of course, this avenue might detract from rape, per se, as an advocacy issue. And women might still be subject to accusations of offensively using sex as currency, as Narayan indicates. Like Matthew, I’d like to think harder about this topic.

        • I have always conceived of sextortion as a form of rape or sexual abuse rather than as a form of corruption, but I think you are (all) absolutely right that it could very easily be either one. The question in my mind then becomes, “which frame will help us fight it better?” Neither is the obvious answer, and at the very least characterizing it as both doubles the quantity of resources available to address the issue.

          One thing to think about is that conceptualizing sextortion as corruption has interesting implications regarding consent, as Melanie alluded to with the commodification point – do we see sex with public officials with or without a quid pro quo as a choice or not, and what are the implications for agency? On the other side, as Sarah mentioned, establishing sextortion as systemic corruption rather than isolated instances of violent crime might help advocates demonstrate a lack of consent even in particular cases – at the very least it might switch the baseline assumption from consent to duress in those areas. But wouldn’t establishing systemized rape accomplish the same goal?

  5. Sarah, thanks for a great piece. Your example from TI’s website saying “Grades can be bought” seems a perfect illustration of how sexual violence can be whitewashed as “interchangeable” with more widely recognized forms of corruption in the form of financial payment. I shared Melanie’s reaction: should we call this what it is?

    I agree with the points made above – this is both rape and corruption. From a PR standpoint, it doesn’t seem too difficult to say “Grades can be bought, and this may be in cash, by rape, or by other extortion.”

    But there is certainly a framing challenge here. I can’t help but note that a line-drawing problem appears regarding prostitution. Proponents of legal prostitution tend to argue that sex exchanged for money can still be consensual sex. But sex exchanged for food at a refugee camp is clearly not consensual. I fear that anti-corruption groups seeking to raise awareness of sextortion may find themselves in the middle of the prostitution debate, without ever having intended to do so. See the recent controversy after Amnesty International considered advocating decriminalization:

    Where are the lines between sextortion and prostitution? This is an uncomfortable but I think inevitable question.

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  8. Thank you for this post.

    I find that sextortion as a term is misleading. When we give examples about abuse of authority with unconsensual sexual favours, we seem to be talking mostly about bribery, not extortion.

    The difference between bribery and extortion seems to be that bribery involves the use of payments (monetary or not) to facilitate the transaction a public official is supposed to make, whereas extortion involves threats of violence or the exposure of sensitive information (

    In the Sierra Leone examples, women are forced to bribe officials with sexual favours. This sounds more like bribery than extortion. Therefore, I think the definition of the term as “corrupt sexual extortion” might be misleading.

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