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.