Measurement Brings Action: The Need for a Global Sexual Corruption Index

Sexual corruption is a scourge, to varying degrees, in almost every country–from immigration officials demanding sex for green cards, to U.N. soldiers using their power to force themselves on refugees or the local population they are supposed to be protecting, to police officers who demand sex in exchange for not arresting someone. The International Association of Women Judges has been trying to bring attention to this “sextortion” problem, with some limited success: Transparency International (TI) describes sextortion as a form of corruption, and last September’s International Anti-Corruption Conference devoted a high-profile session to discussing this issue.

Yet despite this increasing recognition that this sort of sexual corruption is indeed corruption–the abuse of public power for private gain–the major international indexes used to measure corruption, such as TI’s corruption perception index (CPI) (and the underlying studies used to generate the CPI), focus overwhelmingly on material corruption–principally monetary bribery and embezzlement–not the abuse of public power to extort sexual favors from victims. This is a problem: As we have seen over and over again (both in the corruption context, and in other contexts such as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)), for better or worse, national-level country ratings drive action. Right now, a country that wishes to improve its global standing on corruption currently has little incentive to tackle sexual corruption. And there is no separate, easy-to-understand metric that calls attention to how well (or poorly) countries are doing, relative to one another, in addressing that problem.

It is time for that to change. It is time to create a Global Sexual Corruption Index.

There are several ways that this could be done. The most basic and least expensive version would involve identifying similar types of NGOs in different countries that work on issues related to women’s empowerment, and ask their representatives to fill out a short questionnaire about the frequency with which they perceive sexual corruption (in their own country and, perhaps, in neighboring countries) in a variety of settings–including interactions with police officers, teachers, judges, and other officials–as well as how effective they perceive the government to be in acknowledging and tackling the problem.

Of course, just like the CPI, a Global Sexual Corruption Index of this sort would measure the perception of the problem, rather than the sheer number of incidents. This procedure does elicit methodological concerns (see here for critiques in the context of the current CPI). Yet it would be a useful first step. A more ambitious approach, which would require more resources, would be to conduct interviews in many countries, somewhat along the lines of TI’s Global Corruption Barometer–which, it is perhaps worth noting, currently asks respondents about whether they’ve paid a (monetary) bribe, but not about whether they’ve been the victims of attempts by public officials to use their authority to extort sex. Of course, in conducting interviews about a subject as sensitive as sexual corruption, there are concerns about accuracy, and also about differing degrees of privacy surrounding sexual assault in different cultures. That said, indices like the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report show that it’s possible to use interviews to gather data about sensitive topics implicating the interplay of sexual assault and power. And, much as existing surveys on monetary bribery try to improve accuracy by avoiding more evocative terminology (for example, by asking about “gifts or informal payments” rather than “bribes”), and sometimes asking about “people/firms like yours” rather than “you/your firm,” a sexual corruption barometer survey could avoid terms like “corruption” or “rape,” and could ask about whether (or how often) respondents believe that officials of different types attempt use their power to receive sex from those subject to their authority.

Measuring sexual corruption would not end it, just as monetary corruption has not withered in the face of the CPI. However, learning where it is worse and where countries have made significant progress in fighting it could accomplish several objectives:

  • Best Practices. By discovering which countries have relatively low levels of sexual corruption compared to their level of development (and potentially to their level of monetary corruption), we can discover where to look for best practices in fighting this scourge, whether the solutions are legal, educational, organizational, or some combination.
  • Put a Focus on Improving. Measuring sexual corruption in a transparent way could cause countries to prioritize fighting it, either because they realize it is a significant problem or out of a desire to look good to the international community. Similarly, knowing where the problem is worst could focus NGO and aid resources on stamping out the scourge where they could have the most impact.
  • Take Action Against the Worst Offenders. Much of the reason that the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons report is considered effective is that the worst performing countries face trade sanctions and economic harm if they are not taking significant steps to rein in trafficking. Attaching economic consequences for the worst countries for sexual corruption could make a lot of countries take notice in a hurry.

A Global Sexual Corruption Index would require resources, but it is feasible and would make a significant contribution to furthering the fight against this pernicious form of corruption. Such an index could be supported by a government (along the lines of the U.S. Trafficking in Persons report), or by an NGO that cares about these issues, such as the International Association of Women Judges or through a grant from an organization like the Global Fund for Women. There are many details to work out, and the project will take some effort, but it is high time to get started.

6 thoughts on “Measurement Brings Action: The Need for a Global Sexual Corruption Index

  1. The extortion of sexual favors is a horrendous crime. It is almost certainly far more pervasive than is widely recognized. Creating a Global Sexual Corruption Index is an imaginative idea, but not a priority. What is far more urgently needed is substantial and substantive research into this issue. Most of the information I have seen is anecdotal or very case specific. Information from reports to Advocacy and Legal Advice Centers in various countries that are run by Transparency International suggest that this must be a topic of far more central discussion and concern to the global anti-corruption community. But, the difficulties of securing meaningful and good information in this area dare not be underestimated: my guess is that large numbers of women and girls are victims here but dare not report the abuses they sustain – for cultural, legal and social reasons they may find it excrutiatingly difficult to resist the villains, let alone denounce them and bring them to justice. My hope is that major international organizations — official and in civil society – concerned with anti-corruption, human rights and gender discrimination – will make “Sextortion” a priority (it is not today).

    • I completely agree that far more needs to be done to combat sextortion, and it should be much more of a priority in the anti corruption community than it is today.

      However, I think that encouraging measurement of sextortion will help us reach that goal. Creating an index will help us move away from one of the problems you describe –anecdotal and case-specific information that we currently have.

      I also agree that polling the potential victims themselves would be extremely expensive and potentially inaccurate due to the secrecy and shame surrounding the issue. That’s why polling NGOs who may work with the victimized community and who may have already gained the trust of victims and may have a better read on how much of this is going on in their communities.

  2. I think this is a really interesting idea, though I have some concerns about such a rating actually understating, and thus masking the true nature of the problem. As described in today’s blog post, there are real potential harms in unreliable statistics (See If such an index were to be compiled, given the data collection accuracy concerns you mention, I can imagine a situation where it appears as though monetary corruption appears vastly more substantial than sextortion, or another situation where a country looks to be tackling sextortion effectively, when in reality neither are the case.

    I certainly echo your call for more attention to be paid to this pernicious and very real issue, and I think that an index of some sorts might be a good starting point. But beyond the publicity effect of such an index within the anti-corruption community, I am skeptical of its actual consequences in motivating meaningful action on sextortion.

    • Thanks for that, Daniel. Given the secrecy surrounding sexual crimes including sexual corruption, getting accurate statistics will prove difficult and there is certainly a decent chance of underestimating the extent of the problem. However there are two reasons why I think that an index will still be useful:

      1. Like with monetary corruption, this index will be more relative in measuring the extent of problems in different countries rather than absolute, so things would only get screwy if the secrecy and shame surrounding the issue skewed the results substantially more in some countries than in others.

      2. Recent broad surveys on the extent of sexual crimes, including on college campuses, have helped put a big spotlight on the issue and have contributed rather than subtracted from, efforts to combat sexual assault.

      • I certainly agree on both counts.

        Maybe one way to get around my concern (which in short is an inaccurate emphasis on either monetary corruption or sexual corruption at the detriment of combatting the other) would be for an index to be portrayed wholly separately from monetary corruption. I think that sexual corruption and monetary corruption should not presented as comparable, or more weighty than another within a given country, but agree that an index would do well in shedding light on this issue.

      • Thank you for a fascinating post, Sarah. I think this effort would be valuable, and any attention raised to this pernicious issue is important. That said, your point #1 is a huge concern for me. I think willingness to openly discuss these issues will vary substantially across countries. And the places where women are least likely to honestly report instances of sextortion won’t necessarily be the places with the least sexual corruption. Of course, this is speculation. Still, I’m not convinced — at first blush — that these measures will be meaningfully comparative across dramatically different countries. That said, I could envision them (potentially) working as comparative measures regionally.

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