Bribe to Survive: Sextortion and LGBTQ Discrimination

In February 2019, a gay man from Krasnodar, Russia named Stanislav arranged to go on a date with a young man he had met on a dating app. When he arrived at their agreed-upon location, however, the young man was nowhere to be seen. Instead, Stanislav was greeted by police officers, who later beat him and threatened him with criminal prosecution unless he paid a bribe. Just a year earlier, another man, Fedor, similarly found himself on a “fake date” with a man he had met on the same dating app, which ended with him being forced to pay police a US$2,500 bribe after also being beaten and threatened with prison. In both cases, Russian prosecutors refused to carry out any investigations of extortion or police misconduct.

It isn’t just in Russia that police have begun turning to online dating sites and other forms of technology to entrap their victims. By arbitrarily seizing cell phones or creating profiles to set up “fake dates,” law enforcement officers around the world (including in Lebanon, Azerbaijan, Egypt, and Moldova, just to name a few places) have been able to obtain screenshots and photographs to blackmail LGBTQ people into paying them bribes. Not only are victims coerced into paying these bribes to end their torture and humiliation, but they also do it in response to threats of having their arrests publicized on national television, or revealed to their family and employers. In this way, laws criminalizing homosexual activity are imposed not only, or even primarily, to enforce moral ideologies, but rather to expand opportunities for the corrupt extraction of money from vulnerable communities.

The link between anti-LGBTQ discrimination and corrupt extortion by law enforcement has a long, cyclical history. As I discussed in a prior post, discriminatory corruption played a central role in instigating the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion—a watershed moment in the U.S. LGBTQ rights movement. Indeed, corrupt law enforcement officials have historically targeted queer spaces in order to find people to extort. In New York in the 1960s, bars like the Stonewall Inn were among the few safe spaces for queer people to congregate, and these bars—which were often mafia-owned—were regularly raided by police seeking payoffs. Today, LGBTQ people like Stanislav and Fedor have now turned to apps and websites to find each other and connect online—and so it comes as little surprise that the police are targeting these dating sites to ensnare victims. It is similarly unsurprising that the increased use of dating sites by corrupt law enforcement officials coincides with a general rise in online extortion cases being reported by members of the LGBTQ community. Just as the New York mafia tapped into the criminalization of homosexuality to profit from places like the Stonewall, cyber criminals today are finding opportunities to extort money from LGBTQ victims on social media and dating apps.

In short, anti-LGTBQ discrimination and corruption are causally related and mutually reinforcing. When police shake down LGBTQ victims for bribes, those victims—particularly those who remain in the closet—may fear (justifiably) that coming forward would make things worse, leading to further abuse by law enforcement, as well as social and professional ostracization. As a result, acts of discriminatory corruption against LGBTQ people are staggeringly underreported; of those who do choose to come forward, only a small minority ever see any form of justice.

When homosexuality is not only stigmatized, but explicitly criminalized, the corrupt extortion of LGBTQ people by law enforcement is even more blatant and rampant. Consider, by way of example, Nigeria. Since 2014, Nigeria’s Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA) has forbidden homosexual conduct: people found in violation of this law could face up to 14 years in prison. Since the SSMPA’s enactment, arbitrary arrests and extortion by Nigerian police have become far more common. Of the individuals who had been arrested pursuant to the SSMPA, several stated that they were released only after paying bribes. (Notably, none of the people interviewed recalled being subject to such detention or extortion prior to the SSMPA’s enactment.) And when LGBTQ people report victimization by other criminals to the police, they may find themselves victimized again by the cops. This is what happened to a Nigerian man named Obed, who was beaten and blackmailed after being scammed by cybercriminals on a dating app. After he reported his attackers to the police, he was himself arrested, and his brother had to pay the officers a bribe for his release. “The real predators were not the guys that held me hostage that night,” Obed said, “but the policemen I believed came to rescue me but turned to extort and humiliate me.”

It is high time that the anticorruption community recognizes the deep connections between anti-LGBTQ discrimination and corruption, and make common cause with LGBTQ rights advocates to call more attention to this issue. The groundwork for this has been laid by the activists who have demanded greater attention to corrupt sexual extortion, or “sextortion.” Sextortion is an insidious form of corruption that is generally understood to take place when public officials abuse their positions of authority to extort sexual favors from victims. Given that the perpetrators of sextortion are frequently (though not always) men, and the victims are frequently (though not always) women, sextortion is often framed as a gender equality issue. While it is true that women are disproportionately impacted by sextortion, it is also true that discussions surrounding sextortion can and should take into account the corrupt exploitation of the LGBTQ community. To be sure, corrupt officials are not always or even necessarily extorting sexual favors from their LGBTQ victims. But they are exploiting their victims’ sexuality—specifically, the stigmatization and criminalization of that sexuality—to extract bribes and threaten their victims into submission. This form of discriminatory sexual blackmail by those in positions of public authority can and should be understood as per se corruption. Recognizing the deep connections between corruption and anti-LGBTQ discrimination would enhance both the anticorruption movement and the LGBTQ rights movement, and help build stronger alliances between them. Building such alliances will help mainstream LGBTQ perspectives into the anticorruption agenda, and deepen our understanding of how anticorruption efforts could be utilized to combat discrimination.

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