Sextortion: The Silent Corruption

in Blog

Angela is a 25-year-old student from Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. She’s about to graduate from law school and is excited to start her career as an attorney. First, however, she needs to get a good grade in her master thesis. Today, she has an appointment with her tutor Mr. Smith, one of the university’s best law professors. He tells her that Angela’s thesis is promising, but not good enough to pass law school. Angela is devastated. Mr. Smith closes the door and comes closer, starting to touch her sexually. He tells her that there’s one thing that she could do to pass. Knowing that there’s no other way to get her degree, Angela agrees to have sex with him.

Sexual extortion (sextortion) is widespread in Zimbabwe. Angela’s story is just a hypothetical example, but many local women have encountered similar experiences in real life: More than 57% of women surveyed by Transparency International Zimbabwe said they have been forced to offer sexual favors in exchange for jobs, medical care or when seeking school placements for their children. On a global scale, sextortion is a serious problem, causing physical and mental harm to women worldwide, both cause as well as effect of entrenched social, political and economic inequalities. Defined as “a type of corruption that involves an implicit or explicit request to engage in any kind of unwanted sexual activity in exchange for exercising power entrusted to someone occupying a position of authority”, sextortion is one of the most significant forms of gendered corruption.

While women are in many ways subjected to the same forms of corruption as men, they are often affected to a greater extent due to gendered power relations, discrimination, and vulnerability. Historically ingrained power asymmetries between men and women produce and reinforce gender roles that make women more exposed to corrupt abuses of power in the form of sexual exploitation. Corruption hinders progress toward gender equality, not only abusing but also barring women from their civic, social, and economic rights.

Victims or agents?

In the case of sextortion, the benefit gained from the abuse of power is sexual rather than financial, which means that sextortion is not usually included in prevalent definitions of corruption—resulting in many cases going unreported, unpunished, and largely ignored. Furthermore, it is not covered by sexual harassment and gender-based violence regulations either, since they rely on the absence of consent for prosecution. Sextortion victims, however, frequently consent to the extortion in return for jobs, promotions, licenses, and the like, even if the consent is given in the face of duress. Because of this, they are often stigmatized to “go along with it”. This raises pertinent questions: Does “yes” always truly mean “yes”? Do these women actually perceive themselves as victims? Or do they see themselves as agents, acting strategically within their means, in an attempt to pursue their own agenda despite structural discrimination?

When Angela was confronted with the decision of either having sex with Mr. Smith or not receiving her degree, she didn’t think twice. Her goal was to graduate and start an exciting career. Rather than being pushed into passive submission, she made an active choice. While these women may be subject to discriminatory structures, we shouldn’t dismiss the fact that they aren’t just passive victims of their circumstances—rather, they are human beings fully capable of taking control of their own life. They know how to play in this power game, using their bodies to advance their social position. To the extent they can, they seek to take advantage of the structures that exploit them. Their consent is thus not just about survival, but also about social advancement.

However, although from an individual’s perspective, “consenting” to sextortion may be an act of reclaiming agency, it is a product of shocking and ongoing disempowerment and repression. These women are acting in a context of severe, structural constraints and threats to their lives and livelihoods—and in this context of vulnerability they are forced to make decisions about their actions. Unfortunately, due to the same discriminatory structures that gave rise to them in first place, these women’s stories of resilience are largely unheard of. Few of them dare to come forward because often, the police and justice system are part of the same corruption chain that has abused them.

About the author: Manuela Walti is Communications Manager at Stream House.