Pressure builds worldwide for legal protection against sextortion

Rebecca Root, IBA Southeast Asia Correspondent Friday 15 December 2023

Whether it’s for access to clean water, a job or for food, around the world people are forced into sexual acts in exchange for basic commodities. In many countries, such incidents are hard to prosecute, at least partly due to the nature of existing legislation. But increasingly, campaigners are placing renewed pressure on authorities and raising awareness in a bid to ensure that people have legal protection against sextortion.

Sextortion, as defined by the International Association of Women Judges, is ‘the abuse of power to obtain a sexual benefit or advantage.’ Research by Transparency International from 2019 found that in Latin America and the Caribbean, one in five people had either experienced sextortion or had heard of someone who had. In Zimbabwe, 57 per cent of women surveyed by the organisation admitted being forced into sexual acts in exchange for jobs, medical care or schooling. Meanwhile, in Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine, almost half of respondents said that sextortion takes place at least occasionally.

While many countries have legislation that covers transactional sex or sexual harassment, sextortion is unique in that it’s coercive and involves an abuse of power, explains Luz Nagle, Scholarship Officer of the IBA Human Rights Law Committee.

‘It occurs at the intersection between corruption and sexual exploitation and it is precisely for that reason that it tends to fall through the cracks and not get addressed by either,’ explains Nancy Hendry, senior advisor at the International Association of Women Judges, who speaks in a personal capacity. According to the IBA report ‘Sextortion: A crime of corruption and sexual exploitation’, published in 2020, anti-corruption laws fail to specifically focus on sexual favours and sexual offence laws don’t encompass the corruption component. This means the issue is often dismissed and considered consensual instead. ‘Here in Kenya the law does not care because it sees anything other than screaming and fighting as consent,’ a survivor of sexual assault told the advocacy group Avaaz.

‘But it’s not consensual because when you’re a woman and you’ve got a choice between feeding your family or paying for water with sex […] it’s not a real choice,’ says Barbara Schreiner, Executive Director of the Water Integrity Network (WIN), a collective working to reduce corruption risks in the water and sanitation sector. Those with lower incomes are disproportionately exposed to sextortion, she adds.

Sextortion occurs at the intersection between corruption and sexual exploitation and for that reason that it tends to fall through the cracks and not get addressed by either

Nancy Hendry
Senior Advisor, International Association of Women Judges

It is, however, a widespread issue, says Nagle. Through her work she has heard of examples in prisons and on borders, but also in corporate environments in higher-income contexts. To tackle it, those affected – which is predominantly women – need to be able to report incidents when they happen and perpetrators must be deterred by penalties, Nagle says. She adds that law enforcement should be trained on the issue and victim support services must be created.

For this to happen, Nagle believes countries must treat sextortion as they would corruption. ‘Corruption takes place because it’s quid pro quo, it’s abuse of power,’ she says, highlighting that the only difference here is that sexual acts are exchanged instead of money. What would help, she says, is if the UN ‘got on board’ and embraced the word ‘sextortion’. As it stands, the term, or any explicit reference to sex, is not mentioned in the UN’s Convention against Corruption. Instead, the language is broad, focussing on ‘undue advantage.’ This ambiguity gives licence for the issue to be disregarded, Nagle says.

In Tunisia and the Philippines, for example, ambiguous language in anti-corruption laws has left judges divided as to whether sextortion is covered, explains Hendry. ‘But it really doesn't matter whether the bribe is a sexual benefit or a financial one. Harm to the system is the same, and I strongly believe it should be treated as a corruption matter because it is a form of corruption,’ she adds. Argentina is one country that’s taking steps to address sextortion as a corruption issue in its investigations and is training civil society on the issue, Nagle explains.

Meanwhile, there are ongoing efforts to criminalise sextortion in other ways. In Kenya, the Attorney General is under pressure to address the issue. ‘After extensive consultation we opted to add a clause in the Sexual Offences Act to capture sextortion. This is being supported by […] members of parliament’ and the legislative reforms are under review, says Sareen Malik, Executive Secretary of the African Civil Society Network for Water and Sanitation. In India, some states have taken steps to pass specific legislation addressing sextortion. And in Bangladesh, Kenya and Mexico, WIN has been conducting research and raising awareness on the prevalence of sextortion in relation to water access.

There have also been cases resulting in criminal prosecution. In 2019 in Norway, for example, a politician was sentenced to five years imprisonment for sexually abusing three asylum seekers. The young men involved believed their response to his demands for sex could have implications for their right to stay in Norway, either leading to them being deported or failing to secure permanent residency.

The IBA’s report highlights the need for bespoke legislation at a national level that offers ‘clarity and consistency in respect of how this crime is defined and what sanctions should apply, in accordance with the underlying requirements of the rule of law.’ Without such protections, women will continue to experience the long-lasting effects of gender-based violence, Nagle says. These include trauma and shame, potential health consequences – for example, sexually transmitted diseases – and, in some cases, legal ramifications. In Iran, a woman can be stoned for death for having sex outside of marriage, and in Senegal, those paying bribes can be imprisoned.

In Kenya, Malik highlights how sextortion further entrenches victims into a cycle of poverty and violence. ‘In our work […] we found a lot of stigma, victim blaming and shaming,’ she says. Malik shares the story of a woman assaulted by a water vendor in front of her daughter. She subsequently had to be treated for HIV and suicide ideation yet was too scared to share her ordeal.

‘It carries a huge social cost,’ agrees Schreiner. Legislation alone won’t fully resolve the issue – awareness-building, including of the support available, while also gathering data on sextortion’s prevalence, is also key. Schreiner calls on civil society at the local level to take action, while Nagle says lawyers on the ground have a responsibility to highlight sextortion as a legal issue. But, with some countries refusing to acknowledge sextortion even happens, ‘we have an enormously long way to go,’ says Schreiner.

Image credit: Rick/