Abuse of Authority for Purposes of Sexual Exploitation (Sextortion)

March 15, 2013|By Michele Cantos
The first time I heard the term “sextortion” was during the 57th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women, when I had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion hosted by the United Republic of Tanzania and the Tanzania Women Judges Association at the United Nations Headquarters on the topic of "Ending Abuse Of Authority For Purposes Of Sexual Exploitation (Sextortion): The Experience of the United Republic Of Tanzania." Among the speakers were; Anne T. Goldstein, Human Rights Education Director at the International Association of Women Judges; John Hendra, Assistant Secretary–General and Deputy Executive Director for Policy and Programmes at UN Women; Honorable Judge Engera M. Kileo, Chairperson of Tanzania Women’s Judges Association; and Ambassador Ramahdhan M. Mwinyi of Tanzania.

Anne Goldstein explained that the International Association of Women Judges defines sextortion as “the abuse of power to obtain a sexual benefit or advantage.” That is, people who occupy positions of authority and public trust (government officials, police officers, judges, supervisors, etc.) wield their power over those who depend on their favor to ask for sexual favors. The term carries with it an element of corruption and sexually inappropriate behavior, which leads to its disreputable name. A quick search on the web will bring up hundreds of news articles discussing sextortion cases in which the perpetrators, mainly men, solicited sexual acts and favors in return for doing their job. Judge Kileo discussed a case that occurred in her native Tanzania, where schoolteachers were found to be soliciting sexual favors of their underage students in return for homework help and passing grades. Another case discussed by the panel was committed by a security guard who solicited sexual to a young woman, promising that he would help her find a job at his place of employment.

How is this affecting migrant women?

Such heinous acts are occurring all over the world and across all sectors of society, including in the medical field, in religious institutions, universities, and at the workplace. However, women are disproportionately targeted and this is only compounded in marginalized communities. Migrant women in the United States are particularly vulnerable to sextortion due their lack of knowledge of local laws and rights, little or no English language skills, job insecurity, immigration status, etc. In 2007, a federal immigration officer was caught on tape demanding sex from a 22-year-old Colombian wife of an American citizen in exchange for a green card. He threatened the young woman to deny her a marriage-based green card and added that he could have her family deported. He was found guilty of sexual coercion against the young woman in a court of law in 2010, at which time the woman was still in the process of obtaining permanent legal residence. Migrant women are not only more vulnerable to sextortion but a lack of knowledge about the laws that protect them after the act(s), regardless of legal status in the country, makes it very difficult to pursue legal charges against their abuser. This is particularly true for migrant women crossing the US–Mexico border illegally and who have even less knowledge about the legal system than settled migrants.

What can we do?

 There are many issues in preventing, addressing and ending this form of violence against women. Legally, it is very difficult to convict a perpetrator when the victim has succumbed to the pressure of sextortion as prosecutors trivialize the event(s), especially if there is no evidence of the act (i.e. video or audio recording). Moreover, this terrible violation is likely to continue if we don’t address its root causes, namely a patriarchal culture that objectifies women and shames the victims of sexual crime rather than its perpetrators. However, not all hope is lost. The International Association of Women Judges promotes ending the abuse of power through sexual exploitation by “Naming, Shaming and Ending Sextortion.” They list five things we can all do to name, shame and end sextortion:

  1. Talk about Sextortion: Sextortion thrives on silence; spread knowledge. Talk to two people and ask them to spread the word to two more. Keep the chain going.
  2. Get the word out: Without a name – SEXTORTION – it is difficult to lift an abuse out of the realm of bad things we know happen and passively accept as the way of the world, and into the realm of things we will no longer tolerate and actively seek to change. 
  3. Learn more about Sextortion: Once you become aware of sextortion, you see how pervasive it is. Gather and share information about sextortion.
  4. Examine your existing legal framework: Assess the adequacy of your country’s legal framework for prosecuting sextortion. Do sexual harassment laws cover non-employment cases? Do corruption laws cover non-financial injury or favors? Do rape laws cover coercion that does not involve physical force?
  5. Mainstream gender concerns into ­anti­–corruption efforts and vice versa: Whether you work on women’s rights or anti- corruption efforts, focus on the interface between sexual abuse and corruption/bribery – this is the area where sextortion flourishes.
For more information, visit the IAWJ’s Resource page http://www.iawj.org/resources.html


  Bernstein, Nina. Immigration Officer Guilty in Sexual Coercion Case. The New York Times, April 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/15/nyregion/15agent.html?_r=0

International Association of Women Judges. Ending the abuse of power through sexual exploitation by “Naming, Shaming and Ending Sextortion Brochure: http://www.iawj.org/IAWJ_Sextortion_brochure.pdf.

The UN Foundation
1750 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Suite 300
Washington, DC 20006

Tel: +1 202 887-9040
Fax: +1 202 887-9021

801 Second Avenue
9th Floor
New York, NY 10017

Tel: +1 212 697-3315
Fax: +1 212 697-3316

About Us
Contact Us
Leadership Dinner
Email Sign-up