Noticing and Combating Sextortion: An Interview with Nancy Hendry

This is part of our special feature, Me Who? The Audibility of a Social Movement.

The International Association of Women Judges (IAWL) now defines sextortion as “the abuse of power to obtain a sexual benefit or advantage.” In effect, sextortion is a form of corruption in which sex, rather than money, is the currency of the bribe. When I was on my way to Madrid last November for the European Women Lawyers Association, I had never heard of this term and never considered the underlying problems. However, when I heard Nancy Hendry speak, I immediately noticed how much this concept resonated with the audience:  to many, it gave a name to a particular type of injustice we all knew existed, but could not quite pin down.

—Alice R. Bertram for EuropeNow


EuropeNow What drove the IAWJ to come up with the term “sextortion?”

Nancy Hendry The concept of sextortion arose from conversations that my colleagues from the IAWJ had with judges from different countries all around the world in about 2008. In one instance, they were talking with judges from Uganda who were telling them about the concerns they had when they sentenced people to jail. They knew that the jails did not always provide – medication and other necessities to prisoners. So, prisoners were dependent on having wives, girlfriends, daughters bring those things to the jail. And what they were hearing was that the guards were demanding sex in exchange for actually delivering medications and other necessities to the prisoners. And this was happening in a country where HIV was widespread at the time. The judges felt troubled about sentencing people to jail when they knew about the possible consequences for both the prisoners who might be deprived of basic needs and their female relatives who might be subjected to such abuses with seeming impunity.

At about the same time, we were hearing about women from Central America and what was happening to them when they migrated North. When they reached the border, they would be asked for money and, if they didn’t have money, they would be asked for sex. And again, this seemed to be happening with impunity. When we researched further, we found that it was such a pervasive phenomenon that when women ultimately returned to their communities after an unsuccessful effort to migrate North, they were perceived as prostitutes, because people just assumed that they would have had to trade their bodies along the way.

We noticed a pattern in these stories — a pattern of abuse of power in exchange for sex. And then the next question was – what do we call it? In order to talk about this as a widespread phenomenon, we needed to have an adequate vocabulary. It was not clear it could be labeled as corruption, as corruption is typically couched in financial terms and fails to cover the sexual element we were seeing. At the same time, sexual offenses often fail to acknowledge the abuse of authority that is a central part of the injustice being done in these cases. Sextortion contains both elements: sex and corruption.

EuropeNow So how did the IAWJ then develop the definition of sextortion?

Nancy Hendry Developing a definition took time. Based on our initial finding that there was a pattern of behavior, we decided to research it in three very different countries: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Tanzania and the Philippines. The longer I worked on it, the more convinced I became of the value of seeing sextortion as a form of corruption that reached beyond sexual harassment. If you have entrusted somebody with authority to do something and that person instead exercises the authority for personal benefit, it really does not matter whether that personal benefit is cash or sex. From an accountability or good governance perspective, the damage is the same. It was by going through that thought process and gathering information from the three countries that the definition we now havetook shape. We now have a four-part definition that serves to differentiate sextortion from other kinds of abuses. First, you have to have someone in a position of entrusted authority; second, there has to be a quid pro quo element, which means the person has to  exercise his authority in exchange for some personal benefit; third, that benefit has to have a sexual character; and finally, the person has to rely on the coercive power of authority rather than on physical force to obtain the sexual benefit.

EuropeNow Do you think it is problematic that there exist other definitions of sextortion alongside the one the IAWJ is using?

Nancy Hendry After we started using the term sextortion around 2008, it has also become a term to describe cyber-blackmail that involves sexual imagery. So that is another use of the word of which we are aware, but we don’t think it precludes continuing to use sextortion in the way we have described it. There can be one term that encompasses more than one thing. That is the case for example with sexual harassment–it can be  quid-pro-quo sexual harassment or hostile environment sexual harassment, which are actually quite different. So I think there can be sextortion as a form of corruption and sextortion as a form of blackmail. This however only applies to English where sextortion is a term that is quite evocative. It doesn’t always translate as well into other languages. In some countries people talk about sexual corruption or sexual bribery.

EuropeNow When it comes to corruption, the public’s sense of injustice is quite clear. When discussing sexual violence… not so much. Would you agree that the concept of sextortion, which links corruption and a sexual offense, can help in clarifying the injustice of sexual offenses, particularly the labelling that “sex, rather than money, is the currency of the bribe?”

Nancy Hendry Yes, I agree. When dealing with gender-based violence, there is a lot of baggage. Even though there is an evolution in how our justice systems deal with gender-based violence, we still frequently see victim-blaming and treatment that is not protective and respectful of women. Looking at it from a corruption perspective doesn’t have the same baggage. When you are talking about bribery it does not matter whether the bribe was paid willingly or under duress, whether the person paying it initiated it or responded to a demand by the corrupt official, it is still bribery. The corrupt official is still culpable for having taken the bribe. And it doesn’t matter whether it is a small amount or a large amount, because it’s still wrong. So, it is helpful to look at sextortion from a corruption perspective. Also, gender issues often get dismissed as “women’s issues.” Looking at sextortion as a form of corruption offers the potential of having new allies — people who care about governance, care about accountability or care about transparency and see the threat it poses to all of those values as well as to gender equality and human rights and dignity.

EuropeNow You have spoken to judges, lawyers, women’s rights activists, anti-corruption specialists and people working in international development in a number of different settings. How have people reacted when you spoke about sextortion?

Nancy Hendry I have found that sextortion often resonated with the audiences. For some, because they have experienced sextortion themselves. For others it is because they just never really thought about it in that way before. They may have been working in the anti-corruption field for years and it just never occurred to them. I remember talking to someone from Denmark at an international anti-corruption conference who said it was a blind spot they had never addressed. And Denmark is a country that is very successful in fighting corruption. I’m often struck when people come up to me after a talk and tell me that sextortion has happened to them, but that they weren’t aware how pervasive it was and didn’t know how to call it out. At the IAWJ we consider spreading awareness to be crucial and we see how the issue resonates  with people.

EuropeNow The #MeToo movement covered multiple forms of sexual abuse ranging from sexual harassment to rape. Many women who spoke out did not just describe sexual abuse but situations―typically at work―where their superiors abused their power to take sexual advantage. Do you think the word sextortion could and should be used to describe these situations in the private sector?

Nancy Hendry The question of sextortion in the employment situation is something to which we have given a lot of thought. And we ultimately concluded that sextortion should include employment situations for a couple of reasons. The employment situation is one in which many people deal with a superior who is entrusted with the authority to hire, fire and make many other decisions that have a large impact on the employee’s life. We expect this authority to be exercised on the basis of merit rather than on receiving cash or other benefits. Deviating from what we all would understand as merit-based decision-making is parallel to an official deviating from public codes of conduct, and it didn’t seem right to protect public employees but not private ones.   Other sectors, such as health, also haveboth publicly and privately-run hospitals. If you go to a hospital you should expect that you will receive care not because you are paying the person under the table or because you are giving other favors, but because the hospital has a professional responsibility to look after your health. The same is true for public and private schools. Here we also expect the teachers to grade based on merit not on benefits. This is also in line with how other organizations such as Transparency International have defined corruption as covering both the public and the private sector.

EuropeNow From a legal point of view, what can be done about sextortion at the moment?

Nancy Hendry So far, sextortion has not been prosecuted much at all under any laws. There are few places that have legislation addressing sextortion. The only place that specifically uses the term sextortion is Jammu and Kashmir.  However, there are countries, such as India and Tanzania, that have amended or adopted anti-corruption laws intended to reach sexual favours. . And there is other legislation in place in many countries that could be used to prosecute sextortion. However, even if the laws are broad enough to prosecute sextortion, the public and prosecutors first need to be made aware of this phenomenon. To give an example: I held a workshop in Tunisia, which has an anti-corruption law that is broad enough to encompass sextortion. But when talking with officials at the workshop, some said they wouldn’t hesitate to apply the law to sextortion, while others voiced concerns about whether the language of the law provided perpetrators with sufficient notice that what they were doing was unlawful. I found that interesting because it shows that when you are not aware that an undue advantage or a benefit could mean a sexual favor, you look at the language and don’t think about sexual favors. This is also a problem for victims because, when they experience a sextortion demand, they will not think that they might have legal redress under the existing statutes. In this context, I remember looking at an educational brochure that gave about half a dozen examples of what a bribe could be, but they were all things like money, bonuses, discounts etc. And I thought that, if you had just experienced a demand for a sexual favor, what in the brochure would make you think that you just experienced a form of corruption?

At the same time, when viewed from a gender-based violence perspective, sextortion is again something that is regularly omitted. When sexual harassment is specifically identified as an offence in the workplace, people don’t think about all the sextortion that occurs outside the workplace. In addition, other sexual offenses typically include an element of physical coercion. Sextortion, which by definition does not depend on physical force, again frequently goes unnoticed as a form of sexual abuse. What we find is that the combination of sexual abuse and corruption paradoxically appears to make sextortion less likely to be prosecuted under laws governing either sexual abuse or corruption than an offense that pertains to only one type of abuse. So, what we need is an increasing awareness of sextortion.

EuropeNow Would you like to see sextortion become a separate criminal offense, or do you think it should be prosecuted based on existing legislation?

Nancy Hendry I don’t completely see it as an either or. I think that more should be done under existing laws. But the longer I have been working on this issue, the more convinced I have become that there really is a need for laws that are tailored to sextortion. The existing legislation was not drafted with sextortion in mind, so it is necessarily an imperfect fit. Even if we prosecute sextortion more often under available laws, there are still  a number of questions that remain unanswered. For example, how do you deal with a person who accedes to a sextortion demand? It is one thing when the person says no, but what if the person says yes and then reports it? This cannot be answered without specific laws addressing sextortion.

EuropeNow The IAWJ described sextortion prior to the #MeToo movement. Has the movement helped to raise awareness regarding sextortion?

Nancy Hendry I think the #MeToo movement has helped to break the culture of silence. It has also created a certain momentum and an opportune global moment to address sextortion. It has revealed how damaging sexual abuse is, how others enable this conduct, and how hard it is to come forward. Some women hadn’t spoken up for decades. But looking at sextortion as a form of corruption eliminates some of the problems surrounding other types of  sexual abuse uncovered in the #MeToo movement. For example, victim-blaming becomes irrelevant. It simply does not matter who initiated it because there is this really bright and visible line that is crossed when people entrusted with authority abuse it.

EuropeNow If you could name one change that lawmakers, judges, the administration or the press could bring about – which would the one thing be you would ask for that would help to end sextortion?

Nancy Hendry This is always a hard question, because we need to proceed on multiple fronts. But I think we always need to start with awareness. If you aren’t even aware of the issue, nothing is going to happen. We need that awareness for data collection, for research, to install adequate complaint mechanisms. We also need justice sectors that are able to deal effectively with sextortion. That really is the big picture, and we need all of these steps to end the high degree of impunity for sextortion. At the same time, I am increasingly persuaded that the most significant thing that could happen right now would be to have more tailored legislation. That would clarify the issue for a lot of people in a very public way. The final step, of course, would be a change in the patriarchal structure that enables the kind of behavior we see in sextortion.



Nancy Hendry has served as the Senior Advisor for the IAWJ since June 2010. She has led the IAWJs work to address sextortion, managing the implementation of a program on “Naming, Shaming, and Ending Sextortion”; developing a Sextortion Toolkit and working with pro bono partners on a comparative study of laws available to prosecute Sextortion in nine jurisdictions. She is a graduate of Harvard University and Stanford Law School and has broad experience in government and the non-profit sector.

Alice R. Bertram is a lawyer and PhD candidate at Freie Universität Berlin. Her research focuses on time, law and autonomy. She is a board member for the region Berlin of the German Women Lawyers Associationan NGO focused on promoting women’s rights. She has studied law and physics at the ETH Zürich, Humboldt University Berlin and Columbia Law School.


Published on March 10, 2020.


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