When sex is the currency: corruption in the Arab World

“For every button you open on your blouse, you will get an extra grade in the course,” a professor told a female student when she visited his office at a private university in Jordan. He demanded a sexual favour in return for a passing grade. She failed.

She is not alone. Many women in the Arab World and across the globe face sexual exploitation, blackmail and assault by their superiors at work and by others with power elsewhere in exchange for services, access and benefits.

This form of corruption remains largely invisible but is equally destructive. It is called sextortion.

In the Middle East where the combination of women and sex is a big taboo, sextortion remains a silent crime and the offenders enjoy an untouchable impunity.

What is sextortion?

Sextortion is ‘the abuse of power to obtain a sexual benefit or advantage.’ It is when sex, rather than money, is the currency of the bribe, and it includes an exploitation of a position of power or authority. It happens virtually everywhere: in government, education, health, employment, and justice.

Another silent crime in the Arab World

Even though there is very little information on where and how sextortion happens in Arab societies, an investigative report on sextortion in Jordan, Palestine and Egypt shows the extent and implication of this hidden crime. The soon to be published report was done by Jordanian journalist, Hanan Al Kiswani, for Transparency International.

The report interviewed women who were exploited at universities by their professors, at work by their managers, at hospitals, law courts, and in government offices for services.

In Egypt, where 67% believe the education system is corrupt, an international law professor in Egypt was arrested for having sex with 85 female students at a rented apartment in exchange for exam answers.

The research also shows there is a clear lack of understanding that sextortion is a form of corruption. It has escaped anti-corruption codes, institutions and the legal frameworks.

A more troubling finding was that a number of judges and high-ranking officials in these three countries actually viewed women as instigators of such a crime.

A 28-year-old Jordanian journalist was offered by her line manager a permanent work contract at a local newspaper in exchange for an intimate meeting in his private apartment in Amman. She said, “the price of my rejection was being moved to another less important section and he was given a promotion because I informed the editor-in-chief verbally of his request and demanded that he be held accountable. My reward was a tarnished reputation because I was the weaker link.”

Lose the case, gain a scandal

The lack of awareness among women that sextortion is a form of corruption make them less likely to report it at their institutions.

Women are also afraid of scandal and social stigma. Offenders know this all too well.  A 32-year-old divorced woman working in a store in Ramallah said she was seen as an easy ‘prey’ by her employer as society continues to stigmatize divorced women.

In such a context and given the sensitivity of the issue, women have little faith in being treated fairly if they filed an official complaint or pursued the issue legally. Therefore, a victim would rather stay silent than “lose the case and gain a scandal.”

According to the director of the Women’s Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Labour, which is responsible for following up on filed complaints, women reject submitting official complaints because they feel there is no privacy and confidentiality in addressing their complaints which puts their reputation at risk.

At the Palestinian Ministry of Women’s Affairs, the situation is similar. In one of the formal complaints submitted to a former minister by 17 employees against one official, the results were depressing. Instead of being punished, the offender was transferred to an academic position at a public university.

In Egypt, the Egyptian National Women’s Centre confirmed that it has received zero complaints on sextortion at their complaint units in Ein Shams University and Asyut University.

Consequently, women suffer in silence from humiliation, blackmail, depression and anxiety.

What can we do it to stop it?

For more detailed information on what needs to be done to fight sextortion, click here.

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