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Girls & Women

Could the #MeToo Campaign Make Sextortion Illegal in the US?

Flickr: Gage Skidmore

By Ellen Wulfhorst

NEW YORK, Oct 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The torrent of stories of sexual harassment and assault in the wake of claims about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein could help propel campaigns to make sextortion illegal, according to activists trying to change laws in the United States.

Sextortion — a form of extortion that involves sexual acts or images as its currency — is not recognized by criminal laws in many US states and victims often have little or no recourse, experts say.

The headlines, social media and watercooler conversations prompted by the Weinstein case are "incredibly powerful" in illustrating the extent of the problem, said Jennifer Becker, senior staff attorney with Legal Momentum, The Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund, that works to combat sextortion.

Using hashtag #MeToo, tens of thousands of women have gone to Twitter and Facebook to recount experiences of being verbally abused, groped, molested and raped by bosses, teachers and family.

Read More: The Very Good Reason People are Posting "Me, Too" All Over Social Media

"It's an abuse of power, and so with Harvey Weinstein as an example, it's a classic age-old case of sextortion," Becker told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

A huge hurdle in making sextortion illegal is getting the public and lawmakers to understand its scope, she said.

"It really had never been center stage," she said. "The more instances, the more narratives out there, it certainly helps lawmakers understand that it's something that they should prioritize."

Weinstein faces allegations that he sexually harassed, assaulted or raped a number of women, including A-list actresses, over the past three decades.

He has denied having non-consensual sex with anyone.

Read More: After More Than 500K Women Tweeted #MeToo, Men Are Responding With 4 Words

The fall-out includes assertions that many people knew about the claims against the powerful producer but did nothing.

"The Weinstein case underscores the importance of this issue, of how pervasive it is, of how destructive it is and how really little attention it gets," said Nancy Hendry, senior policy advisor at the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ).

"We do allow it to occur with relative impunity," she said.


Allegations such as many of those against Weinstein might be covered by laws against sexual harassment, but those laws would not protect in cases such as a woman facing sexual demands from an immigration official, Hendry said.

These were the finding of an IAWJ and Thomson Reuters Foundation report in 2015 entitled "Combating Sextortion." In 2017, Legal Momentum, the law firm Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe and the Foundation produced a report "A Call to Action: Ending 'Sextortion' in the Digital Age."

Some, like the IAWJ, see sextortion as corruption in which sex, not money, is the currency of the bribe. Others define it as exploitation when a perpetrator uses coercion to obtain sexual images or sexual acts from a victim.

Read More: Rohingya Women Traumatized and Stateless After Mass Sexual Violence

It can include blackmail, and it has proliferated online as a cybercrime. Some forms of sextortion fall under state laws against coercion, broadly based extortion laws and even child pornography in some cases, experts said.

Earlier this month, the governor of California signed a law making sextortion a crime as of 2018. The move amends the state's extortion laws to add coercion by sexual acts and sexually explicit images.

This year Utah, Arkansas, Alabama and Texas were the first U.S. states to pass laws criminalizing sextortion, and similar legislation has been introduced in the District of Columbia, Becker said.

Read More: Joe Biden Shared a Powerful PSA About Sexual Assault That Everyone Needs to See

Advocates are targeting 10 to 15 more U.S. states this year, and there is a federal anti-sextortion bill pending in the U.S. Congress, said Analea Patterson, an attorney at law firm Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe.

"It is a time when you could shine some light on sexual extortion," Patterson told the Foundation.

"This is all about exercising sexual power over women. Whether you're extorting them or abusing your position to control women's careers, it's all fundamentally about sexual power and dominance," she said.

(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit