02 May 2018 16:05 IST

Why sextortion goes unchecked

The worst part of sextortion is that the victim, usually a woman, is riddled with guilt and shame, afraid of reaching out for help for fear of being judged and humiliated | OcusFocus/iStock.com

Absent definitions and empowering sections, victims of this crime have little recourse to justice

Was I too naïve and oblivious? Was I wrong to have trusted him? What’s going to happen now? Is there no way out of this torture? These are a few of the typical questions that could swirl around the mind of a victim of sextortion.

Sextortion is a form of sexual exploitation that employs a non-physical form of coercion, for instance threatening to release sexual images or any related material, to extort sexual favours or money.

Human beings are trusting by nature. And this trust sometimes extends beyond secrets, to sharing our bodies, intimate pictures or videos with romantic partners or others. If scorned, or sometimes even without reason, ‘others’ can betray this trust.

The worst part of sextortion is that the victim, usually a woman, is riddled with guilt and shame, afraid of reaching out for help for fear of being judged and humiliated. Much of the perpetrator’s power to contain the victim lies in her being silent.

Profiling of the victim

In a recent study undertaken by Brookings Institution, it was found that all the accused were male and 90 per cent of victims were female. For the sake of this article, let us assume the victims are women. The perpetrators could be anyone from her workplace colleague, a computer hacker, an online romantic partner, or a partner from a failed relationship — basically, everyone with a primary intent to demand sex or money, or both; in rare cases, even pleasure from the torture that comes out of blackmailing.

As per data released by the National Crime Records Bureau in 2016, the number of cybercrime cases pertaining to sexual exploitation and outraging the modesty of a woman were 686 and 569 respectively. Though 829 people were arrested for transmission of sexually explicit content, charge-sheets were filed only against 484 .

Effects on victims

The nature of the offence makes it easy for society to shame the victim: ‘It is the victim, after all, who took the pictures and videos and sent them’. This attitude is unsurprising, especially since higher courts in India too seem to hold the same view. However, the fact that the victim sent the pictures of her own volition or consented to getting her pictures clicked does not deny her the right to justice.

In an infamous case of sextortion and rape of a university student, the Punjab and Haryana High Court granted bail to three convicts, saying the victim’s statement revealed a story of “misadventure stemming from a promiscuous attitude and a voyeuristic mind”. This order is clearly the reflection of an irrefutable patriarchy that exists in our society.

Given the sensitivity of the issue, women have little hope of being treated fairly if they file an official complaint or decide to pursue the issue legally. Therefore, a victim chooses to stay silent rather than lose the case and cause a scandal.

Laws and more

Offenders in such crimes usually thrive on the victim’s silence and lack of clarity in the law. Hence, everyone needs to be aware of the codes and sections that will help them in such cases.

~ Section 108(1)(i)(a) of the Criminal Procedure Code empowers the victim to call the magistrate of her locality and inform him/her about the person whom she believes could circulate any obscene material. The magistrate has the power to detain such person(s) and can order him to sign a bond to stop him from circulating the material. This might deter the accused. This is a quick remedial section because the victim can lodge the complaint with the magistrate without any direct evidence against the accused.

~ Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) incriminates any person who distributes or threatens to disperse any intimate and compromising images of someone through any electronic means, including apps and other social media.

~ If a picture of woman is clicked in an obscene manner without her knowledge and is distributed, a voyeurism case under Section 354C of the IPC can also be filed, along with the aid of other relevant sections from the Information Technology Act.

More steps

There is a need for the law to be tightened further

~ Make a specific provision criminalising sextortion

To tackle a problem, it has first to be defined. The Indian laws don’t define sextortion per se and are, hence, inadequate in combating a serious crime such as this. A specific and clear definition of sextortion has to be included in the IPC. Until the law evolves to specifically define and sufficiently punish sextortion, it will remain unacknowledged, with the legal recourse path blurry.

California, just by adding a few words to the extortion statute, now protects its citizens from sextortion by providing a clear path to report this abuse to law enforcement and get compensation from the offender.

~ A safe reporting system for the victim

To ensure that women can report this crime safely and with dignity, there must be a formal and confidential system to receive and register complaints, that ensures the incident is investigated with guaranteed confidentiality.

Going further, legal, institutional (sexual harassment committees in universities and schools), and community protection mechanisms (like NGOs) for these victims must be created, along with legal and psychological support to encourage victims to speak up and hold the perpetrators accountable.

~ Spread the word

Society has to be aware and accepting, and not ostracise the vitcims.

Women facing this issue must make bold to come forward and speak up. They should be aware of their rights and not give the exploiter a chance to thrive on their silence. Sextortion has its roots as much in the patriarchal and misogynistic attitude of society as in individual aberration. It’s not your fault.

(The writers are pursuing LLB at OP Jindal Global University)

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