‘It becomes too easy to look at women as a deviation’

25.7.2022 | Prof Elin Bjarnegård from Uppsala University in Sweden researches gender in politics – for example, she wants to understand the role of masculinities in war and peace, and what happens when political violence is directed at women. We connected with her for a chat about her recent projects on sexual corruption and gendered election violence.
Elin Bjarnegård
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Elin Bjarnegård
You have a new project about sexual corruption, also called sextortion. What is that and where might it feature in society?

It’s basically when you have a corrupt exchange – a bribe that is not monetary but in the form of sex. So it’s an abuse of power to the extent that someone in the position of entrusted power gives out, say in a school setting, a particular grade in exchange for a sexual service. You also see it in migration settings, where migrants are allowed to pass the border in exchange for sex.

Because the currency, if you will, is sex, it tends to fall between the lines of responsibility. So gender-based violence scholars and practitioners don’t really see it as gender-based violence, often because the transaction is interpreted as some version of consent. And corruption scholars have generally tended to focus on monetary bribes, so it’s not really seen as corruption.

What we’re trying to do is to understand how sex as a bribe is different from money when it is seen as corruption.

The two terms, sexual corruption and sextortion, are very interesting. With the word corruption, lay people are perhaps used to thinking of two participating parties, who are both to blame. But with ‘sextortion’, it sounds more one-way and like a clear abuse of power.

This conceptual distinction is part of what we have been struggling with. It’s building on the work of the International Association of Women Judges, who launched the concept of sextortion, but I think there is something about having the word extortion as part of it that doesn’t quite cover the full range of potential cases and incidents that one ought to consider.

That’s what I’m working on right now. We need, I think, to have an overarching word for it, which is sexual corruption. But I also think it’s important to differentiate between what is oppressive and what is opportunistic.

If it’s oppressive, it can be for example withholding the grade that a student is really entitled to, and it becomes extortion: the student doesn’t get the grade she should get unless she gives sex. It’s quite clear then, that the responsibility is with the person in trusted power.

Then many people come and tell us, ‘well sometimes women offer sex in order to have careers’, and I agree that it becomes more blurred in such instances. I am inclined to think that this is not oppressive, it’s not coercion in the same sense, but it is still sexual corruption and the person in power is being unprofessional.

There is a difference in how serious it is, but I think within the corruption framework, it still makes sense to put the responsibility on the person who is corrupting their professional authority.

Another way in which you study gender and power is in relation to political violence. What might that look like?

We have primarily studied particular gendered forms of election violence, and we’ve done a lot of surveys with candidates in countries like Sri Lanka, the Maldives and in Myanmar. The idea is to see, if we bring in a gender perspective, how that may change how we view election violence. Traditionally in this field, it has been about trying to focus on hotspots of physical violence, like there may be rallies where violence is likely erupt, or politicians may be facing kidnap threats, and so on.

If you put yourself in the role of the perpetrator, you want as much effect as possible but with as little risk to yourself as possible. When you bring in that gendered aspect, it’s often quite easy to completely ruin a woman candidate’s campaign by spreading rumours about sexual affairs on the internet, whereas physically attacking her might even backfire.

We need to broaden our definition of election violence and also look into degrading talk, threats, online rumours and psychological forms of violence. That’s often the type of violence that’s used against women.

You mentioned that you’ve done this research in Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Myanmar. Are there cultural aspects to this phenomenon? If you looked at western liberal democracies or an oppressive regime like Belarus, for example, would you see something different?

I think there are both similarities and differences. A lot of research is coming out about UK parliamentarians, for example, and I think there are certain commonalities there. For instance, the fact that women get sexualised threats is certainly true across the board.

I’m part of a project run from Norway, and we’re comparing four different countries: Norway, Ireland, Uganda and Ghana, which are very different. What we have seen so far is that what’s important is the extent to which gender and gender equality is politicised and seen as a politically salient issue in the particular election.

When I did the survey in the Maldives, for instance, the role of women in society was so much on the agenda and really part of the whole modernisation discussion. Gender equality was seen as a symbol in the political discussion. Women candidates faced so much harassment and so many threats in that election, whereas in Sri Lanka, I think in many ways, violence was seen as just the way of politics. Men and women candidates expected to experience violence. Some women even expressed that, ‘well, at least I know I’m taken seriously.’

Finally, why is it so important to study masculinity in political science?

So much of not just political science, but social science, is about men and masculinities – but without naming it as such. Traditional research is really focussed on male-dominated institutions and practices, but we don’t say that they are.

We’ve had a big surge of gender research, but it has tended to focus on women. This is of course a valuable and useful perspective, but focusing on men, as men, inserts a fuller gendered perspective. It becomes too easy to look at women as a deviation, as ‘women’s ways of doing things’. In the corruption discourse, you will find discussions about whether women are less corrupt than men; in peace discourses, you will see arguments that women should be in peace talks because they are more peaceful.

I think that’s the wrong way of looking at it. We need to understand these problems of war and corruption as male-dominated problems. To bring in women as the solution is starting in the wrong way. We need to understand the driving forces that lead not all men but some men to use violence to solve conflicts. What is the reason that corrupt networks are overwhelmingly male? Why do they use other men and not women?

What fascinating and important work. Prof Bjarnegård, thank you for speaking with us.
  (© Emilie Steinmark / AcademiaNet /

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