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Birds & Bees

Sexual Blackmail Persists Despite Change in Mores

Society has become more tolerant of affairs and homosexuality, yet the market for those who would profit from titillating revelations still exists. An upcoming book examines the subject.


In 1997, a woman named Autumn Jackson, who claimed to be Bill Cosby's daughter from a brief affair 20 years earlier, threatened to go public with the allegation unless the comedian paid her $40 million. Instead of delivering the money, Cosby, who had given Jackson about $100,000 in "loans" and paid for her college education, reported the blackmail threat to the FBI.

The case was a classic example of sexual blackmail, said Angus McLaren, a professor of history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, and author of "Sexual Blackmail: A Modern History," due next month from Harvard University Press.

"Blackmail is a form of robbery that usually involves the use of threats to a person's reputation and an effort to extort money," said McLaren, whose book explores sexual blackmail through the last two centuries in the United States and England. The practice expanded, said McLaren, as the idea of middle-class respectability flourished. "Reputations are very important in a society where there are professionals because you cannot move on with a destroyed reputation. Some judges ruling on blackmail cases have said that if you destroy a man's house, he can rebuild it, but if you destroy a reputation, you can't rebuild it. That's why some judges referred to blackmail as being worse than murder."

Sexual blackmail occurs when a person attempts to profit from the threat to sell sexual secrets, criminal or illicit, McLaren said. The accuser often uses the threat to extract hush money from the victim and, in some cases, this launches a cycle of extortion.

But the less legal, common usage of the term "sexual blackmail" has come to mean disclosure of sexual secrets to hurt someone or to mete out revenge, McLaren said. Former Miss North Carolina Rebekah Revels, for instance, dropped out of this year's Miss America pageant because an ex-boyfriend threatened to sell topless photos of her. After Revels changed her mind and asked a court to reinstate her in the contest, the judge determined that pageant officials should make the call. The officials refused to allow her to compete.

Sexual blackmail occurs much less frequently today than it has in the past. "Interest in the classic sexual blackmail scenario has diminished in part because of the pervasiveness of tabloid television and tabloid journalism," McLaren said. "And after the 1960s sexual revolution, laws about abortion, marital infidelity, homosexuality and divorce changed along with modern attitudes about sex, putting sexual blackmail in decline."

A related scenario today, he said, is a tabloid paying someone to entice a politician or celebrity--preferably one who espouses conservative values--into a compromising sexual situation for photos and a story. (Frank Gifford and Dick Morris come to mind.)

McLaren, whose book examines the way sexual blackmail cases have played out in the courts, the press and society, said that historically, sexual blackmail narratives have been one of the few legitimate ways sexual behavior could be discussed publicly during sexually repressive times. Sexual blackmail also played an important role in shoring up class, racial and gender lines, provided people a venue to air anxieties about sexual temptation and tacitly regulated sexual behavior. The stories were cautionary tales about what happens when socially transgressive sexual urges are not kept in check.

"Sexual blackmail stories legitimized discussion of subjects that were taboo--like marital infidelity, abortion, prostitution, homosexuality and the question of sexual bartering, such as to what extent does a man owe something to a woman he had seduced," McLaren said. "The presumption was that the man was the seducer and the question was, did the woman have any legitimate demands?"

Modern sexual blackmail emerged in the 18th century when criminals realized laws against sodomy and the social disapproval of certain sexual behaviors afforded ways to extort money from men who could be entrapped, McLaren writes. Homosexuals were the dominant victims of sexual blackmail and the criminalization of blackmail was first used to protect 18th century Englishmen from accusations of sodomy. In the last half of the 19th century and the 20th century, laws outlawing sodomy allowed sexual blackmail to proliferate. "When you had a certain law that outlawed a sex act, the law itself provided the blackmailers with a weapon," McLaren said. "Blackmailers were like the morality police, levying fines against people who they thought were fair game because they were viewed as social pariahs."

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