Incidents involving threats to expose sexual images, or what media are calling “sextortion,” are not new, but have evolved with social media.
In a large study we recently did on the topic, we found that sextortion mostly involves the classic dynamics of abusive relationships, or malicious online seducers with a few digital-age twists. The dynamics are offensive and manipulative, to be sure, but also sadly familiar. We have seen similar dynamics in our research about sexting and other internet-related sex crimes.
We have gotten better as a society over the last generation in providing services to victims of intimate partner abuse and sexual assault, as evidenced by rape crisis centres and specialised police and prosecution units. But reports of sextortion show the distance we still have to go in raising public awareness. The varieties and dynamics of all forms of sexual exploitation and intimate abuse are important for the public and policymakers to understand so we can craft prevention strategies to help victims.
Distress for young victims
In our study, we asked young people between the ages of 18 and 25 to complete an online survey telling us their stories about sextortion, in partnership with the nonprofit Thorn and through ads on Facebook. We defined sextortion as threats to expose sexual images in order to make a person do something or for other reasons, such as revenge or humiliation.
Among the 1,631 respondents to the online survey, many gave harrowing accounts about threats to send sexual images to parents, employers and classmates. About half of the victims were youth under age 18. In many cases, these images were originally entrusted willingly to intimate partners. In other cases, they were coerced or even fabricated. The perpetrators were mostly men targeting women and girls, but we also heard about sextortion within LGBTQ relationships.
The cases could be largely divided into two dynamic groups. On the one hand were spurned or rejected boyfriends who in their bitterness or desperation used threats to punish former lovers, or coerce them back into relationships. These men stalked, harassed and badgered their former partners in ways that could be terrifying and overwhelming.
The other group, the malicious seducers, used friendship, deception and promises of romance to acquire compromising pictures from targets they met online, and then used these pictures to extract more images and sex. They tracked down victims’ contacts on social media sites, stalked victims online and used threats to force them into demeaning webcam sex.
The threats alone were highly distressing, but even more alarming, perpetrators actually carried out their threats to distribute intimate images in almost half of cases. The personal and psychological toll on victims was intense, with almost one-quarter seeking medical or mental health assistance and 12% moving from their homes as a result.
Challenges to getting help
Like other victims of intimate abuse and sexual assault, victims of sextortion reported pervasive feelings of shame, embarrassment and self-blame. These feelings often kept them from seeking help from friends and family, or from reporting to technology companies that ran websites or apps used for sextortion.
Unfortunately, when they did reach out, it was often to no avail. 40% of those who had the courage to report to websites or apps said that the responses that they received were not helpful.
One victim said:
“It was a very difficult and long process, which involved proving my identity and explaining what had happened via email to the owner of the website who was very unwilling to have the image taken down… The website initially took down the photo, but then allowed [the perpetrator] to repost it less than a week later.”
In many cases, technology companies refused to remove images posted by perpetrators and did not intervene when their platforms were used to stalk and harass. Companies may not have enough staff to deal with the complaints or are averse to being seen as censors.
Few victims reported sextortion to law enforcement. When they did, police assistance was also meagre. Victims described a lack of criminal laws addressing sextortion and being shamed or blamed by police. Some victims who were minors were threatened with prosecution under child pornography laws.
There are few laws specifically about these dynamics. Some states have developed laws to deal with sextortion but mostly, if they are prosecuted at all, it is under statutes related to stalking, hacking, general extortion or child pornography. One problem with child pornography statutes is that in theory they can criminalise the behaviour of the victim who made and transmitted the image in the first place.
Responsibility in tech
Reducing the sense of stigma and self-blame among victims is an important step to foiling perpetrators.
We believe there is a special role here for the technology industry which has built their business model on inviting young people into their spaces to share the intimate details and deeply fraught aspects of their relationships. The industry has a responsibility to protect and respond to their young customers when their platforms are used for abuse.
We know that prevention has many advantages over repair, and the companies with their huge youth client base are well positioned to influence norms of behaviour. We also know that most victims of sexual offences and intimate abuse do not report to law enforcement, so the help available online may be the only help that large numbers of victims ever get.
New technology does afford some opportunities for new ways to get help. The same creative imaginations that have made sextortion so easy can surely find some equally creative and effective ways to prevent it and assist those who have been harmed.
David Finkelhor is professor of sociology and Janis Wolak is a senior researcher at the University of New Hampshire.