Me last week, reading some recently published articles about sextortion, and thinking to myself: “This issue is too important not to discuss with youth, too. They deserve the facts!”
*Trigger Warning: This blog post contains potentially distressing discussion of sextortion, online sexual harassment, and suicide.*
Hi there, Ask Trish readers – I hope you’re all doing well.
For our last post of July, we’re taking on a very serious, and for many, scary topic: sextortion. As close readers will know, this isn’t the first time we’ve discussed online sexual harassment on Ask Trish. But as I mentioned in this week’s TikTok video, unlike in past posts, this week, we’ll be taking a different approach: rather than offer you advice on how to take on sextortion, I’ll be discussing the facts of sextortion, from who it affects to how prevalent it is. My goal and motivation here are two-fold: 1) I’m hoping that you leave this post with a new sense of this issue – my guess is, at least one of your assumptions about sextortion will be upended, leaving you better informed. 2) I’m a strong believer in the idea that “the facts” of these important issues shouldn’t just reach parents, educators, and researchers – they should reach youth, too! Too often, adults don’t bother to share these definitions or statistics with young people, but it’s perhaps us – more than any other group – that can directly benefit from the information. So, as I say in the video, this week, I’m flipping the script and delivering this info straight to you.
Please do remember: while this information is important, it can also be heavy, and for some triggering. Please heed the trigger warning and create space to care for yourself as you explore this topic.
Let’s begin by defining sextortion. What is sextortion? According to ConnectSafely’s “Guide to Teen Sextortion Scams” (which is a more detailed, great resource to explore on this issue), sextortion refers to “a serious crime where someone threatens to distribute nude or compromising images for gain, usually financial or sexual (i.e., wanting more images or contact).” In other words, sextortion refers to the act of blackmailing a victim with compromising online content (think: nude pictures, for instance) to gain something from them, whether it’s money, more sexual content, or even an illegal act. If you’re thinking whoa, that sounds scary, you’re right.
But how exactly does it work? Well, the perpetrator will reach out to the victim to claim that they have compromising content and make their request. Sometimes, it’s “a bluff,” meaning that they don’t have content, but think they might be able to scare you into thinking they do (maybe you shared compromising content with someone else, and now you think it’s fallen into the wrong hands). Sometimes, sextortion begins with coercion – including flattery, compliments, or lying about one’s identity – to get the compromising content, followed by blackmail. This can take anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks. Often, in an attempt to get youth to feel comfortable, a perpetrator will pose as someone who is more age-appropriate and share their own intimate photo, asking for one in exchange.
How does sextortion differ from other forms of online sexual harassment, like revenge porn and photoshopped nudes? Well as I discuss in my Ask Trish posts on both topics, revenge porn often refers not to the threat of, but the action of distributing sexually explicit images or videos without the subject’s consent. (In other words, with revenge porn, the perpetrator “takes revenge” by releasing the content, rather than blackmailing the victim for some other gain.) As for photoshopped nudes, this type of sexual harassment involves images that have been digitally altered to look like nudes, rather than legitimate compromising content (though, as I explore, photoshopped nudes can still be equally traumatizing for victims).
How many youth are affected by sextortion? And who does it affect? Well, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center, 5% of teens have been the victim of sextortion. That may not sound like a whole lot, but when you think about the millions of teens out there – and then do the math – it’s a ton of youth. As for who it affects, the ConnectSafely guide points out that the FBI has noted that there’s been a “huge increase” in sextortion targeting boys aged 14 – 17.
As I’m sure you can imagine, for many of these victims, sextortion is a deeply shameful, traumatizing experience. In fact, according to the ConnectSafely guide, just 1 out of 3 victims tell their parents – a scary statistic, because it’s often only with parents that victims are able to access the support (including intervention by law enforcement) that they need. In rare cases, that shame can be deeply overpowering, as it was for 17-year-old Jordan DeMay, a victim of sextortion that, after learning he had been scammed, died by suicide. It’s so important, then, that victims know: they are not at fault and should not despair. As the ConnectSafely guide points out, many young victims worry that they have broken the law, when in fact, the only people that have are the adults that scam them.
I want to end by expressing immense gratitude to each and every one of you for reading and engaging with this post. For anyone struggling through a sextortion-related situation, please know that we’re all sending you a lot of strength and courage 💙, and that, especially if you’re under 18, there are ways you can combat it; you can learn more about that here (see the section titled “I’m under 18, and I’ve been targeted for sextortion. What should I do?”). And don’t forget: you are worthy, and so much more important than this difficult situation. For those readers that learned about sextortion for the first time, I hope this was a valuable and informative foray into this pressing problem. You can help us tackle this issue by passing this knowledge on to friends and family.
Wondering a similar (or a completely different) question about the Internet? Share your note, question, or thoughts here, and your topic just might be the focus of an upcoming TikTok/blog post. Remember: anything you want to discuss is fair game, so don’t hesitate to share whatever is on your mind. I can’t wait to hear from – and hopefully support – you. 💙
Thank you again. See you all next week,