He tells you he loves you. You love him back. He convinces you to take nude pictures. Things don’t work out, as they sometimes don’t when you’re seventeen, and the next thing you know, he’s threatening to post the photos on your Facebook page if you don’t do whatever he says.
This new internet crime is called sextortion, and it’s on the rise. Victims of sextortion are blackmailed into meeting specific demands in return for not revealing a sexual photo or video.
In one of the first studies of its kind, the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes against Children Research Center (UNH) and the non-profit organization, Thorn, have brought to the open the horrific reality of this emerging crime.
UNH’s Crimes against Children Research Center partnered with Thorn, a non-profit dedicated to driving technology innovation to fight child sexual exploitation, to conduct an online survey in an effort to learn more about the occurrences of sextortion and how these can be reduced.
Ads were placed in various internet platforms including Facebook and Twitter to find participants for the survey, and more than 1,600 young women and men between the ages of 18 and 25 responded.
“We were hoping for 200,” said Janis Wolak, Senior Researcher at the Crimes against Children Research Center. “However, over one million people between the ages of 18-25 saw the ad on Facebook. These weren’t just incidents that happened last year but in the past few years so we still can’t say from our data that that’s a lot of people.”
Almost half of respondents of the study were minors when the sextortion incidents happened.
Seventy-two percent of the study respondents knowingly provided sexual content; however, not all acted freely. The majority of them were either pressured, forced or tricked into doing it.
The study found that demands ranged from providing continual sexual images to engaging in actual sexual activity. Nine percent of respondents from the study were even blackmailed for money. If demands were not met, perpetrators exposed sexual images online, sent images to friends and family, stalked, and 33 percent of respondents said perpetrators went as far as to physically harm or try to harm them.
Most incidents did not last very long, but 22 percent said the incident went on for more than six months.
After six months of humiliation or even just a week, you would hope that victims would finally tell someone or seek help from a loved one. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. In fact, almost half of respondents did not go to family or friends for help. The shame and embarrassment was too much to bear.
Many respondents also described the frustrating difficulty of trying to report images to a website, app or the police.
Even worse, the 16 percent of respondents who found the courage to go to the police did not all have a positive experience. Most were told that the incidents taking place were not a criminal offense, which is unfortunately true. Some were told that because they were minors when the incident happened, they could be charged with child pornography offenses.
“I do hope that the report will open people’s heart of how painful and distressing these incidents are,” said Wolak. “The kids who fall victim of this may be particularly vulnerable. We need to really recognize and have compassion of how nasty and vicious this crime is.”
Changes and advancements in technology may have many positive effects, but unfortunately they are introducing society to new crimes. The sextortion report is a step toward providing the right knowledge and resources to victims, friends and family, and law enforcement alike.