The following post is written by Stacy Jeleniewski, PhD, Senior Research Specialist at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). Since 1984, NCMEC has served as the national clearinghouse and resource center for families, victims, private organizations, law enforcement and the public on issues relating to missing and sexually exploited children.

In today’s world, we’re increasingly able to connect with others from a device in the palm of our hands—to chat with friends, post photos, meet new people or express ourselves. While there’s a push to share a lot of ourselves online, we’re often comfortable doing so only if we feel in control of what we’re sharing and with whom we’re sharing it. In the past, we were likely warned about what others (particularly online strangers) might ask us to share, whether in person or online. But what if someone doesn’t give us the chance to say no? What if we’re experiencing sextortion?

First, we need to better understand what sextortion is to know if it’s happening to us. Sextortion is a form of victimization that sometimes starts friendly, but ultimately evolves into threats or blackmail to get someone to do something they don’t want to do. It’s always sexual in some manner and often involves communication online or through Smartphone apps. Some common goals of sextortion are to get sexually explicit images/videos, meet to have sex, extort money or force someone to stay in a relationship.

Whatever the goal, people often feel like they can’t say no because they’re threatened with some horrible outcome if they don’t cooperate. While these threats can vary, a common threat is to post extremely private images, videos or conversations of the victim online so that they’ll be seen by their family and friends. To help figure out if what you’re experiencing is sextortion, try and use an “if, then” statement. So, if you don’t do something, then there’s a consequence. For example:

  • “If I don’t give them more nude images or meet them for sex, then they’ll post online all the private pictures I already gave them for my family/friends to see.”
  • “If I don’t give them a nude picture or have sex with them, then they said they’ll hurt themselves or break up with me because I must not care about them anyway.”
  • “If I don’t give them money, then they’ll share a private video of me that they recorded while I thought we were just livestreaming.”
  • “If I don’t stay in a relationship with them, then they’ll post the images I shared with them while we were together.”
  • “If I give them just one more image, then they’ll stop threatening me and leave me alone.”

Even with these examples, sextortion still might be hard to identify because it can take on many forms. It can also be confusing if it’s someone you trusted or if you feel you’re somehow at fault. Maybe the person was someone you thought of as a friend or romantic partner, but he or she betrayed you. Maybe you thought you were going to trade images or livestream with someone wanting to share with you too, but it ended up being one-sided. Any of these situations might make you wonder if you’re experiencing sextortion. No matter what, if something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. And if you’re in a similar situation, you should know what you can do about it.

Ignore them.

Whether it’s in person or online, stop communicating with them, even if they ask or beg you to talk or “just want to explain themselves.” You might be confused or afraid, especially by their threats. Remember, if they’re treating you this way, they don’t really care about you. The longer you keep talking to them, the more likely they are to use that confusion and fear against you to get you to do what they want.

Block them.

If online, block that person from all the accounts on which you’ve been talking to them. Keep in mind that some things might make it easy for them to keep finding you online, like using the same email address, phone number or having the same friends on any new accounts as you did before. Just remember, don’t delete any communications or threats you may have from that person. The more information you can provide, the more likely this person can be stopped.

Report them.

Telling someone you trust and reporting the situation is really important, not just to help stop the sextortion but also as a way to get support. Sextortion is illegal and can be scary and upsetting, but there are many people you can go to for help, such as parents/guardians, family members or other trusted adults (guidance counselors, teachers, social workers, school psychologists, etc.). You can also make reports to the local police, on the website or app’s report button and online to the CyberTipline.

Remember, sextortion works by taking away your control through threats and blackmail. While only you can know what’s right for you, it’s important to take back control. Take action: ignore them, block them, report them!

If you’re experiencing sextortion, remember: you’re not alone. The good news is that you can handle this, you’re going to be okay. So, take a few deep breaths and check out some resources here.

If you need help now, text “THORN” to 741741, and a trained Crisis Text Line counselor will be there to support you anonymously.