Sextortion takes on different forms, but at its core, it is the threat to expose sexual images in order to make a person do something. These threats come from both strangers met online and once intimate romantic partners attempting to harass, embarrass, and control victims.
Sextortion is an emerging form of online abuse.
What is sextortion?
In late 2017, we relaunched our sextortion survey to more closely examine the experiences of minors. This is what they told us.
Sextortion is happening to kids and teens.
Online victims are more likely to be threatened sooner.
Online victims are often targeted on platforms they frequent. Victims reported that the first contact with their perpetrator typically came in the form of a social media friend request.
Victims are less likely to report outside of their inner circle.
Most victims are embarrassed or ashamed and would prefer to handle the situation on their own. If they do report, they are much more likely to talk to someone they know than to a website or law enforcement.
Stop sextortion before it starts.
Sextortion can have a devastating impact on victims, and it can happen to anyone. You can stop it before it starts by helping to increase awareness about sextortion, destigmatize the issue, and encourage individuals to reach out for help and support their friends.
In an effort to better understand the threat of sextortion and its impact on children, teens, and young adults, Thorn partnered with the Crimes Against Children Research Center (CCRC) at the University of New Hampshire in 2015 to conduct a first of its kind online survey of 1,631 persons ages 18 to 25 that have been targets of sextortion.
How sextortion unfolds.
Sextortion episodes reported were diverse, but incidents broadly fell into two groups:
- In the wake of face-to-face intimate relationships during which images were taken or shared, an aggrieved partner threatened to share images either to force reconciliation or to embarrass or humiliate.
- A perpetrator who met a respondent online used a sexual image obtained from the respondent or some other source to demand more images or sexual interactions.
Sextortion spans technology.
Sextortion is a wide-ranging problem and not isolated to one website or app. Perpetrators used many forms of technology to reach victims and 45% of victims reported contact with perpetrators on more than one platform. With connectivity on the rise, sextortion could be an increasingly pervasive threat.
Respondents made a wide range of changes to their technology use as a result of threats to expose sexual images. About one-third or more changed passwords, screen or user names; closed social media accounts; deleted apps from cell phone or stopped accessing certain websites. Only 13% said they made no changes to how they used the internet or cell phones.
You trusted someone and they let you down. Don’t blame yourself.Female, 17 when threatenedadvice to those who have experienced sextortion
He threatened to send naked pictures of me that I had sent him during our relationship to my college or to my parents over Facebook.Female, 21 when threatenedon how sextortion unfolded
Tell someone you trust about the situation. It is a tough thing to go through alone, let alone dangerous.Male, 14 when threatenedon seeking help
This has ruined my self-image, my relationships, and my trust of others. I still to this day don’t feel like myself.Female, 15 when threatenedon the lasting effects
Consequences of sextortion
Our survey gave insights into the lasting impact of sextortion and often devastating aftermath. The personal and psychological toll on respondents could be quite intense, and many respondents didn’t seek help due to embarrassment, shame and self-blame.
Thorn and the Crimes Against Children Research Center (CCRC) are grateful to those who took time to complete our survey and to the many survey respondents who provided detailed and heartfelt descriptions of their experiences. We hope that the information available will help the public and professionals who respond to sextortion understand the nature of these incidents and the harm inflicted on victims, prompt people to think about prevention and intervention, and inspire new ideas and novel strategies to combat this problem.
Detailed analyses and findings along with information about how the survey was conducted can be found in the full report.
Resources for those experiencing sextortion
Several websites provide information about how to get legal help and other support in cases of non-consensual distribution of sexual images:
- Without My Consent
- Cyber Civil Rights Initiative
- End Revenge Porn
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline
- Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network
- Male Survivor
- CA Department of Justice
To report cases that involve child sexual exploitation (age 17 and younger):