Teens Targeted in Sextortion Crimes, Victims Often Blame Themselves

June 24, 2016 Updated: June 24, 2016

Victims of “sextortion” can have life-changing repercussions for young people, a study released on June 23 said.

Sextortion is a form of blackmail usually using explicit images to threaten individuals into doing sexual favors.

“I was mentally tortured by an ex-boyfriend because he had ‘pictures’ of me. He threatened to expose me. I had to go to therapy because it took so much out of me mentally,” said one of the victims in the study conducted by the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center.

One in four victims had to seek medical or mental health care, while 45 percent said they were unable to confide in friends and family.

One in eight victims were forced to move, the study found.

“An ex-boyfriend tried to blackmail me back into a relationship with him. I do not know if the videos really exist, but the fear of my reputation being ruined forced me to relocate,” said a victim.  

Another victim said, “I moved, I got a dog, I would change my routine every 3 days (i.e. where I parked, what paths I took to classes, and when I returned home)… I was so scared about what he would do.”

Victims Very Young

More than 1,600 young women and men participated in the survey. Nearly half of the respondents were under the age of 18 when the sextortion occurred, while the rest were between 18 and 25. The report targets mostly women, but men experienced 15 percent of the incidents.

“So many survey participants felt they had nowhere to turn for help or found only obstacles when they sought assistance,” said Janis Wolak, the lead researcher on the study. “They need quicker and more effective responses from both technology sites and law enforcement, as well as better guidance about actions they could take to help defeat threats.” 

Threats Are Serious and Frequent

Sextortion incidents were serious and diverse, researchers found. Situations stemmed from face-to-face romantic or sexual relationships, in which explicit images were obtained or shared with a then-partner. The former partner would then threaten to disseminate images in an effort to force reconciliation or to punish the victim. In other occasions, perpetrators met victims online and used sexual images to demand more photos or sexual interactions.

I was ostracized, objectified, alienated and made fun of for over 6 months of the school year.
— Victim

Almost a third of the respondents said they were threatened daily. For 22 percent of the victims, the threats went on for more than 6 months.

“A boy sent pictures of me around and they circulated to the majority of the school. I was ostracized, objectified, alienated and made fun of for over 6 months of the school year,” said a victim.

Along with sexual images, victims were also encountering threatening behaviors like sexual assault, physical violence, hacking into accounts, and extorting money. The study shows perpetrators were successful in conducting their threats in 45 percent of the cases.

Many victims choose not to speak and seek help from friends and family, or from reporting to technology companies or authorities because of shame, embarrassment, and self-blame. Researchers found that only one in five sought help or reported the incident to the website or app, while only 16 percent reported cases to the police.

I thought it was all my fault.
— Victim

“The reason I didn’t want to speak up is because I was afraid of what the adults in my life might think of me. I thought it was all my fault and I figured that’s what they would tell me,” said a victim who was 14-years-old when the incident happened.

Multi-Platform Attacks

Perpetrators use numerous types of technological platforms, including social media networks, instant messaging apps, video sharing websites, email, and gaming sites. Around 45 percent of survey participants reported contact from perpetrators on more than one platform.

“This is one of the first sextortion studies that lets us hear the voice of the victims of this emerging crime,” said Julie Cordua, CEO of Thorn, who funded the study.  

“Perpetrators are not making idle threats and often follow through with violence online and in person. Therefore, it is critical that parents and educators, policy makers, law enforcement, and the technology industry develop better ways of protecting and assisting young people.”

They fall for it.
— Parry Aftab, Cyber lawyer, WiredSafety

Boys Affected Too

Some internet incidents include young boys, said Parry Aftab, founder of WiredSafety and a cyber lawyer for cyberbullying, sextortion, and sexual exploitation on the internet, in a recent interview with Epoch Times. 

The boys are often lured by beautiful women on a webcam and are seduced into taking off their clothes. A message then comes up from blackmailers, usually offshore, demanding money in exchange for the images. The blackmailers may ask for $500 in exchange for not releasing a photo of the minor.  

“They fall for it,” said Aftab.