Sextortion – What Every Parent Needs to Know

What in the world is Sextortion and why does every parent need to know about?

Sextortion occurs when a criminal obtains sexually explicit images of a person and threatens to distribute them if the victim does not provide additional images, sexual favors, or money.  It is a serious situation that happens in our state, our communities, our school, our neighborhoods and our homes.  While smart phones and the internet have made life incredibly more convenient, they have also created landmines for our younger generations to navigate.  We have previously written about Sexting and the legal pitfalls associated with sharing compromising photos with another person but Sextortion takes Sexting to an entirely new level.

Regardless of parental warnings, teenagers and young adults cannot seem to withstand the temptation to send sexually explicit photographs via Snapchat or other digital communication platforms to their significant others or at times, feigning interested strangers.  What is challenging for them to understand and appreciate in a moment where their privative sexual drive clouds their judgment is once an image is sent, they lose all control of what happens next with it.  Enter Sextortion.  There are two primary categories of Sextortion that we are seeing.  1. Significant Other Sextortion and 2. Stranger Sextortion.

Significant Other Sextortion is certainly the most common but is probably the least reported.  This occurs when two individuals are romantically interested in one another.  Inevitably the relationship and communications progresses to a point where compromising sexual photographs are exchanged.  In this day-and-age, this often times occurs before a physical, sexual relationship has even started.  These images are screenshotted or otherwise saved by the partner and are used as “leverage” to convince the other partner to engage in physical sexual acts they would not otherwise consent to by threats of sharing the compromising images with their friends, family or coworkers.  The images are used to manipulate and exploit the individual through threats that prey on the shame and embarrassment emotions.  During our young-adult and teenage years the last thing we want is to be embarrassed or shamed in front of our peers.  Consequently this form of Sextortion can have tragic consequences on teenagers mental and physical health.  Parents should understand that sex acts that occur by force or “against the will” of another can qualify as Sexual Abuse in the Third Degree.

Stranger Sextortion is something that we are seeing with increasing frequency here in Iowa.  Here is how it works.  A criminal, posing as a romantically interested individual contacts a teenager or young adult via a dating site or normal social media – TikTok, Instagram, etc.  They use attractive profile pictures and use information from the victims social media accounts to create a common bond.  The criminal draws the victim in and soon transitions the conversation into a sexual tone.  The criminal shares, often times fake photos of themselves and requests compromising photos of the victim in return.  Once the compromising photos are in hand, the criminal goes the extra step of asking for images that shows the victims face as well.  Extortion material firmly in hand the squeeze is then applied.

Because the interaction began on social media.  The criminal takes screenshots of profiles of the victims friends and family member’s profiles.  They then send messages that have a devastating impact on the victims mental health informing going so far at times to tell the victim that their life is over and they are better off dead.  The criminal then threatens to share the images with friends, family members and even professional colleagues unless payment is immediately made.  Of course payment does not end the Sextortion but simply fuels it further.  In some cases the criminal even require the victim to be the middle-man, utilizing their PayPal, Venmo or other electronic payment systems account to funnel payments from new victims to the criminals.

The key to avoiding Sextortion is education on the front-end.  Understanding how criminal work in this realm and educating our children, teenagers, young adults and ourselves on how we can all be exploited is the first place to start.  Not sending images is the sure-fire way to avoid being victimized but secondarily, permission for victims to disclose being caught in compromising situations is imperative.  Our children, teenagers and young-adults need to know that disclosure to parents and authorities will not be met with rebuke, criticism or shaming.  Instead, solution based responses are a must.

Regarding immediate solutions, it never hurts to remind criminals that solicitation, receipt, possession and distribution of sexual images of anyone under 18 years old is a federal and state criminal offense punishable by heavy prison terms.  It also doesn’t hurt to remind them that every electronic communication and transaction has a digital trail and alerted authorities have little trouble following that trail.

Sextortion is a real thing.  Have the talk with your children, families, co-workers and anyone who will listen know.  Knowledge is power and is the most effective prevention too.