Protection Against Sextortion Starts with Understanding the Threat
Just over 25 years ago, I held my oldest child for the first time. It was an amazing feeling as I was flooded with intense and immediate love. It didn’t take long before that love was replaced with the realization that I was expected to nurture and provide for this new little human. My worry nearly equaled the intensity of my love. How was I going to raise a decent human being, nurture him in a positive way, and protect him from everything he would experience? These questions can be all consuming for a new parent. Fortunately love won out as our journey began together.
Any parent or primary caregiver has a list of things they do to protect their children. I am not talking about a written list, but an intuitive list that sits in their minds and guides how they raise their children. Generally, things move on and off that list based on the parent or caregiver’s past experiences, but occasionally parents face a new threat no previous generation of parents had to experience.
Sexual extortion (sextortion) is one of these threats.
Sextortion is a form of child sexual abuse where a victim is threatened or blackmailed to meet the specific demands of a perpetrator. In these cases, either the threat or the demand is sexual in nature.
Most commonly the perpetrator threatens to share sexual content about the victim (either real or faked) with the purpose of obtaining additional sexual content, sexual activity, money, or other favors from the victim.
Protecting against sextortion starts with understanding the threat. Although perpetrators gain access to extortable content through many methods, sextortion often starts with sexting or digital sharing of sexual material. It’s important to understand that the child or youth may have chosen to share the sexual material, but once shared, the material can quickly get into other people’s hands. This decision may have been influenced by a variety of factors, such as peer pressure, relationship expectations, curiosity, exploration, bullying, coercion, or a desire to impress or be included. Here are just a few of many statistics that can help us understand the threat.
- 46.8% of youth report having received a sexted image.1
- Data from police indicate that 90-100% of nonconsensual-distribution offenders were other youth.2
- 72% of youth who receive a forwarded sexted image don’t report it.1
- Only 2.6% told their parents they were being victimized.1
- A quarter of youth justify their forwarding of a sexted image as a joke.1
Once we understand the threat, we can turn our attention to principles that can help us minimize the threat and protect our child. Here are five of the best things parents and caregivers can do to reduce the risk of sextortion:
Assess risky situations and practice navigating them.
The developing brain of a child and youth is not yet wired to effectively assess risky situations especially as it relates to sexual activity. We should not expect children and youth to navigate sexual activity decisions without significant adult support. For this reason, parents and caregivers should walk through various risky situations—online and offline—that could lead to sextortion and practice with the child how they might navigate the situations.
Teach how to set and respect healthy boundaries.
If I could only pick one principle to teach my children about risk reduction, this would be the principle. Learning how to set and hold boundaries is a life skill that pays huge dividends. For sextortion specifically, boundaries help children and youth reduce the chance that they will have sexual material available to be sextorted. Boundaries also impede perpetrators if by chance they do obtain sexual material. As a parent or caregiver, you get a double dose of protection by teaching one principle.
Keep the lines of communication open.
Learning to respond instead of react directly combats the shame and stigma that often prevent a victim from seeking help. A parent who can respond to a child or youth when they hear difficult things makes it more likely that the child or youth will keep the lines of communication open. Learning to respond instead of react is not easy to do when you are dealing with big emotions or serious issues. Practice responding to circumstances where your child might disclose sexting or sextortion.
Discuss sexual development and healthy intimacy.
Proactive big talks mixed in with a lot of responsive little talks about sexual development arm your children with an understanding of what is normal and healthy when it comes to their sexual development. This makes it more likely for them to recognize unhealthy relationships. This also helps them elevate unhealthy relationships to their parents or caregivers, allowing an opportunity for the parent or caregiver to intervene. If your child is old enough to have technology in their hands it is time to have the big talk about sextortion.
Model and develop emotional well-being.
Children and youth most often model what they see. Perpetrators of sextortion are looking for vulnerabilities. A child or youth who demonstrates emotional well-being reduces their risk. This is not a fix-all. Sextortion can happen to anyone, even a child or youth who is emotionally well, but risk can be reduced as we model well-being in ourselves and develop well-being in our children and youth.
Sextortion sounds scary to a parent or caregiver. And it is. Educating ourselves about how to reduce the risk allows us to combat that fear through action. We can reduce risk. We can empower our children and youth to build healthy relationships, avoid or navigate risky situations, and come to us for help if something does happen. As I reflect back on my 25 years of parenting, I can confidently say that combatting risks with knowledge, understanding, and actions allows me to focus on the joy and love of parenting. Let’s let love win out.
For additional prevention resources visit saprea.org.