Sextortion is a form of child sexual abuse involving the threat to release sexually explicit material of the victim unless certain demands are met. Most commonly the perpetrator threatens to share sexual images of the victim (real or faked) with the purpose of obtaining additional sexually explicit content, sexual contact with the victim, money, or other demands. While intimate images are the most well-known type of blackmail, sextortionists can use other leverage against the victim, like the threat to share a screenshot of an intimate conversation, a video from the victim’s webcam, or private information about the victim’s sexuality. This last threat may factor into why LGBTQ+ youth are nearly three times as likely to be sextorted as their heterosexual peers.1
Sextortion is one of many forms of tech-facilitated sexual abuse that involves the nonconsensual obtaining and/or sharing of sexual images. Such distribution is committed with the intent to harm, humiliate, exploit, or gain profit. What separates sextortion from more public forms of tech-facilitated abuse, like image-based sexual abuse, sexual harassment, or revenge porn, is that sextortion centers around the threat of releasing images to gain control over the victim. This sense of power, along with the feelings of helplessness instilled in the victim, are the main drivers behind sextortion’s harms.
Given that sextortion is still a relatively new phenomenon, it remains unclear how many people are impacted by this crime.2 Recent studies show that the percentage of US teens who experience sextortion is around 3–5%.3,4 According to the FBI and National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the number of reports involving sextortion has increased dramatically, more than doubling between 2019 and 2021.5,6 And in the year 2022, the Homeland Security Investigations received over 3,000 sextortion tips, though the amount of individual cases depicted by this number is unknown.7
What is clear is that sextortion is a growing trend that places youth at risk and falls into two main categories.2,8
Blackmailed by a Stranger Met Online
The first category of sextortion involves a victim being targeted by someone they met online.8 In these instances, the perpetrator will often befriend the youth on a social media app, live streaming or gaming platform, or other medium with a chat feature. During this initial contact, the perpetrator will likely use a false identity, pretending to be someone younger, attractive, and typically of the opposite sex to garner the youth’s interest and trust. In fact, this type of catfishing is used in 91% of sextortion cases involving perpetrators met online.9
While communicating with the youth, the perpetrator will use grooming methods such as flattery, compliments, flirtation, shared secrets, and signs of genuine interest in the youth’s life. They may even offer the youth gifts or bribes as they build up a rapport.7
The perpetrator will then ask the youth to send them a suggestive photo of themselves. This request may come after an expressed attraction to the youth, excessive flattery about the youth’s looks, or even a sexted image sent by the perpetrator. After the youth is pressured into sending a sexual photo, the perpetrator uses that photo as blackmail, threatening to share it online or with the youth’s contacts unless they meet a specific demand. Some perpetrators may demand more pictures or other forms of sexually explicit content. They may even demand sexual contact with the victim or coerce them into forms of illegal activity. Others may demand payment in what is termed as financial sextortion, a rising trend that is increasingly targeting young males.10
Blackmailed by Someone You Know
While instances involving strangers encountered online have been the focus of the media’s rising interest in sextortion, there is a second type of sextortion that youth may experience—being sextorted by someone they already know.8 In fact, research shows that in the majority of cases a minor is sextorted by someone who is already a part of their life, most often a current or former romantic partner.3,8 This type of sextortion seems to coincide with teen dating victimization, specifically with threatening to share photos of a partner in order to control them, force them to return to a relationship, or force them to provide more photos post-breakup.
Although victims often knowingly provide sexual images that are later used against them, the degree of consent involved in such a decision may be up for debate, even within romantic pairings. One study showed that while most victims initially sent the images to the person they knew (75%), many felt pressured to do so (67%).8 This may be indicative of the complicated and controversial nature of sexting. Because while sexting remains common among adolescents as a form of social bonding, romantic expression, and sexual exploration, girls in particular have reported feeling pressured, manipulated, or coerced into sending images of themselves, as well experiencing more negative consequences as a result.8 One of those consequences may be sextortion. If the sensitive content is eventually shared by the blackmailer, then the youth also becomes the victim of image-based sexual abuse (the non-consensual sharing of images). Depending on the situation, the sextortion may also overlap with revenge porn, online sexual harassment, the distribution of sexually explicit materials involving children, and other forms of tech-facilitated sexual abuse.
What Are the Harms?
In about half of sextortion cases involving minors, the blackmailer follows through with the threat of releasing the sensitive content—posting it online and/or sharing it with the victims’ contacts.8 Whether the threat is carried out or not, sextortion can impact the victim in a number of other harmful ways. Many victims experience feelings of helplessness, shame, fear, and a loss of control.11 Some have expressed feeling trapped, like there was no way out. Such feelings of dread, worry, and hopelessness have led to other harmful impacts, including high depression levels, panic attacks, difficulty eating, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and—in a few high-profile cases—suicide.11,12 These risks can intensify in cases where the sextortionist continues to harass or stalk the victim (sometimes for a period of up to six months), create a fake online profile about them, and/or encourage the victim to harm themselves.3,8
In instances where the child is sextorted by someone they met online, they are not only threatened with blackmail, but may also lose a relationship they had perceived as safe, supportive, or even loving.10
As with other forms of child sexual abuse, the shame that a victim can experience because of sextortion reduces the likelihood that they will reach out for help. In fact, only half of minors who are sextorted tell someone about their victimization. Most feel too embarrassed (80%) or dread that they’ll get in trouble (68%).8 Among victims who do open up to a parent, girls are significantly more likely to disclose (41.7%) than boys (28.6%).3
How to Stop Sextortion
Sextortion is a crime that attempts to isolate victims through feelings of shame, helplessness, and terror. Victims may not only fear getting in trouble by their parents and law enforcement, but also having their devices taken away, an outcome that can feel like punishment and lead to further isolation (FBI.gov). The most important thing a parent can do to reduce the risk of their child being sextorted is to foster open and continual communication.
Researchers recommend less emphasis be placed on stranger danger—considering that people the child already knows can still pose a threat, while connections formed online can lead to healthy, meaningful relationships. Rather, parents are encouraged teach and model what healthy relationships look like—whether that relationship is first developed in person or online, and whether it is an acquaintance, friendship, or romance.4,13 As youth become more knowledgeable of what constitutes a healthy relationship—including authenticity, openness, communication, and a respect for boundaries—they’ll be more able to identify situations and interactions that may place them at risk. They’ll also be more equipped to maintain healthy boundaries, as well as deflect demands and resist pressures that seek to violate those boundaries. They’ll also be more able navigate through abusive scenarios like sextortion by ceasing contact, seeking help, and recognizing that they are not at fault. Youth will seek out such support if they have already been assured that their parent is a safe and trusted person they can turn to, no matter the issue they’re facing. If the parent has a history of responding rather than reacting, and has maintained open lines of communication about all manner of sensitive or difficult topics, the child or teen will be less likely to isolate if they are targeted.
Along with open communication and modeling healthy relationships, parents can also teach and model healthy boundaries with technology. They can educate their kids about digital citizenship and the risks that come with living in the digital era, including the risk of sextortion. Parents can advise their kids to be selective about what they share with others—online and offline—and to be aware that people can pretend to be anyone online. They can also set boundaries around screen time and internet use, monitor or spot check devices, be in the know about what apps and social media platforms their kids are using, and be aware of who their kids are communicating with.
Parents can also be on the lookout for warning signs of sextortion and other forms of child sexual abuse, tech-facilitated or otherwise. These signs might include a withdrawal from general interests and activities, isolating from others, increased anxiety and/or depression levels, lashing out, stealing money, refusing to discuss what they’re doing online and/or who they’re communicating with, and being constantly agitated or on edge.
What Do I Do if Something Has Already Happened?
If your child has already been victimized by sextortion, it is important to:
- Block all further communications with the sextortionist.
- Report the account to the website or platform where the sextortionist made contact.
- Avoid sending money if the sextortionist is demanding payment.
- Keep all messages, photos, and other related communications as evidence for prosecution.
- Report the incident to the authorities. You may also consider using the CyberTipline run by the National Center for Missing and Exploiting Children (NCMEC).
- Refrain from taking away the child’s device, as this may instill additional feelings of shame and isolation.
- Offer support, empathy, and safety in the aftermath, assuring the child they are not to blame.
- Connect the child with professional resources to help them manage any distressing impacts.
You can learn more about at sextortion by visiting Thorn.org, Amaze.org, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and FBI.gov. For more information about how to protect the children in your life from sexual abuse, we invite you to explore Saprea’s sexual abuse prevention resources.