A 41-year-old man in Sweden was sentenced to 10 years in prison today for raping 27 minors in three different countries—without ever having met the young victims.
Bjorn Samstrom, who lived north of Stockholm, was found guilty of coercing 26 girls and one boy living in the US, Canada, and Britain to perform sex acts in front of their web cams while he watched. Otherwise, he threatened, he would post their photos on porn sites or kill their relatives.
According to Canada’s National Post, Samstrom told his victims, most under the age of 15, to remove their clothes and penetrate themselves with their fingers or objects; some were also forced to involve other children or pets. The online rapes were reported to have happened between 2015 and early 2017.
Samstrom’s conviction is unprecedented. Annika Wennerström, one of the prosecutors involved in the case, told the National Post that they recognized they were “really challenging the court” by going after a rape conviction for crimes that occurred over the Internet. Under Swedish law, rape does not have to involve intercourse.
“It’s only the sexual predator’s imagination that sets the limits,” Wennerström said. “The technology knows no limits. So we have to adapt our mindset to, ‘What can a rape be?’ We say a rape can be different things. You don’t always have to have the textbook case of a physical attack or physical coercion.”
The international case puts a spotlight on an under-studied but quickly growing form of sexual violence: sextortion. The phenomenon was first reported on in depth last year in a pair of Brookings Institution reports. Defining the crime and its scope, the authors wrote: “Each [case of sextortion] involves an attacker who effectively invades the homes of sometimes large numbers of remote victims and demands the production of sexual activity from them. Sextortion cases involve what are effectively online, remote sexual assaults, sometimes over great distances, sometimes even crossing international borders, and sometimes … involving a great many victims.”
Mona Sedky, a federal prosecutor, told Broadly earlier this year that she equates remote sexual assault to “having someone stand in front of a victim with a baseball bat and threaten to swing it at her unless she takes her clothes off and lets him photograph her naked. It's forcing someone to engage in sexual activity."
"This is a violence, domination, and anger [driven] crime," she continued. "Perhaps with a healthy dose of misogyny, too."
The authors of the Brookings report argued that it’s time for the US to pass a federal sextortion statute. (Only five states, California being the latest, have specific statutes on the books that make it illegal to blackmail someone by threatening to release explicit images of them.) “Such a law would guarantee that sextortionists nationwide are subject to at least one single criminal statute, that weak state laws are backstopped by something stronger, and that the targeting of adult women victims is not systemically undervalued in sentencing in federal court relative to similar conduct against minors,” they write.
The report points out that perpetrators prosecuted in state courts for sextortion end up getting far less time in jail than those prosecuted in the federal system. The federal system, however, treats crimes against child victims way more seriously than it does those with adult victims.
Another mitigating issue is that the sheer number of victims a sextortionist has doesn’t seem to make much difference when it comes time for sentencing. In other words, the authors write, “sextortionists with many adult victims seem to be receiving substantially less time, on average, than in-person abusers prosecuted for their crimes against only one person. In the five cases of physical assaults we found involving multiple adult victims, the average sentence was 158 months, three-and-a-half times the average sentence for sextortionists with adult victims.”
Beyond these disparities, creating a federal sextortion law would give language to an experience that too many people find themselves the victims of, the report continues. “When in a remarkably short space of years, a society has seen nearly 80 cases of a new behavior it does not wish to tolerate, it is worth going through the process of defining that behavior legislatively and deciding how to punish it.”
Benjamin Wittes, lead author on the Brookings reports, acknowledged to Broadly earlier this year that it’s difficult to get people to consider what a “‘new’ crime” might be.
“It's never been possible to do this before—to commit a sexual crime against somebody who's in a different country,” he said. “You can say 'international criminal organization' and that makes intuitive sense… Here you're talking about the violence itself transcending international jurisdictional boundaries."