On October 1, Maryland joined a handful of states to criminalize sextortion, or the act of someone using another person’s sexually explicit images to blackmail them. Under this new law, a person found guilty of such actions could be sentenced up to 10 years in prison with a $10,000 fine.
For advocates fighting to get more states to recognize sextortion as a crime, Maryland’s new law is an important step forward. But the act still remains a largely hidden issue, despite being, according to a Brookings Institution report, “remarkably common.” Like other victims of abuse, many people who’ve been forced to do something against their will because they feared compromising content would be shared are too ashamed or embarrassed to come forward.
According to a 2016 report by the Department of Justice, sextortion is “by far the most significantly growing threat to children.” Until recently, it was unclear how prevalent this kind of abuse was among minors or how they dealt with it; previous research was done retrospectively with adults. A new study published recently in the journal Sexual Abuse aimed to address that gap in knowledge by asking teens directly about their experiences.
Researchers from Florida Atlantic University and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire conducted a nationally representative survey of 12- to 17-year-olds living in the US in 2016. The survey asked respondents if anyone had ever “threatened to expose a sexual image of you to make you do something or for other reasons such as revenge or humiliation?” and whether or not they themselves had participated in such threats.
Among a sample of 5,568 teens, five percent said they’d been the target of sextortion; three percent said they’d sextorted another person. Surprisingly, boys were “significantly more likely” to have these kinds of experiences, both as a victim and a perpetrator, but they were also less likely than girls to tell a parent or other authority figure. Queer teens were more than twice as likely than their straight counterparts to be blackmailed with a sexually explicit image.
Additionally, most victims said they knew their perpetrator, usually within the context of a romantic relationship. Few reported the experience to their parents or other adult authorities. Echoing what other survivors often share is their reasoning for not disclosing, the study’s authors write: “Aside from general distrust or lack of faith in adults and various professionals, adolescents also fear retaliation, struggle with shame, wish to keep it a secret, attempt to minimize the incident, do not know who can truly come through for them, and often do not know where to turn.”
The study also points out that sextortion is different from revenge porn, but that “sextortion could evolve into revenge porn if images obtained in confidence are later publicly disseminated.” Though both are forms of sexual abuse involving intimate content, revenge porn tends to be public in order to humiliate a person, while sextortion is usually private. While the former has garnered a lot of attention from lawmakers in recent years—most states have passed legislation to address this crime—sextortion has yet to receive similar public scrutiny.
Sameer Hinduja is a professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida Atlantic University, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, and one of the authors on the study. “Our big-picture goal,” he tells Broadly, “is to reduce vulnerability among youth—just get them to continue to pause before they engage in certain behaviors which may possibly render themselves more vulnerable to victimization.”
Despite a few high-profile sextortion cases that have made the news in recent years, in which victims had their images hacked and stolen by strangers, the research shows that most incidents occur after a victim voluntarily shares an image of him or herself to someone they trust. “It’s really difficult to figure out who you can trust when it comes to romantic relationships, especially when it comes to your first romantic relationship,” Hinduja says. “You don’t have a reference point. You don’t know what’s healthy and you don’t know what’s dysfunctional.”
Of course, he adds, a person “can do everything right and still get screwed, which is unfortunate and depressing to think about. We should still always remember that we do have some level of agency and autonomy to protect ourselves in certain ways. While that doesn’t give you perfect peace of mind, it does help you come to terms with the fact that you’re exercising due diligence.”
Hinduja adds that it’s important to remove the stigma and shame associated with being a victim. “We need targets to continue to come forward and speak up and push through the feelings of shame, if only to prevent a similar victimization from happening to someone else. We’re definitely moving in that direction.”