What Is Sextortion and How Can You Prevent It?

(Trigger warning: This conversation deals with issues that can be triggering to some victims. The content includes sexual assault and abuse, including minors, and while all attempts have been made to keep the specifics as minimal as possible, this is a very difficult topic to read about for everybody and especially those who have suffered or continue to suffer. Please prepare yourself or consider reading this similar article about more general cases of extortion.)

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Sextortion actually refers to two separate, heinous crimes. On the one hand, it is the act of coercing someone through threats or promises to perform sexual acts. In this case, the victims are often underage.

On the other hand, sextortion can also refer to the act of blackmailing someone into performing other actions under the threat of the release of sexually explicit material. For example, a hacker may find nude photos of the would-be victim and then use those photos to coerce them into giving up their company login credentials to facilitate committing further cybercrimes. 

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What is sextortion

Sending nude photos has become a common form of flirtation. So long as both parties are consenting adults, there is nothing inherently wrong with such expression. However, when you use webcams for such flirtations with strangers on the Internet, you risk the person not being who they say they are. 

Many criminals prey on the lonely, using fake personas to gain their victim’s trust. As part of this elaborate extortion plan, they get the victim to perform sexual acts in front of their camera. 

By enticing the person to perform such acts, whether by acting as a friendly ear to all the victim’s problems to groom children or posing as an attractive woman to get adults to strip, they then gain sexually explicit imagery of the victim to use as a further coercive tool. 

These video recordings are then leveraged against the victim to extort them into performing further acts. This sextortion can be to perform further sexual acts. For example, they may then force women to further provide nude videos to sextort others or force them to perform sexual acts in person. 

Alternatively, the sextortion might come in the form of threatening to release the videos if certain conditions aren’t met. This is often the case when a closeted member of the LGBT community is being threatened over sexual details which would reveal their sexual preference. 

It could also be the case that a person is married, and this would be leveraged against the threat of sending adulterous evidence to their spouse.

Sadly, “slut-shaming” and other misogynist views about the differential sexuality of men and women, or girls and boys as the case may be, means that simply threatening to release nude photos of a female victim can be used to coerce her to be a part of further sexual victimhood. 

However, it is worth underlining that both men and women of all ages can be victims. The best way to prevent becoming a victim is to be careful with whom you communicate online and how you communicate with them.

Sextortion can take the form of being blackmailed or being coerced into carrying out sexual acts. Let’s look at these two different forms of sextortion.

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Sextortion as abuse of power

In the case of sextortion as an abuse of power, a person in authority uses their authority to coerce someone into performing sexual acts. For example, sextortion may be demanded by a judge from a defendant, a teacher from a student, a police officer from a prostitute, or a boss from an employee. 

In the case of the latter, Harvey Weinstein became a household name after it came to light that he had sextorted many young Hollywood starlets seeking a career on the big screen. In this case, as well as many others, non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) were abused to keep the sextortion secret for years. 

This form of sextortion is incredibly hard to prevent. Someone in a position of authority is abusing that authority, and your only course of action is to report it to the authorities immediately. Since they have some power over you as well as a reasonable circumstance to find themselves alone with you, it can be frustratingly hard to prevent, escape, and prove. This has been a major antecedent of the #metoo movement.

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Sextortion as a form of blackmail

In this form of sextortion, the criminal uses sexually explicit material produced by the victim to force them to perform further acts. 

The criminal first acquires sexually explicit material through one of many different ways. They may have used some catfishing tactics to trick the victim into sharing the content. They may have hacked the victim’s smartphone, intercepted their sexually explicit SMS images, or even taken control of their webcam to record the victim changing or performing sexual acts without them knowing.

Once the perpetrator has sexually explicit material from the victim, they use the threat of its release and the implications therein—from potentially ruining a marriage to outing a person as a member of the LGBT community—to gain leverage over the victim. 

The victim is then forced to act as the blackmailer so desires. In many cases, this means performing further sexual acts. The victim might even be forced into hardcore pornography or to sexually gratify the perpetrator in person. 

Alternatively, the victim may be forced to pay money for silence (and then, likely, forced, again and again, to pay even more). There are also cases where high-ranking government or business officials have been sextorted to abuse their position on behalf of the sextortionist. 

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Has this happened to you or someone you know?

If you have become a victim of sextortion, there are some things you should do and some things you shouldn’t do. It isn’t your fault, and there are real actions you can take to remedy the situation. There is also immediate help available for your emotional state. Here is a list of actions that you can follow when you feel strong enough to make positive changes to your situation.

  • Don’t Panic: As said above, understand that you are the victim. The sextortion isn’t your fault, and it says nothing about who you are. In addition to the help provided by the services linked above, there are places you can find further aid. Indeed, this is a criminal act, and you should report it.
  • Don’t pay: Most studies on sextortion indicate that criminals will not post images of you if you refuse to pay. Indeed, once they post your images or videos, they lose all leverage and any chance of a payout in the future. Conversely, if you do pay, there is no guarantee they will destroy the content. It is, in fact, likely that they will continue to ask for more money knowing that you have paid in the past and likely will again.
  • Cut off all communication: These criminals will take any communication as an indication that you might be persuaded to accept their blackmail demands in the future, and so they will only continue to make more and more vile arguments and demands in hopes of breaking your will. They will also prey on your emotional state, and you may end up breaking, so it is best to close the chat and block them immediately and any other accounts they create to circumvent the blocking.
  • Get support: This is a criminal act, and the police are there to help you. You should contact them immediately for help. However, this might not be all the support you need or deserve. Seeking counseling to understand your victimhood and how to mentally recover from such trauma can be key to getting back to your life.

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How can you prevent sextortion?

With most cybercrime, it is just about being a difficult target. Criminals are going to act in nefarious ways, but you don’t need to be the victim. There are some commonsense actions you can take to make it more difficult for would-be criminals to exploit you online.

For example, you should always be careful with whom you chat online. Before sharing sexually explicit materials, take time to consider who you are chatting with and whether you can trust them.

You should also make sure to employ the latest security measures. Two-factor analysis and biometrics can increase your safety online. Using unique and complicated passwords for every site is also an important measure.

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