A Call to Action: Ending Sextortion in the Digital Age

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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Judges demand sex in exchange for visas or favorable custody decisions, landlords threaten to evict tenants unless they have sex with them, supervisors condition job security on sex, and principals condition student graduation on sex. These are only a few faces of “sextortion.” Throughout the world, those in power extort vulnerable women and girls by demanding sex, rather than money. Victims have no choice but to comply. Noncompliance leads to life-altering and irreversible harm, such as losing one’s children, deportation, homelessness, incarceration, or unemployment.

In the United States, sextortion has proliferated in the digital age. Whereas traditionally, sextortion was perpetrated by abusers who knew their victims, today anyone with a computer keyboard can perpetrate cyber-sextortion and exert power over strangers.

Perpetrators hack into personal computers and use deceptive practices, obtain private information (including sexual images) and then demand sex or more sexual imagery. Many perpetrators have victimized multiple, even hundreds, of victims. Victims are powerless. When victims have not complied, perpetrators have released sexual images to the victims’ friends, family members, peer groups, religious congregations, teachers, co-workers, and the world at large, via the Internet. 

Women and girls are disproportionately impacted by cyber-sextortion. Predators exploit digitally savvy children and teens who spend hours each day online, often by pretending to be peers on social networking sites. Using false identities, offenders manipulate children and teens to give them information or images that the victims would not want friends, family or their school community to know about. Predators then use these images to demand sex or more sexual images. 

The impact of all forms of sextortion on victims’ lives is immeasurable: long-lasting psychological impact and irreversible reputational harm. Many victims are traumatized because they will never know when and where sexual images of them will turn up, or who has viewed them. Victims feel shame and embarrassment and often do not know where or how to obtain help. 

As the nation’s oldest advocacy organization devoted to advancing the rights of women and girls, Legal Momentum will be issuing a report in collaboration with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP and Thomson Reuters in the next few weeks to raise awareness about sextortion in the United States. The report will mobilize individuals, parents, the broader public, law enforcement and elected officials to combat sextortion. 

Legal Momentum, through its report, will also expose the law’s inadequacy to address this sex offense. Even though everyone who owns a computer is vulnerable to sextortion, United States law does not expressly prohibit it. Legal Momentum calls upon state and federal legislators to take immediate action to remedy this fast-growing sexual coercion. Legal Momentum calls the public, law enforcement and legislators to action to fight sextortion by:

  • Educating the public, especially children and teens, about the danger and prevalence of sextortion, especially cyber-sextortion;
  • Ensuring that schools incorporate sextortion awareness in their Internet safety curricula;
  • Amending existing extortion, cybercrime, sex offense, and domestic violence statutes to expressly criminalize sextortion;
  • Amending sentencing guidelines to allow for enhanced sentencing for these heinous and devastating crimes; and
  • Amending sex offender registration and notification laws to allow for increased monitoring of sextortion offenders.