Winning the fight against sextortion: How to combat a growing plague that especially targets girls and young women

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May 2, 2017

The Daily News Headline on April 24 read just like too many others: “Man posing as teen extorted porn out of young girls, authorities allege.”

This and other stories continue the same way, laying out the same disturbing pattern: An adult man assumes the false identity of a male teenager, infiltrates a young girl’s social media and convinces her to take nude pictures of herself and send them to him.

He showers the girl with online affection, develops an online relationship with her and asks for more images — calling them tokens of love.

When the girl finally says no or begins to resist, the predator threatens that he will release the pictures online, to her parents, friends, school, church or anyone who matters to her — unless she sends more nude pictures. Afraid she will be humiliated or get into trouble, she continues to oblige.

These acts are “sextortion,” and they are increasing with record speed in our digital age. Sextortion is extortion, but where sex or sexual imagery is demanded of the victim, instead of or in addition to money.

The FBI has called sextortion the fastest-growing threat to children in the United States. Many perpetrators have abused multiple — even hundreds — of victims. For example, according to prosecutors, Lucas Michael Chansler victimized approximately 350 girls; Jared James Abrahams hacked the computers of 150 victims, including at least one child; and Richard Finkbiner victimized between 20 and 153 young women and children.

Ruslan Mirvis (the 34-year-old Brooklyn man whom the Daily News reported about) allegedly sextorted at least 14 girls, ages 12 to 14, while pretending to be a 16-year-old boy.

What is remarkable about all of these men is that they got caught. Sextortion is grossly under-reported because victims feel incredible shame and guilt, and are terrified to report it to anyone.

Girls, teens and women are disproportionately impacted by cyber-sextortion. The negative impact of all forms of sextortion on victims’ lives is long-lasting and often irreversible.Victims are traumatized because they never know when and where sexual images of them will turn up, or who may have seen them. Victims feel ashamed and embarrassed, and often do not know where or how to seek help.As one adult sextortion victim said: “It’s affected my life, thinking about having all of these personal videos put on the internet and then connected to my name, and how that would affect my job, my future getting a job, my future finding a home-or doing anything."”Yet sextortion was not recognized as a crime — until now. Legal Momentum, the nation’s oldest gender-justice legal advocacy organization (in partnership with the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the law firm of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe) has been working with legislators around the country to make sure that extortion, harassment and other criminal laws are updated to address sextortion, particularly cyber-sextortion.In just this past month, Arkansas and Utah have passed laws that explicitly criminalize extorting sex and sexual imagery, and recognize it as a sex crime. Legislators in California, Texas, Alabama,and Illinois have also introduced such legislation.These laws are updates of statutes that are already on the books, that are incomplete by virtue of the fact that they were enacted before the internet age, and before it became clear that sexual predators could so easily reach children electronically.Reforming laws is not the only solution for combating sextortion, however. Public education about the ways sextortion is perpetrated (both online and in person) is essential to preventing sextortion. Legal Momentum’s report “A Call to Action: Ending Sextortion in the Digital Age,”  helps both adults and children stay safe on the internet.Members of the public can help stop sextortion by:

  • Educating themselves, their families, and their communities about sextortion;
  • Talking to their children about online safety;
  • Urging legislators to enact anti-sextortion legislation;
  • Reporting sextortion when it occurs to local law enforcement or the FBI

Working together, we can stop predators from sexually exploiting digitally savvy children, and help law enforcement arrest and prosecute sextorters as sex offenders.