Please be advised that the following article contains references to child sexual abuse, suicide, and self-harm. The topics discussed in it are important, but not more so than your mental health. Take care to check in with yourself as to whether you are feeling ok. If you need to take a break or stop reading altogether, feel free to do so.
‘Hello, I’ve decided to tell you about my never-ending story.’
On September 7, 2012, 15-year-old Amanda Todd chose to disclose her abuse. In a YouTube video watched over 17 million times, she recounts how, in 2009, a 44-year-old man contacted her on an online video chat platform and coerced her into showing her breasts on camera. He took a screenshot. Not long after, he demanded more explicit material, threatening to share the images with her friends, her family, her school. Amanda’s mental health suffered: she became addicted to illicit substances, self-harmed, her behaviour and performance at school declined. The abuse lasted three years across 22 fake social media accounts the perpetrator created. Just over a month after posting her story online, Amanda committed suicide.
A decade has passed since Amanda’s death. Since then, teenagers’ lives have only become more inextricably linked to the online world, with an explosion in smartphone, social media, and video platform use. Unfortunately, despite the widespread outrage Amanda’s death sparked, her story has become far from unique. A recent nationally-representative survey estimates that in the U.S., around 3.5% of adults (18–28 years old) had experienced sexual extortion (often referred to as ‘sextortion’). Estimates for children are even higher, with another recent study finding 5% of 12–17 year olds reporting that they had been victimised by sexual extortion.
Sexual extortion has been defined by child protection specialists globally as “the blackmailing of a child with the help of self-generated images of that child in order to extort sexual favours, money or other benefits from her/him under the threat of sharing the material beyond the consent of the depicted child”. This crime is part of a larger spectrum of online sexual abuses that share explicit images with the intent to harm.
Sexual extortion is complicated, and can take several forms. Broadly speaking, we can group these into three categories: extortion for explicit content, as part of intimate partner violence, or for financial gain.
Sexual extortion for more explicit content
In a recent review of around 150 cases of ‘sextortion’, researchers Liggett-O’Malley and Holt found the most commonly reported type to be that of adults, most commonly males, sexually extorting children for more sexually explicit images. These adults often impersonated children online, then groomed real children to take explicit images of themselves. In rarer cases (around 25% of the time according to one study), the images were obtained through other forms of cyber crime, such as hacking, without the victims’ knowledge.
Regardless of the way the images are obtained, they are subsequently used as blackmail. Perpetrators tell children they will distribute the material to their friends and families unless they provide them with more explicit images and videos, often more severe in nature. In over one-third of the cases in the Liggett-O’Malley and Holt study, the offender instructed their victims to sexually abuse other children, or to engage in incest or bestiality.
For example, one of the cases describes how an adult male instructed a 15-year-old child to take sexually explicit images of his 11-year-old sister. When the child complied, the offender then told him if he didn’t produce more such materials, he would expose what the child had done. Eventually, the child produced several explicit images involving both himself and his sister engaged in sexual acts, which were sent to the offender.
Sexual extortion as part of intimate partner violence
In a 2018 study of 575 sexual extortion victims, almost 42% experienced sexual extortion by current or former romantic partners as a means to force them to return or stay in their relationships. Adult and adolescent romantic partners have also been found to blackmail child victims using sexually explicit images in exchange for non-sexual behaviours, such as demanding that victims leave their jobs, wear certain clothing, or behave in a certain manner.
Sexual extortion therefore appears in some cases to be used both as a tool in broader intimate partner violence against children, and has been found to be paired with other forms of verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. It is important to note that adults are not the only perpetrators of these crimes. In one study of 1,820 adolescents, 0.7% admitted to having perpetrated sexual extortion, while in another study this figure rose to 3%.
Sexual extortion for financial gain
Finally, there are cases in which sexual extortion is committed with the purpose of financial gain. In such cases, an offender persuades an encourages a child to engage in sexual webcam sessions which are recorded and then used to demand sums of money from the child in exchange for not distributing the recording to others. In one notorious case, a woman named Maria Cameras operated such a cyber sextortion ring in the Philippines, in which she paid children a substantial income in exchange for three-day shifts in which they extorted men online in China, the U.S., and the UK online.
To be clear, these children are victims. Despite being embroiled in a criminal enterprise targeting the wallets of adult men, they were themselves exploited sexually by this enterprise. Those under the age of 18 appearing in explicit images and videos distributed commercially are not engaging in sex work, they are victims of child sex trafficking.
On October 14, 2022, Amanda Todds’ abuser was sentenced to 13 years in prison. His prosecution appears, however, to be the exception as opposed to the rule, given that cases like these are:
- Underreported by children, who often do not want to (or cannot) disclose. Children might fear being judged, or blamed by those they would disclose to, often they are not comfortable discussing sexual topics with adults (especially parents) or worse, might be subjected to abuse from their parents. Low disclosure rates are particularly true for male non-heterosexual youth, who are therefore also more likely to be targeted, as perpetrators know they are unlikely to get caught.
- Complicated to investigate, as the abuser and victim may reside in different countries or even continents, requiring international law enforcement agencies to work together. The abuser may also take elaborate steps to hide their identity and location, further complicating investigations.
- Difficult to prosecute, as most laws currently orient around the distribution of child sexual abuse material (CSAM), rather than the threat to do so. The international nature of these crimes also means that cases might be tried in two different countries, by two different court systems, as was the case with Amanda Todd.
It is, however, of paramount importance that we take steps to understand the long-term harm sextortion causes for children which can include depression, isolation, self-harm and suicide. We also must work towards more effectively identifying and prosecuting these cases. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice called sextortion the “most important and fastest-growing cyberthreat to children”, with “more minor victims per offender than all other child sexual exploitation offences,” highlighting just how critical it is that we create environments where children feel safe to disclose and that judicial systems around the world take steps to facilitate investigation and prosecution.
‘We need to talk about it. We need to make sure there is justice for Amanda.’
— Carol Todd, mother of Amanda Todd.
Eva Veldhuizen-Ochodničanová is a multi-national Forensic Psychologist specialising in combatting sex trafficking and child sexual abuse and exploitation. She consults for a number of international organizations and NGO’s concerning the modus operandi of perpetrators of sexual exploitation, with a particular focus on emerging forms of crime in the online environment. She has previously worked for UNODC East Africa, the International Criminal Court, the Sexual Behaviour Service at SWLSTG in London, and the Sex Offender Research Lab at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in NYC.
For more information, see ICMEC’s Studies in Child Protection: Sexual Extortion and Nonconsensual Pornography (Oct. 2018)
Additional resources may be found at: https://www.missingkids.org/theissues/sextortion