Sextortion is an emerging form of online abuse.

In an effort to better understand the threat of sextortion and its impact on children, teens, and young adults, Thorn partnered with the Crimes Against Children Research Center (CCRC) at the University of New Hampshire to conduct a first of its kind online survey of 1,631 persons ages 18 to 25 that have been targets of sextortion.

What is sextortion?

Sextortion involves threats to expose a sexual image in order to make a person do something or for other reasons, such as revenge or humiliation. Perpetrators are often current, former or would-be romantic or sexual partners attempting to harass, embarrass and control victims.

How sextortion unfolds

Sextortion episodes reported were diverse, but incidents broadly fell into two groups:

  • In the wake of face-to-face romantic or sexual relationships during which images were taken or shared, an aggrieved partner threatened to disseminate images either to force reconciliation or to embarrass or humiliate the respondent.
  • A perpetrator who met a respondent online used a sexual image obtained from the respondent or some other source to demand more images or sexual interactions.

Sextortion spans technology

Sextortion is a wide-ranging problem and not isolated to one website or app. Perpetrators used many forms of technology to reach victims and 45% of victims reported contact with perpetrators on more than one platform. With connectivity on the rise, sextortion could be an increasingly pervasive threat.

Respondents made a wide range of changes to their technology use as a result of threats to expose sexual images. About one-third or more changed passwords, screen or user names; closed social media accounts; deleted apps from cell phone or stopped accessing certain websites. Only 13% said they made no changes to how they used the internet or cell phones.

You trusted someone and they let you down. Don’t blame yourself.

Female, 17 when threatenedadvice to those who have experienced sextortion

He threatened to send naked pictures of me that I had sent him during our relationship to my college or to my parents over Facebook.

Female, 21 when threatenedon how sextortion unfolded

Tell someone you trust about the situation. It is a tough thing to go through alone, let alone dangerous.

Male, 14 when threatenedon seeking help

This has ruined my self-image, my relationships, and my trust of others. I still to this day don’t feel like myself.

Female, 15 when threatenedon the lasting effects

Consequences of sextortion

Our survey gave insights into the lasting impact of sextortion and often devastating aftermath. The personal and psychological toll on respondents could be quite intense, and many respondents didn’t seek help due to embarrassment, shame and self-blame.

Thorn and the Crimes Against Children Research Center (CCRC) are grateful to those who took time to complete our survey and to the many survey respondents who provided detailed and heartfelt descriptions of their experiences. We hope that the information available will help the public and professionals who respond to sextortion understand the nature of these incidents and the harm inflicted on victims, prompt people to think about prevention and intervention, and inspire new ideas and novel strategies to combat this problem.

Detailed analyses and findings along with information about how the survey was conducted can be found in the full report.

Does your company have child safety procedures and tools in place?

The Thorn Sound Practices Guide educates companies about proven practices, tools and resources that exist to identify, remove, report and prevent child sexual abuse material and abusive behavior on their platforms.

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Resources for those experiencing sextortion

Several websites provide information about how to get legal help and other support in cases of non-consensual distribution of sexual images:

To report cases that involve child sexual exploitation (age 17 and younger):