Online ‘Sextortion’ Becoming More Common in the US

By - July 26, 2016
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A new report from the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center and the nonprofit Thorn reported this week that ‘sextortion’ is becoming increasingly common, where perpetrators use personal images and information to extort victims into providing sexually explicit videos or photos.

One example: A perpetrator was video chatting with a victim, and he was choking a cat. He said if he did not show him her  breast, he would kill the cat.

The researchers in the study used ads on Twitter and Facebook to get respondents, who usually were females from 18-25. More than 1600 people responded to the ads and they only expected 150.

The study noted that women are the main targets and at least 50% of them knew the perpetrator. Almost 50% were under 18 when the exploitation started, and one in eight stated that they fled their homes.

Thorn was founded by Ashton Kutcher, and is dedicated to using technology to fight sexual exploitation of children online. The nonprofit has been focusing on sextortion after hearing from law enforcement that there have been many suicides that were due to this type of sexual harassment.

Researchers stated that 55% of the victims who stated that they were harassed were targeted in social networks, and 41% on messaging and photo apps, with 9% on dating apps.

One of the common issues with sextortion is that people who experience this type of abuse often never tell anyone. At least ⅓ of those who responded to the above survey never reported the crime. Many were embarrassed to report it because it was deeply personal.

For the people who did contact the police, many stated that they had been dismissed with a negative comment. They stated that there is a lack of criminal laws that specifically address sextortion. Many of the respondents stated that they had reported the problem to tech companies but there was little follow up and plenty of paperwork.

For some victims who did respond, the online harassment eventually went offline. Police say that some of the victims were actually raped or sexually assaulted by people who threatened to reveal their personal images.

The study is intended to increase awareness of sextortion and to encourage federal law enforcement and tech companies to take aggressive action.

Thorn is now working with 25 tech companies that is increasing awareness and designing tech tools to combat this type of sexual abuse. Last year, it launched a new innovation lab in Silicon Valley to work on new technologies to better deter criminal activities aimed at children online.

Experts note that while police and tech companies can do more to prevent sextortion from happening, there is a bigger social responsibility for people to discuss what is going on. They noted that many in US society do not want to discuss such personal matters.

They add that parents should talk to their children about this type of illegal activity, and tell them to come forward if they think something is happening to them online that shouldn’t.

About Federal Sex Crimes

Current federal sex crimes laws include those that are forcible and also other crimes that have a sexual, exploitative element. Sextortion would fall within these types of federal criminal laws. These sex crimes include those who cannot consent under state or federal law, such as people under 18 and those who cannot consent due to a medical condition.

In some cases, the sexual abuse of someone under 18 can involve several criminal charges. One of the most serious is child pornography. Colluding with anyone to produce or distribute child pornography can result in serious federal charges, including conspiracy and others.

The extent and severity of charges for federal sex crimes are determined by the individual facts of the case. This includes the age and mind state of the victim and also the location where the crime occurred.

Aggravated sexual abuse is where the use of force is used to make a person do sexual acts against their will. It also is a federal crime. Further, crossing state lines to engage in sexual activity with someone who is under 12 also is a federal offense.

Punishments for all of the above sexual crimes generally involve long terms in prison and also being registered as a lifetime sex offender. Being a sex offender registrant means that you must take part in both state and federal databases as needed. You also have to notify the local town in which you live and you may be restricted on where you can work or live.

Sexual conduct with people who against their will who are not minors generally is punished with three to 10 years in prison.

At some point, it seems likely that new federal laws will be drafted to cover this relatively new sexual crime of sextortion as noted in the above article.