When Jeff Bezos went public with his accusations of blackmail against the National Enquirer on Thursday, he was hailed by many online for his courage. In a post on Medium, the Amazon CEO alleged that Enquirer representatives threatened to publish intimate photos of him unless he stopped an investigation into the tabloid’s reporting on him. Bezos refused. “If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion,” he wrote, “how many people can?”
Instantly, Bezos became the most famous and powerful person to claim to be a victim of sextortion, the term often used to describe cases of extortion using intimate or sexually explicit photographs or videos. And experts quickly came out in praise of him for the way he handled the situation, calling it a “textbook” example of how best to respond to extortion.
But Bezos operated from a particularly privileged stance. Factors like age and knowledge of legislation and laws around sextortion affect a person’s ability to report sextortion and weather the fallout.
Who Gets Sextorted
Loosely defined, sextortion is when someone threatens to share intimate images of a person against their will—usually either by text, on social media, or even a webpage set up just for them—in exchange for a payout. It’s different from revenge porn, where the aggressor just shares the images to be cruel.
There’s no federal law against sextortion. It’s also not tracked as a single crime, like, say, murder, which makes it difficult to collect data about the act. Compounding the data collection problem is that many victims don’t report that it happened to them, according to experts WIRED spoke with. Like with many intimate and domestic violence issues, victims often don’t speak out for fear of being treated like they did something wrong.
Researchers with the Brookings Institute and Lawfareblog attempted to quantify the problem in 2016 by tracking criminal cases—finding 78 total nationwide—and found that the phenomenon was not just underreported but also “dramatically understudied.”
“While [sextortion is] an acknowledged problem both within law enforcement and among private advocates, no government agency maintains data on its prevalence; no private advocacy group does either,” the authors wrote, calling the cases they unearthed “the tip of a very large iceberg.”
“This stuff is wildly under prosecuted,” says Leigh Honeywell, former ACLU technologist and co-founder and CEO of TallPoppy, a company that helps companies assist employees who have been victims of sexual harassment.
The government does, however, seem to acknowledge it’s a problem. Last year, the US attorney general’s office created a Cyber-Digital Task Force to assess how well law enforcement was addressing cyber threats. In a July report, the task force concluded that sextortion and related nonconsensual pornography “may merit a federal response,” owing to the “increasingly expansive nature of these crimes, in addition to the use of new technologies.”
Most academic research of sextortion focuses on teenagers, who experts say are common victims. Their youth, inexperience, and dependence on adults makes them uniquely vulnerable, and puts them at a serious disadvantage to deal with sextortion in the way a powerful adult might.
In a study published last fall, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire professor of criminal justice Justin Patchin surveyed a nationally representative sample of teenagers in the US and found that five percent admitted to being the victim of sextortion, and three percent said they’d committed it themselves. A 2018 Pew survey of teen cyberbullying found that seven percent report having had images of them shared without their consent. The FBI in 2016 wrote that sextortion of minors “has become a major threat in recent years.”
As minors, teens who share sexts could be technically guilty of sending child pornography, even when sexting it voluntarily to another teen. Patchin says most of the teens he and his coauthor spoke to for their research recognized this, and feared being labeled a sex offender if it came out that they had taken nude photos or shared them.
“A sophisticated potential victim of this could flip the script and say, ‘If you have the images you’re in possession of child pornography and I could call the police on you,’ but in the vast majority of cases the teens are freaking out too much to think about that,” says Patchin. He says they’re too busy worrying: “What are my parents going to say? Am I going to get in trouble with the police, or get kicked out of school?”
Those concerns are all valid, according to Patchin. Case in point: in 2017, school administrators in Chicago questioned a 16-year-old student about a recording he had on his phone of a consensual sexual act between he and another 16-year-old, calling it “child pornography.” The boy later killed himself.
According to Patchin, minors are very infrequently charged with child pornography, especially as law enforcement grow more aware of sextortion and choose to deal with it informally rather than actually prosecuting victims who are minors. But kids don’t necessarily know that. Honeywell notes that she often sees teens in the subreddit r/legaladvice asking what to do about being sextorted, and very commonly adults respond that they should be worried about being charged with disseminating child pornography.
“There needs to be legislation saying that if you are victimized by this we are not going to prosecute you because it’s horrific and it has a really chilling effect on these literal children’s ability to get help,” says Honeywell. Patchin notes that some states—twenty, according to a survey from late last year—are beginning to pass laws protecting minors from child pornography allegations when sending consensual sexts to each other, like the Romeo and Juliet laws that make consensual sex between minors not a crime.
Knowing Your Rights
Because there isn’t one singular federal law against sextortion, an act of sextortion could under certain circumstances violate a few different laws, according to Patchin and Honeywell, like the statutes against child pornography mentioned above. Patchin notes that if the victim isn’t a minor, sextortion could be prosecuted as a classic example of criminal extortion, depending on the circumstances. He notes that if the images are actually shared, it could fall under some laws against revenge porn, which exist in some way in 41 states. (According to Patchin’s study, about “24.8 percent of males and 26.1 percent of females who were sextorted said the offender posted the sexual image of them online, while 25.5 percent of male victims and 29.6 percent of female victims said the offender sent the sexual image of them to someone else without their permission.)
As it stands, legislation varies state by state, which makes it hard for victims of sextortion to even know what their rights are. Victims can check the nonprofit WithoutMyConsent.org, run by various academics and advocates, which keeps an updated list of state and federal laws concerning the “nonconsensual distribution of sexually explicit images (as well as other forms of online harassment)” to see what options are open to them. Some of these laws would only apply if the images are actually shared.
Fear of being judged is another reason victims of this crime stay quiet. Honeywell says the most important thing a sextortion victim can do if they are experiencing this kind of blackmail is to find someone to confide in who will be understanding and in a position to help them—be that a parent, a friend, or someone else.
In Bezos’s case, he confided in the whole world. The response has been overwhelmingly supportive—and it might signal a step toward normalizing sexts.
“A lot of the quote unquote advice is to be very careful about who you send your nudes to, but that’s not very realistic. This is 2019, sexts are part of the realities of dating and being a sexual human in the modern world,” says Honeywell. “The people who should be ashamed in situations like this are the AMI’s of the world.”
If the rest of us can learn anything from Bezos becoming the world’s highest-profile alleged sextortion victim, it’s that he’s far from alone in having his sex life weaponized against him. Hopefully, victims with less fame and fortune can be treated with the same compassion he’s received.
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