SALT LAKE CITY — Sextortion, or sexual extortion, is one of the fastest-growing problems affecting young people in Utah and beyond.
Earlier this year, a tragic case unfolded in the headlines. Before sex offender Melvin Rowland killed his ex-girlfriend University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey, he threatened to post compromising pictures of her online unless she sent him money, police said.
Perpetrators of sextortion generally threaten to reveal intimate images or videos of their victim unless they receive some form of compensation. Sextortion often occurs between former romantic or sexual partners or through "catfishing."
When catfishing, a perpetrator will pretend to be someone they're not to catch a victim's attention, then "groom them" by manipulating the victim into feeling comfortable with their perpetrator. Once the victim trusts them, the sextortionist will ask for sexual images of the victim or encourage them to engage in a sexual act over video chat.
In early 2018, West Valley police officers pulled over a 22-year-old man who had a large amount of cash in his car. They later learned he had recently accepted a Facebook friend request from someone claiming to be a woman with whom he then engaged in sexual acts through video chat.
The "woman" then told the man that she had recorded the video chat and demanded he send her money or she would post the video online.
"I think in this incident, she actually started to (send the video to friends). And he wanted to stop it, so he went and got some money and was going to send it to her," said West Valley Police Sgt. Brandon Christiansen.
But sextortion isn't just an issue among adults.
According to a 2016 Brookings Center report, 71 percent of the sextortion cases the researchers studied involved only minors. And while nearly all adult victims of sextortion are female, the study found that sextortion among children has a sizable amount of male victims.
Social media plays a big part in sextortion and is involved in 91 percent of cases involving young people, the study found. The average age of an adolescent's first experience with sextortion is 15, according to We Are Thorn, a non-profit combating sexual extortion and traficking.
This form of digital sexual violence can be daunting for children and adults alike. Here are five ways to help prevent young people from being victimized online:
Do not shame
“We as a society need to stop shaming victims so that we can get to the perpetrators,” said Terry Palmer, director of the Utah-based Backyard Broadcast, which educates young people about sex trafficking, coercion and grooming behaviors.
When parents and educators punish and blame, it makes the behavior go underground, she said.
Encourage victims to speak up
The Brookings report found that most perpetrators of sextortion were repeat offenders. If there’s one victim, there are most likely more.
Individuals who have been a victim of sex trafficking should know there is no moral failure on their part and that reporting and coming forward can potentially help other victims.
Palmer says “parents must keep an open dialogue with teens about online behavior."
"Talk to your kids often about who is asking for access to their online accounts. Are they maintaining privacy settings?” she counseled.
Parents can have an open and honest conversation with their children and teens about the consequences of sharing intimate photos, even with people they trust. They should also discuss the implications and nuances of catfishing.
Young people need a community to help keep them safe. Peers are highly influential and may be alert to signs parents may miss.
“Peers should watch out for sudden withdrawal, older boyfriends, physical trauma, depression, anxiety, truancy and other signs that may be brushed off as ‘typical teen issues,’” Palmer said.
Teach your children about the consequences of sharing sexual images
Educators and parents should not save any nude or semi-nude pictures shared with them by minors or they could be held liable for child pornography. Any reports of abuse should go directly to law enforcement.
Those under 18 should understand that they will most likely be liable for legal consequences if they forward nude or semi-nude pictures of minors to others. Parents should also teach their children how to report images to social media platforms if their children are involved in any type of sextortion.
Utilize local resources
- The Utah Attorney General’s Office has an Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force that investigates issues like sextortion.
- The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has means available for individuals to make reports to law enforcement.
- The CyberTipLine at missingkids.org is a national centralized reporting system for digital violence against children.