Sexting has become an increasingly common activity. And, like any activity that has at least a million people engaging in it on a day-to-day basis, so is the level of crime linked to the exploitation, and extortion, of it. Though the results don’t always fit the narrative: In a recent study, researchers found a dramatic increase in the number of youth who found out, usually under inauspicious circumstances, that their nude pics had spread across the internet – without their knowledge, and certainly without their consent. This, the use of nude photos, compromising selfies, and intimate sexting exchanges for nefarious purposes, has led to the designation of a new cybercrime they’re calling “sextortion.”

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The study was published in Sexual Abuse, a “peer-reviewed academic journal that publishes articles about the clinical and theoretical aspects of sexual abuse, including its etiology, consequences, prevention, treatment, and management strategies.” In the study, cybercrime researchers broke down in detail how large the issue has become among teenagers.

Sextortion – the most intimate of betrayals

Sextortion is, in its most simplified definition, a form of sexual slavery. The discussion has long centered on adults – after cloud hacks targeted celebrities in 2014, and revenge porn legislation now passed in many states to prevent this sort of behavior from occurring; in Minnesota, for example, Minn. Stat. § 617.261. looks like this:

“Nonconsensual dissemination of private sexual images. Misdemeanor; felony if causes financial loss, intent to profit, intent to harass, posted to porn site, other factors. Also, conviction for nonconsensual dissemination of private sexual images qualifies as a prior “qualified domestic violence-related offense” that enhances penalties for convictions for domestic assault, 4th & 5th degree assault, stalking, and violation of a harassment restraining order.”

It hadn’t been, before this most recent study, addressed as thoroughly in the generation that spends more time digitally connected than any other. Generation Z is the most tech literate generation, and, perhaps consequently, also the most at risk. For example, between July and August 2018, the FBI reportedly received 13,000 more reports of sextortion to their call centers than they had received in months previous.


Don't send nudes: "Sextortion" is on the rise, with dire consequences


“Sextortion is the threatened dissemination of explicit, intimate, or embarrassing images of a sexual nature without consent, usually for the purpose of procuring additional images, sexual acts, money, or something else. Despite increased public interest in this behavior, it has yet to be empirically examined among adolescents. The current study fills this gap by exploring the prevalence of sextortion behaviors among a nationally representative sample of 5,568 U.S. middle and high school students. Approximately 5% of students reported that they had been the victim of sextortion, while about 3% admitted to threatening others who had shared an image with them in confidence. Males and nonheterosexual youth were more likely to be targeted, and males were more likely to target others. Moreover, youth who threatened others with sextortion were more likely to have been victims themselves. Implications for future research, as well as the preventive role that youth-serving professionals can play, are discussed.”


5% of the 5,569 middle and high school students polled for the study say that they have experienced sextortion in some form. The study was also able to narrow down who the perpetrators (at least generally) are: Not a random attack (like the celebrity cloud hacks), the acts were almost exclusively perpetrated by people the victims knew well/intimately. People whom they had sent the pictures, etc. in confidence.

How to curb this phenomenon?

Send less nudes, as the study’s co-author, Sameer Hinduja recently told Inverse.

But, if it were as simple as that, cyber crime in general wouldn’t be on the rise; the practice of sexting, sending pics, etc. has more or less become normalized in modern society, which makes it hard to treat. Just as we purchase items, and happily plug in our social security number as needed, even with the constant threat of hacking and/or identity theft.

But this is perhaps a deeper issue – sexting might simply be a symptom of learning the hard way what is “normal” in a new relationship, i.e. that when a new boyfriend or girlfriend assumes that sexting is regular behavior, then it becomes regular behavior, without point of reference or guidance on how to avoid such harmful/toxic interactions.

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