Control. Control can be a powerful expression of the violent nature of someone’s heart. What if it were possible for someone to control every aspect of your life and your future based on one text?
Asia Mendoza was just 16 years old when someone started controlling her life. As she ran to the kitchen of the diner she had been working at all summer, she felt a buzz in her apron pocket. When she laid eyes on the words animated on the screen, her stomach dropped. “Hi Asia, how many guys have you sent nude photos to? I have some of your photos, and unless you send me more, I am going to share them with your employer and friends on social media.”
How could a stranger have gotten her phone number? Who was this person on the other end of the phone? With confirmation from the sender that it was her in the photo, she fell to the cyber predator’s beck and call so that she wouldn’t lose her job, or worse, the catastrophic notion of disappointment and bringing shame to her parents and family.
To protect her family and her reputation, she obeyed the predator’s demands. Now, being referred to as a slave by the predator, the person threatens to kill her if she doesn’t continue to fulfill their orders, sending Asia into the depths of depression and hopelessness with no way out.
What is Sextortion?
Sextortion is a serious crime committed by online predators who seek to damage victims’ lives if their demands are not met. It is likely the perpetrator is an adult pretending to be a teenager who is just one of the many victims being targeted by the same person. According to the United States Department of Justice, sextortion is a form of sexual exploitation where the offender uses coercion and threats to compel the victim to produce sexual images or videos engaging in sexual acts. Sometimes, the offender already possesses nude or sexual images of the victim and threatens to release them if the victim does not do as the offender commands.
Sextortion Crime Rates in the U.S.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), in partnership with Homeland Security Investigations and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, issued a national public safety alert in 2023 regarding an explosion in incidents of children and teens being coerced and victims of sextortion. Here are the alarming facts:
- In 2022, law enforcement agencies received over 7,000 reports related to the online sextortion of minors, resulting in at least 3,000 victims, primarily boys.
- More than a dozen sextortion victims were reported to have died by suicide.
How Does Sextortion Happen?
Predators have developed tactics that allow them to exploit children through their connected devices within their own homes. According to the FBI, “The people who commit this crime have studied how to reach and target children and teens. One person offered money and new smartphones to his victims. In another case, the criminal threatened a girl—saying he would hurt her and bomb her school—if she didn’t send pictures. Other cases start with the offer of currency or credits in a video game in exchange for a quick picture.”
The Trauma of Sextortion
These criminals don’t usually meet up with kids in real life, but the victims of this crime still experience significant psychological trauma and negative effects. The criminals can become vicious and non-stop with their demands, harassment, and threats. Victims of sextortion report feeling scared, confused, sad, shamed, angry, alone, embarrassed, anxious, and desperate. Many feel like there is no way out of the situation, which can lead to depression, and in the most tragic cases, suicide. The victim may also be vulnerable to developing a unique relationship with their abuser, called a trauma bond.
According to a Sandstone Care article clinically reviewed by Sarah Fletcher, LPC, trauma bonding is quite common in situations of abuse. Trauma bonding can be defined as an attachment that develops from a cycle of physical and/or emotional trauma followed by positive reinforcement.
When sextortion occurs, the relationship presents itself much like that of a hostage and kidnapper. When a perpetrator reaches out to a victim, it may seem passionate and or affectionate. But soon after onset, the victim is blind-sided by the harsh demands of their psychological kidnapper. When the inception of physiological or emotional abuse occurs, and manipulation ensues, victims may feel as though they have been taken hostage and there is no way out of their situation; victims often turn to suicide to end their pain.
There are seven stages of trauma bonding, which include:
- Love Bombing – A form of psychological and emotional abuse disguised as excessive flattery or over-the-top-gift-giving to manipulate someone into a relationship with them.
- Gaslighting – A form of psychological manipulation in which the abuser attempts to sow self-doubt and confusion in their victim’s mind.
- Trust and Dependency
- Loss of Self
Sextortion Can Lead to Depression & Suicide
While the victim and perpetrator relationship found in sextortion can sometimes lead to trauma bonds, it can also lead to an increased risk of depression and suicide. However, before the onset of suicidal thoughts, emotional dysregulation often occurs. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) defines emotional dysregulation caused by sextortion as feeling too much (overwhelmed) or too little (numb). Further, the NIH also states that physical disturbances are common. Somatic complaints of victims often include sleep disturbances, cardiovascular issues, and substance abuse disorders. However, there may be a way to help students cope with the negative effects of sextortion.
Hope in Trauma-Informed Care
When a child experiences a situation of sextortion and sexual exploitation, this can be categorized as an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). ACEs pose a higher risk of teen involvement in substance abuse, serious health conditions, and risky health behaviors.
Though there is no one definition for trauma, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines it as, “Individual trauma resulting from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” With this definition in mind, speaking to teens with care, establishing trust, and empowering them to succeed in life after trauma can all be defined as evidence of trauma-informed care. When asking teens, “What happened to you?” instead of, “What’s wrong with you?” we take an active and positive role in their recovery journey.
How to Protect Teens from Sextortion
With the weight and gravity of sextortion, it is vital to stop it before it starts. Healthy Children, an organization founded by the American Academy of Pediatrics, states that parents and caregivers must engage in their children’s lives to discuss this crime and help prevent the abuse before it happens. Today, you can start meaningful and ongoing conversations with the student in your life around the following:
- Never send compromising images of yourself to anyone, no matter who they are—or who they say they are.
- Avoid clicking on links in e-mails or open attachments from people you do not know.
- Turn off your electronic devices and web cameras when not in use. And since webcams or recording devices can be hacked and activated remotely, consider covering the camera webcam with a sticky note or piece of tape when you’re not using it.
- Don’t accept friend requests from anyone online or you don’t know in real life. Also, if someone you don’t know asks for identifying personal information, do not respond and tell a trusted adult immediately.
- Don’t use passwords that are easy to guess. Examples to avoid include your pets’ names, birth dates or anything that someone can guess by reviewing your social media profiles.
What to Do If Sextortion Happens
According to the FBI, if young people are being exploited, they are victims of a crime and it needs to be reported. Contact your local FBI field office, call 1-800-CALL-FBI, or report it online at tips.fbi.gov.
Other Helpful Resources
Please view the following resources for more information regarding sextortion:
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