Sextortion

Sextortion

Overview

Sextortion is extortion where sex or sexual imagery, rather than money, is demanded by someone with power over the victim.

Sextortion is the nexus between corruption and sexual abuse. For example, a judge demands sex in exchange for a favorable custody decision, a landlord demands sex in lieu of rent, teachers trade good grades for sexual acts. Sextortion is proliferating in the digital age. Hackers obtain sexual images and use them to obtain more images, or an abusive partner threatens to expose sexual images as a form of control.

Facts about Sextortion

  • Women and girls are disproportionately affected
  • Cyber-sextortion is a fast-growing problem in the Internet era
  • Perpetrators exploit digitally savvy children and teens
  • Many perpetrators have abused multiple victims—sometimes hundreds
  • Victims experience long-lasting psychological impact and harm to their reputations
  • Victims often do not report or do not know where to seek help
  • Existing laws are inadequate to prosecute sextortion; laws need to be amended to specifically address sextortion

Issues

Need for public awareness

Even though the term “sextortion” is increasingly used by the media and law enforcement, it is not specifically recognized as a crime in the United States. Sextortion is not even in the dictionary! Public education is needed to raise awareness among parents, schools, and the general public. Individuals and families should be able to protect themselves from sextortion and to report it if they are victimized.

Lack of adequate legal solutions

The United States lacks adequate legal solutions to ensure justice for victims. U.S. law does not expressly prohibit sextortion. Because of lack of adequate laws, clear sextortion cases have gone unpunished.

How Legal Momentum is working to end sextortion

  • Educating the public and raising awareness
  • Advocating for legal reforms such as amending existing extortion, cybercrime, sex offense, and domestic violence statutes
  • Ensuring that schools include sextortion awareness in internet safety curricula

Legal Momentum Brings First-Ever State Court Civil Suit for Cyber-Sexual Abuse on Behalf of Ex-Marine

After two deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan over a five-year period, former U.S. Marine H.H. was excited about living in New York City, resuming her education, and being part of a vibrant multi-cultural city. She enrolled in college and was building a new life. Like many people who are starting out anew, and like many veterans transitioning to civilian life, H.H. fell behind on her rent. Rather than giving her time to repay the rent, or turning to legal avenues to collect the back rent, H.H.’s landlord resorted to threats and sexual abuse. To gain leverage over H.H., her landlord entered her apartment without her consent and stole intimate images of her from her private hard drive—one that was not even connected to the Internet! He threatened to release the images publicly online unless H.H. paid her back rent. Fearing for her safety, and faced with public humiliation, H.H. (with the help of veterans’ resource center Angels for Warriors) turned to Legal Momentum for help. Legal Momentum immediately stepped into action and contacted H.H.’s local prosecutor. Within 24 hours, a sting operation was in place, which led to the landlord’s arrest.

Even though he pled guilty to grand larceny of the hard drive, the landlord was sentenced to only 15 days of community service, and was ordered to forfeit the money he extorted from H.H. That was not enough. As H.H. said, “He did more than harm the community, he sexually abused me.” H.H. and Legal Momentum realize that with just a few mouse clicks, images of H.H. can be plastered over the Internet, and that they can impact her ability to find work and housing, and to form new social relationships.

Working on behalf of H.H., Legal Momentum partnered with the law firm of Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe LLP to make sure that every victim of online sexual abuse can find justice. Legal Momentum and Orrick are representing H.H. in a lawsuit (filed in February 2017) against the landlord for the harm that he caused her. This is the first state court civil suit for acts of sextortion in the country, and will pave the way for other victims of cyber-sexual abuse to sue their abusers.

Legal Momentum and Orrick are also making sure that sextortion is prosecuted as a sex crime throughout the country. In California, for example, they have worked with the California District Attorneys Association and State Senator Connie Leyva to introduce a law that makes distributing or threatening to distribute sexual images a crime. The law would strengthen the tools available to law enforcement and prosecutors.

Legal Momentum, together with the Thomson Reuters Foundation and Orrick, published a hard-hitting, plain language report, “A Call to Action: Ending Sextortion in the Digital Age,” that highlights deficiencies in current laws to address cyber-sexual abuse. The report provides an unprecedented and practical framework for legislative reform. The free report is available, along with a tip sheet on preventing cyber-sexual abuse, on Legal Momentum’s website. We also held a public education event in September 2016, with expert panelists including H.H. and the unit chief of the FBI’s Violent Crimes against Children Intelligence Unit. 

Resources & Materials

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