Sextortion in the Era of COVID-19: The Silenced Narratives of Hurt Children

Posted: 3/1/2021 8:00:00 AM by Angela Pang, MSW

Sextortion is the issue of maliciously using information to blackmail people into sexual acts or allowing the perpetrator to get away with sexual assault. Sometimes the information is true but meant to be kept private (i.e., revenge porn) and sometimes it is patently false (i.e., defamation). Although the internet is pervasive throughout society, it remains a relatively new medium and few efforts have been made to combat these crimes. So far only 26 states have laws against sextortion and consequences for perpetrators, even if they are convicted, are often limited or non-existent so usually repeat offenders go on to find new victims or those they formerly victimized continue to be in danger. Those who have caused harm are not convicted or receive a slap on the wrist if they are privileged with wealth or prestige.


There is also little that is legally offered for victims of crimes—the “injustice system” is far from victim-centered or trauma-informed. This leads to a world where perpetrators realize that harming or threatening others is acceptable and victims realizing how little use there is in speaking out or reporting the incident. The issue of retraumatizing victims through victim blaming and even legal punishment for the “crime” of producing, owning, and sending child porn of themselves makes it incredibly difficult for victims of sextortion to report the incident out of fear of repercussions. Victims are shamed into a cycle of following the abuser’s instructions out of fear, only to give more and more ammunition.


The injustices grow higher as stakes grow higher, and just closure is never a guarantee—particularly regarding the difficult topic of sex crimes, children, and online perpetrator anonymity.  However, some policies and remedies can be incorporated into school emergency operations plans in order to prevent any school aged youth from being sextorted in the first place.  The FBI’s “Stop Sextortion” campaign and Thorn’s “Stop Sextortion” site provides caregivers, companies, educators, victims, and policymakers tools to fight sextortion, including warning victims that they could unfortunately face legal trouble for owning child pornography of themselves due to misguided laws.


Project Callisto finds repeat offenders by keeping all reported information—of perpetrators and survivors—encrypted and anonymous until the same perpetrator is reported by more than one person. Then this platform gives all survivors their own legal advocate. Project Callisto provides information about restorative justice, which could include a roadmap to repairing harm inflicted on the victim and mental health referrals for ensuring the emotions that led to the urge to harm are processed safely.
The fight for justice is not itself set up to be therapeutic to the victim even if a narrative of justice, that the world will support them in making right any wrongs, is often incredibly helpful for improving the mental health of the traumatized after their worldview is broken. Victims need to know that they will be heard and protected from the threat if they ever speak up. Perpetrators also need to know there is a way out once a crime has been committed. Restorative justice is an option that could greatly reduce the severity of the trauma done to the victim while giving offenders a better understanding of the harm they have caused and ways to avoid reoffending. We can be the generation to break the cycle, and we must try everything we can to do so to make sure the lessons our children will take away are that they are valued, believed, and protected. 

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