A New Sextortion Report (Not by Us)

Benjamin Wittes
Wednesday, June 29, 2016, 11:47 AM

Janice Wolack and David Finkelhor of the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center have an important new study out on their survey of sextortion victims. I haven't read it yet, but I'm very glad someone is doing this research. Two findings immediately stand out.

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Janice Wolack and David Finkelhor of the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center have an important new study out on their survey of sextortion victims. I haven't read it yet, but I'm very glad someone is doing this research. Two findings immediately stand out.

First, note that a very large percentage of the victims are not children but legal adults. And while the victims are overwhelmingly females, there are a substantial number of male victims as well. This is consistent with our findings.

Second, as we also found in our studies, the impacts on victims are severe. In this study, a remarkable 12 percent of victims report having to move as a consequence of what happened to them.

I suspect I will have more comments after I've read the study in its entirety.

In the meantime, here's the introduction:


Thorn and the Crimes against Children Research Center of the University of New Hampshire conducted an online survey of persons ages 18 to 25 who have been targets of threats to expose sexual images, or “sextortion” (n=1631). Respondents were recruited mainly through ads on Facebook and asked to complete anonymous surveys if they had been targets of sextortion. Our goal was to inform strategies to reduce these incidents by:

  • Educating the public and practitioners about sextortion;
  • Improving mechanisms for reporting to websites, apps and other technology programs that are being used for sextortion; promoting reporting to technology companies by targets of sextortion and increasing effective responses to such reports;
  • Equipping technology companies with more knowledge and information about how their platforms are being used in sextortion so they can create preventive strategies to combat the problem; and
  • Encouraging help-seeking by targets of sextortion and providing them with resources. Details about how the survey was conducted can be found at the end of this report.


Sextortion is defined as threats to expose a sexual image in order to make a person do something or for other reasons, such as revenge or humiliation. Persons who completed the online survey are referred to as “respondents” and those who threatened them as “perpetrators.”

The respondents in our sample were primarily female (83%) and teenagers (ages 18 and 19); about 40% were in their early 20s.

The sextortion episodes they reported were diverse, but incidents broadly fell into two groups:

a) In the wake of face-to-face romantic or sexual relationships during which sexual images were taken or shared, an aggrieved partner threatened to disseminate images either to force reconciliation or to embarrass or humiliate the respondent.

b) A perpetrator who met a respondent online used a sexual image obtained from the respondent or some other source to demand more images or sexual interactions.

There was notable diversity in these episodes, however. Some respondents were male; demands were not always sexual in nature; and some perpetrators used elaborate deceptions to acquire images and threaten respondents.

The more serious cases involved stalking and physical and sexual assault in addition to sextortion and threats that lasted for 6 months or more.

Perpetrators carried out threats or otherwise harmed respondents in about 45% of cases, more frequently in the face-to-face relationship group than in the online encounter group, and disseminated sexual images in about 30% of cases.

The personal and psychological toll on respondents could be quite intense, with 24% seeing a medical or mental health practitioner and 12% having to move as a result.

Shame, embarrassment and self-blame were common feelings that kept many respondents from seeking help from friends and family or from reporting to technology companies that ran websites or apps used for sextortion.

Only 1 in 5 respondents sought help from or reported the episode to a website or app. Respondents were more likely to make reports when perpetrators posted images online. Of those who did not report incidents, about half reported skepticism that a website or app could help. More than 40% of those who did report to websites or apps said that the responses that they received were not helpful.

Complaints about unhelpful responses from technology companies included complicated documentation requirements, unsympathetic attitudes, lengthy delays, lack of follow-up about what was being done, and responses that did not fully address the problem.

Only 16% of respondents reported episodes to police, but police involvement was considerably more common among those who disclosed sextortion incidents to family or friends, were victims of violence or threats of violence in addition to the sextortion, or who saw a doctor or mental health professional as a result of the incident.

Respondents described a variety of barriers to police assistance, including lack of criminal laws addressing sextortion, lack of jurisdiction when perpetrators lived in other states or countries, and difficulties proving the identity of perpetrators. Some reported being shamed or blamed by police and some who were minors during incidents were threatened with prosecution for producing child pornography.

The report includes recommendations to:

  • Increase public awareness of sextortion in order to promote disclosure and improve support networks for victims
  • Mobilize the education system to implement prevention curricula and provide support resources
  • Mobilize bystanders to stop perpetrators and support victims
  • Encourage the technology industry to develop proactive interventions, improve the experience of victims who report incidents, adopt practices and policies that prohibit sextortion, and increase collaboration across the industry
  • Increase law enforcement’s capacity to respond to sextortion cases and improve sensitivity to victims Many respondents described the sextortion they endured in detail and with feeling. They speak for themselves in much of this report.


  • Sixteen hundred thirty-one people who had been threatened with exposure of sexual images completed the online survey.
  • Most respondents were women (83%), 14% were men and 2% described their gender as other. (Table 1, pg. 69) (“Male,” “female” and “other” were the only choices offered in the survey. In this report, we describe the gender of respondents who chose “other” as “unspecified.”)
  • Almost 40% were age 18 at the time they completed the survey (39%). We were specifically interested in episodes that occurred to youth ages 17 and younger, and we deliberately aimed recruiting messages at 18-year-olds because we expected them to report more such incidents.
  • Other respondents were ages 19 (16%), 20 (10%), 21 (9%), 22 (7%), 23 (7%), 24 (6%) and 25 (3%) when they completed the survey.
  • Thirteen percent of respondents were Hispanic or Latino/a.
  • More than three-quarters described themselves as White/Caucasian (78%), 4% were Black/African American, 3% Asian, 2% American Indian/Alaska native, and 1% Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander. Four percent were multi-racial or other; 9% declined to describe their race.
  • Nine percent of respondents had not graduated from high school, 37% were high school graduates, 40% had some college or technical schooling and 13% had a college degree or more. Throughout this report, numbers are rounded to the nearest percent. Some categories may not add to 100% because of rounding. Missing data greater than 5% is noted. Data are missing because respondents declined to answer questions or answered don’t know/not sure. Detailed tables are in the appendix.

All quotations in the report are from responses to the online survey. Some quotations have been altered slightly for clarity and to delete possibly identifying details. With each quotation, we list the gender of the respondent, their age at the time the threats began and whether they knew the perpetrator face-toface or online.

Limitations of the survey

When reading this report, please keep in mind that the characteristics and experiences of respondents reflect how recruitment was conducted. Nine out of 10 respondents were recruited by ads on Facebook, and Facebook users may differ from other persons who have been threatened with exposure of sexual images. Also, respondents were age 18 to 25. This survey does not reflect the experiences of persons age 26 or older. Some respondents provided retrospective accounts of episodes that occurred when they were minors, but if we had gathered more contemporaneous data from minors they might have described such incidents differently. Overall, the respondents do not constitute a representative sample of persons who have been the targets of sextortion, so our findings cannot be generalized beyond this group. For example, we cannot say who is mostly targeted for sextortion and how it mostly occurs; we can only report the experiences of those who responded to the survey.

Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books.

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