Published by The Lawfare Institute
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Like many of us on the internet, sextortionists rely on pseudonyms to carry out their work, whether in order to hide their identity online or to affirmatively present a false one. Jeremy Brendan Sears, who sextorted at least 14 young victims, sometimes went by the name “Tommy Wiseau.” Ivory Dickerson, who was sentenced to 110 years in prison for the sextortion of hundreds of girls, used the email "[email protected]" to register for a dynamic DNS service in order to hide his IP. And among the numerous anonymous accounts used by Lucas Michael Chansler to sextort over 350 victims are the email addresses “[email protected]” and “[email protected]” and the Stickam username “hawkeye16.”
It’s fairly common for sextortionists to use numerous anonymous accounts and usernames, and Sears, Dickerson, and Chansler all used a variety of other accounts as well. I note these pseudonyms in particular because they all contain references to a certain corner of pop culture: the weird, the geeky, the cultish. Tommy Wiseau is the name of the director and star of the acclaimed bad movie The Room; “The Merovingian” appears as a villain in the Matrix sequels, and posters on internet forums dedicated to discussing the series sometimes refer to the character jokingly as "Merv." “The Dude” is, of course, Jeff Bridges’ character in the cult Coen Brothers film The Big Lebowski. Adam West famously played Batman in the campy 60s TV series, and “Hawkeye” refers to a Marvel Comics superhero.
These account names function not only as references to these specific works of popular culture, but as references to the offbeat culture that both produces and celebrates these works. Because of the internet’s role as a petri dish for the celebration and dissection of weird and nerdy art, of the superhero genre and of films like The Room, these sextortionists’ pseudonyms are also signifiers of internet culture. More specifically, they signify internet nerd culture, in which trivia about and references to out-of-the-mainstream art play a significant role.
Over the past two years, this segment of internet culture has been the subject of an unusual amount of press attention, much of it owing to the “Gamergate” controversy—a coordinated and profoundly vicious harassment campaign against female video game developers and critics. Gamergate made publicly obvious something that was already well-known to many women online: that the internet as a whole can be inhospitable to women, and that internet nerd culture specifically is a place where women are profoundly, sometimes violently unwelcome.
The online violence directed toward women as part of Gamergate included rape and death threats, doxing (the release of an individual’s private contact information or address online), and threats of shootings and bombings that led to several public events being canceled. Gamergate dramatically demonstrated how the hostility toward women that characterizes some corners of the internet can morph into very real threats of violence. I think we should see the sextortion cases as just one additional step down the logical chain―the step that includes actual sexual abuse, not merely threats of it.
According to a 2014 Pew report, young women are dramatically more likely than young men to be stalked and sexually harassed online, and more likely to be targets of sustained harassment. Women are also much more likely to find their online harassment “severely” or “very” upsetting. At the Pacific Standard, Amanda Hess notes that of the individuals who reported harassment to the watchdog group Working to Halt Online Abuse, 73 percent were female. And in a recent Guardian feature analyzing abuse comments left on its online articles, the newspaper indicated that eight out of ten of its most-abused writers are female (the other two are black men); the ten least abused writers are all male.
The statistics are similar for sextortion. Of adult victims of sextortion, nearly all are female. Though a greater proportion of minor victims are male, the majority remain girls.
Danielle Citron of the University of Maryland—who participated in the online launch event for our papers—has suggested that sextortion lies at the intersection of two social problems that are often not given enough attention: online harassment and sexual assault. Examples of disregard for online harassment are common, even when the harassment in question involves promises of sexual violence. The journalist Amanda Hess, describing her own struggles with online threats in a 2014 essay, reported a litany of instances in which law enforcement failed to take seriously online threats of rape or other violence against herself and other women. This may stem from a mix of cultural attitudes and genuine incomprehension on the part of some police departments: when Hess reported that someone had tweeted a series of threats to rape her, the responding officer asked, “What is Twitter?”
Stories like Hess’s have become so common that they almost constitute their own online genre. Writing at Jezebel, Anna Merlan refers to them as “harassment lit.” The patterns of online threats are consistent enough that each new entry to the canon of harassment lit takes on a familiar shape. A crucial stage of the plot, according to Merlan, is “the part… where you go to the police and nothing happens.” Over the course of our launch event, both Danielle Citron and Carrie Goldberg emphasized law enforcement’s unwillingness or inability to respond to these online threats. (One recent, high-profile exception is the police investigation into violent harassment of Julia Ioffe, who has been targeted with anti-semitic vitriol online in response to her profile of Melania Trump in GQ. Is it too much to hope that this investigation might herald a change in how police departments handle online threats?)
The majority of sextortion cases we reviewed were federal cases and many were thus investigated by the FBI, an organization that is generally more technologically sophisticated than local police departments. It’s impossible to know how many reports of sextortion go nowhere as a consequence of confusion on the part of local law enforcement. But the digital literacy of law enforcement aside, it’s easy to find examples of disregard for victims of sextortion online too. The language used to express that disregard echoes the same language that so often trivializes in-person sexual assault, most notably in an attitude that places responsibility on victims for their own trauma. In our research, we have seen mostly dedicated investigative efforts on the part of law enforcement, but we’re looking at a biased sample: the sample of cases that actually get prosecuted. The reaction a lot of other victims experience from law enforcement is dismissal and neglect.
You can see the same attitudes with a quick glance at the comments section of news stories regarding sextortion. They will often turn up a host of commenters opining that a victim was foolish to send pictures or to store images on their hard drive. In one comments thread on a story on the sextortion of Cassidy Wolf, the former Miss Teen USA, a poster writes that "I have no sympathy for poor Little Miss Teen Idiot USA who took pictures of herself with a device that is connected to the Internet." The other commenters defend Wolf on the grounds that her sextortionist obtained the photos by hacking her webcam, not by stealing pictures she had taken. The implication is that if Wolf had taken the initial photo, perhaps she would be blameworthy after all. How different is this from admonishing victims of sexual assault for wearing revealing clothing or behaving “provocatively”?
Though a number of sextortionists’ pseudonyms reference and reflect internet nerd culture, internet culture exists in conversation with culture more broadly. The internet is a place of emotionally heightened conversation, where anonymity allows even the politest of disagreements to devolve into all-caps shouting matches (or Hitler comparisons) with unusual speed. Small cruelties that we might keep to ourselves in daily life—such as declaring a total lack of sympathy for a victim of brutal online assault—are more easily put forward in an anonymous comments thread.
This ugliness is itself the draw for the frequenters of some of the internet’s nastier corners. The Gamergate “movement,” such as it was, shares a zeitgeist with other unrelentingly misogynistic—and, not by coincidence, frequently racist—aspects of online culture. These include the “men’s rights activists” and “red pillers,” who argue that men are victimized by contemporary society, feminism is an oppressive ideology, and women should conform to traditional gender roles. You don’t have to get too far into the vocabulary of these communities before you start seeing treatment of women—in public forums—that isn’t too different from the private behavior the sextortionists: threats of violence and exposure and demands for sexual submission.
These toxic subcultures act as a refuge for men whose resentment of women is no longer quite so socially acceptable as it might have been a few decades ago. They also act as a feedback loop, echoing back and reinforcing feelings of disappointment and dissatisfaction with changing social norms to the point where those feelings can be expressed as violent hatred. Online enclaves are a place to retreat from social change, where anonymity makes expression of instinctual reactionaryism more acceptable—and can also make it acceptable to direct those instincts at individuals in the form of brutal mistreatment.
During the launch event for the sextortion papers, Citron noted that sextortion differs from online harassment in that the goal of the harasser is often to publicize a victim’s information, while the sextortionist promises to keep the victim’s images hidden in exchange for further photos or video. In this sense, perhaps sextortion bears a closer relation to domestic violence—a more private form of brutality—and to sexual assault than it does to the sort of bullying and taunting on which we tend to focus when we think of online abuse.
Yet despite this important difference, sextortion still arises out of the same culture of internet violence against women that is responsible for coordinated harassment campaigns. And likewise, that culture of online violence serves the same purpose as other forms of violence against women, including domestic violence: to command women’s behavior and prop up male social control.
The sextortionist Michael C. Ford told police investigators that he began sextorting to fill a “power void” created by his wife’s role as “alpha and breadwinner” in the family. The purpose of the photos he obtained, he said, was the power they gave him over his female victims—not the photos themselves. Similarly, Jeremy Brendan Sears admitted to the FBI that his sextortion had “a very minor sexual thing to it,” but was primarily about obtaining “power” and “control.” (It’s worth noting that some of Sears’ victims were teenage boys as well as girls.) Sears is one of the perpetrators we have studied who seems to be most connected to internet nerd culture: he began sextorting after becoming involved in an online group that trolled young girls running fan pages for boy-bands.
Our papers, “Sextortion: Cybersecurity, teenagers, and remote sexual assault” and “Closing the sextortion sentencing gap: A legislative proposal,” both highlight the "sextortion sentencing gap": the enormous discrepancy between sextortionists charged under child pornography laws and sextortionists whose victims are legal adults, whose sentences tend to be less severe by roughly a power of ten. Our assumption was that the sentencing gap exists as a consequence of sextortion's status as a fairly new crime, one that has not yet produced specific legislation and that cannot be easily addressed using preexisting legislative remedies.
But there may be another reason for the gap, one that follows from the above analysis regarding sextortion as a manifestation of misogyny and the violent end of the spectrum that begins with the rougher-than-usual treatment of female voices online: Perhaps the gendered nature of sextortion as a crime is at least partially responsible for the mild sentencing regime for sextortionists with adult victims. We protect kids, after all, but as the comments on the sextortion news stories reflect, we somehow manage to consider adult female survivors of sextortion as having brought this trauma on themselves. If that’s the way we feel about it, then there isn’t that much to punish.
My point is not that there has ever been, at any level of government, an affirmative decision to keep sextortion sentencing minimal. Rather, my point is that because we react so differently when the victim is a child than we do when the victim is an adult (an adult woman, that is), because we so easily trivialize the harm of sextortion against adult women and we so easily blame the victim for sending the pictures, adult sextortion—as opposed to child pornography—does not rise to the level of political importance where state and federal legislators feel they must address it.
Our papers propose federal legislation that would establish a higher sentencing range for defendants accused of sextorting adult victims. We don’t propose to close the sentencing gap completely. Many child exploitation cases involve a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence. We’re proposing that as a maximum, so some gap would persist. But a 15-year sentence is much higher than existing sentences for adult-only sextortion offenses—and ensuring that individual sextortion counts would be considered separately for sentencing purposes would potentially allow multiple counts to add up to a longer total time served.
The current political climate around mass incarceration calls into question the assumption that “justice,” whatever that might mean, requires “closing the gap” by increasing sentencing length. This conversation has brought to the surface a number of long-submerged questions about the purpose of prison and the meaning of justice—questions which warrant serious consideration.
But whatever model of justice we choose as a society, it should not systematically devalue the victimization of women relative to that of other people. If it’s a serious matter to coerce a 17-year-old girl into masturbating on camera for months on end, it’s a serious matter to coerce an 18-year-old into doing the same thing.
The current state of affairs, in which sextortionists with adult victims generally receive low sentences, is itself a moral statement that we as a society consider the crime not to be so much of crime at all. Our sentencing recommendation is designed to serve as a moral antidote to this status quo of victim-blaming. Acknowledging the crime as a crime is important, even within an imperfect justice system.
So consider this an acknowledgement that there is work yet to be done.
But even before punishment, there is a question of prevention, and we won’t get far in this matter until we understand and address the roots of sextortion in a culture. Because before the crime, there is the culture—particularly online, but offline as well. The sextortionists, at least some of them, clearly identify with that culture. It’s worth asking what that says about the culture itself.