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What is sextortion and how does it work?

Predators typically engage in online sexual chat with the victim then threaten to release intimate images if demands aren’t met.
Sexual exploitation of teens through online sextortion is a growing trend, warn police and educators.| nito100, Getty Images Plus

What is sexual exploitation? The main definition of sexual exploitation, according to Tiana Sharifi of Sexual Exploitation Education, is a minor exchanging a sexual act for something in return – whether that is safety, security, popularity, love or more tangible items like food, drugs, alcohol or a place to stay.

Sexual extortion or "sextortion" is using the threat of releasing an intimate image or video to made demands. The image can be one a teen or individual has uploaded themselves, sent to someone they know or to a stranger or one that has been captured from a livestream or chat message without the teen’s knowledge. Many teens see sharing of sexual images – including images that are shared without consent – as normal.

Who is a usual victim? Victims can be anyone. Generally predators look for people who are vulnerable in some way. All genders can be victims. Recently in the Lower Mainland, most victims of sextortion have been teen boys.

Who is doing the exploiting? They can range from people in the teen’s own peer group to strangers posing online as peers and acquaintances. The average age of those doing the exploiting is someone in their mid-20s.

How does "sextortion" work? Usually a young person thinks they are exchanging nude pictures or intimate messages or video online with a peer who is interested in them. Sometimes videos which appear to be “live” are actually pre-recorded. In other cases, third parties are used to convince the teen to take part in the exchange. Once the intimate photos have been exchanged, the victim receives threats demanding money. The predator tells the victim if they refuse, those images or videos will be released to family and friends.

In some cases, people who know the victim – including ex-boyfriends and girlfriends or friends of those people – can also engage in sextortion.

Possible warning signs of grooming for sexual exploitation or sextortion:

  • Anyone who engages a teen in sexual conversation online within 48 hours of connecting online.
  • Anyone who asks to switch platforms to Snapchat or livestream. Teens need to know that even livestream is permanent and you can be recorded without your knowledge.
  • A significant age difference either online or in real life. An age difference creates a power imbalance. The exploiter has access to things such as transportation, money, or ID. They may also use their age to pressure youth into acting “more mature.”
  • Gifting. Someone who buys teens things or treats them to things that they cannot typically afford themselves. This builds a debt that teens will need to pay back later.
  • Isolating. Any relationship that takes teens away from their friends or family physically or emotionally.
  • Greater secrecy and use of hidden accounts online.

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