Sextortion targets one in seven adults

Woman shocked looking at phone. | Newsreel
Almost 15 percent of adults have been victims of sextortion. | Photo: SB Arts Media (iStock)

One in seven adults – or almost 15 percent – have been victims of sexual extortion, according to a new global study.

Led by Melbourne’s RMIT University, the study found the prevalence of sexual extortion among adults was more widespread than initially thought, with almost 5 percent of respondents also admitting to being perpetrators.

Lead researcher and RMIT Professor Nicola Henry said the university partnered with Google to survey 16,000 adults across Australia, North and Central America, Europe and Asia.

Professor Henry said 14.5 percent of respondents reported being victims of sextortion, while 4.8 percent admitted to being perpetrators.

She said sexual extortion, or sextortion, was a form of image-based sexual abuse which included making threats to share intimate photos or videos of a victim unless they complied with the perpetrator’s demands.

“LGBTQ+ people, men and younger respondents were more likely to report both victimisation and perpetration,” Professor Henry said.

She said the most common type of perpetrator was a former or current partner, but men were more likely than women to report being victimised by a colleague or carer.

The report found victimisation was most common in the US, Australia, Mexico and South Korea, and least common in the European countries, while perpetration was most common in South Korea, followed by Australia and the US.

Professor Henry said despite men being more likely to be perpetrators, the study found they were also slightly more at risk of being victims of sextortion.

She said one possible explanation for why men were more likely to report victimisation could be because sextortion scams were more likely to target young men.

“For financial forms of sextortion, scammers trick people into sharing their intimate images, or lead them to believe they have evidence of the victim visiting pornographic sites,” Professor Henry said.

“They then use this evidence to threaten to share intimate images if they don’t comply with their demands, like paying money or sending more intimate images.”

Despite the prevalence of sextortion in the form of financial scams, Professor Henry said sextortion was actually more likely to be perpetrated by an intimate partner.

“This is particularly common in intimate partner abuse where a partner or an ex threatens to share intimate images to coerce the victim into doing or not doing something, such as staying in the relationship, pursuing an intervention order, refusing custody of children, or engaging in an unwanted sexual act,” she said.

Professor Henry said LGBTQ+ people were also at a greater risk of falling victim to sextortion, where intimate content might be used as a threat to ‘out’ them due to the stigma surrounding sexuality and sexual freedom of expression.

She said the study found 85.2 percent of perpetrators also reported being victimised at some point.

“One possible explanation for this is that intimate images may be used in retaliation or in “tit-for-tat” situations, whereby an individual who has threatened to share another person’s intimate images then experiences a threat themselves from that individual or from someone else.”

The full paper Sextortion: Prevalence and correlates in 10 countries was published in Computers in Human Behavior