Sextortion on social media seems like a never-ending battle. Young people are pressured into sending sexually arousing photos or videos to strangers on social media, and after sending them, they are threatened that the photos or videos will be distributed online in exchange for money, to satisfy the perpetrator's warped sexual desires, or as revenge pornography.
Sextortion is clearly one of the main methods of child sex trafficking.
To understand why any adult or child would send sexually explicit photos and videos, we need to look at the vulnerability factors affecting the potential victim.
Let’s look at a practical example… Traveling abroad is fun, but have you ever experienced a delayed flight and missed your connecting flight? You might have arrived on the last flight, and found yourself stuck at an airport where all shops and public transport services had already closed. If you are approached by a random stranger who offers to drop you off at the nearest hotel, you would probably jump at the opportunity out of desperation. Even though you don't know what kind of person he is, the situation forces you to trust him to take care of you when you are at your most vulnerable.
Under great stress or in an unfamiliar foreign country, even adults become vulnerable. When we are physically and/or mentally exhausted, it is easy to make the wrong decision without thinking things through - things we would never agree to under normal circumstances.
In a different scenario, someone could simply feel overwhelmed at their workplace with nobody willing to help. They feel like they’re in a vortex, unable to step back and look at their situation objectively. In order to drown the stress, they bury themselves in online games or indulge in online pornography. All self-control is lost, and when a stranger starts exchanging direct messages and starts making requests or demands that would normally seem outrageous, they are unable to recognize the deception and easily give in.
These examples show just how easily the vulnerability of adults can be exploited. It is only natural then that vulnerable children with limited life experience would be at even greater risk.
In some cases, children are bullied at school and abused by their parents at home. The two places where they spend most of their time, where they should be safe, become places of exploitation. If they find a kind stranger on social media that is willing to listen to them, or a stranger on the street that speaks gently and shows an interest in them, they are naturally attracted to what they perceive as love and acceptance, something they want to hold on to.
In a moment of weakness, without knowing the true identity or intentions of the stranger, they could give in to requests for sexual photos or videos to gain the perpetrator’s approval, in response to romantic feelings, or even for money. Only after being threatened, having their photos and videos circulated or sold online, do they realize that they have made a terrible mistake.
In Japan, sexual assault is sometimes called the murder of the soul because it is so damaging to the person’s heart and dignity. It casts a dark shadow over a survivor's life.
For parents or friends of a child who has been exploited, it is important to avoid victim-blaming questions such as “Why did you do that?" or “Why did you go there?" The exploited child is already experiencing extreme guilt and shame. Instead, it is important to recognize that children and adults all have moments of vulnerability and can become victims. Instead, listening to the child from their point of view, and praising them for having the courage to speak out is crucial. The child may have been struggling for months or years to speak out - this is a big, positive step!
For children that meet a person online that is just too good to be true - it probably is! If someone starts asking for sexual images, NEVER give in to the request. Your life and your body is precious and you deserve better.
If you have already sent your pictures to someone, remember that you are a victim and the perpetrator is the one who committed the crime. Reach out to a trusted adult or to ZOE for support and advice.