Other sextortion victims, in contrast, are far more vulnerable. Many are young: In our 2016 Brookings study, 71 percent of the cases we examined involved only victims under the age of 18. While most adult victims were female, a significant proportion of minor victims were young boys, many of whom thought they were communicating with other boys innocently sexually interested in them. Both boys and girls are often just beginning to understand and explore their sexuality. They are ashamed of what their parents and classmates might find out. One girl, already teased at her middle school, described being terrified that the publication of these photos would unleash even crueler bullying. In a 2017 study by the activist group Thorn, one in three victims surveyed said they had never shared what happened to them with anyone, and only 17 percent of victims went to law enforcement. Even when victims go the police, local law enforcement often has no idea how to handle the problem. There is a risk that photos will linger online and follow victims for the rest of their life.
Bezos’s insistence on demonstrating that one can “stand up to this kind of extortion” expresses a real insight. Sextortion is brutal and isolating, with many victims unaware of how common the abuse can be. For the richest man in the world to acknowledge that this has affected him, too, has expressive power, both in assuring victims that they are not alone and, hopefully, in drawing attention to the problem.
Read: Why kids sext
At the same time, sextortion is often successful precisely because victims lack Bezos’s resources. For most, allowing someone to release their nude materials means deep emotional suffering and embarrassment (which Bezos surely has endured) and harm to reputation and job opportunities (which Bezos does not have to fret about). This is an area ripe for legal reform: Most states have now criminalized nonconsensual pornography, but other invasions of sexual privacy, such as deep-fake sex videos and up-skirt photos, don’t fit easily into the existing criminal or civil code. Legislation introduced in Congress to criminalize sextortion has gone nowhere.
A consistent refrain among sextortionists is that the abuse is less about sex than power. Michael C. Ford, who attempted to blackmail hundreds of young women for sexual images, told investigators that he wanted to feel “big” and “important”; he engaged in sextortion, he said, to fill the “power void” created by his wife’s role as “alpha and breadwinner.” The Bezos story is also about power: the wealth of the Amazon CEO against AMI’s effort to leverage its ability to put Bezos’s indiscretions on tabloid covers in grocery stores across America.
The greater political context of the story, too, unavoidably places it in the midst of crosscurrents of power on an international scale. Bezos has drawn President Donald Trump’s ire for his ownership of The Washington Post; AMI is currently bound by a nonprosecution agreement with federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York in relation to the investigation into the tabloid’s role in helping silence at least one woman with an unflattering story to tell about Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign. Throughout his Medium post, Bezos hints that AMI’s displeasure with him might have something to do with the company’s alleged links to the Saudi government and the Post’s investigation into the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
All this is tantalizing. It might even turn out to be important. But the value of the moment will be lost, at least in part, if the conversation around Bezos doesn’t focus on what his actions, and the kind of abuse he stood up against, mean for those more vulnerable than he.