The researchers unearthed 78 cases, a figure that they acknowledge is minuscule compared to the actual scale of sextortion worldwide. Of those 78 cases, 69 involved minors. All the perpetrators were male, and nearly all of the adult victims were female; more than a quarter of child victims, however, were male. And the researchers found that while some perpetrators focused on a single target (like a stalker might), many spread their net incredibly wide, crossing state and country boundaries to claim hundreds or even thousands of victims.
It’s difficult to know just how many people were harmed by these 78 men, because prosecutors often focus only on a handful of victims for which they can bring the strongest evidence against the perpetrator. But in 13 of the cases, prosecutors said there were more than 100 victims. (One case that the report excluded for lack of concrete data may have involved more than 3,800 victims, the FBI has said.)
Combing through the cases one by one, the Brookings researchers produced an estimated range of possible victims: between 3,000 and 6,500.
The psychological and, in many cases, physical harm to sextortion victims is hard to fathom. Both perpetrators and victims have called sextortion a form of virtual slavery, and perpetrators routinely use their power to demand incredibly degrading and humiliating acts. Victims have been forced to record videos of themselves stripping, masturbating, having sex with strangers, or eating their own ejaculate and solid waste.
Victims’ pleas for the humiliation to end are met with further demands, and some victims have been driven to self-harm. In one case, a 17-year-old girl wrote to her tormentor to say she had attempted suicide the night before, and warned she may try again if the treatment continued. “Glad i could help,” the perpetrator replied.
These ordeals usually began with some sort of “catfishing,” or manipulation over social media. Often, perpetrators win victims’ trust before asking for sexually explicit photos or videos; other times, they impersonate someone else. In about one in five cases, perpetrators hacked victims’ social media and email accounts, or took over their webcams to take surreptitious photos and videos.
But it’s currently impossible to prosecute sextortion cases in a uniform way. “Sextortion as a legal matter does not exist,” Wittes said in a presentation of his research presentation Wednesday. “There is no sextortion in federal law.” Since prosecutors have to lean on existing law, there’s a sentencing gap between cases that involve minors and those that don’t.
Charges of child sexual exploitation carry a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years, and child-porn charges come with similarly heavy punishments. Sentences in cases with child victims ranged from seven months to 139 years (and some were given life sentences in prison), and the mean sentence was 31 years.