Seventeen-year-old Jordan DeMay seemed to have it all going for him: he was handsome, athletic, and was finishing his senior year at Marquette Senior High School in Marquette, Michigan. He was Homecoming King.
When a pretty girl he didn’t know messaged him on Instagram and asked to exchange intimate images, he was skeptical. After a few minutes of messaging, she sent him a photo and asked him to reciprocate. He hesitated, but ultimately acquiesced.
It turns out he was right to be suspicious. Shortly after he sent an explicit photo of himself, the “pretty girl” demanded $1,000 or the image would be sent to all of his online friends. Jordan didn’t have that much money, but agreed to send $300. After the blackmailer received the money, they said that wasn’t enough and pressured him for more. Not knowing what to do, Jordan replied “you win, I’m going to kill myself.” The criminal responded, “go ahead.”
Within just a few hours of the initial online contact, he did. This is the most recent tragic example of sextortion.
What is Sextortion and How Common is it?
Sameer and I have been interested in the problem of sextortion since we learned about Amanda Todd, the 15-year-old from British Columbia, Canada, who posted a heart-rending video describing her experience being harassed, threatened, and stalked after exposing herself via video to a stranger online. The primary aggressor in the case made life miserable for Amanda, even tracking her down when she changed schools so that he could continue to torment her. Others online piled on. It all became too much, and she ended her life.
We define sextortion as “the threatened dissemination of explicit, intimate, or embarrassing images of a sexual nature without consent, usually for the purpose of procuring additional images, sexual acts, money, or something else.” We’ve asked middle and high school students about their experiences with sextortion in 2016 and 2019. Here’s some of what we know from this research:
- At least 5% of teens have been the target of sextortion
- Non-heterosexual students are more than twice as likely to be victimized
- Targets are most likely to be pressured by current or former romantic partners, or someone else they know
- Extorters typically demand more images, a sexual act, or money
We also know that those who experience sextortion are reluctant to tell adults about it. Only about one-third told their parents and fewer than 1 in 10 told someone at school. Only 8% of the time were the incidents reported to the police. It’s not surprising that youth are hesitant to discuss these incidents with adults. For too long many adults have been warning kids that they may be prosecuted criminally as sex offenders if they share explicit images of themselves with others. This has painted them into a proverbial corner where they would rather suffer silently than be blamed, judged, or even prosecuted.
Just last month the FBI warned of an increase in sextortion cases targeting young boys. Our research confirms that boys are more likely than girls to be the victim of sextortion, even though we often hear about more cases involving young girls. We’ve also learned that boys are significantly less likely than girls to report their experiences to the authorities – perhaps because of shame and embarrassment, a belief that they should be able to handle their problems without assistance, or a feeling that others are unable to help them.
Jordan’s parents only found out about the cause of the suicide when one of Jordan’s friends contacted them to report that they received one of the photos. So in this case, the blackmailer followed through with the threat. This is uncommon, according to our research. Among the teens in our 2019 study who said they were the target of sextortion, only about one-quarter said the images were ultimately shared with the target’s friends or posted online.
The search for the person responsible for Jordan’s death is ongoing, but these kinds of cases can be difficult for investigators. It takes time to track down the necessary digital forensic information to figure out who was involved. Aydin Coban, the suspect believed to be responsible for Amanda Todd’s suicide is scheduled to stand trial this summer, nearly a decade after he allegedly sextorted her to the point of death. Justice is slow in these cases, if it comes at all.
Related: It is Time to Teach Safe Sexting
The DeMays are going public with their story with the hope that others can learn from it and that the worst harm associated with these incidents can be prevented. Amanda Todd’s mom, Carol, has also been working to do the same since Amanda’s death. These are important efforts. Much more needs to be done to educate parents and youth about the dangers of sharing intimate images with others (especially with those who are not well known). Parents need to talk with their children about sextortion (as well as other online risks) and first and foremost convey to them that no matter what happens, they will be there for them. Adolescence is a time of exploration and missteps are often a part of life at this developmental stage. All who care for youth need to support them in a way that prevents adolescent mistakes from becoming life-changing or life-threatening.
If you or someone you know is struggling, consider contacting The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.
Photo courtesy of DeMay Family/WLUC-TV