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'Sextortion': One in seven adults threatened with release of intimate images, study finds

Sextortion, a form of blackmail that involves sharing someone’s intimate images, may be more widespread than previously thought.
Sextortion, a form of blackmail that involves sharing someone’s intimate images, may be more widespread than previously thought. Copyright Canva
Copyright Canva
By Oceane Duboust
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Sextortion, a form of blackmail that involves sharing someone’s intimate images, may be more widespread than previously thought.

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One in seven adults has experienced someone threatening to share intimate images of them, according to a new study conducted in 10 countries. 

Researchers from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT University) and Google surveyed more than 16,000 people across Australia, North and Central America, Europe and Asia. 

Around 14.5 per cent of them reported having been victims of image-based abuses, also called sextortion, while 4.8 per cent admitted to being perpetrators. 

People belonging to the LGBTQ+ community, men, and younger respondents were more likely to report both being victims and perpetrating such actions, according to the findings published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

“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,” Nicola Henry, lead researcher and a professor at the RMIT’s Social Equity Research Centre,said in a statement. 

"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”.

The US, Australia, and South Korea were more impacted by the phenomenon compared to European countries. 

Current or former intimate partners more likely to be perpetrators

Almost a third of respondents said that the perpetrator was a former partner and around one in six respondents reported the perpetrator was a current 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,” Henry added.

LGBTQ+ people could be at a greater risk of sextortion, with the content being used as a threat to reveal their sexuality, according to RMIT’s statement.

More prevention needed

The majority of perpetrators, 85.2 per cent, also reported having been victims of sextortion 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,” Henry said.

Sextortion can have “serious social, psychological, physical, or financial consequences, including depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and suicide,” researchers noted in the study’s introduction. 

“First and foremost, prevention education at the school, university, and community levels needs to be tailored specifically to at-risk groups, especially boys and young men,” she said, adding that “more funding and resources are needed for supporting victim-survivors of sextortion, including for counselling, legal advice, and mental health crisis support”.

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