It's Time to Make Sextortion Illegal
"I might as well make u suffer the rest of ur life," said the text message sent to a 17-year-old girl from Wisconsin. "When jobs and colleges google your name, they're gonna see this shit bitch."
The teenage girl, identified by the pseudonym "Molly" by local news, was threatening to call the police on her sextortionist. Sextortion is a new kind of sexual exploitation that occurs when someone uses sexually explicit videos or photos — obtained by hacking and deception, or even acquired consensually — as blackmail. Molly's sextortionist, who told her to address him as "master," wanted more nudes, and was threatening to post what he had all over the internet.
Sometimes, a sextortionist forces the victim into having sex or sending money, but often the goal is to get even more photos and videos.
Sextortion isn't a crime. It's not illegal in Wisconsin or any other state in the nation, according to a report released Wednesday morning by the Brookings Institution. So Erin Karshen, the Milwaukee assistant district attorney who handled Molly's case in Wisconsin, had to get creative, and use other laws to bring Molly's sextortionist to justice.
Karshen has seen about "a dozen" sextortion cases, ranging from scorned partners using old sexts to blackmail exes to elaborate catfishing schemes set up to target groups of victims, she said in a phone interview. In each case, she had to jury-rig other laws to work in her favor, using legislation like Wisconsin's statute for "threats to communicate derogatory information," a property crime that is only a Class I felony, and doesn't register the perpetrator with a sex offender registry.
That law was created in the '90s, before smartphones, Snapchat, sexting and the ubiquity of the internet — before anyone realized sextortion would be a problem.
"Our laws are generally reactive" Karshen said, "It's hard to envision every way to harm another person."
But Brookings has a solution in mind, one that would address any case of sextortion in any state in the nation: Make sextortion a federal crime.
Sexual assault, at scale: Perpetrators of sexual assault are repeat offenders — a 2002 study found that repeat rapists committed rape an average of 5.8 times. For sextortion, that number can be far higher. Working remotely, often across state lines and behind hidden aliases, sextortionists can victimize dozens of people at once.
In a survey of 78 reported sextortion cases that Brookings examined, estimates by law enforcement suspected there were over a thousand victims. In 38 cases, there were more than ten victims, and in 13 cases, there were over 100 victims. But because sextortion schemes can be so vast, the exact number of victims remain unknown. Although Brookings couldn't find court documents to back up the claim, the FBI says that sextortionists Ivory Dickerson and Patrick Connolly victimized over 3,800 children.
"This is the first time in the history of the world where individual sexual assault by one person is, in a Silicon Valley sense, scalable," Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at Brookings who coauthored the report, said in a phone interview.
Wittes and Karshen suspect that sextortion goes vastly underreported. Most of the victims in the sample of the Brookings study were children, who don't necessarily know that the looming terror of someone threatening to ruin your life means they're the victim of a crime.
In every case Brookings saw, the sextortionist was a man.
Illegalizing sextortion: Because sextortion is prosecuted on a case-by-case basis, sentencing varies drastically. Perpetrators in the Brookings sample have received sentences as low as 3 years for victimizing 22 young boys. Another got 30 months in a case involving 15 victims.
A federal law would create consistency, instead of forcing prosecutors to find local laws and hope for the best. Brookings outlined a sample law on Wednesday morning with specific definitions for sextortion, and proposed sentencing guidelines.
"[T]he sentences associated with these crimes must treat sextortion as a sex crime," the legislative proposal suggests. "Sextortionists are a form of online sexual predator. Federal law needs to recognize them as such."
The rise of the Internet has created entirely new kinds of crimes, and the law needs to catch up — a prank called swatting, where you humiliate an online video gamer by calling a SWAT team to their house, is facing a similar battle in Congress. Everyday life is now lived on the internet, and it brought along all of its evils, including bullying, theft and sexual assault.
"If you're in the same room as someone and force them to have sex, or force someone to make pornography, you've committed a crime," Wittes said. "We should think about it the same way if they're in different states. If you force someone to have sex or pornography, you should still be understood to have had coerced sex."