Photo by Priscilla Du Preez 🇨🇦 / Unsplash

'Sextortion': 1 in 7 adults have had someone threaten to share their intimate images

A study surveyed over 16,000 adults across multiple countries within Australia, North and Central America, Europe and Asia.

A new global study has revealed the disturbing reality of sexual extortion or "sextortion" among adults. The research, led by RMIT University Australia and in partnership with Google, surveyed over 16,000 adults across multiple countries within Australia, North and Central America, Europe and Asia. The findings paint a sobering picture of this insidious form of image-based sexual abuse.

The study found that 14.5% of respondents reported being victims of sextortion, where perpetrators threaten to share intimate photos or videos unless the victim complies with demands, whether behavioural or financial. Meanwhile, 4.8% admitted to being perpetrators themselves.

“Even assuming some amount of under-reporting, our findings indicate that sextortion among adults is actually relatively common and deserves more research and resources," said Dr. Rebecca Umbach, a Staff User Experience Researcher at Google and co-author of the study, in a press release. 

The research uncovered some striking demographic patterns. LGBTQ+ individuals, men, and younger respondents were more likely to report both victimisation and perpetration. Victimisation rates were highest in the US, Australia, Mexico, and South Korea, while perpetration was most prevalent in South Korea, Australia, and the US.

Surprisingly, although men are more likely to be perpetrators, they also were slightly more at risk of being sextortion victims than women. Lead researcher Professor Nicola Henry of RMIT's Social Equity Research Centre posits that this could be due to financial sextortion scams more frequently targeting young men.

"Scammers trick people into sharing their intimate images, or lead them to believe they have evidence of the victim visiting pornographic sites," Henry explained. "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."

However, sextortion is more commonly perpetrated by intimate partners, with threats to share private images used as a means of coercion and control within abusive relationships.

The findings reveal a concerning "victim-offender overlap," with 85.2% of perpetrators also reporting being victimised themselves. This cycle of abuse and retaliation is particularly pronounced among South Korean women, with 15.2% reporting experiences as both victims and perpetrators – the highest rate observed. “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. 

Given the global scale of the issue, Henry emphasises the need for a multi-pronged approach to combat sextortion. “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. 

“More funding and resources are needed for supporting victim-survivors of sextortion, including for counselling, legal advice, and mental health crisis support.  “

She also explains that “frontline workers also need to be trained to recognise the signs of sextortion and respond to disclosures in a trauma-informed and culturally appropriate way”, and that sextortion must be addressed within the context of intimate partner violence.

As technology continues to facilitate new avenues for abuse, the importance of research like this to inform policies and practices aimed at detecting, preventing, and responding to sextortion is only emphasised. 

The sobering findings of this study demand urgent attention and action. Sextortion represents a pervasive and damaging form of exploitation that transcends borders and demographics. Addressing it will require a concerted, global effort to raise awareness, support victims, and hold perpetrators accountable.