FAQ on ‘Sexting’ and ‘Sextortion’

Information on what these terms mean, tips for where to turn, and links to the best resources for further information

What is “sexting”?

“Sexting” is a relatively new word that typically refers to sex-related or nude photos taken and shared via cellphone (most sexting happens on phones and doesn’t make it to the Web, according to research in the medical journal Pediatrics). Some experts say sexting can also be just sexually explicit text. The practice is not illegal when photos are shared between consenting adults, but when minors are involved, sexual-exploitation and child-pornography laws can come into play, so great care is needed in the handling of sexting cases involving people under 18. However, although there have been some highly publicized cases, prosecution of minors for distribution of sexting photos has been relatively rare in the US.

It’s important to keep in mind, too – whether or not sexting is illegal for people of any age in your state, province, or country – there can be significant psychological consequences, if coercion’s involved or if consensual sexting turns into a violation of trust between two people (if one partner later shares photos without the other’s consent).

There’s a broad range of motivations behind sexting – from digital flirting or attention-seeking to an aspect of sexual interplay to dating abuse or blackmail. But it can definitely be a form of victimization either from the outset or after a break-up or conflict in a relationship.

These two types of victimization, premeditated and reactive, are what education about sexting’s risks needs to focus on:

* Sexting as sexual harassment. When someone uses pressure or coercion to get nude or sexually explicit photos from another person, that’s usually a form of sexual harassment. Young people need to see that pressure for what it is – that it’s inherently disrespectful and abusive, that they owe themselves the self-respect that prevents this victimization, and that there are laws against it in many jurisdictions.

* Sexting as an act of anger, revenge or other social aggression. This kind of sexting can start out consensual but go very wrong – and harmful. Exposing or distributing very personal photos of someone without his or her consent is a violation of trust that can cause severe embarrassment, harm to a reputation, or other emotional hurt.

Both those forms of victimization are what’s called “aggravated” (criminal or abusive) sexting by researchers at the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center. The other category of sexting is called “experimental,” which involves no malice, surprise, or lack of consent between participants and which rarely results in an arrest (18% do, according to the CCRC).

What is “sextortion”?

This is another kind of sexting that can cause serious harm. There’s even less consensus about this term’s meaning but – because it contains the word “extortion” and implies “sexting” – “sextortion” generally refers to the crime of extortion involving sex-related digital photos. Extortion victimizes someone by demanding money, property, sex, or some other “service” from the person and threatening to harm him or her if the demand isn’t met. When digital photos are involved, the harm being threatened is often extreme embarrassment or loss of reputation through exposure or distribution of the person’s photos. Certainly sextortion can also involve a violation of trust, as with “aggravated sexting,” exploiting emotional vulnerability.

What do I do if someone’s sharing nude photos of me?

To some extent, what to do depends on your age. If the issue is aggravated sexting, when only adults are involved (people 18+ in the US), there are laws that can support your case, including sexual harassment, stalking, wiretapping, and extortion-related statutes. If you’re under age 18, child sexual exploitation and child pornography law can also come into play.

Careful thought needs to go into the handling of cases involving minors because laws involving teens – particularly child-pornography statutes – haven’t caught up with digital technology. They were designed to protect children from sexual victimization by adults but, if applied now, can treat a minor taking and sharing photos of him or herself as both “perpetrator” and “victim” at the same time, and there are severe penalties for perpetrators, depending on the jurisdiction where law enforcement is called. And in many jurisdictions, school staff and other potential advisers are “mandated reporters” of child sexual victimization. That means that, if a student tells a trusted teacher about sexting photos, the teacher is required by law to report that information to law enforcement.

If you’re under 18, usually the best thing to do is talk with a parent or other adult (not required to report the photos to law enforcement) who can help you think through the best way to proceed for you which respects your interests, keeps you involved and doesn’t involve anger, judgment, or overreaction. They need to know that, if you took the photos and they report them to the police, they could potentially cause criminal charges to be brought against the people involved. It’s unlikely, but still possible.

The same is true if the person is threatening to share photos of you for money or sex (“sextortion”): If you’re under 18, think through carefully who you tell.

What are my options for getting help?

In many jurisdictions, school personnel, legal advisers and law enforcement people are required by law to report potential victimization of minors, which means that even talking with them about a “hypothetical” case could involve the person seeking advice in a criminal investigation. So in situations involving someone under 18, a good start might be seeking advice anonymously (see the first option below).

* Contacting a crisis hotline or chat service, online or via phone. These can be found all over the US and in many other countries. This is a good option if you prefer to remain anonymous while exploring how to proceed, and crisis lines can often refer you to a victim advocate or other legal adviser near you. [In the US, you can search for one by zip code here or visit CrisisChat.org.]
* Talking with a victim advocate or social worker in your town or city. In the US, there are victim advocates in county offices, police stations, domestic violence prevention centers, rape crisis centers, sheriff’s offices, and offices of state attorneys general. Victim advocates can help you gather evidence, put together a safety plan (figure out how to keep you safe from what’s being threatened), and/or get a civil protection or anti-stalking order against the person threatening you. [You can do a Web search for "victim advocate" in your location or, in the US, call the National Organization for Victim Assistance in the Washington, D.C., area – 1-800-TRY-NOVA/800-879-6682 or go to tryNOVA.org.]
* Contacting a legal aid society or organization near you for free advice. You can do a Web search for “legal aid” or “legal assistance” in your town or city.
* Asking a lawyer or other counselor for advice.
* If you have a case and after getting legal advice about gathering evidence and making sure there’s enough evidence for a case, requesting that any photos in a Web site be taken down – through the site’s abuse-reporting system.
* Going to the police or other law enforcement in your location and filing a report.
* Talking to a school counselor or administrator.

Advice for parents

Even when they’re being threatened, young people are often reluctant to tell even trusted adults about sexting or sextortion issues, for any number of reasons. The primary reason is fear and confusion about possible outcomes. By reporting a peer, they feel they could make their situation much worse. For example, they could be marginalized by “friends” of the person threatening or victimizing them or they could be judged, disciplined, made an example of, or publicly criticized by adults. And many young people have been told they could face criminal charges, so they may be reluctant to tell parents for fear they’d overreact and call school authorities or involve law enforcement.

There is nothing more effective than letting your child know – often and in different ways – that you are there for them no matter what. If bad stuff happens to them and they level with you, let them know you will respectfully help them work through it, involving them every step of the way. With loving communication like that, there is very little you won’t be able to work through as a team. Wise victim advocates will tell you this is their job too – to help victims have control over their situation in a system that’s designed to take control away from the victim.

Sometimes, when digital technology and social aggression are combined, anonymity is involved. So you may want to get to the bottom of what happened and who’s involved with some careful thought and investigation. It helps to know that the context of most social aggression, harassment, or bullying – and even criminal behavior – that appears online or on phones is usually offline life. And when it concerns young people, that’s school life and peer relations. So that’s ideally where your strategizing and investigating starts, if that seems necessary.

Ask your child to tell you the whole story from his or her perspective and widen the circle of conversation from there, starting with people you both trust to fill in gaps. Social media services like Facebook can sometimes help – certainly you can document the problem with screenshots. A legal adviser or victim advocate can help you gather evidence that can be used in a court or legal case. You or your child can also report abuse through sites’ abuse-reporting system and get communications from the victimizer blocked. But because online issues are generally rooted in offline relationships and everyday life, actual resolution – getting the person to stop – almost always happens a lot closer to home than a Web site, by working things out among the people involved or working with authorities.

Further information

* In the medical journal Pediactrics: “Prevalence and Characteristics of Youth Sexting: A National Survey” and “How Often Are Teens Arrested for Sexting? Data From a National Sample of Police Cases”
* “Don’t hype sexting risks to teens”
* “Another high-profile sexting study: Takeaways for parents”
* “With new data, we can stop the sexting panic”
* “Sexting far less prevalent than previously reported”
* “Important granularity on Net risk for teens: Study in Pediatrics”
* ConnectSafely’s Tips to Prevent Teen Sexting

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