Sextortion: Freed from the Shame

Sarah (not her real name) is 14. Last year she met a girl her age over the internet. Eventually they exchanged intimate photos. But sadly, her on-line acquaintance was no friend. “She” was a 27-year-old man on the other side of the Atlantic.

By Takwa Souissi

Sarah is far from being the only person to ever fall into that trap. And the number of people duped is going way up, thanks to the pandemic.

More and more youths spend their days in front of their computer screens. The Canadian Centre for Child Protection (CCCP) observes that the number of youths reporting sexual exploitation went up 81% in April, May and June 2020 over the same months the previous year. That translates into 4,000 reported incidents a month just in normal times, says CCCP spokesperson René Morin: “The police are completely swamped,” he says.

Sexual predators aren’t the only ones using technology to get the images they want. Sometimes, victims send photos or videos to their partner of the moment. The partner might be ill-intentioned from the start, or may make a “mistake” in sharing these photos on the web to a single friend. Or they may release the images maliciously after a breakup. Too often these images of teens end up on pornographic websites.

Amélie Sauvé is a sexologist specializing in children and teens. She’s seen a parade of lost and confused young people through her office: “Sharing that sort of content can mean that a 12 year old can be accused of distribution or production of child pornography,” Sauvé says. In such cases, education and awareness are at the heart of the matter. “These aren’t young delinquents. There’s a big lack of sex education. It’s the ‘everybody does it’ syndrome.”

The number of incidents involving “cappers” is growing. A capper is someone who tricks people into delivering images of young people engaged in live sex acts. The capper uses these images to get the same children to provide more images, or sometimes, money.  They can also use these children to trap other kids into the same activity, passing as a young teen: “Hey, look, I’m doing it, you do it too.”

That’s the ruse that trapped young Sarah. After weeks of friendly discussions over the web, this question:

  • Sarah, do you have little dimples beside your breasts?
  • Sarah: Eh, yes, that’s normal.
  • Let me see?
  • Sarah: No way.
  • Look, I’ll show you mine.

And he sent photos of a prior victim. Gaining confidence, Sarah sent other, more compromising photos. At which point the perpetrator revealed his true identity, threatening to divulge her photos unless she did what he wanted. The nightmare lasted several weeks.

A recent Quebec government publicity campaign on this very subject, featuring a young girl with a bag over her head in shame (see fullcelebre.org), created a controversy. The Twitter and Facebook criticisms were vicious. One comment signed by Audrey Poulin set the tone: Yes, young victims feel shame and suffer, and probably feel like your girl… But why not represent these victims as survivors, or fighters, instead of as shamed victims hidden under a vulgar paper bag?”

Amélie Sauvé says the subject must be raised in a sensitive way. “We’re very vulnerable when we share something intimate,” she says. “It’s often done to seduce and attract, like a proof of confidence or of love. The shame comes from thinking you’re the only person who’s ever experienced it.”

Sarah ended up confiding in a friend what she was going through. The friend told Sarah that she’d experienced something similar, and referred Sarah to the school social worker, who phoned the police… and her mother.

“What shocks me most,” says Sarah’s mother, “is that she didn’t come to me to talk about it. Ever since she was born I’ve worked to instill an atmosphere of confidence and non-judgment. But shame apparently trumps confidence”

Which is why it’s so important to talk about these things when they happen.  

– First published in Reflet de Société magazine, vol. 29, no. 3, April 2019, pages 9 – 10

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