The Relationship between Sextortion during COVID-19 and Pre-pandemic Intimate Partner Violence 

Analysis: Sextortion during the Covid 19 pandemic 

A study published last week found that people who had previously experienced sexual intimate partner violence were most likely to become a victim of sextortion during the pandemic.

The research confirmed what we’ve seen in our work successfully handling many Sextortion cases: that growing numbers of people in the U.S. are reporting experiencing online harassment, including stalking, sexual harassment, and threats. Sextortion during the Covid 19 pandemic has increased, and pandemic lockdowns may have exacerbated this public health problem with the subsequent massive shift to web-based information and communication technologies.

We so rarely see in-depth investigations of sextortion – despite it being a crime that is both widespread and hugely damaging to victims.

Studies like this continue from the pivotal work of Benjamin Wittes at the Brookings Institution who used some of our case studies in the first true study of Sextortion, resulting in two papers that our founder Carrie Goldberg contributed to. In “Sextortion: Cybersecurity, teenagers, and remote sexual assault,” the Brookings Inst. authors provided an in-depth study of sextortion cases, and in “Closing the sextortion sentencing gap: A legislative proposal” they recommended a new federal law on the subject.

This latest study by Asia A. Eaton, Divya Ramjee & Jessica F. Saunders represents the first study on sextortion using a large and diverse sample of U.S. adults during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here are some interesting takeaways from their findings:

  • Experiencing sexual Intimate Partner Violence pre-Covid increased the likelihood that people would experience sextortion during the pandemic.
  • Victims of sextortion during the pandemic tended to be younger, with those aged 18–29 reporting the highest levels of victimization.
  • There were differences in distribution of sextortion across groups, including by sexual orientation (bisexuals and lesbians were most likely to experience sextortion) and race (Native American or Alaskan Native participants reported the highest frequency).
  • Men were more often victims of sextortion during the pandemic than women.
  • Most sextortionists were identified as being a stranger or a current romantic partner.

So, why does experiencing sexual Intimate Partner Violence pre-Covid increase the likelihood that people would experience sextortion during COVID?

The authors found that previous experience of sexual intimate partner violence was the highest risk-factor for experiencing sextortion during the pandemic.

They pointed to the concept of ‘polyvictimization’ to explain this.

Most experts agree that being sexually assaulted once puts you at a much higher risk of being assaulted again in the future. Per the CDC, “The percentage of women who were raped as children or adolescents and also raped as adults was more than two times higher than the percentage among women without an early rape history.” (National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 2010). There are several theories on why this is including: learned silence, lowered ability to enforce appropriate boundaries or distinguish between consent or coercion, and trauma pattern repetition.

The study’s finding that pre-pandemic experiences of sexual IPV were a significant predictor of sextortion during the pandemic is “consistent with research finding that different types of sexual victimization (e.g., rape and verbal sexual coercion) are highly correlated” according to the authors.

The authors anticipated this correlation because:

  1. In-person IPV and sextortion may be related tactics committed by the same abusive partner (i.e. Abusers will use whatever tactics are at their disposal, sextortion was simply the most convenient during the pandemic)
  2. Even among those who changed intimate partners from before-to-during the pandemic, research suggests that individuals in abusive relationships tend to leave those relationships for other relationships that also contain violence and aggression *
  3. Adults who have been victims of one form of violence have also been found to be victims of other types of violence. Polyvictimization, they say, may be especially likely when forms of violence are sexual in nature **

As the sextortion study authors point out, that there has been a limited amount of research performed on the relationship between IPV and cyber abuse among adults, and studies rarely separately analyze different types of IPV (e.g., sexual and nonsexual) and their individual relationships to different types of cyber abuse. They suggest that more needs to be done to tease-apart the different types of victimization experienced by polyvictims (people victimized multiple times in multiple ways) to understanding the nature of polyvictimization, generally, and predictors of sextortion victimization, specifically.

Which age group experienced the most sextortion during the Covid 19 pandemic?

5.4% of those between the ages of 18–29 reporting an experience of sextortion, followed by 4.3% of individuals between the ages of 30–40, 2.7% between the ages of 41–64, and 1.1% of participants over age 65.

Were there racial differences in the distribution of sextortion during the Covid 19 pandemic?

Racial differences in the frequency with which sextortion was reported were identified:

  • 3% of Native American or Alaskan Native participants reported sextortion during the pandemic
  • 7% percent of Black, Afro-Caribbean, or African individuals reported sextortion
  • 4% of Latinx participants
  • 8% of Asian participants
  • 6% of White participants

They found that these racial differences were significant for women but not for men.

The study found that Native Alaskan and Indigenous North American women were 6.77 times more likely than White women to experience sextortion during the Covid 19 pandemic, and African American women were 7.33 times more likely than White women to experience it.

Did sexual orientation impact the likelihood of experiencing sextortion during the pandemic?

Yes. The distribution of sextortion during the pandemic also differed by sexual orientation:

  • 8.9% of bisexual people participants reported sextortion during the pandemic followed by
  • 7.1% of lesbian participants
  • 2.9% of heterosexual participants
  • 2.0% of gay participants
  • 6.3% of participants who self-identified as “other” sexual orientation

What did they find out about who was committing the sextortion?

The most commonly reported perpetrator of sextortion against victims was “a stranger” (29%), followed by “a current romantic partner” (20%), a “former romantic partner” (18%), a “friend outside of work or school” (9%), “someone I met online” (9%), “someone from work” (7%), “someone from school” (4%), and “someone I met outside of work or school” (4%).

Why were men more often victims of sextortion during the pandemic?

The authors speculated that this could be because it’s possible that men had more time to spend online than women during the pandemic. They noted that research indicates that men are generally more likely to be victims of cyberscams.

You can read the study in full here.

A reminder:

Sexual extortion is a terrifying and de-humanizing violation that feeds off victims’ shame.

While this study focused on adults, it is increasingly common in minors. We saw a huge increase in tech-facilitated sextortion of teens and pre-teens during this pandemic. It’s both adults posing as teens to gain their trust, and peers – sometimes acting on the command of an adult predator, other times of their own accord – coercing victims in to providing intimate images and using those images to humiliate or extort them later.  And it happens across all social strata; some of the most vicious peer-to-peer online harassment cases we’ve seen involve the New York City private school elite.

C.A. Goldberg PLLC can provide real-time crisis management from threat to actualization, advocate with law enforcement, and collaborate with contacts at major social media companies and adult websites to remove explicit content. We can help you take back control and protect your reputation. To discuss your legal options, call 646-666-8908 or send our office a message to tell us what’s going on.

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*(Carbone-Lopez et al., 2012)

** (Gidycz et al., 1995; Sabina & Straus, 2008)

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