A top South African school recently experienced the cruel nature of sextortion when a male scholar catfished on Instagram. The teenager had recently broken up with his girlfriend and first created a large following on his fake account before posting nudes she had sent him during their time together. The girl was shamed and ridiculed. The story leads one to wonder what conversation the estranged couple might have had before the photos were leaked. Where there threats and intimidation? Was the pictures used as blackmail? And who is to blame?
The Journal of Sexual abuse defines sextortion as: When individuals threaten to spread sexual images and/or videos unless other sexual content, sexual favours, or money is provided.
According to the US Justice Department, sextortion is the fastest growing cyber threat to children in the United States. And South Africa isn’t far behind.
Sextortion in South Africa
News 24 reports that a 14-year-old boy in Bloemfontein called the suicide helpline after being blackmailed with photos and videos he sent to a girl named “Melissa” on WhatsApp. The “girl”, whose identity still hasn’t been revealed, connected with him via a friend and started sexting him. He reciprocated with sexually explicit videos and photos of himself. She then demanded he send more extreme material and threatened to expose the content he had shared previously if he resisted. When she wanted to meet in person, the 14-year-old realised the girl was not who she claimed to be. Since then, Melissa has been linked to an international child pornography syndicate.
The devastating results of sextortion
Naturally victims of sextortion feel that their lives are over and cannot see a way out of their circumstances. The February 2022 suicide after cyber blackmail of 17-year-old Ryan Last from South Bay California, is testament to this. Teens cannot see a way out of the harassment without being shamed in front of their parents, peers and teachers. This is what drove Criminology professor, Sameer Hinduja to sample over 5,000 middle and high school students around the U.S.A. to conduct a research study into sextortion.
She discovered that:
The legalities around sextortion in South Africa
In South Africa, most schools have not yet developed sophisticated protocols for handling sextortion. In general, the victim is blamed for sharing the content, when in actual fact, the victim should be protected from further harassment and the perpetrator should suffer legal consequences.
According to Mike Bolhuis, Specialist Private Investigator, sextortion in South Africa is out of control for two reasons: One, our police system responsible for cybercrimes is totally overwhelmed with as many as 1000 cases per officer per week. And two, many sextortion incidents are not reported as the victims fear public humiliation.
What parents can do at home
With many schools still trying to find their feet when it comes to cyber safety and our police system overwhelmed, what can parents do to protect their children from being blackmailed?
Lastly, a note on judgement. As a society we are quick to shame the victim of blackmail for creating sexually explicit content in the first place or to label someone who sent a nude, a slut. When parents and educators punish and blame, it makes the behaviour go underground and the perpetrators walk free to extort another victim, on another day.
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