Header image credit to Nebraska TV, retrieved from NTV.com. 4-minute read.
Recently, Max Rookstool, a 17-year-old high-school student, and Brian Mohr, a 37-year-old teacher at a high school in Nebraska, were charged in a reported human trafficking and child porn scheme.
Rookstool was charged with two counts of human trafficking, two counts of human trafficking of a minor, one count of first-degree sexual assault, 11 counts of visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct, and one count of unlawful distribution of images or videos of another person’s genitals, while Mohr faces multiple counts of possession of child porn. All but one of the charges are felonies. Each carries a max penalty of anywhere from four years to life in prison.
Rockstool and Mohr used what police labeled a “social media ruse” to obtain sexually explicit images from minors and then used those images to threaten the minors into engaging in sex acts for the production of child porn. The alleged crimes took place between Aug. 1, 2018, and Oct. 4, 2019.
Pretty messed-up, right?
But sadly, sextortion—when non-physical forms of coercion are used to acquire sexual content from, engage in sex with, or obtain money from the victim—is more common than you might think.
Let’s break down the way this often happens, and the devastating impact it has.
The truth about sextortion
There is a relatively common sextortion narrative.
It starts with a harmless text or message over social media. The person contacting a victim will try to lull them into feeling a false sense of security with harmless conversation; sometimes they’ll act like they are interested in the victim, other times they’ll share incredibly intimate (and totally made up) details about their own lives. And, others still, they’ll rely on the attractive photos of a particular man or woman that are all over the social media profile they just contacted their victim with to entice them.
Eventually, once they’ve laid what they feel is enough groundwork, they’ll pounce, requesting that you open up to them. This “opening up” always includes them asking a victim for a sexually explicit image or video of themselves. And, if the victim gives it to them, the predator effectively has the upper hand.
Once they have that image or that video, they’ll reveal their true motives, request money or sexual favors in exchange for them not sharing the image or video you’ve sent them with the rest of the world.
In another tragic digital abuse story, high school student Tevan Tobler’s sextortion led him to commit suicide. Tobler was contacted by an unknown phone number over 1,000 times and, in some cases, there were messages coming in every 30 seconds requesting money.
Police would later find out that the 16-year-old honor student who was the former president of the National Junior Honor Society, a champion high school wrestler, and an active member in his local community, had sent an explicit video of himself to a female (or someone posing as a female) through an app. The person who received the video immediately requested money from Tobler in exchange for their keeping the explicit video he’d sent privately.
Tobler gave as much money as he could to the person on the other end of the app (now thought to be someone who lives in the northwest of Africa), but it wasn’t enough. Eventually, Tobler couldn’t handle the constant badgering and ended his life.
While Tobler’s story falls in line with the common sextortion narrative, there’s a new scam that is breaking the narrative’s trend.
The new sextortion narrative
Instead of “seducing” you into sending a photo or video, criminals operating this scam say that they already have explicit photos and/or videos of you or your loved ones from a device located in your home.
According to Kiri Addison, head of data science at IT security company Mimecast, “It starts out with a single email saying ‘we’ve got some nude photos of you.’”
The same email will provide a link that’ll take the victim to generic footage from a home security camera or another surveillance camera in a common area, such as a restaurant or a bar, on a website’s landing page. According to the sextorters, this footage is an area familiar to the victim and should convince the victim that he or she has been recorded elsewhere, possibly via smartphone, for a long period of time.
In addition to the generic footage, the landing page will also have a comment that attempts to compel the victim to give in to the sextorter’s monetary demands. “Imagine everything you have done in over 11 months and imagine what we have seen you do,” one landing page says. “Your videos are currently being uploaded on several porn websites and you have only one week until they [are] free for the public to view.”
Addison said that Mimecast’s data exhibits just how popular the new tactic is: the company intercepted over 1,600 of such scam emails in just a two-day period from January 2 to January 3 of this year.
Why this matters
So, if we’re an anti-porn not for profit, why are we talking about sextortion? The simple answer is that pornography and digitally-based abuse are intrinsically tied.
Let us explain.
In some cases, porn images and videos that one might find online on the most popular of porn sites literally include sextortion victims.
Sextortion can also serve to normalize abuse. Take, for example, the child porn scenario depicted in Rockstool and Mohr’s real-life, horrific scheme. Well, there are many videos that fantasize the exact abuse that took place. So, if creating child porn or extorting adolescents are heinous crimes in real life, why is it accessible and acceptable in fantasy?
The answer to that question is just one of the numerous reasons we refuse to click.