I anticipated an ordinary quarantined birthday. Yet when I opened my cluttered inbox late April 19th, a spam email plunged me into a sunken depression: “I infected your computer and recorded a video showing how you satisfy yourself.’” My hacker enumerated specific demands. “I don’t make any mistakes. If I see you’ve shared this message, the video will be immediately distributed.” According to my cunning captor, all devices associated with my account were subject to malicious intrusion. I had two days to transfer thousands in untraceable cryptocurrency.
Shakedowns like this highlight a surge in cybercrime during the COVID-19 pandemic. From fake loans to fraudulent charities, new reports from the U.S. FBI indicate a 400% increase in nefarious online activity beginning in March 2020, jumping from 1,000 complaints a day to nearly 4,000. Recent studies also demonstrate how present-day campaigns build on previous techniques, reshaped to align with our current global apprehensions. “The Internet Crime Complaint Center has seen an increase in reports of online extortion scams during the current ‘stay-at-home’ orders,” the United States FBI advised in a report released in April 2020. “Scammers may use this opportunity to find new victims and pressure them into sending money.” In a world where millions self-isolate solely to survive, online cruelty is another coup-d'etat on our sense of safety and comfort, targeting our last known source of refuge. Evidently, no personal plight is immune to criminal contrivance.
From fake loans to fraudulent charities, new reports from the U.S. FBI indicate a 400% increase in nefarious online activity beginning in March 2020, jumping from 1,000 complaints a day to nearly 4,000.
In 2016, U.S. public policy non-profit Brookings Institution officially aggregated research announcing a new online phishing scheme. Formally known as “sextortion,” the gimmick relies on tactile exploitation to leverage seemingly compromising information in exchange for bribes. Sexually incriminating media is often the most popular way to intimidate, though some felons also allege marital infidelity and threaten to disclose it. Brookings grounded its extensive data by detailing firsthand information about women who fell victim to legitimate sextortion swindles and consequently suffered when their explicit photos were disseminated. Though sexual blackmail is a time-honoured trick, Brookings explained, sextortion is a notably twenty-first-century phenomenon. Prosecutors found hacker Luis Mijangos guilty of procuring over 15,000 webcam-video captures, 900 audio recordings, and 13,000 screen captures on his computer in California. His reign of terror reached as far as New Zealand.
Sextortion now subsists in an ill-defined middle ground between cybersecurity and sexual coercion. Cases increased exponentially following The Brookings Institution’s statement, reaching an unprecedented numeral height of 30,000 emails per hour in 2019. New data by LawFare identified hundreds of copycat sextortionists who had targeted at least a thousand additional prey through catfishing, hacking, or relationship abuse. Many requested a lump sum to be paid as a reward, while other motives skewed more towards sexual gratification. Consistent with the first Brookings study, LawFare also found sextortion to be a strikingly gendered offence. With a few exceptions, all perpetrators identified as male. Recipients, whether minors or young adults, were predominantly female. Brookings’ original conclusion had held true: adult sextortion appeared a “species of violence against women.”
... adult sextortion appeared a “species of violence against women.”
Online exploitation is growing into a global preoccupation for modern womanhood. Anonymity, spatial distance, and expanding victim pools serve as important apparatuses for sextortionists profiteering from patriarchal dominance. Governments worldwide often lack the awareness or capital to comprehensively counter these malevolent assaults, effectively creating a gap in prevention. Legislative ignorance grants offenders a universal platform for cyber-misogyny. In theory, biased harassment can happen to any of us, even cis-gendered men. Yet, in execution, these fatal blows are most often dealt to those who are feminine-presenting, largely due to our subordinate societal position. The odds are further magnified in relation to Black, indigenous, LGTBQIA+, or women of colour. Abusive emails function similarly as a discourse of online power, a medium to scare, silence, and subjugate.
I had never heard of sextortion until it happened to me. As I resigned to spending my upcoming birthday at home, New York extended its shelter-in-place orders another month, rising to a death toll of almost 14,000 casualties. Despite my city’s impending chaos, I didn’t expect a vengeful infiltrator to invade my virtual sanctuary, erasing my false sense of security in one fell swoop. My heart thumped louder as I continued to parse the email word for word, fixating on phrases like “I’ve been watching you for months” and “I can see everything.” Contacting law enforcement would prove in my worst interest, I had been warned in the correspondence. While I considered myself astute at identifying online phishing bots, something about this instance rang eerily human, activating my flight or fight response. Facing the possible exposure of my idle body, I calculated both alternatives as equally justifiable.
I had never heard of sextortion until it happened to me.
Days passed like months after receiving my sextortion ultimatum. In the surreal twilight’s remaining hours, I learned what it meant to feel helpless, any consolation a futile match for my Orwellian nightmare. I scowled out my window at suspected passersby while the sun set on my suburban Brooklyn neighborhood. Is someone really watching me? With a short 48-hour stretch to determine my fate, I also maneuvered through three of grief’s five stages in a matter of minutes. After disguising my webcam, changing all my passwords, and taking a brief spell to sob in a fetal position, I had one final horror to accept. Later that stormy night, I lay in bed bargaining with what felt like my most vulnerable realization yet. A stranger governed my entire life with a few mouse clicks.
To re-cultivate my lost confidence post-sextortion, I turned toward familiar safe havens in New York City. Trailblazers I’ve encountered throughout my journalism career, like artist Rebecca Morgan, are now showcasing inspiringly lewd self-portraits with ease. In nearby Coney Island, I came across African-American muralist Nina Chanel Abney, a pioneer whose pop-art abstractions conquer topics such as racial conflicts, sex, and politics. Completed on large-scale surfaces, her chromatic figures represent an autobiographical approach to femininity, nude bodies revealed willingly and with conviction. On Instagram, I scrolled past hyper-realist Sasha Gordon, an East Asian artist who similarly utilizes portraiture. In her drawing titled Flirting With No One, Gordon sits in her blue-tinted bathtub self-grooming, her bare breast a compositional focal point. Through these courageous depictions, I discover a vicarious channel for my own sexual empowerment.
Through these courageous depictions, I discover a vicarious channel for my own sexual empowerment.
Proactive governmental measures are still necessary to prevent more women from falling victim to digital oppression. Though select U.S. states have already criminalized sextortion, the offense remains technically ambiguous within federal law, grouped under a child abuse umbrella category. Around the world, administrative structures are only beginning to distinguish sextortion itself as a distinct legal term. Virtual sextortion presents a nonetheless ominous threat, however. As the Internet expands its function as a platform for marginalized opinions, basic cyber safety merits prioritization as a human right. “Online violence against women is an overt expression of the gender discrimination and inequality that exists offline,” said Jac sm Kee of the APC. “Online, it becomes amplified.” Legitimizing virtual trauma is imperative to battle progressively detrimental materializations of gender-based brutality.
Comparatively, I acknowledge I’m more fortunate than other sextortion scapegoats. Millions are now quarantined in poverty worldwide, while a prevailing pandemic hierarchy widens the gap between the wealthy and working-class. Countries with higher income disparities like India or South Africa face an even more urgent economic downfall due to insufficient resources. Cushioned safety nets are an increasingly unattainable luxury. Instead of self-loathing, I ultimately ignored my ransom plea, distracted by a newfound appreciation for my potbelly. Though my cyberthreats didn’t amount to much, I’m privileged enough to retain both financial and emotional support, should the need arise. Global sex workers still brave doxxing, shame, and sometimes even death, most of them lacking the means to combat such attacks. These hardships loom even larger during COVID-19’s widespread devastation. For many, sextortion emails are simply false alarms, scams sent straight to our junk folder. Others confront this daunting reality daily.
Countries with higher income disparities like India or South Africa face an even more urgent economic downfall due to insufficient resources. Cushioned safety nets are an increasingly unattainable luxury.
Our cautionary tales shouldn’t exist in a vacuum. Subsequent to my sextortion experience, I isolated myself from family and friends, frightened my actions would result in repercussions. Now I realize relinquishing control to fear-mongering only further incentivizes subjection. That’s why today, I’m using my voice to speak on a struggle spanning beyond my experiential scope. When those with freedom fail to consciously react to hegemony, the consequences continue to collapse on the oppressed, not the oppressor. By advocating for feminist policy, we actively respond to repressive behavior, proclaiming our intolerance for injustice. And to the interloper who swears to harbor my private photographs, I’d also like to clarify scare tactics no longer trigger my insecurities. My body isn’t yours to police with prying eyes. After enduring my own worst demons, I have nothing to fear. I’m not ashamed anymore.