An Examination of Sexual Extortion in the New Communication Technology Era: A Multi-Case Analysis of Cyber-sextortion in the United States of America

An Examination of Sexual Extortion in the New Communication Technology Era: A Multi-Case Analysis of Cyber-sextortion in the United States of America

26th July 2021 0 By Lorraine J. Hayman

[This is the first three chapters of the study]

The goal of this study is to examine in what ways cyber-sextortion cases in the United States of America (USA), facilitated through new communication technologies, have changed compared to offline sextortion cases. The social shaping of technology (SST) theory and theory of technological determinism are frameworks that guide the examination of sextortion offline and online in this study. These theories support the exploration of media reports about the role of technology in cases of online sextortion, in addition to guiding the analysis of social, cultural, and personal factors in sextortion cases. This paper is important to the field of media and communications as it seeks to understand more about the changes between offline and online sextortion through the lenses of SST and technological determinism. To the knowledge of the researcher, this would be the first example of such an approach with this topic matter.

Part One

In part one, a literature review will examine the challenges of defining sextortion; the differences between offline and online sextortion; offline sextortion and older communication technologies and online sextortion and new communication technologies; theoretical frameworks for the study; and social, cultural, and personal factors in sextortion cases.

The Difficulty Defining Sextortion

This study will partly explore how the USA media defines sextortion. This is needed because there is no legal definition of sextortion in the USA, so when the media report on sextortion, they are applying different definitions and meanings to the word.

While extortion is illegal at the federal level under 18 USAC § 875(d), extortion refers to blackmail “to demand or receive a valuable thing” (LLI, n.d), which lacks the reference to sexualised acts or materials (Legal Momentum, 2016). Thus, technically under the USA federal law 18 USAC § 875(d), if argued that a valuable thing needs to hold monetary value, blackmail for sexualised images or acts is not illegal.

Sextortion is a colloquial term, which amalgamates sex and extortion. Legal Momentum (2016) define sextortion as:

“A new word but a very old concept: it is a widespread form of corruption in which sex, not money, is the currency of the bribe. The perpetrator asks for sex instead of cash” (p.4).

Sara Carnegie (2019), director of legal policy and research at the British Bar Association, concurs with Legal Momentum’s (2016) definition. This definition of sextortion does not clarify where sextortion takes place, instead emphasising the acts that constitute sextortion. Still, Legal Momentum recently notes the term sextortion “has been used…particularly by the media and law enforcement…to describe extortion for sex or sexual images committed over the Internet” (p.15). Nevertheless, as there is no official legal definition in the USA, there is also no implication as to what tools are used in committing sextortion.

Hazel Feigenblatt (2020) argues three conditions are met if a specific crime can be considered a sextortion case. Considering the absent legal framework in the USA, the researcher finds these conditions a convincing way to evaluate whether cases constitute sextortion:

1. Abuse of authority: “The perpetrator uses the power entrusted to them for personal benefit.”

2. Quid pro quo or “this-for-that”: “The perpetrator demands or accepts a sexual favour in exchange for a benefit that they are empowered to withhold or confer.”

3. Psychological coercion: “Sextortion relies on coercive pressure rather than physical violence to obtain sexual favours. The imbalance of power between the perpetrator and the victim/survivor allows the perpetrator to exert the coercive pressure” (p.8).

Furthermore, Feigenblatt’s (2020) definition identifies sextortion is gendered corruption, where there is an imbalance of power resulting in sexual demands from a perpetrator who is psychologically coercive to his victim/survivor. An example of this is the case of Michael Ford. Ford was a USA State Department employee at the USA Embassy in London, when, over the space of his employment, he sextorted hundreds of females online. Ford hacked the e-mail accounts of the women and searched for compromising images or information. He then used this information to sextort more explicit images from his victims/survivors (Justice Department, 2016). As a result of Ford’s actions, some victims/survivors “began to fear for their physical safety: one woman slept with a knife under her pillow, while another considered obtaining a gun to protect herself” (Wittes et al., 2016, p.20/35). An offline sextortion example is the case of Isaac Baichu. He coerced a Colombian woman for sex several times to permit her Green Card application to the USA (International Association of Women Judges, 2012). These are two examples of many demonstrating the interconnectedness of Feigenblatt’s three conditions for identifying sextortion.

On the other hand, the media and scholars have different views of what sextortion means. Benjamin Wittes et al. (2016), in line with recent USA media and law enforcement, uses the term sextortion to reference online sexual extortion only. Wittes et al. (2016), consider crimes of sextortion involve “what are effectively online, remote sexual assaults, sometimes over great distances, sometimes even crossing international borders, and…involving a great many victims” (p.3/35). In defining sextortion as an online crime, Wittes et al. (2016), consider sextortion to be a “new sex crime of the digital age” (p.5/35).

The researcher believes the approach of Wittes et al. (2016), is problematic when defining sextortion. Wittes et al. (2016), argue in their study that “the law has had many generations to address” the issue of offline sextortion (p.10/35), which is why their research emphasises online sextortion. While this assertion is undoubtedly true and sextortion is now often facilitated by digital technologies, it is still an ‘old concept’ and a longstanding crime that has shifted into the online world. New communication technologies did not create online sextortion crimes nor online sextortionists. Consequently, this study reflects Legal Momentum’s (2016) and Carnegie’s (2019) understanding of sextortion, referencing ‘cyber-sextortion’ when referring to sextortion that takes place online, ‘offline sextortion’ for crimes committed offline, and ‘sextortion’ as the broad crime committed in both online and offline spaces.

A challenge of using the term sextortion more generally is how often it is used in the media without being considered a term referring to sexual extortion, where ‘sex rather than money is the currency’. According to the literature, sextortion has become a media buzzword, compounding the problem of defining it. In particular, this arguable misuse of the term occurs in the reporting of so-called online ‘sextortion scams’ in which scammers falsely claim they have sexual images of victims and demand a cash ransom to avoid releasing the pictures. For example, a so-called ‘sextortion scam’ was reported by Kate Fazzini for CNBC (2020). Fazzini (2020) declared a “new version of the old scam where criminals try to convince you they have illicit recordings or information about you they’ll release unless you pay them a ransom” (paragraph 2). According to the definitions of sextortion from Carnegie (2019), Wittes et al. (2016), and Legal Momentum (2016), unless that payment is a forced sexual act, these ‘sextortion scams’ are not sextortion at all.

In the case of Luis Mijangos, his crime was defined by a court in California as “a form of extortion and/or blackmail…wherein…the item or service requested/demanded is the performance of a sexual act” (Wittes et al., 2016, p.5/35). Therefore, even without clear legal definitions, it is understood in a USA courthouse that sextortion is beyond blackmail for financial gain. Instead, the ‘sextortion scams’ appear to be blackmail and extortion scams, rather than sextortion scams. Thus, simply because a blackmail scam includes the implication of sexual images existing, does not mean it aligns with the sextortion definitions understood by scholars and used in this study. Still, while the court in the case of Mijangos attempted to define his sextortion crimes, this is not a uniform legal approach in the USA.

Often, cyber-sextortion and the so-called ‘sextortion scams’ have notable similarities in common, such as the connection to sexual activity and the commitment of the crime online. Nevertheless, Wittes et al. (2016), identify a further limitation of considering these ‘sextortion scams’ a form of sextortion:

“The remote coercion of money using sexual images is not a new problem…the ability of a person to force someone halfway around the world to engage in sexual activity, by contrast, is a new form of digital abuse that was unthinkable only a few years ago” (p.11/35).

In utilising new communication technologies, cyber-sextortionists can now exploit “hundreds, or even thousands” of victims around the world and subject them to digital sexual abuse (Wittes et al., 2016, p.11/35). Whereas, within ‘sextortion scams’, sexual abuse is not an outcome, instead blackmail is. While this understanding does not intend to belittle the “extremely severe” ‘sextortion scams’ and the “cybersecurity and privacy problems” they evoke, digital sexual abuse which can transcend international borders is a new development in the examination of sextortion (Wittes et al., 2016, p.11/35).

Overall, the lack of clarity in the definition of sextortion when used by the media and scholars could stem from confusion about under what conditions sextortion occurs. For example, can sextortion refer to the “solicit[ing of] further images and/or sexual practices and, in some cases, money”? (Houghton et al., 2017, p.35). Or is it sextortion when perpetrators coerce victims to ‘solicit further images and/or sexual practices’, but it is blackmail and extortion when it is for money? Wittes et al. (2016), also explain that examining the concept sextortion in the USA gains little mass media attention, with media favouring reporting on “revenge porn”, because, according to the scholars, “sextortion victims have chosen to remain anonymous” (p.5/35).

Sextortion as sexual abuse:

Is cyber-sextortion a form of digital sexual abuse, taking place remotely, in a different space and possibly even at a different time? Ruth Houghton et al. (2017), argue gendered sexualised forms of abuse that utilise images, such as cyber-sextortion, should be viewed as on a continuum of image-based sexual abuse. In their understanding of ‘sexual abuse’, it relates to abuse committed against adults as well, not only the sexual assault of minors. On the other hand, Sarah Cook et al. (2018) argue the correct understanding of ‘sexual abuse’ refers to minors only, which neither Houghton et al. (2017) nor the researcher find convincing. Houghton et al. (2017), further consider that image-based sexual abuse is subsequently situated on Liz Kelly’s (1988) continuum of sexual violence. The approach of Houghton et al. (2017), encourages moving away from a hierarchical understanding of sexual abuse, recognising “all women and girls are not discriminated against in the same way” and do not comprehend and recover from sexual abuse in the same way (p.27). Consequently, Houghton et al. (2017), recommends perceiving image-based sexual abuse from the perspective of the victim/survivor.

Image-based sexual base “describe[s] the variety and nature of harms women experience” in the “non-consensual creation and/or distribution of private sexual images” (Houghton et al., 2017, p.27). Thus, Houghton et al. (2017) further define cyber-sextortion as image-based sexual abuse, which is an act of sexual violence. The reference to ‘image-based’ does not specify the type of technology used to facilitate cyber-sextortion, suggesting the specific technology used is not the most crucial aspect to analyse when examining cyber-sextortion. The researcher agrees with the approach of Houghton et al. (2017), as considering sextortion crimes from a victim/survivor perspective supports an individualised approach to understanding and prosecuting, crimes of digital sexual abuse and violence. This study will examine this further exploring the media reporting of cyber-sextortion cases and whether they concur with the definition that cyber-sextortion is sexual abuse and sexual violence.

To illustrate the potential ramifications of cyber-sextortion not being considered sexual abuse and sexual violence, the cases of Karen Kazaryan and James Bruguier are useful examples. Wittes et al. (2016b), compare these cases, noting that Bruguier sexually assaulted one woman, one teenager, and was charged with statutory rape of one minor, three victims in total. On the other hand, Kazaryan cyber-sextorted approximately 350 women and is described as a “prolific ‘sexual cyber-terrorist’” for hacking into social media, e-mails, and Skype accounts (Dejohn, 2013).  Kazaryan’s victim/survivor account is notably high, due to the choice he made to carry out his crime virtually. Yet, his sentence was five years in prison. Bruguier, on the other hand, was given a prison term of 30 years. If the crimes of Kazaryan were considered on par with sexual abuse that occurs offline, he would surely be looking at a lifetime in prison. Considering psychologically Kazaryan left his victims/survivors feeling “terrorised”, a comparison of these cases demonstrates the vast gap in the USA between the sentencing of physical and online (cyber) sexual abuse (Wittes et al., 2016b, p.2).

Sextortion as gendered violence:

In situating cyber-sextortion as a form of image-based sexual abuse and placing image-based sexual abuse on Kelly’s (1988) continuum of sexual violence, cyber-sextortion is an act of sexual violence. This understanding moves the discussion of cyber-sextortion beyond definitions of sextortion and into appreciating the severe ramifications of cyber-sextortion on victims/survivors. The harms experienced by victims/survivors of cyber-sextortion include “adverse impacts on their mental health as well as fear of physical assault” (Wolak and Finkelhor 2016, p.31–33, as cited in Houghton et al., 2017, p.34). This study will also consider how the media reports cases of cyber-sextortion and whether the victims/survivors experience is emphasised.

The sextortion of adults is an act of “gender-based violence” (Feigenblatt, 2020, p.2), as, among adults, it is almost entirely men as perpetrators and women as victims/survivors. Sexual violence against women is widely understood to be a significant human rights problem (Henry and Powell, 2018). Dianne Otto (2010) states “violence against women is recognised as a violation of the right to dignity, the right to life, integrity and security of the person, and the right to be protected from harmful practices” (p.356). For example, in the case of cyber-sextortionist Kazaryan, left victim/survivors feeling “…extremely violated; one victim testified that she felt like she was raped” (Wittes et al., 2016b, p.2), illustrating the human rights violations this victim/survivor experienced.

This paper has chosen to focus primarily on cases where adult victims are sextorted and not examine cases where minors, those under the age of 18, are sextorted. Some studies do focus on sextortion of both adults and minors (Wittes et al., 2016; Legal Momentum, 2016; Feigenblatt, 2020; & International Association of Women Judges, 2012). When examining cyber-sextortion cases involving minors, both boys and girls are victims/survivors and sometimes perpetrators (Wittes et al., 2016). Thus, to enable the examination of cyber-sextortion as an example of violence against women, this study will emphasise cases of adult victims/survivors only.

Comparing Offline Sextortion to Cyber-Sextortion

Offline sextortion has fundamental differences compared to cyber-sextortion. From the literature review, these differences include the perpetrator and the victim/survivor relationship; the number of victims/survivors of a single perpetrator; the differing use of technologies as tools to facilitate sextortion; and social factors, such as power-balance.

The perpetrator and victim/survivor relationship:

The perpetrator and the victim/survivor in offline sextortion cases have an existing relationship. In contrast, in cyber-sextortion cases, the perpetrator is often sextorting hundreds of women he does not personally know. In the offline sextortion case in Montana, State v. Thompson, the perpetrator was a high school principal who coerced a female student “into engaging in oral sex by threatening to keep her from graduating” (International Association of Women Judges, 2012, p.26). In State v. Thompson, the perpetrator and victim/survivor had an existing relationship, as she was known to him as a student attending the high school in which he worked.

Of note, in this case, the principal was charged with “sexual intercourse without consent and with sexual assault” (International Association of Women Judges, 2012, p.26). However, the Montana state court rejected the case, arguing the term “without consent” required evidence the victim felt compelled to submit “by force or by [the] threat of imminent death, bodily injury, or kidnapping” (International Association of Women Judges, 2012, p.26). This judgement illustrates one of the fundamental problems of sextortion not being legislated against at the federal and state levels in the USA.

The number of victims/survivors:

Secondly, due to the nature of offline sextortion requiring interaction between individuals at the same given time, a single perpetrator will likely have fewer victims than a cyber-sextortionist. In the example of State v. Thompson, to the knowledge of the Montana court, the principal was sextorting one female student. Whereas, when a cyber-sextortionist is sextorting, he can engage with many women simultaneously through new communication technology. New communication technology facilitates his sextortion, which also has significant ramifications for the sentencing of his crime in the USA as illustrated with the Kazaryan cyber-sextortion case.

A case that demonstrates the excess number of victims/survivors a cyber-sextortionist can sextort compared to an offline sextortionist is Jared James Abrahams. Abrahams’ case is particularly interesting as he started by sextorting women he knew but then moved on to the sextortion of strangers by hacking computers to take control of webcams (Legal Momentum, 2016). Abrahams used keylogging tools and two remote-access tools (RATs) or Trojans, called Blackshades and Darkcomet, to gain control of victims/survivors’ computers (Vaas, 2014). In total, Abrahams sextorted at least 150 victims/survivors, which is likely to be far higher than if he sextorted offline.  

The power-balance between perpetrator and victim/survivor:

The power-balance is different between offline sextortion and cyber-sextortion, although in both examples, social context is relevant. As sextortion occurs when there is an imbalance of power (Feigenblatt, 2020), the literature suggests social factors, such as the socioeconomic status of the victim/survivor, are relevant to offline sextortion cases. For example, in the case of Daniel Holtzclaw, he preyed on women of colour with low-incomes and mostly with criminal records (Legal Momentum, 2016). One victim was handcuffed to her hospital bed while “Holtzclaw groped her breasts and vagina and coerced her to submit to oral sex to avoid criminal charges” (Legal Momentum, 2016, p.29). Holtzclaw believed that in selecting these women to sextort he would avoid detection as they were less likely to report him (Legal Momentum, 2016). However, one of his victims/survivors, a grandmother forced to give oral sex to avoid arrest for a crime she didn’t commit, did report him and in 2015 he was sentenced to 263 years in prison for his crimes (Legal Momentum, 2016). This case illustrates the role social factors like power-balance play in offline sextortion, which may not be as relevant to crimes of cyber-sextortion. Although, as far as this researcher is aware, there is a lack of detailed empirical data examining the correlation between cyber-sextortion victims/survivors and their social context.

Sextortion and Communication Technologies

Offline sextortion and old communication technologies:

Sextortion is an old concept. Thus, before the proliferation of new communication technologies, older communication technologies were also tools used by sextortionists to commit abuse. For example, cameras can be used to take non-consensual photos or videos.

The literature providing examples of offline sextortion through older communication technologies is limited, partly due to the advancement of media interest in cyber-sextortion through new communication technologies (Wittes et al., 2016). Yet, as sextortion is not a new phenomenon, it is a logical assumption that older communication technologies were tools for offline sextortionists. An example from the Republic of Korea is the use of small cameras filming women without consent, known as molka. In some cases, the perpetrators demand further sexual images or sexual acts from the victim/survivor. In one case, a woman’s “ex-boyfriend threatened her with recordings and forced her to meet at a motel, where he raped her” (May Choon, 2019, p.2). This example illustrates how an older communication technology, a camera, was used to facilitate offline sextortion.

Additionally, before smartphones and the launch of mobile data, mobile phones used Short Message Service (SMS) to send texts that were charged on a per-message basis. SMS on mobile phones could easily be an older communication technology sextortionists adopted, through text messages requesting explicit photos or coercing a victim/survivor to force them to take part in non-consensual sexual activity. Although there is a notable lack of literature concerning sextortion through SMS, based on cyber-sextortion cases whereby e-mails and webcams are tools for sextortionists, it is not an unrealistic assumption that older communication technologies were also used in this way. There is likely a lack of literature concerning offline sextortion using older communication technologies not only because of media interest in the USA but also because victims/survivors tend not to report sextortion committed against them (Wittes et al., 2016).

Cyber-sextortion and new communication technologies:

In examining the role of new communication technologies and sextortion, it is essential to clarify the meaning of new communication technology to distinguish it from older communication technologies.

Defining new communication technology:

This paper takes its understanding of new communication technologies from Marco C. Yzer and Brian G. Southwell (2008) and their emphasis on “modality and a focus on communication” (p.10). Modality ensures that the definition of new communication technology refers to networked technologies; devices that communicate with each other (TechTerms, n.d). Yzer and Southwell (2008) highlight the importance of this modality not merely referring to “the Internet” as this “no longer contains all relevant technologies” (p.9). Additionally, Yzer and Southwell (2008) argue a definition of new communication technology should centre on communication, as this highlights “the extent to which they reinforce and shed light on the possibilities for connection among and between audience members” (p.10). Therefore, examples of the new communication technology considered in this paper are computers, smartphones, and other smart devices, such as tablets, including parts of those technologies, like webcams.

Cyber-sextortion cases that utilise new communication technologies:

This study will explore new communication technologies in the context of social, cultural, and personal factors to understand the various media perspectives of the role of technology in cyber-sextortion crimes. There are some notable cases in the USA of cyber-sextortion, where perpetrators have engaged with new communication technologies to commit prolific abuse. For example, in the case of Mijangos, he used hacking techniques to gain control of women’s webcams. Sara O’Brien (2016) notes Mijangos would “trick” women into “downloading malware”, taking control of their computers (paragraph 2). Once Mijangos had control of their computers, he would “turn on their webcams and microphones and spy on them, as well as see everything they typed” (O’Brien, 2016). Mijangos also used socialisation techniques, where he would study the women and learn about their relationships, and then pretend to be their boyfriends online to obtain private images and videos which he used to sextort them further (O’Brien, 2016).

The second case of cyber-sextortion that utilised new communication technology is the case of Ford. Ford pretended to be a member of “Google Inc.’s (non-existent) Account Deletion Team” (Hatten, J. 2015). He was able to convince individuals into “divulging the passwords to their online e-mail accounts” by claiming unless they shared their passwords with him, their account would get deleted (Hatten, J. 2015). Ford tricked hundreds of women into divulging their e-mail passwords, and once he had control of their accounts, he searched for explicit images and used those to further sextort the women (Justice Department, 2016).

New communication technology and the advancement of the Internet provide an opportunity for a singular cyber-sextortionist to commit prolific sexual abuse. In a digitised world “the potential for abuse only increases as technology becomes more advanced” (Ei Chew et al., 2019, p.29). In the Mijangos, Ford and Kazaryan cases referenced, new communication technology plays a fundamental role in facilitating sexual abuse. Without webcams, computers, and social network sites (SNS), these sextortionists would not have been able to conduct their sextortion crimes to the same extent or in the same way.

Theoretical Frameworks

This study also seeks to understand how the USA media reports the role of technology in cases of cyber-sextortion. Here, the SST theory and theory of technological determinism are useful frameworks to support this discussion. These theories engage with the different perspectives that either technology is to blame for cyber-sextortion crimes, or social, cultural, and personal factors shape the way technology is used in cyber-sextortion. In this study, the way the media report crimes of cyber-sextortion are examined, considering if they take an SST or technological determinist approach in reporting.

SST and technological determinism theories:

Allan Dafoe (2015) states “a central issue in the study of technology is the question of agency” (p.1048). Dafoe (2015) questions how far people control technology and “the tools we use” compared to what extent technologies are “thrust upon us” by elites, past decisions, or an “internal technical logic” (p.1048). Two polar approaches to examining this agency and these questions are the SST theory and theory of technological determinism. Dafoe (2015), argues neither radical SST theorists nor hard-line technological determinists provide “a satisfactory account” of what or who controls technical change (p.1069). Nevertheless, Dafoe (2015) notes in some contexts, SST provides a more accurate insight. SST is used in this paper to support the exploration into the social, cultural, and personal factors impacting specific cases of cyber-sextortion.

The SST theory is the antithesis of the technological determinism theory. In SST, interactions of different technical and social factors sculpt technology (Campbell, 2010). This sculpting suggests individuals or various social groups can shape new communication technologies to fit their personal needs and desires (Campbell, 2010). Russel Williams and David Edge (1996) explore the development of SST and how central to the theory are “choices” made about technology by individuals and groups (p.2). Williams and Edge (1996) identify that within technological innovation “different routes are available” which could have “differing implications for society” (p.2). SST theory considers technologies to be socially shaped, which could result in different technological and social outcomes (Williams and Edge, 1996, p.2). SST aims to demonstrate that technology is an “area of social activity, subject to social forces” (Williams and Edge, 1996, p.3).

If SST is applied in Mijangos’ case, it was not webcam technology that caused him to commit sexual abuse by hacking them. Instead, social factors in Mijangos’ life, such as gender norms in the USA, shaped how he chose to use and adapt this technology. SST goes beyond evaluating the social impact of technology but instead examines how cultural, economic, institutional, and social aspects can shape technology and its application (Williams and Edge, 1996). In broadly applying SST’ assumption that social factors influence the direction of technological change, this implies in the examination of cyber-sextortion, the different social, cultural, and personal factors are essential in the discussion.

In SST theory, “machines do not make history by themselves” (Douglas, 2004, as cited in Baym, 2010, p.44). Nancy Baym (2010) argues the antithesis of this is technological determinism and the idea that new communication technology is a force for societal change that humans are almost powerless to resist. Dafoe (2015) examines the origins of technological determinism in the 1980s, whereby changes in technology appeared to have been out of our control, shaping society in ways that were not explicitly intended. More recently, scholarship rejects technological determinism, recognising the “implausibility” of such a “simplistic” understanding (Dafoe, 2015, p.1048). Despite this, a technological determinist approach still appears in the media in the USA. For example, Jack Rhysider (2020) claims “the Internet moulds what we see and who we are, and if we use it enough, it changes who we are as a society”. If technological determinism is applied to the case of Mijangos, this suggests that technology is to blame for the corruption and coercion Mijangos commits, rather than social factors that shaped him and his use of technology in this way. Technology changed Mijangos, not the other way around.

Social, Cultural, and Personal Factors in Cyber-Sextortion Cases

In this study, social, cultural, and personal factors in cyber-sextortion cases are examined, reflecting the researcher’s understanding, in line with the SST theory, that these factors shape the use of technology in cyber-sextortion.

Personal factors of the perpetrators:

Considering the cases discussed in this literature review, a specific personal factor for the Mijangos case is that he was an immigrant from Mexico who was residing in the USA illegally (FBI, 2011). In the case of Ford, he was an employee of the USA State Department stationed in the USA Embassy in London. Therefore, Ford conducted sextortion while in a position of power, as a paid employee of the USA Government. A personal factor for Kazaryan was drug abuse and mental health. Kazaryan claimed he was suffering from depression and abusing marijuana during the time he was also cyber-sextorting (Rocha, 2013). Kazaryan said in court “the lines between digital life and reality were blurred and out of control for me” (as cited in Rocha, 2013, paragraph 4).

Personal factors of the victims/survivors:

Although in the literature it is difficult to obtain specific personal information about the victims/survivors of sextortion cases, it is known that sextortion causes a great deal of harm and trauma for victims/survivors (Wittes et al., 2016). As cyber-sextortion includes psychological coercion, the psychological damage to victims/survivors must be acute. Joo-Young Jung and Yong-Chan Kim (2017) consider that when an individual needs to act, this can lead to more engagement with their interpersonal networks. Jung and Kim (2017) note “one’s interpersonal sources have a stronger influence than the mass media when it comes to action and decision-making” (p.1462). With cyber-sextortion, this raises an interesting question of what an individual would do if they are encouraged by a sextortionist to disconnect from their interpersonal networks, or feel shame and fear about approaching them while being forced to make decisions. Sextortionists rely on these feelings of guilt and fear. If their victim/survivor reaches out and seeks help from their network, they are no longer able to be blackmailed and psychologically coerced in the same way. Jung (2020) explains the victims/survivors who are forced to make decisions but are unable to engage with their interpersonal networks may seek support on the Internet, perhaps through chat rooms, or even through pleading with their cyber-sextortionist. In the case of Ford, some of his victims/survivors “begged” to be left alone and Ford would respond with “threats to widely distribute [their] photographs on the Internet”, on several occasions carrying out his threats (Hatten, 2015).

Social and cultural factors in the USA:

Christopher Bigsby (2006) asks the questions “what is, then, the American?” (p.I). In examining American culture, Bigsby draws on the Chambers dictionary definition of culture:

“…the total of the inherited ideas, beliefs, values, and knowledge, which

constitute the shared bases of social action, the total range of activities

and ideas of a group of people with shared traditions, which are transmitted

and reinforced by members of the group” (as cited in Bigsby, 2006, p.7).

Bigsby (2006) notes it is contentious to try and define ‘American’ as the USA is a nation-state built on contradictions, such as being “a secular state suffused with religion, [and] a puritan culture in love with pornography” (p.9). Still, in examining American culture and social context, a relationship with technology and the role of women in society emerges.

William Brooks (2006) notes there are several historical examples of the role of technology and relationships between people and technology in the USA. For instance, Brooks (2006) draws on the case of music technology and culture, explaining the ‘American Dream’, “anyone could become President, or a millionaire, or a hero”, is reflected in how music became available to anyone through new technologies. Brooks (2006) states “the new technology matched the ideology” (as cited in Bigsby. p.334).

Another example of this mirroring of technology and ideology is the proliferation of networked information communication technology (ICT) in homes. Internet access in the USA currently reaches 88.7% (Statica, n.d). Access to the Internet and ownership of technology suggests anyone can engage in the online environment and will, therefore, find themselves influenced by that online space. Jung (2008) notes that “the place where people go online is a significant factor that affects what people do online” (p.334). In the example of cyber-sextortion, it is this access to networked ICTs that facilitates the ability for cyber-sextortionists to reach victims/survivors across the USA and internationally. Jung (2008) would argue it is also the online environments cyber-sextortionists chose to engage with that influence what they use these online spaces to do.

Concerning the relationship to gender in the USA, S. J. Kleinberg (2006) highlights the twentieth century was a period of uncertainty “over women’s place in society” (as cited in Bigsby, p.195). Western culture is “androcentric”, devaluing the experiences of women, failing to take female concerns seriously (Barua and Barua, 2012, p.467). Gender and culture intersect closely with technology. Margaret Boden (1970) states “pedagogical conflation of computers with science/math/technology, all masculine domains”, contributes to the strong association of computers and ICT with masculinity (as cited in Barua and Barua, 2012, p.467). Han Ei Chew et al. (2019) extend this further than Western culture, arguing “patriarchal cultures often prevent women and girls from developing digital skills” (p.20). Notable, given that “all contemporary societies are patriarchies” (Kabasakal Arat, n.d, paragraph 13). This social and cultural context is important when exploring new communication technology and cyber-sextortion. It suggests women are more likely to be victims/survivors at the hands of male perpetrators, partly due to gender inequality and societal assumptions of men being savvier with technology.

Part Two

Part two will provide details of the research questions and methodology used in this study.

Significance of this study:

To the knowledge of the researcher, there are no studies that examine the phenomenon of cyber-sextortion through the lens of SST theory and the theory of technological determinism. These theoretical lenses provide a unique approach to understanding cyber-sextortion and how new communication technology has facilitated a change in the way sextortion crimes get conducted. Thus, this research contributes to the understanding of cyber-sextortion in the USA through the lenses of SST and technological determinism.

Research Questions

The following research questions are examined in this study to address the knowledge gaps in previous studies:

Research questions:

Q1) In what ways have cyber-sextortion cases in the USA, facilitated through new communication technologies, changed from offline sextortion cases?

  • Q1-1) How does the USA media define sextortion?
  • Q1-2) What are the typologies of the perpetrators of offline sextortion as identified in court documents?
  • Q1-3) What are the typologies of the perpetrators of cyber-sextortion as identified in court documents?
  • Q1-4) What is the relationship between the victim/survivor and the perpetrator in cases of offline sextortion as identified in court documents?
  • Q1-5) What is the relationship between the victim/survivor and the perpetrator in cases of cyber-sextortion as identified in court documents?
  • Q1-6) How do the media in the USA report the role of technology in cases of cyber-sextortion? Do media reports include “social factors” in explaining cyber-sextortion?
  • Q1-7) What are the different social, cultural, and personal factors in cyber-sextortion cases?

Methods

The methods selected in this study were decided based on the research questions. Broadly, the methods feature a multi criminal-case comparison of examples of offline sextortion and cyber-sextortion in the USA. The methodology used to collect data are interviews with a journalist reporting on cyber-sextortion cases; document and content analysis of media sources in the USA, such as newspapers online and offline; and document and content analysis of court documents for offline sextortion and cyber-sextortion cases in the USA.

In-depth interview:

Interviews are the first data collection method employed in this study and will support the researcher to answer research questions 1-1, 1-6 and 1-7. The interviews will take place via Jitsu, an online communication tool that allows for video and audio conferencing, as well as multiple attendees, and is end-to-end encrypted to ensure data protection. The researcher will check this online interview approach in advance to ensure the process works well. The researcher intends to have at least two interviews with one journalist who has covered a cyber-sextortion case in the USA.

Interviews were selected as a method of data collection for this study because semi-structured interviews, or guided conversations, are a widely-used research method in qualitative research, supporting the researcher to gain a greater insight into the viewpoints of the interviewees (Flick, 2014). The interviews will employ predominantly semi-structured questions, with some initial unstructured questions to prevent the researchers “frame of reference being imposed on the interviewee’s standpoints” (Flick, 2014, p.213). Interview questions will be created and tested with colleagues in advance, to gain feedback on the clarity of the questions.

An interview protocol will be followed for each interview, guaranteeing a consistent and reliable data collection method. This interview protocol follows four stages of the interview protocol refinement framework (IPR) (Castillo-Montoya, 2016). These four stages include:

Phase 1: Ensuring interview questions align with research questions,   

Phase 2: Constructing an inquiry-based conversation, 

Phase 3: Receiving feedback on interview protocols,  

Phase 4: Piloting the interview protocol (p.812).

In following each stage as established in IPR, the researcher ensures interviews that are suitable for the participants and  “are anchored in the purpose of the study and the research questions” (Castillo-Montoya, 2016, p.812).

To make certain that the interview questions address the research questions, the researcher will use an interview protocol matrix, see Figure 1, p25.

Interview Protocol Matrix

Interview question numberBackground informationResearch question 1-11-61-7
1X
2X
3X
4X
5XX

Figure 1:  adapted from (Castillo-Montoya, 2016, p.821)

The questions asked in the interview will facilitate the guided conversation between the researcher and the journalist being interviewed (Yin, 2014). The key themes examined in the interviews include:

  • Understanding the definitions of sextortion and cyber-sextortion.
  • Media reporting of cyber-sextortion.
  • How technology is perceived in cyber-sextortion cases.
  • How the media report on the uses of technology in cyber-sextortion.
  • Different social, cultural, and personal factors that affect cyber-sextortion. 

Some interview questions include:

  1. How would you define sextortion? How about cyber-sextortion? How was sextortion defined in your most recent publication?
  2. What role do you think technology plays in cyber-sextortion?
  3. How do you think technology has changed cases of sextortion?
  4. How do you think your consumers perceive the role of technology in cases of cyber-sextortion?
  5. What social/cultural/personal factors influence cyber-sextortion cases?

Document/content analysis:

The second data collection method in this study is document and content analysis. This method will support the researcher to answer research questions 1-1 through to 1-7. Document analysis will enhance the findings of the interviews, corroborating and augmenting the data (Yin, 2014). Similar to interviews, a data analysis protocol is used in document analysis, ensuring consistent data collection across the range of documents. This protocol includes Zina O’Leary’s (2014) eight-step approach to document analysis: 

1. Gather relevant texts. 2. Develop an organisation and management scheme. 3. Make copies of the originals for annotation. 4. Assess [the] authenticity of documents. 5. Explore the document’s agenda, biases. 6. Explore background information (e.g., tone, style, purpose). 7. Ask questions about the document (e.g., Who produced it? Why? When? Type of data?). 8. Explore content. In addition, the exploration of the content took place in an interview style, where the researcher asked questions of the text, and highlighted the answers within it (O’Leary, 2014).

The documents analysed in this study include court files from cases of offline sextortion and cyber-sextortion between 2000-2020; newspaper reports concerning offline sextortion and cyber-sextortion between 2000-2020; in addition to an analysis of news reports on YouTube concerned with cases of offline sextortion and cyber-sextortion between 2000-2020. These documents will be found using keyword search on Google, YouTube, LexisNexis and on The Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) in the USA. The keywords include “sextortion”, “cybersextortion”, “cyber-sextortion”, “sexual extortion”, and “sex and extortion”. 

Once documents have been located, key questions will be asked of the documents. These questions include:

  1. What are the typologies of the perpetrator in this document?
  2. What is the relationship between the victim/survivor and the perpetrator?
  3. Is sextortion defined? If so, how?
  4. What social factors are referenced?
  5. What cultural factors are referenced?
  6. What personal factors (connected to the perpetrator) are referenced?
  7. How is technology usage in the crime described?

As these questions are asked, the answers will be carefully coded to demonstrate “patterns and themes” (Tong, 2015, p408). Data will be coded through reading the data, making notes and underlining important sections, and grouping relevant phrases. Finally, the codes will be examined using “the matrix coding offered by NVivo to look for prominent patterns across…and emerging themes” (Tong, 2015, p.408). The goal of this analysis is to understand the common features and characteristics are of the data, which help to answer the research questions of this study. 

Ethics:

The researcher will obtain ethical approval for the data collection, before conducting this study, from International Christian University (ICU). The ICU Research Ethics Committee will grant this approval. The committee consists of the Dean of the ICU Graduate School and other staff members. The committee evaluates whether the research will respect the personal dignity of the participants in the interviews; whether the study will minimise the risk posed to these participants, including the protection of their data; and finally, whether the study will respect and value individuals human rights.

Bibliography