Calling a Bluff in the Buff

Sextortion over nude pictures is increasingly common – how should you respond?

Posted Feb 26, 2019

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

A few weeks ago, the world was shocked when the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezosfounder of Amazon, publicly disclosed that he was being threatened over nude pictures. According to reports, Bezos had been blackmailed by a tabloid newspaper, who threatened to release nude pictures that Bezos had texted to a lover, unless Bezos dropped his investigation into the tabloid’s political connections.

This case involves huge political and legal issues, but here, I am more intrigued by Bezos’ resistance to the threats, and his willingness to admit publicly that he had shared these pictures. Advice columnist and editor of The Stranger, Dan Savage, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, imploring Bezos to “Please release your dirty selfies.” Savage praised Bezos for acknowledging the blackmail, and the huge pressure that anyone in that situation would be placed in. He went on to say though, that Bezos had the opportunity and power to publicly confront and defeat the culture of sexual shame that has been weaponized into these sextortion scandals. Savage implored Bezos to release the pics, and trigger a national “coming out nude day,” called “Jeff Bezos Day,” in order to protect other, less powerful people, from such blackmail and shame in the future. 

Bezos didn’t release the pictures, and alas, we can’t find out whether Savage is right, that such mass release and shame-fighting would actually be protective. In 2009, late-night television host Dave Letterman set the stage for Bezos, as Letterman used his show to publicly disclose a blackmail attempt against him. Letterman was threatened that his history of sexual affairs and infidelity would be made public, if he did not pay the blackmailer two million dollars. Instead, Dave took the package to the Manhattan district attorneys, who helped Letterman set up a sting of the blackmailer, then arrested him. The next night, after the arrest, Letterman went on his show and announced the event and his history of affairs, to a surprised nation. 

Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

Neither Letterman nor Bezos released the incriminating and exposing images they were threatened with. But, in 2017, singer Sia did. Australian singer Sia found out that someone was trying to sell nude pictures of her, to a tabloid one assumes. Sia dropped the bottom out of the market for nudes of her, by, well, dropping a picture of her naked bottom, via Twitter. “Save your money, here it is for free. Everyday is Christmas!” she posted. 

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Just this month, a US veteran in South Carolina was lost to suicide, as a result of a sextortion scheme, allegedly engineered by inmates in a South Carolina prison. Sent nude images by inmates posing as an underage female, the veteran was then threatened by people alleging to be the girl’s parents, that they would go to the police and file charges. After the soldier’s death, his mother used his phone to contact the alleged blackmailers, sharing their transcripts with authorities and the press. An identical scam by other South Carolina inmates led to indictments in 2018, though clearly, these scams continue. 

In 2010, a British sports executive was exposed, after apparently seeking sexual encounters at a massage parlor. When his wife was confronted about the incident, by journalists apparently trolling for an aggrieved, betrayed rejection, they got quite a surprise. His wife of 17 years, a notorious public personality and actress, responded in a surprising way. “What do I care?” she told them. “It’s his business. It’s very stressful being a manager at a club like Portsmouth. He should have had two massages.” 

For several years now, webcam scams have proliferated, where men are invited through social media to interact with a beautiful young woman, who invites them to disrobe and have cybersexual interactions with her. Afterward, the men are contacted and threatened with exposure of the video, if financial demands are not met. After four related suicides in 2016, the British National Crime Agency released a video educating the public about the threat, and encouraged victims of these threats to report them to the police. Confidentiality and lack of judgment were assured. 

And last year, millions of people received “Dear Pervert” letters, emails threatening to publicly expose their viewing of pornography online, unless the recipient paid the blackmailer in Bitcoin. The threat claimed that a virus had been installed on the victim’s computer, allowing the blackmailer to record surreptitious video of the victim masturbating to porn. Sometimes these emails included a person’s password information, and sometimes an attachment that was a phishing virus malware. Again, authorities and techsperts recommend treating these emails as scams, reporting them, and then implementing good Internet safety strategies such as changing passwords and running virus protection software. 

How prevalent are sextortion efforts such as this? Apparently, quite common and picking up steam. While authorities are prosecuting these individuals when they can, in the online world, there’s always more. In the South Carolina case, prosecution and indictment (of people already in prison) doesn’t appear to have slowed this scam down in the slightest.

Dan Savage is right, in that it is clearly shame and fear of being exposed as a sexual person, as a “Pervert” that creates vulnerability to these threats. During the celebrity nude hack, “The Fappening,” of 2014, a common refrain was “Don’t take/send nude photos if you don’t want them leaked.” But, increasingly, sexting and sharing of nudes is a common, normative behavior that has become a part of modern courtship. It’s so common, and increasingly so, that the AARP put out a bulletin about sexting in the elderly population. 

On Twitter, I ran an informal, decidedly unscientific poll, asking people how they would respond to threats of sextortion. Overwhelmingly, people responded that they would report the threat, and encourage prosecution under Revenge Porn laws, which are increasingly common around the world. Many folks online suggested they’d simply release the pictures themselves, and go public, as Sia, Letterman, and Bezos all did in one fashion or another. One commenter suggested implementing “Mutually Assured Destruction” tactics and only sharing nudes with people who reciprocate. Then, if pics are released without consent, the victim can reciprocate.

Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

Shame around sexuality and nudity is changing. Modern societies are becoming increasingly accepting of sexuality, diversity, and nudity. Unfortunately, people in conservative and religious communities remain the most vulnerable to these shaming threats of blackmail. And, in today’s world of “Deep Fake” pictures, where realistic porn images are created of people who were never actually nude, the “Don’t take or share nudes” strategy of 2014 is no longer an option. The only viable social strategy at this time is to continue to battle sexual shame, expose and talk about these threats, and counter any victim-blaming. We need to encourage people to understand, own, and accept their sexuality. Helping people talk with their partners, lovers, spouses, and family about sexuality inoculates them against the potential exposure that they are sexual beings. These are hard, difficult conversations though because they bring up our fears of infidelity, our fears that we are sexually damaged or unattractive, that we are, in fact, perverts compared to everyone else. Allowing sexual shame to continue simply encourages these criminals and ignores the deaths and tragedies that result.