EASTHAM — On Nov. 6, 2020, a girl walked into Eastham’s police station, alone. Like a growing share of her generation, she was facing a new digital form of sexual violence: online exploitation using sexual material, which experts call “sextortion.”
According to prosecutors’ filings in Orleans District Court, Zackary Smith, 19, of Chatham had, in June, persuaded the girl to perform sexual acts and to allow him to make visual images of them. Now, he was demanding $230 from his victim, a teenager younger than 16, which is Massachusetts’s age of consent. If she couldn’t pay, he said he’d post the photos and videos online.
The girl told Patrol Officer Gregory Plante she had been too ashamed to talk to her parents. Plante referred her to Det. Andi Murphy, Eastham’s first and only female detective. According to court documents, the victim did not mention the possibility of seeking support from a guidance counselor, teacher, or other trusted adult. She went to the police three days after the man began threatening her. For three days, she had tried to handle the situation alone. She had felt she had nowhere else to turn.
Sexting: A History
Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone in 2007. By 2013, front-facing cameras were ubiquitous enough to make “selfie” the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year. By 2018, according to the Pew Research Center, 93 percent of American teens owned smartphones.
Those phones revolutionized “well, a lot, obviously,” said Susan Kennedy, program manager for prevention at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). “Having that camera all the time,” she said, “the ease with which you can take and receive photos, has been a game changer for relationships.” That’s been particularly true for the digital generation.
Young people in the early 2000s had at their disposal mainly verbal tech: Instant Messenger in its infancy, and Facebook statuses. Today’s teens trade in images. Instagram grids are a first impression. First-date-asks happen over Snapchat — exchanges of 10-second, disappearing photos — not in school hallways. And the real world blurs with the virtual one in more intimate ways, too.
A 2012 study in Pediatrics, the American Academy of Pediatrics’ peer-reviewed journal, set out to calculate how many youth engaged in “the transmission via cell phone, the Internet, and other electronic media of sexual images” — in a word, sexting. The authors found that 2.5 percent of teens had sent a sext, and 7.1 percent had received one.
By 2018, per a report in another peer-reviewed medical journal, JAMA Pediatrics, more than one in four American teens was sexting: 14.8 percent had sent a sext, and 27.4 percent had received one.
The Birds, Bees, and Phones
While tech and digital habits have changed dramatically over the last two decades, coming-of-age conversations about them have not.
“There’s a real digital divide between adults and kids,” said Kennedy. “Adults are uncomfortable with how sex and relationships have changed. We don’t understand this behavior, because it’s so different from what we grew up with.”
The lessons that schools and parents feel comfortable imparting, said Kennedy, have evolved little: don’t talk to strangers on the internet, and never, ever, sext. End of story. But “Don’t talk to strangers” falls flat at a time when New York Times wedding announcements open with Tinder matches. And — more crucially — just as abstinence-only sex education is a proven failure in limiting risky teen behavior, abstinence-only sexting education isn’t working either.
As youth sexting has gone mainstream, crimes related to it have surged. In September 2019, the F.B.I. deemed sextortion enough of a threat to merit launching a Stop Sextortion campaign in schools. The JAMA Pediatrics report said 12 percent of teens — almost half of those who had received sexts in 2018 — admitted to having forwarded them as well.
Broader circulation of sexually explicit photos of young people has grown accordingly. Between 2018 and 2019, the number of images of Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM, which is how NCMEC now refers to all sexually explicit images of minors) on the internet more than doubled, according to the New York Times.
Abstinence-only sexting education, or no discussion of sexting at all, makes it more difficult for teens to distinguish safe sexting situations from risky ones, leaving them vulnerable to digital coercion. Anticipating that their parents and mentors will disapprove of the sexting, Kennedy said, young people don’t know where to turn for help if things turn ugly.
That’s why Kennedy’s advice, when it comes to educating young people on protecting themselves, begins with not treating all sexting behavior as unreasonable. A discussion about curfew, dating supervision, and sexual responsibility should include discussion of online behaviors. The idea is to help young people recognize where things can go wrong and be empowered to draw the line, according to Kennedy.
At Cape Cod Regional Technical High School in Harwich, Principal Billy Terranova is doing his best. “We don’t stick our heads in the sand,” he said. “We try to meet teenagers where they’re at.”
All ninth-graders at the Tech take a class called Balancing the Health Triangle. In it, they discuss sexual relationships, and they do discuss sexting — albeit, Terranova said, the program does not get much beyond an abstinence-only approach. “Could a better job be done?” he asked. “Of course.”
Parents in the Tech community have the option to attend an annual internet safety course — designed by NetSmartz, a NCMEC program — to help bridge that generational divide. The course addresses sexting briefly, in two slides out of 50. And, said Terranova, “I wish more parents would come.” Representatives of Nauset Regional High School in Eastham did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this topic.
Education, said both Terranova and Kennedy, can go only so far. When a child is the victim of any sort of sexting-related crime — whether it’s an explicit photo posted online, extortion, or threats of violence — what’s most important is that the child knows how to find help. Where are the trusted adults or tiplines (like missingkids.org/gethelpnow)? Are the local police seen by kids as approachable?
It’s also crucial for young people to know that giving a sextorter what he wants rarely solves the problem, said Kennedy. In most cases, he will simply raise the stakes. (Seventy-eight percent of victims are girls, and the majority of extortionists are men, according to Kennedy.) And if an explicit image is published online, reporting it early to law enforcement and to the platform on which it was posted is key to preventing its spread. The NCMEC’s get help pages offer step-by-step instructions on how.
On Nov. 6, Chatham and Eastham officers cooperated to arrest Smith before he made any of the CSAM in his possession public. He now faces one count of extortion by threat of injury, one of threatening to commit a crime, two of possessing child pornography, two of exhibiting a child in a nude or lascivious pose, and two counts of raping a child. On Jan. 22, he appeared via Zoom from home confinement for his first pretrial hearing, at which prosecutor Molly Greene and public defender Colleen Duarte agreed they needed more time. Smith will next appear in court on March 5.
For adults interested in digital sexual literacy, discussion guides are available at missingkids.org/netsmartz/home. If you or someone you know has been the victim of exploitation, a hotline and step-by-step platform-reporting instructions are at missingkids.org/gethelpnow/isyourexplicitcontentoutthere.