Sextortion victims, in contrast, are far more vulnerable. Many are young: in our 2016 Brookings study, 71 percent of the cases we examined involved only victims under the age of 18. While most adult victims were female, a significant proportion of minor victims were young boys, many of whom thought they were communicating with other boys innocently sexually interested in them. Both boys and girls are often just beginning to understand and explore their sexuality. They are ashamed of what their parents and classmates might find out. One girl, already teased at her middle school, described being terrified that the publication of these photos would unleash even crueler bullying. In a 2017 study by the activist group Thorn, one in three victims surveyed said they had never shared what happened to them with anyone, and only 17 percent of victims went to law enforcement. Even when victims go the police, local law enforcement often has no idea how to handle the problem. There is a risk that photos will linger online and follow victims for the rest of their lives.
Bezos’s insistence on demonstrating that one can “stand up to this kind of extortion” expresses a real insight. Sextortion is brutal and isolating, with victims often unaware of how common the abuse can be. For the richest man in the world to acknowledge that this has affected him, too, has expressive power, both in assuring victims that they are not alone and, hopefully, in drawing attention to the problem.