Recently, the FBI warned Illinois parents and caregivers that their sons are increasingly vulnerable to a particular type of scheme: sextortion.
While the financial loss to these scams is harrowing, it’s not nearly as devastating as the loss of life that fraudulent transactions can cause. In May, 17-year-old Ryan Last, a college-bound Eagle Scout, died of suicide after falling victim to a sextortion scam.
Without proper sexual health education, unfortunately, he won’t be the last.
The link between susceptibility to a sextortion scam and sexual health education is stronger than one might think. Many people, men, and boys in particular, experience shame and associate stigma regarding sexual behavior. In his final note, Last detailed his feelings of embarrassment at being duped.
Since January 2021, more than 46,000 people have been scammed out of more than $1 billion dollars through cryptocurrency scams, according to a Federal Trade Commission report. The FTC report also said that cryptocurrency was the primary method of payment for 29% of romance scams.
Early versions of sextortion scams falsely would claim that the perpetrator hacked the victim’s computer and possessed intimate video of the victim viewing pornography from a webcam; without payment, the supposed videos would be released.
More recent sextortion schemes solicit nude photos from their victims and then threaten to release them if they do not pay. In a more elaborate version, the scammer — a person or even a bot posing as a pretty young woman — sends nude photos, often requesting some from the victims. The victim then hears from the girl’s father or the police stating that she is underage and that the victim will be charged with possessing child sexual abuse material. However, there is no girl; there is no father; there is no officer — rather, there is a scam ring.
Some of these scams last for weeks or months, manipulating the victims to develop feelings of trust and love toward their exploiters, making the loss much more than financial. This process, colloquially known as “pig butchering,” is a method of “fattening up” the victim to get him to follow his emotional investment with a financial one.
Unfortunately, political pundits may be setting up more young men as prospective victims. Decades of data demonstrate that withholding medically and scientifically accurate information about our bodies, sexual activity and healthy relationships harms children. But, in a 2021 legislative wrap-up, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States noted 124 proposed bills regarding sex education, almost 20% specifically to restrict education. The nonprofit organization anticipates an increase in “parental rights” and “divisive concepts” bills in 2022 that will directly affect the type of sex education that can be offered.
Truly comprehensive sex education teaches our youths about a wide range of topics including how to build healthy relationships and how to reduce the stigma and confusion around bodies and sex. Contemporary programs are also increasingly adding a media literacy/defensive consumer component as an estimated 90% of teens in the U.S. have a cellphone and roughly 25% of teens have either sent or received sexually explicit images via social media or the internet, commonly referred to as sexting.
Further, given the rise in easy and early online access to explicit material, pornography literacy is also being added to more programs. Education that helps kids learn how to make sense of the sexually explicit material they see reduces stigma and provides them with a tool kit to analyze the deluge of visuals they encounter.
When youths and young adults have access to fully comprehensive sex education, it also increases their comfort with talking to a trusted adult in their lives when they are in a dilemma.
Of course, there are those who would say that it is the fault of the victims — or their parents — for falling prey to con artists. But as sociologists, we recognize that a pattern such as this means the problem has moved well beyond the level of the individual. Teens and young adults have to contend with a virtual world that includes not just peers on social media, but also virtual bots and sophisticated international crime rings. The messages we give teens about safe relationships — which are typically directed toward young women going on in-person dates — need to be updated so that the young man who is simply texting with his supposed date on a Saturday night knows what red flags to look for.
Now is not the time to be removing discussions about sex and sexuality from the classroom. Rather, the time is right for adding information to the curriculum that prepares every student for the potential modern sexual situations they find themselves in, voluntarily or otherwise.
Sexual health education that addresses social media, pornography and healthy relationships not only will allow youths to make well-informed decisions, but it also will ensure that when the next young man finds himself in Last’s position, he will make a different choice.
Amanda Jayne Miller is a professor of sociology and director of faculty development, and Elizabeth Ziff is an assistant professor of sociology and co-director of the Community Research Center, both at the University of Indianapolis. They are a Public Voices Fellows through The OpEd Project.
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