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Extortion, Sextortion & Blackmail: The Differences

The digital world today is the dominant means of communication used by people in different places, while this has been great in narrowing distances and facilitating day to day activities, it has also provided a fertile soil for hostile acts/ behaviours to prosper. Online violence varies in its forms and manifestations, however, in this piece I would like to address and explain three of the most pervasive attitudes that are currently trending on social media platforms. Those being blackmailing, extortion and sextortion. 

Blackmailing and extortion are always mistaken for being synonymous, thus used interchangeably and this could not be further from the truth. For starters, extortion refers to the form of theft that occurs when an offender obtains money, property, or services from another person through coercion; and “coercion” ranges from physical assault to verbal threats of future harm. To further contextualize this act, let’s look into extortion that targets women, on both online and offline platforms. These acts are often ascribed to the power imbalance that society constructs between men and women. This provides even more methods of intimidation that an offender can use against a victim. 

On the other hand, blackmailing can be defined as an act of coercion using the threat of revealing or publicizing either substantially true or false information about a person or people unless certain demands are met. This information will most probably be damaging information that can incriminate or defame the victim of blackmail, bearing in mind that most forms of blackmail are performed using non-physical means. This gets us to put a line between extortion and blackmailing, the fine difference lies within the concept of “revealing information”, as a form of threat used against victims to obtain things against their volition. We can, therefore, say that blackmailing is a form of extortion that possesses a narrower way of posing a threat. Again, we can not help but wonder why women and girls are significantly  more vulnerable to these kinds of violations? My guess would be that the notion of “honor” is the driving force behind making women particularly vulnerable to such infringements and also it is the force behind not only perpetuating the behaviour but also providing safeguards to the perpetrators. 

The significance of “honour” in this context stems from the fact that socially, the responsibility of upholding a family’s honour “Sharaf” is inherently linked to how the women in that family carry themselves and lead their lives. Placing this undue burden on women automatically makes it the woman’s responsibility to protect and preserve her family’s reputation and social status and thereby in the event that any of those things are endangered she is the first and only person to blame. This gives us an insight into why women are particularly vulnerable to falling prey to these vile transgressions. When the perpetrator realizes that his acts of aggression mean very little when honour is involved, hence the blame automatically gets laid on the woman, the offender will not only be encouraged to persist in carrying out these acts but will also have very little reason to refrain from committing such violation since no form of deterrence s in place to stop them. Furthermore, because of the big role “honour” plays in this crime, it becomes a one-sided rapport in which the victim plays no part and bears all the blame and consequences. The influence of “honour” is not limited to making women vulnerable to falling victims of such vile crimes but it extends to weakening their ability to defend themselves and get the retribution they deserve. In conservative communities when a woman falls victim to such acts, she is instantly demonized and stripped off the benefit of the doubt as well as any right to defend herself and tell her part of the story. This victim blaming dynamic that takes over once a woman’s private life is exposed further encourages perpetrators to not only indulge in such behaviour but to also go as far as fabricating stories about their victims just to extort them knowing that they would not face any form of repercussions. 

Lastly, there’s sextortion, it is defined as a form of revenge porn that employs non-physical forms of coercion to extort sexual favours from the victim. The first use of the term sextortion arose in the early 1950s in the state of California. Since then, it has become an extremely popular crime and means of online harassment due to advances in technology and social media platforms. Here, we can break it down by stating that the benefit the offender is aiming for, is a sexual favour. It mostly stems from two aspects, abuse of power and sexual exploitation. Abuse of power can be exemplified when the offender has some sort of power over the victim and thus, takes advantage of that by making the victim oblige to their demands. Sexual exploitation is when the offender threatens to disclose private or intimate material of the victim if not meeting their demands. This mostly happens to women and in a lot of cases from their past intimate partners, it reiterates the idea of honour and how the victim will be quick to oblige in fear of having that kind of material disclosed. What aggravates the act of sextortion is that it’s self-sustained, if a victim of sextortion surrenders to performing a sexual favour, on a regular basis or even once, the offender will be keen to use that as a way to maintain the sextortionary acts by threatening to disclose that the victim engaged in that kind of activity with them.

And then we can conclude by stating that “it is crucial for the victim to educate themselves about these terms and know the nuances of each notion. Knowing the nature of the threat is the first step to defending oneself and getting the justice deserved. However, the burden of combating these extremely harmful phenomen does not fall on the shoulders of the victims alone but rather on all of us, members of society. We need to acknowledge that the sacred beliefs that we hold so dearly can at some times be harmful to a large group of us and that at times we need to be flexible and open to re-evaluate the tenets that underlie our actions. It is on us as a society to help and protect our victims and not shut them and silence them with shame and stigmatization. It is on us to punish the real offender instead of encouraging him with blaming the victim”