Reports of sexual extortion affecting UI students are on the rise. Here’s where to find help
University of Illinois Police sent out a safety notice Sept. 22 reporting three incidents of sexual extortion scams.
The incidents were reported over three consecutive days and each involved university students engaging with people they didn’t personally know on Instagram.
In one case, a student shared intimate photos with a person who then threatened to post the photos on social media.
In the other two cases, the students participated in a video call with the unknown offenders and engaged in sexual acts. Then, the offenders demanded money under the threat of publicizing the videos.
Pat Wade, the U of I Police spokesman, said these events are unrelated; however, police are seeing more reports of sexual extortion on campus.
“Within the past two or three years, we've really started to see the number of incidents of this type of sexual extortion pick up,” Wade said.
Wade said many of the victims of sexual extortion are international students. He added that oftentimes the perpetrator is overseas, making it hard for law enforcement to press charges.
“The biggest thing we probably do is educate the victim and come up with a safety plan for them,” Wade said. “We want to make sure that they're not going to fall victim to this again.”
One of the resources included on the safety notice sent to the campus community was Rape Advocacy, Counseling, & Education Services, or RACES. The group provides free resources to survivors of sexual crimes — including sexual extortion — in Champaign, Douglas and Piatt Counties.
Jaya Kolisetty, the executive director of RACES, said she wants to help the survivors of these crimes who may be feeling ashamed about what happened.
“A lot of survivors of this form of harm are going to feel that same kind of self-blame and stigma that a lot of survivors of sexual violence face,” Kolisetty said. “It is not their fault that it happened, and there are resources available.”
Kolisetty said survivors of sexual extortion are often invalidated during their healing process because the harm is psychological rather than physical.
“Because it's often not something that's physically happening to someone, it's related to images of them, people can be kind of dismissive,” Kolisetty said. “That's not necessarily a productive way to look at it. The reality is that it is harmful, and people have a right to heal.”
Kolisetty said RACES approaches its education about sexual crimes by focusing on the actions and behaviors of those who cause them rather than correcting the behavior of survivors. She said it’s not effective to tell people to abstain from sending sexual content altogether.
“Prevention has to focus on the people who cause harm because it's not the fault of the person who has experienced that harm,” Kolisetty said. “It's not something that they could prevent from happening because they're not the ones who caused it.”
RACES provides free services to survivors of sexual crimes, including sexual extortion. Other resources for survivors include the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault and the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network or RAINN.