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Most Sextortion Victims Aren’t Billionaires

It’s important that one like Jeff Bezos is confronting his tormentors.

Jeff Bezos points.
Jeff Bezos in Washington in September.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

On Thursday evening, Amazon CEO and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos alleged in a news cycle–stopping Medium post that he had been the target of extortion involving pornographic images of him and his girlfriend obtained without their consent—a practice often called sextortion. Bezos wrote that American Media Inc., which owns the National Enquirer, threatened to publish intimate sexual photographs that he had exchanged with former TV anchor Lauren Sanchez unless he met their demands. Faced with a choice of humiliation or capitulation, he instead chose to pre-emptively go public. Not a lot of people in similar circumstances could have done that. It’s important that Bezos did.

The story began last month, several weeks after Bezos shared he and his wife, MacKenzie Bezos, had decided to divorce and the Enquirer published a 12-page spread on Bezos’ affair with Sanchez, which included texts between the two. At that point, Bezos tasked a private investigator, Gavin de Becker, with looking into the leak of his personal communications. Bezos wrote Thursday that AMI CEO David Pecker, a longtime Donald Trump ally, was apparently “apoplectic” over the investigation. This week, Bezos wrote, he received emails from top AMI brass who claimed to have an additional trove of sexually explicit and partially nude photographs that they would publish unless Bezos called the investigation off and categorically declared that the National Enquirer’s story on his affair was not politically motivated. Bezos didn’t play ball. Instead he revealed the exchange, even publishing the emails that contained graphic descriptions of the photos. (The board of AMI said in a statement that it was looking into the incident and believed its company “acted lawfully” here.)

The nonconsensual sharing of pornographic images (or threat thereof) has become a common scenario now that we live so much of our lives online, often via smartphones that double as cameras. There’s the version of this we call revenge porn, in which, say, an individual posts a salacious photograph of a former partner to a message board, Facebook group, or porn site out of malice. Other times, a photograph may be taken without someone even being aware of it, as in the case of the 30,000-member Facebook group United Marines, which was outed last year for hosting hundreds, potentially thousands, of explicit photos of female Marines and veteran service members without their consent. Someone could get hacked, causing their nude selfies or sexts to escape onto the internet. In 2017, a Pew study found that 3 in 25 Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 have had explicit images of them shared without their consent.

While Bezos isn’t the first deep-pocketed individual to be victimized in such a way, it’s rare that we learn about it in such detail. Usually these threats don’t see the light of day, often because the victim gave into the threat or wasn’t famous enough for the issue to make headlines. Bezos knows he’s in a privileged position yet didn’t have too many options to confront the sextortion attempt. “Any personal embarrassment AMI could cause me takes a back seat because there’s a much more important matter involved here,” Bezos wrote. “If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?”

Bezos is right that there often isn’t much recourse for someone who’s threatened in such a way. Victims who go to law enforcement are often told nothing can be done, especially since it’s practically impossible for police to punish someone who can’t be identified, which is often the case when these incidents involve posting online. Once the photos are out, there’s not much that can be done to make them go away. If they land on an internet forum, even if removed, they can be saved and posted again and again. And even if the perpetrator can be identified, police may not take the case seriously, or pursuing it may entail significant legal fees, or may force the victim to reveal her real name, causing even further damage if linked to sexually explicit media she didn’t consent to being leaked in the first place. “Law is pretty much a blunt instrument here,” said Danielle Citron, a law professor at University of Maryland who wrote the book Hate Crimes in Cyberspace. “It’s modest in what it can do because it requires law enforcement to care and it requires the victim to have the resources to pursue.” All too often, these victims aren’t even given the potential out of making a deal.

Perhaps that is a kind of privilege, but Bezos has certainly been harmed too, since neither Bezos nor Sanchez would have wanted their intimate moments revealed. “Bezos is not immune from humiliation, and his sexual autonomy has been hijacked in unwanted ways,” Citron said. While few would expose their private lives the way Bezos now has, he is able to share his story without worrying about it harming his career—as he notes, he runs one of the most valuable companies in the world. He’s also a man, which perhaps colored some of the ways his Medium post has been received as a power move. Obviously, this was a bold and ultimately effective way to gain public sympathy. It wasn’t pretty, but it helped him. And it doesn’t mean we need to revise our overall opinion of him (mercenary businessman, savior of a major newspaper, eccentric spaceship guy). But showing that even he can fall prey to this kind of threat shows how pervasive the problem is. Hopefully, it will lead to entities that can do something about it—like the companies that host the websites where such images are shared or local law enforcement—to take victims seriously. Perhaps even more importantly, it should remind employers, friends, and families not to judge victims of revenge porn or sextortion so harshly when they encounter it in their own lives.

Because photos and texts are now deeply embedded in our communication patterns, we inadvertently leave the data of our intimate exchanges behind. And that history can be dredged up quickly and distributed easily if it lands in the wrong hands. People have always used language to communicate sexual desires; what’s changed is how we communicate. In previous decades, partners would talk on the phone or write physical letters. The technologies we use now leave a data trail those phone calls and handwritten notes did not. What’s appalling with this case is not that Bezos was having a consenting intimate relationship with someone and chose to communicate about it over text—that’s perfectly normal. What should make us cringe is that someone found the paper trail and decided to use it as fodder for extortion.

Some flavor of what happened to Bezos may happen to many of us in the near future, if it hasn’t already. Usually, there’s not much a victim can do. Yes, Bezos and Sanchez might consider using an encrypted app like Signal next time. But that they could have taken more privacy precautions doesn’t make what happened to them their fault. Bezos’ very public demonstration is above all a reminder that he isn’t the one who should be ashamed; it’s the people who tried to use his and Sanchez’s personal photos for their own gain who should be scorned.