Deepfakes, blackmail and heartbreak: This is what sextortion looks like

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jun10,2024
Key Points
  • Sextortion is when a person is blackmailed or threatened over intimate pictures or videos.
  • New research has found one in seven adults has been a victim of sextortion.
  • It can be perpetrated by a stranger or somebody you know, such as a current or former partner.
This article contains references to suicide.
Noelle Martin was 18 years old when she first experienced with perpetrators editing images of her taken from social media and posting them on pornographic sites.
Once, she said the perpetrators tried to extort her and said they would only take the pictures down if she sent them real nude photos within 24 hours.
Instead of complying, she became an advocate and has spent the last 11 years speaking out about image-based abuse.

“Over time, the abuse has escalated and it’s never stopped; it’s just increased in how graphic the images are (and) how many images,” she said.

“And then when I started speaking out and fighting for law reform, that of course exacerbated the issue.”

Martin said she has never been able to find out who is responsible and the deepfake images of her have continued to appear online over the years.

She said she feels a “visceral” reaction each time it happens.
“The feelings of going through it has, I think, gotten easier over time, but it’s still almost like a physiological response of when you’re about to fall over,” she said.

“I think it gets a little bit easier, but it hasn’t ever gone away, that visceral, stomach-sinking response.”

A young woman smiling at the camera

Noelle Martin has worked to change laws around image-based abuse and sextortion. Source: Supplied / Noelle Martin

Martin’s experience is just one form of image-based abuse.

Last week, a teenager was arrested after the faces of 50 female students from Melbourne’s Bacchus Marsh Grammar School were used in fake nude images generated using AI technology.
The teenage boy was released pending further inquiries and an investigation is ongoing.
While in these cases, the images shared online were doctored, this type of abuse often involves real photos of victims.
defines image-based abuse as somebody sharing (or threatening to share) an intimate image or photo of a person without their consent.
According to violence prevention organisation , image-based abuse can be a form of domestic or gender-based violence.
It is sometimes called ‘revenge porn’ and can be perpetrated by current or former intimate partners, or by strangers.

Sextortion refers to a person being blackmailed over an intimate image or video, with perpetrators typically demanding either money or more sexual content.

How common are sextortion and image-based abuse?

New research has found one in seven adults — or 14.5 per cent — has had somebody threaten to share their intimate images.

Researchers also identified an overlap between victims and perpetrators, with 82 per cent of perpetrators saying they had also been victims.

The study, led by RMIT University in partnership with Google, surveyed over 16,000 adults across Australia, North and Central America, Europe and Asia, and found the issue to be “more widespread than initially thought”.
Professor Nicola Henry, who led the research, said perpetrators are often known to the victim.
“The most common perpetrator of sextortion, according to our survey findings, was a former intimate partner, followed by a current intimate partner,” she said.

Henry said their research had found men were slightly more likely to be both victims and perpetrators.

She said adolescents and LGBTIQ+ people also appear more likely to experience sextortion.
“The explanation might also be in the case of financial extortion, (scammers) may be more likely to target men and boys because they assume that (males) are more likely to share their intimate images than girls and women would do with a stranger,” she said.

“Younger people under the age of 35 are more likely to report victimisation than those over 35s, and also LGBTIQ+ groups are more likely to report victimisation as well.”

The devastating consequences of sexploitation

Wayne Holdsworth knows all too well how sextortion can impact young males.
His son Mac was 16 years old when he was extorted via social media after exchanging photos of his body with somebody who he believed was a teenage girl.

The scammer, who was really a man, told Mac to send him $500, and then another $500, and threatened to send the photographs to all of Mac’s contacts.

Mac told his father, and they reported the incident to the police, who were eventually able to find and charge the perpetrator.
But the photos had already been shared, and the damage had been done.
“It didn’t matter to Mac that much that they’d found (the perpetrator), to be honest, he was devastated by it all, he was really embarrassed,” Holdsworth told SBS News.
“He became very insular and very withdrawn, and he didn’t trust as much as he once did.”
Mac, who was a bubbly and energetic teenager and captain of his school and Australian rules football club, never recovered from the trauma.

In October, he died by suicide.

A teenage boy and a middle aged man smiling at a camera with thumbs up

Mac Holdsworth (left) took his life after being extorted via social media. Source: Supplied / Wayne Holdsworth

His father has now become an activist and advocate and is working to raise awareness about sextortion and social media safety.

Holdsworth said he believes Australia needs to introduce social media age limits, more regulations for social media companies, and more education for parents and children about the risks of social media and technology.

He became very insular and very withdrawn.

Wayne Holdsworth

He delivers free educational programs through his organisation Smack Talk and is speaking with all levels of government to implement change.
“I wish I’d known then what I know now, because there is no shadow of doubt that if I’d known and been educated back then with the education I have now, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” he said.

“And I’d be going to watch Mac play footy on Saturday.”

How Noelle turned abuse into action

While many people do not report or share their experiences with image-based abuse, Noelle Martin has taken the opposite approach.

She has spoken out about the issue around the world, petitioned and met with politicians, and been involved in the introduction of new laws in NSW and Western Australia making it a criminal offence to distribute non-consensual intimate images.

“For the longest time, it felt like such a lonely battle because there weren’t many people speaking out about this kind of abuse, because to do so would expose them to more harm and more eyeballs on the very concept that they don’t want people to see,” she said.
“So you have a very small amount of people fighting back.”
In addition to legal changes and education in Australia, she believes a global response is needed to tackle the issue of sextortion and image-based abuse and hold perpetrators accountable.

But she acknowledged managing content online and preventing images from being shared may be impossible.

A young woman wearing white boots and a sparkly dress standing on a footpath

Noelle Martin has repeatedly been targeted with image-based abuse. Source: AAP / Andres Kudacki/AP

“I do what I can to speak out around the world because I know that the only way we can meaningfully tackle this has to be a global response,” she said.

“Almost every single possible solution that we have, or that is theoretically possible, has major limitations and drawbacks, but ultimately we need to be just taking the steps that we can.”
She wants any victims of sextortion and image-based abuse to know they are not alone.
“You are not alone and survivors are organising and we’re fighting for you and with you,” she said
“If you find yourself the victim of this abuse, it doesn’t have to define you and you can overcome it. It is possible to overcome it.”
Readers seeking crisis support can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 and Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 (for young people aged up to 25).
More information and support with mental health is available at  and on 1300 22 4636.
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Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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