Sexual exploitation can take place in a variety of ways — but in the digital age, it’s largely happening via computer and phones screen in the form of “sextortion.”
Never heard of the term? Well, Shay Mitchell can explain. The Pretty Little Liars actress recently teamed up with Thorn, a nonprofit organization cofounded by Ashton Kutcher dedicated to building technology to defend kids from sexual abuse.
In an animated PSA video narrated by Mitchell, a cat character breaks down the term sextortion, which is a cybercrime that relies on victims feeling too ashamed to ask for help when an abuser threatens to distribute their intimate images — a huge problem among teens today.
“Okay, so you did a thing,” Mitchell says in a voiceover. “You sent a picture of yourself with no clothes on — something you thought wouldn’t be shared.”
“Seemed like a good idea at the time, but now, things have gone wrong — terribly wrong,” she goes on. “Maybe you shared the picture with someone you loved and trusted, but after a while, things weren’t so friendly. Or they said they’d help you become a star — but they just wanted to use you. Or maybe you met someone online and they really seemed to understand you, but then it got weird, and it turned out to be someone totally different.”
“Now, the person you shared the pic with is demanding more, and threatening to tell — that’s sextortion,” she continues. “Yup, that’s a thing. The perpetrator relies on you feeling ashamed and keeping quiet, but they are the ones who should be ashamed. What they’re doing is wrong, and it’s never too late to find your voice to ask for help, or too early to reach out to your friends to tell them you’ll be there no matter what. In fact, you can stop sextortion before it starts — by talking about it now. With support, you can do anything. So tell your closest friends today: You’ve got their back, no matter what.”
Thorn’s campaign seeks to increase awareness about sextortion, destigmatize the issue and encourage individuals to reach out for help and support their friends. According to their research, often the abuser is looking for the victim to create more images — or for a sexual encounter — and about 45 percent of perpetrators carry out their threats.
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Most survivors don’t speak out about the abuse because of shame and embarrassment, and Mitchell, 30, tells PEOPLE she wants everyone to know that doesn’t have to be the case.
“Whenever I can educate people on a cause that is close to me, I will,” she says, adding that she hopes everyone targeted remembers “that there are people that they can turn to and talk to about this, and they should never be embarrassed or ashamed to come forward about anything.”
“Always be on high alert,” she adds.
Mitchell also hopes to see the issue portrayed more honestly and openly on TV shows and in movies.
“I think there isn’t enough awareness on the subject at the moment,” she says. “I hope in the future, they are bold enough to call it what it is and really show the consequences of these kinds of abusive actions.”
For more information, visit StopSextortion.com, or text “THORN” to 741741 to talk to a trained Crisis Text Line counselor.