Ordinarily, the sheriff’s department in Marquette, Michigan, wouldn’t release details of a case where a person died by suicide. But the parents of Jordan John DeMay, a well-liked 17-year-old student athlete who passed away in March, wanted the public to know that he was the victim of a cyber sextortion scam. “The sheriff’s office and the family of Jordan hope this will assist the community in their healing,” the local police said in a statement. “We also hope this will educate others and spur courageous conversations about internet safety.”
Over the course of six hours, a blackmailer posed as a woman on Instagram and solicited compromising photos of DeMay, then started demanding money in exchange for not sending the images to his friends and family. DeMay was able to give them $300 but couldn’t meet the financial demands that followed, and ultimately took his own life.
For all the talk these days about “protecting” children by cracking down on sex education, little thought is given to how discussing those topics in the classroom — or at home — could prevent a tragedy of this kind. An emotional, panicking teenager is naturally disposed to think the release of their explicit selfies is an event too ruinous to bear. It’s crucial to make kids understand that the other person is a predatory criminal; that being duped this way is neither the end of the world nor especially uncommon. A 2018 report found that five percent of middle and high school students surveyed had been targeted for sextortion and, alarmingly, that victims were more likely to make similar threats against others. The researchers speculated that the prospect of revenge on the original offender could motivate some of these youths, but noted that the experience of being blackmailed “could normalize the behavior” and lead to more of it.
The same study found that males and non-heterosexual children were targeted more often. Meanwhile, girls were “significantly more likely” to tell a parent or authority figure about an extortion attempt than boys — suggesting that young men feel either more embarrassed or pressured to keep the incident a secret. In February, another 17-year-old, Ryan Last, from the area of San Jose, California, died by suicide in a case nearly identical to DeMay’s: After receiving a photo, the blackmailer requested $5,000, and Last paid some amount from his college fund (he was set to attend Washington State University). When the inevitable demand for more money came, he took his life. As with DeMay, it all happened over the course of a single night.
“They wouldn’t give up until he felt he had no choice,” Last’s mother, Pauline Stuart, told a local news affiliate. “But to do it to protect his family. He loved us so much that he wanted to protect us from the mistake he made.” She spoke, of course, from unimaginable grief, but this framing — “to protect the family” from “the mistake” — seems to endorse the deadly thinking that grips boys like Last and DeMay in their final moments. The suicide, irrational in itself, becomes twisted penance for what the victim imagines to be unforgivable: participating in what they believed to be a mutual transaction of intimacy. Yet the story comes out anyway. They pay their abusers, die for nothing and leave their families in despair, essentially out of shame that they couldn’t solve the problem themselves. Adult men are also afraid to ask for help, though the consequences aren’t always so extreme. Boys must be reminded that they’re not alone.
Schools would do well to teach children that they can and should reach out to grown-ups in this situation — that law enforcement will take action against blackmailers — as well as provide a robust education that demystifies sex and weakens the taboos around it. Once we acknowledge that teens are going to sext each other no matter what in the course of exploring their identities, we’ll have the opportunity to speak honestly with them about potential risks, the need for trust and why they’re not monsters for wanting to trade nudes, nor for falling prey to a malicious scam that trades on their humiliation.
Unfortunately, the conservative movement is bent on coding the mere awareness of one’s body, and interest in others’, as mortal sins. The way they demonize children just for growing up, they may as well be the online strangers making the threats.