Daniel Perry, befriended online by someone he thought was a young woman in the US, shared sexual images of himself with her. Threatened by the prospect of exposure to his family and friends Daniel, aged 17 years from Fife, jumped to his death from the Forth Bridge. Daniel’s mother said, “Knowing him [Daniel] as I do, he has felt embarrassed, horrified and has thought he’s let everybody down. He wasn’t doing anything wrong, just what anyone his age might do, but this scam is all about exploiting young people” . The NSSPCC suggest that while cyber-bullying by peers and grooming by sexual predators are commonly experienced by young people, Daniel’s case was the first example of extortion of a young person via the internet. Daniel’s situation reveals a new strand of commercial sexual exploitation – profiting from shame.
Sex, shame and secrecy are key to the false sense of security created by sexual predators which hastens the entrapment of their victims. Lies are told which build trust in the untrustworthy. Central to the dynamic within the predator’s construction of power is their victim’s deepest emotional self, that place where they are most vulnerable. The natural insecurities and puzzlement of growing children and young people create fertile ground for the traps full of false certainties laid by abusers. Young people can thus be snared, oblivious of the dangers, and groomed for exploitation. Threats of physical or sexual violence to the young person or their loved ones and public exposure ensue. Silence and secrecy are maintained and occasional treats ensure the abuser’s control is absolute. These traumatic bonds strengthen and deepen with time. The fear and shame central to traumatic bonding are now creating new opportunities for the profitable sexual exploitation of the young and the vulnerable.
Shame is a normal occurrence in child development which helps children recognise wrongdoing. When this is pointed out by a kind parent or carer, the child feels bad and eventually learns not to do it again to avoid that horrible feeling. Healthy shame teaches us about empathy, compassion and truth. We learn to take responsibility for our actions, own up, apologise or make amends and move on. Wisely guided, children learn that feeling ashamed is not nice but that they can be forgiven and are still loveable for all that. As children grow however, they learn that there are other things which adults may think shameful in addition to stealing, lying, hurting or cheating. Sex and sexuality are the repositories of a great deal of shame in the adult world – wisdom from adults in this regard however may not always be forthcoming. Human societies and their cultures, customs and religious practices have mediated our attitudes to sex and how we regard our own bodies – not all of it helpful or consistent. Confusion is common and this creates uncomfortable climates of shame and guilt around sex. Guilt is shame internalised following the threatened or actual exposure of the deed done. Guilt is the legacy of shame felt and silenced. Guilt can overwhelm a person and set them on a road littered with lies, mistakes, cover-ups and, sometimes tragically, to death. Shame associated with sex is toxic.
Adolescence is a time of high emotion, growing bodies and surprising new cravings. These can be hard to understand or resist at times. Young people usually try to understand them by exploring alongside their peers. Friendships and peer relationships become very important and begin to replace parents or carers as the founts of all knowledge. Teenage bodies and minds are preparing for adulthood; independence grows alongside increased freedom to explore the adult world. The reliance of young people on their friends and friendship groups helps build confidence: risks are taken, lessons are learned and self-knowledge deepens. The conjunction of secrecy and adolescent explorations are par for the course as any parent or carer of a teenager will tell you. However, add sex and shame to the pre-existing vulnerabilities and inexperience of young people and the results can be devastating. Traditionally this could lead to inappropriate choices of sexual partners, unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases – all shaming in their way. Nowadays more sinister outcomes may also transpire which can be exploited by unscrupulous adults through grooming. Grooming converts friendship and human relationships into commodities ‘bought’ using goods and favours. This objectifies the groomer’s victim applying a monetary and/or sexual value – as in prostitution, adult and child sexual abuse, pornography and human trafficking. However, it is not only a person’s value as a sexual being that is being commodified here but shame itself. Shame is at the centre of the abuser’s toxic constellation of abuse. The internet has created a domain where young people’s lack of experience of the world, their reliance on friendships and their natural curiosity can be financially exploited. Smooth criminals have spotted an opportunity, have put a price on shame itself and turned a profit using extortion via the anonymity and distance available through the internet. The principle of the sting is not new nor is the use of explicit photographs to blackmail people however this new form opens up vast untapped markets of the young, the vulnerable and the naive to blackmailers.
Many young people in our society have high levels of computer literacy and fluency with social networking alongside unprecedented ease of access to the internet’s treasures. However, whatever confidence this brings may be out of synch with their emotional development, their ability to judge others and their experience of the wider world. This is the gap which has been spotted by the far-flung internet scammers and blackmailers. It is a gap that grown-ups need to help fill with wise counsel, a bit more media savvy and honest conversations about sex with their children. Young Daniel did nothing wrong nor was he alone among his peers in doing it. However, someone tried to profit from his shame and Daniel did not know that it was no shame at all.
Published in The Scottish Review – Tuesday 27 August 2013