New report argues that online sextortion is a “dramatically understudied” problem.

A recent report from the Brookings Institution examines online “sextortion,” what the authors describe as “akin to virtual sexual assault.” It can loosely be understood as the practice of blackmailing someone in order to extort sexual activity or material from them.

The report’s major findings highlight that though sextortion is surprisingly common:

Sextortion is dramatically understudied. While it’s an acknowledged problem both within law enforcement and among private advocates, no government agency publishes data on its prevalence; no private advocacy group does either. The subject lacks an academic literature. Aside from a few prosecutors and investigators who have devoted significant energy to the problem over time, and a few journalists who have written — often excellently — about individual cases, the problem has been largely ignored.

Though the report identified 78 cases that met their definition of the crime — with those 78 cases alone involving at least 1,397 victims — “[i]t is also a crime that … does not currently exist in either federal law or the laws of the states.” Further, even when officials have prosecuted sextortion, the report notes, there is significant disparity between one sentence and another, “with almost no clear association between prison time meted out and the egregiousness of the crime committed.”

In order to solve this gap and sentencing disparity, the authors of the report offer a proposal for a federal sextortion law, that should “should operate, in effect, as a hybrid of the interstate extortion statute, the sexual abuse statutes, and the abusive sexual contact law — with an additional jurisdictional element drawn from a federal child pornography statute.” Read more about the report here.