SEXPLOITATION – Review by Carol Cling

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“Stranger danger!”

Generations of kids took that rhyming parental warning to heart, learning that seemingly friendly grown-ups weren’t necessarily as benign as they appeared to be.

Of course, that was before social media utterly transformed the way young people engage with each other — and the world.

And in the days before discovering so-called online friends aren’t necessarily friendly — or even who they claim to be.

These painful truths emerge with chilling clarity in Sextortion: The Hidden Pandemic, from director Maria Demeshkina Peek.

The true-crime documentary opens with a quote from St. Augustine: “Hope has two daughters. Their names are anger and courage. Anger at the way things are; and courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”

Given the subject matter, it’s understandable that Sextortion spends much of its running time on the anger — and anguish — side of the equation.

Interweaving interviews, re-enactments, forensic footage, unsealed court documents, courtroom sketches and statistics, the documentary paints a grim and heart-wrenching portrait of unsuspecting young people lured into online relationships that turn dangerous — and even deadly.

The initial case the documentary explores involves a Staunton, Va., teenager who accepts a Facebook friend request from a really cute boy whose friend list includes plenty of people she knows.

What she doesn’t know is that the really cute boy in question isn’t a boy at all — he’s an adult predator skilled in the online crime of “sextortion.”

Initially, their online chat is flirty and fun. Then the requests become more provocative — before turning into demands. And if those demands aren’t met, the online predator threatens, “I’m posting everything to a porn site and sending the link to your (boyfriend) and friends and school.”

As investigators delve into the case, the trail leads to another young victim in Japan — and beyond — before the perpetrator is arrested and charged.

Inevitably, he turns out to be the last person anyone would expect: a seemingly upstanding Navy pilot, married with kids — and dozens of underage victims he pretended to befriend.

To prove its painful point, Sextortion delivers an avalanche of appalling statistics; overall, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s Cyber Tipline received 29.3 million reports last year (up from 16.9 million in 2019 and 21.7 million in 2020), including more than 44.8 million video files and almost 40 million images.

It also trots out footage of such celebrities as Ashton Kutcher and Blake Lively decrying the ever decreasing ages of — and ever increasing trauma for — young victims.

But the movie’s greatest emotional impact comes from the victims themselves. One is Amanda Todd, a Canadian teen who ultimately took her life — after making a haunting cautionary video that explains what happened to her, from the sextortion itself to the subsequent cyberbullying from her peers.

“That’s when she started going down the rabbit hole,” her mother Carol Todd — now an activist — explains, adding that she’s sharing her daughter’s calamitous story because “it could one day become your story.”

Anger is the rational response to this kind of tragedy, but Sextortion includes a welcome example of courage with the confessions of S.M., who became a victim at 13, after discovering the addictive pull of online chatrooms.

When she met, online, “a guy that looked like Justin Bieber,” she thought “I loved him, so I showed him my boobs. … One time. That was it. That’s all he needed.”

After a few years of complying with what turned out to be 12 different men pretending to be her teenage dream — to protect her family, she says — S.M. finally found the courage to break the sextortion cycle.

“That was awesome. That was badass,” she recalls. “This was the reason I went through it — because some people, like Amanda (Todd), didn’t make it. And I have to stand tall for her.”

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Carol Cling

Carol Cling served as the Las Vegas Review-Journal's film critic for more than 30 years, reviewing movies and covering movie and TV production in Las Vegas, from Casino to CSI. An honors graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, she also has studied film at the American Film Institute and the BBC