To catch a predator.

Author:Adler, Amy

[D]esire is never renounced, but becomes preserved and reasserted in the very structure of renunciation.

--Judith Butler (1)


In the last two decades, a new term--"sexual predator"--has arisen to describe criminals who commit sexual offenses against children. We used to refer to such offenders as "pedophiles" or perhaps "child molesters." Since this new terminology first emerged in the 1990's, the word "predator" has become a term of art in legal regulation, and a mainstay in media reports and in the popular imagination. (2) How did the "pedophile" become the "predator"? And what were the effects of this transformation?

As the category took shape, a vast new legal apparatus arose to regulate and monitor this emerging species of criminal. (3) New methods developed (4) to detect and scrutinize him. (5) The term "predator" implied that the offender was relentless and animal-like; thus, it no longer sufficed merely to send him to jail. After his release, we now had to register him, track him for the rest of his life, (6) or commit him indefinitely to a mental hospital. (7) Some states began to castrate him. (8)

Since the term "predator" first emerged, its meaning has expanded and mutated to include a broadening array of sex criminals. (9) The category now encompasses a diverse range of offenders, from the most violent child rapists to teens who possess "child pornography" (10) (a term that has an extremely expansive definition in its own right). (11)

Indeed, as the category of predator has grown, it has become increasingly unstable. A salient example comes from the recent epidemic of "sexting" prosecutions, which began in earnest in early 2009. (12) These cases prosecute teens as sex offenders for making child pornography of themselves--taking sexual pictures of themselves with their cell phones and texting them to their friends or sexual partners. Now the teen who creates child pornography of herself is a "predator." How did a body of law designed to protect children from predators come to be used against the children it was designed to protect? How did the law come to picture the predator and the victim as one and the same person?

I want to suggest that the seeming illogic of the sexting cases--the simultaneous expansion and disintegration of the category "predator" that they signal--in fact follows a deeper logic of cultural fantasy and desire. In this paper, I explore that cultural fantasy by turning to a wildly popular television series called To Catch a Predator, which played a dramatic role in shaping the category of "predator" in popular imagination, in public policy and in law.

My argument is that To Catch a Predator functioned as a realm of regulatory fantasy that served to restrict, produce, and fracture desire. In my view, the show's invocation of the category of predator both constituted and destabilized that category in ways that have shaped the legal discourse on child predation. In this Article, I offer two different but related readings of To Catch a Predator. The first reading pictures the show as producing a kind of disavowed child pornography. The second reading, psychoanalytic in approach, pictures the show as a spectacle of sadomasochism and a scene of oscillating and proliferating desire. Here I focus on the audience's and the predator's shifting pleasure, self-beratement and shame. Ultimately, I suggest that our surprising identification with the predator leads us to disavow that identification through the force of law.

Part I describes To Catch a Predator's formula. Part II explores the show's ratings success, its extraordinary influence on public policy, the lawsuits it provoked, and the vociferous criticism it received. In Part III, I offer two different readings of the show as a scene of fantasy. In the first, I argue that the show inadvertently spreads the very spectacle of the sexual child that it seeks to shut down. In the second, I use Freud's essay "A Child is Being Beaten" as a template through which to read the show as an SM scene.

  1. The Scene of the Crime

    To Catch a Predator, a wildly popular network television series, netted would-be child predators in a sting operation and filmed them as they were caught and confronted on camera. The series began in 2004, when Dateline NBC, the news magazine show, had fallen into a ratings slump. Searching for a new formula, Dateline began broadcasting a series entitled To Catch a Predator. Joining forces with a vigilante group called Perverted Justice, Dateline used "decoys"--adults posing as 13 to 15 year old teenagers online--to engage in explicit sex chats with men. (13) The decoys lured the men to a sting house with the promise of sex, but they were met instead by a camera crew and, ultimately, the police.

    Once the would-be predator arrives at the sting house, the show progresses through a series of formulaic scenes. First the decoy, usually a young looking woman named Del who works for Perverted Justice, answers the door for the predator, invites him in, then quickly excuses herself and disappears. (14) She is replaced by Chris Hansen, the host of Dateline. (15) A tall, preppy, white guy, Hansen strolls into the kitchen of the house with the air of a man who has just been called off the golf course and is irritated about the interruption. Hansen has been watching on hidden camera and has been privy to the secret online chats between the predator and the decoy. Skeptical, all seeing, all knowing, he's not just a man, but "The Man." In fact, refusing to name himself, perhaps Hansen is not just "The Man" but some sort of avenging god, or at least Daddy or the police. (Almost all of the would-be predators believe that Hansen is either the decoy's father or a police officer). (16) In any event, the predator senses Hansen's authority; it is remarkable how many of them obey instantly.

    As Hansen begins peppering him with a series of questions, (17) the predator typically insists that he had no intention of acting out his online "fantasies." (18) This prompts Hansen to go on the attack. Increasingly incredulous and contemptuous, Hansen reads back in painstaking, salacious detail the predator's sexual chat log with the decoy. (19) This recitation of the sordid chat log often goes on to the point where the predator literally begs for mercy, sometimes sobbing, reduced to his knees, pleading with Hansen to please, please stop. (20)

    At this point comes the final blow. Hansen announces: "I'm Chris Hansen with Dateline NBC" and tells the predator that he is being filmed for national TV. And then, to drive home the predator's spectacular ruin, comes what I call the "money shot." (21) We watch as a swarm of cameramen surround the predator, pointing their cameras at him. Susan Sontag told us that the camera was predatory like a gun. (22) If only she had lived to see this show. "You are free to leave now," announces Hansen, and the predator, who has been groveling on the ground, stands up and departs. But of course he is not free. (23) When he exits the house, a swarm of heavily armed policemen tackle him, cuff him, and arrest him. As one journalism critic writes, the police handle the predator "as if he has just shot the president." (24)

  2. The Show's Impact: Ratings, Suicide, and Legislation

    A major force in public policy, To Catch a Predator was also "ratings gold." (25) Indeed, it became a cultural phenomenon, the subject of everything from Saturday Night Live skits to college drinking games. Predator proved such a ratings bonanza for Dateline that it became a staple of sweeps week. (26) NBC built it into a network franchise. (27) The show regularly outdrew anything else in the network's primetime fare. (28) While To Catch a Predator has been repeatedly praised (29) as performing a public service, (30) it also gave rise to two high-profile lawsuits against the show, (31) and to a cottage industry of vociferous criticism.32 Ultimately the controversy was significant enough that NBC halted its investigations in 2008.33 Although Dateline no longer enacts stings, Predator lives on: old episodes, with additional, previously unaired, footage have become a new series called Predator Raw: The Unseen Tapes, on MSNBC, NBC's sister channel. It is one of the most popular shows on MSNBC. (34)

    A recently-settled lawsuit against the show gives a flavor of its controversial tactics. The lawsuit involved To Catch a Predator's responsibility for the suicide of one of its targets, a prominent Texas district attorney named William Conradt, who had chatted online with a Perverted Justice decoy pretending to be a teenage boy. When Conradt decided not to meet the decoy at the designated sting house, the police, a horde of NBC cameramen, and a heavily armed S.W.A.T. team surrounded Conradt's home. (35) Observing the show of force and the cameras outside, Conradt shot himself dead inside his house. (36) A former district attorney in Texas said of the incident, "[t]hey murdered that man. That man is dead ... merely because of the way it was handled." (37)

    To Catch a Predator also had a powerful and direct impact on law. The spectacle the show presented--a seemingly endless supply of men desperate to prey on teens for sex--terrified parents38 and became a catalyst for legislative action. (39) Some policymakers claim that the show's debut ushered in a radical change in the political and legislative climate. (40) A leading authority on online safety described To Catch a Predator as "the avalanche that has been driving all of us" since it began. (41)

    Most prominently, To Catch a Predator directly influenced the passage of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, the legislation that dramatically stiffened the national requirements for tracking and registering predators. (42) Senator Bill Frist, one of the sponsors of the Act, described how the show motivated him to sponsor the legislation:

    [The issue of child predation] didn't really hit...

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