Academic journal article Columbia Journal of Gender and Law

To Catch a Predator

Academic journal article Columbia Journal of Gender and Law

To Catch a Predator

Article excerpt

[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. …

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