It’s kind of like the MTV Beach House, only instead of teenage sluts flashing their breasts and muscled-up boys licking whipped cream off girls’ stomachs, the house is filled with creeps whose kismet is public humiliation, divorce, and probably some jail time. Dateline NBC’s To Catch a Predator hit a new low this summer with its two-part Jersey Shore edition. Rather than emerge from behind a curtain with a clipboard and pen in hand, as he usually does, correspondent Chris Hansen “interviews” his “guests” while sitting in a beach chair along the “scenic coast of New Jersey,” which he describes as “a perfect vacation spot for parents, children…and potential predators!”
Yes, we all know touching a little boy’s pee-pee or a little girl’s hoo-ha is wrong, but there’s also something perverted about the justice doled out by NBC and the aptly titled vigilante watchdog group Perverted Justice, who Dateline hired as “consultants” for the show and who mainly consist of portly middle-aged women who possess the disturbing ability to sound like 12-year-old boys. The process by which these predators are lured to the multimillion-dollar house being used on the Jersey Shore edition of the show surely constitutes entrapment, and, seeing as how no actual physical crimes are being committed, these can only be defined as Thought Crimes, a fitting offense to be exploiting during a period in American history when being arrested or detained for thinking or talking about something is a very legitimate fear. To say nothing of the fact that there are no actual “children” involved, but instead decoys who are constantly doing laundry and/or offering lemonade to their prospective rapists.
During an on-camera interview, Casey, the 18-year-old decoy, said: “I can’t imagine a 13-year-old accepting that and liking that!” “That” loosely translates to, if one man’s description of what he wants to do to her (consensually) is any indication, being treated with a hell of a lot more respect than she’s bound to encounter once she reaches high school. But does anyone actually know a real 13-year-old who would engage a stranger in cyber sex and then invite him over to drink alcohol and touch his or her private parts and not know what they were doing? It’s ultimately statutory rape with a teenager…or intent to commit statutory rape, which is, essentially, intending to commit a crime that is subjective at best. But yes, the laws are what they are, and a 13-year-old in our society is not supposed to know what she’s doing (or is it that we’re terrified at the prospect that she actually might?).
Regardless of whether the law is “right” or not, these men should know it’s illegal. So they deserve what they get. But there’s no justifying the exploitive nature of To Catch a Predator. We watch for the same reason we drive slowly past a car wreck on the freeway: It could be us. One man explained to Hansen that he only relates to younger girls, presumably because he never matured past the age of 13. Many of these child predators aren’t predators at all, but children themselves. They are emotionally and intellectually stunted, and the very society that has failed them at home and in school is exploiting them simply because it’s entertaining to watch. One socially inept character who got caught by Hansen twice in past seasons could only say, “Oops!” Those involved in the making of the program probably believe they’re doing something good, but it’s difficult to imagine that the producers weren’t tempted to secure the rights to Britney Spears’s “Oops!...I Did It Again” for that particular segment or that they didn’t giggle proudly in the control room after stumbling upon a repeat catch.
At the end of each interview, Hansen tells the perv that he’s free to go, and by “free to go” he means free to go get thrown on the front lawn (or, in the most recent episodes, have his pathetic, lonely face pushed into the sand), be told to “keep quiet” when he starts to cry, and get arrested on national television. In most cases, the culprit has no intention of trying to evade the authorities and yet they’re physically assaulted anyway—for our viewing pleasure and probably Hansen’s righteous erection…err, indignation. And To Catch a Predator has been on the air long enough that the producers have been forced to toy with the formula, both to keep pederast-fatigued viewers scintillated and to trick potential “victims” who are familiar with the show from catching on. In other words, the decoy gets cuter, younger, and alarmingly less concerned with running off to finish folding her panties or squeezing fresh lemonade with her teeth.
Only once in the most recent episode of To Catch a Predator, when he spoke compassionately to a 60-year-old man about “crossing the line from fantasy to reality,” did Hansen seem to attempt to understand the psychology of his subject. Perhaps if the show wasn’t staged in such an unbelievable, voyeuristic fashion, or if they were catching child predators in actual criminal acts with minors or putting a spotlight on the growing child sex trade here and abroad, To Catch a Predator wouldn’t leave viewers feeling like Chris Hansen might be lurking behind their own living room curtains. In fact, the only way for NBC to end this series with any sort of journalistic integrity in tact is to have the man turn toward a mirror and say indignantly but casually to himself, “Hello there. I’m Chris Hansen with Dateline NBC. Did you bring any condoms with you?”