I just watched the latest installment of Dateline NBC's "To Catch a Predator," that series where they hire an organization called Perverted Justice to set up a sting operation where they catch adults who show up to houses to try to have sex with people who said online that they were 13-year-olds. On the one hand, it certainly removes a lot of dangerous pedophiles from the streets and makes for great TV in the process. But it also brings up a lot of questions about sting operations, I think.
Of course, there are legal rules as to what constitutes entrapment, but how many of these men would have gone through with their actions without the "Perverted Justice" decoy leading them on? Everybody knows that it's illegal and wrong to meet up with a 13-year-old for sex. A good number of the people profiled on the show seem aware that the whole thing might be a setup, or are even aware of the show itself. And yet they still go through with it, bringing along condoms to show intent, sending photos of their penises, etc.
Are these guys habitual offenders? If so, then no question, the sting should be commended for punishing these perverts. But what about the first-time offenders? If somebody harbors pedophilic fantasies, well, that's perverted, but if they're able to go their lives up to that point without acting on those fantasies, then I don't think that man's necessarily a danger. On the other hand, every habitual offender was once a first-time offender.
But that's the thing about fantasies, plenty of people have all sorts of fantasies that they never act upon, like killing their boss, stealing something they can't afford, having sex with their wife's best friend, etc. What would you think if Jane were to present herself online as being sexually available to her friend's husband Bob, accede to various sexual advances, set up a time to meet, and then pull a "Gotcha!" on Bob? Well, you'd think Bob made a big mistake and deserves to be in a heap of trouble. Bob could have said "No way" and cut off the conversation as soon as it got out of hand, but he didn't. That being said, has Jane done a good deed by leading Bob on and exposing his weakness? Would Bob have pursued Jane if she had never presented herself to him as available? I don't think we could necessarily say.
The parallel I'm getting at, of course, is that I think there's a good chance that a sizable fraction of these guys would never have actively pursued a 13-year-old without this sting operation. They gave in to temptation, but the show led them into temptation in the first place.
On the show, they showed that one of the guys arrested ran a website called www.hottbarefootwomen.com
(the site is sexually-oriented (adults, not 13-year-olds) but doesn't contain nudity). If you check out that site, he has a lengthy letter on his blog, [link removed on his request; see comments]
apologizing for being stupid, but also saying that he wouldn't have done it if the decoy used by the sting operation hadn't been so persistent. Well, he could have ended the chat session at any time, and didn't. But obviously something about the decoy appealed to him, and went along with everything he suggested.
He also claims not to be a pedophile. Maybe he's not. people who are attracted to eight-year-olds are pedophiles. 13-year-olds look pretty young, but they've probably physically developed into adults, at least to a certain degree. Getting romantically or sexually involved with a 13-year-old is illegal for a reason, though. Adolescents aren't known for thinking rationally about sex and the psychological imbalance between an adult and a young teenager is severe. I'm not sure if that makes it pedophilia, but it is a bad idea and a person who transgresses like that deserves to be punished by society. But as much good as Perverted Justice does, I think they may do harm, too, by turning private perverts into active perverts and felons.
I wonder how successful the prosecutions of these are. The show said that about a third of those charged with crimes pled no contest. How many of the others get convicted?Update:
Now that I think about it, these guys are getting prosecuted for intending to have sex with a 13-year-old where there was no 13-year-old. In other words, there was no victim, only an intent to have a victim. Maybe somebody who's a lawyer can explain how you can get prosecuted for perpetrating a crime against a person who doesn't exist. (Of course, drug laws and prostitution laws don't have direct victims other than "society," either, so maybe this falls under that category.)