Dateline Perverted Justice: Pedophilia That The Market (And Judith Butler) Can Appreciate
The NY Times has an interesting article today about Perveted Justice, the group that Dateline has adopted as a highly profitable vehicle for purveying mass anxiety about child sexual offenders. As many people have noticed by now, Dateline has neatly repositioned itself as an ongoing documentary about the battle to ferret out internet pedophiles. Perverted Justice volunteers troll the web, trying to draw in adults who seek hook-ups with kids. Dateline then sets up shop, waiting to capture these faux-meetings on video.
The article notes that this is lucrative business for everyone. Perverted Justice gets $70,000 for every hour of Dateline content. Clearly NBC is raking in the bucks, drawing over 9 million viewers per Pedo-Dateline, as opposed to their usual net of 7 million viewers for other Dateline episodes. And Dateline already has six more “episodes” of Pedo-Dateline in the pipeline for 2007. In Threatened Children and Random Violence, Joel Best explored how child protection activists have developed both economically and politically by tapping into longstanding public conern over child abuse – and particularly child sexual abuse. (Phillip Jenkins has offered related insignts in his book, Moral Panic.) Yet the explicit commercial trade in this anxiety – always present to the degree that such sex panics provide fodder to the daily news outlets – has never been clearer than here.
At the same time, the Times piece notes that some people are concerned that the very act of publicly pursuing and villifying these individuals effectively creates a new form of sexualized text, because by putting the transcripts of these conversations online, the group puts “out for unfiltered, unrestricted public consumption the most graphic sexual material that they themselves say is of a perverted nature.” Judith Butler, in Excitable Speech, makes the point that prohibition and desire are intertwined:
Prohibition pursues the reproduction of prohibited desire and becomes itself intensified through the renunciations it effects… .The prohibition not only sustains, but is sustained by, the desire that it forces into renunciation.
Amy Adler’s important piece, The Perverse Law of Child Pornography connects this idea to child pornography bans. The very act of prohibiting this material causes us to look images of the child’s body differently. Thus, she argues, child pornography bans have caused us to look at “ordinary images” of children, to figure out whether they are sexualized in some improper sense. Pictures of children are now categorized as either sexual or not – and thus they are always in some sense sexualized.
What’s happening here is more explicit, of course. The Dateline episodes, and the work of Perverted Justice, have drawn millions of people into a literal pedophilic gaze.
I leave to the Times article, and the various policy advocates, a discussion of the utility of this joint project. Will it reduce internet child abuse? Hard to know. Will it cause innocent people to suffer? Unclear. But it is time that we come to understand that the trade in fetishized fetishes is if nothing else weird and discomforting. And perhaps – just perhaps – it twists our own culture in exactly the direction we most abhor.