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.

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9 Responses

  1. RCinProv says:

    If “the very act of prohibiting this material causes us to look images of the child’s body differently,” then how do explain the era before this stuff was all illegal? Have you ever looked into the rich history of the child pornography industry that prospered in Southern California in the early 1980s, including the publications by the Eberles (who later become cheerleaders for the moral panic claim)? The “desire” was all there without prohibitions.

    Empirical evidence is, let us say, a problem for all of this “moral panic” literature. But then Judith Butler and others who embrace “moral panic” don’t have that problem, since they are apparently not concerned with the empirical world.

  2. John Steele says:

    I find Butler’s claim, as quoted, to be pretty close to obvious. Of course, that claim was made (more broadly) in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. IIRC, Jeremy Waldron recently analyzed Galatians and Amy Adler made a similar point regarding pornography laws (The Perverse Law of Child Pornography, 101 Columbia Law Review 209 (2001)). I don’t read them as saying that prohibitions should therefore be renounced.

    Any reasonable reader of the Meese Report or the Starr Report would conclude that the phenomenon got the best of those authors.

  3. Bob says:

    Though there may have been a rich history, child pornography as an epidemic was debunked in The Trade in Child Pornography. Short sentences and small fines all but wiped it out and most of the images in current circulation were made when it was legal in certain countries. The fact is, there aren’t that many people interested in viewing child pornography and there never has been, and so it is possible Butler is entirely correct and the coverage does more harm that good.

  4. Bob says:

    Though there may have been a rich history, child pornography as an epidemic was debunked in The Trade in Child Pornography. Short sentences and small fines all but wiped it out and most of the images in current circulation were made when it was legal in certain countries. The fact is, there aren’t that many people interested in viewing child pornography and there never has been, and so it is possible Butler and Adler are entirely correct and the coverage does more harm that good.

  5. Sylvia Abrams says:

    I love the program and I am glad that they are exposing these men for who they are and the potential of them harming young children!!!! I wish that there was something that I could do to help with Perverted Justice..and this program..if there is let me know…sylvia22988@yahoo.com

  6. honeyspur says:

    I am thankful too – I wish there had been a program like this when I was a child.

  7. a student says:

    Though this issue wasn’t addressed, the unfortunate outcome of a show like this is that it affords less protection to criminal offenders. Juries will already formulate pre-conceived notions about defendants if the pool contains an audience who watches this. It seems that many of those caught and highlighted on the program are also first-time offenders. Not that I sympathize with them, but I believe this “To Catch A Predator” nonsense does a great disservice to the criminal justice system.

  8. keith says:

    It’s their first time being caught. It’s highly doubtful they are first time “offenders”.

  9. Marty says:

    For the person who truly believes that NOT THAT MANY PEOPLE HAVE THE DISIRE TO LOOK AT CHILD PORN. Here are the facts and I say this because I read rap sheets for a living. The amount of child molestation is so high it is one of the most recent escalated offenses among prisoner in the CA Dept of Corr. Almost every rap sheet I read shows our judicial system will imprison a man for auto theft or robbery but if a man uses force in raping a child with a foreign object they give him another chance to do it again. That means they serve little time and then get put out on the street. I would say 60% are in prison for violence and rape against children with a foreign object….sick…wake up. These guys are sick my only question is why has this escalated??