Rewatching To Catch A Predator: Rape Culture Makes Accurate Predictions

One of the less appreciated aspects of rape culture is how rapists are demonized, literally portrayed as animals, violently and obviously deranged, or otherwise clearly outside the human norm.

Part of this is addressed through push back against the “stranger in the bushes” myth. But even where we have been successful in raising awareness that

  1. a large amount of rape is perpetrated against children or vulnerable adults who know and are being supervised by their rapists and
  2. another large chunk of rape is perpetrated against people who first accept a date with someone who eventually rapes them

there is still a lingering myth that these rapists are somehow disguised demons, but demonic nonetheless. There is massive resistance to the idea that there’s a continuum of violation, instead insisting that, for instance, when Rebecca Watson asked repeatedly during a conference – even during her plenary address – not to be propositioned as she wasn’t at the conference for sex, someone ignoring that “no” and propositioning her anyway is completely and utterly different from someone who ignores a “no” to sex.

This and other ideas combine to create the impression in the public mind that rapists exist almost as a species apart. This impression can help justify particularly harsh punishments in some cases, where a particular person is seen as having been conclusively proven to belong to that other-than-human category, but the rape culture model also predicts that the inhuman rapist myth will interact with the psychology of human subjectivity to encourage many people who would violate established boundaries with little thought and no regrets.

I think Dateline NBC’s TCAP contains good evidence that this prediction is true.

Before we get to TCAP, however, another bit of evidence for the encouragement effect of combining conceptions of rapists as monstrous with typical human psychology is the now-famous willingness of certain people to admit to the behavior of rape without admitting that the word “rape” describes their activities or that “rapist” describes themselves. This Newsweek article documents the phenomenon, though it does not analyze what role thinking of rapists as a category apart might play in the willingness to perform the behaviors that make up a rape combined with a reluctance to admit to being willing to rape when the word rape is used. Here we’re frequently seeing the effect post-facto (people admitting to behavior that constitutes rape when described, but not when named as rape) and the rest of the time we’re seeing it abstracted (people admitting being willing to rape when the behavior is described, but not when it is named). What you don’t see in studies like that reported on by Newsweek is the actual behavior that appears to be connected to this description/naming dichotomy of acceptability.

But I was recently rewatching some of the controversial Dateline NBC series To Catch A Predator*1, and I think it shows a compelling example of exactly this: particular, real-world behavior that flows from the rapists-as-demons model. Although the first few episodes (predictably) feature predators that don’t know what’s happening when anchor Chris Hanson begins to interview them, in later episodes there are many, many subjects who bring up the TCAP series, specifically admit having watched the series, and acknowledge that they know meeting a teen for sex constitutes a crime.

Despite all this, the subjects repeatedly show up to meet the teen for sex. Why do they do this?

The series itself repeatedly poses this question, but does little to answer it, suggesting implicitly that there is something unusual about the psychology of these “predators” that is simply not comprehensible to those of us who aren’t such “predators”. But not only is that an extension of the “rapists are different” model, it’s very probably wrong.

I believe that the best explanation we currently have for this phenomenon is that, like everyone else, the adults who were caught seeking sex with young teens really do believe rapists are different, even monstrous. Despite the banal and repetitive reality of these adults’ reasoning and excuses, the myth of the demon rapist is so strong that it persists in the face of the video evidence these adults have witnessed. Later, this myth allows the adults who chat teens up for sex to convince themselves that they are at reduced risk for arrest, and certainly are different from the people caught in NBC’s previous investigations, because they know themselves to be human, not demonic.

Frankly, there are quite good reasons to suspect that this also plays a role in the psychology of serial harassers/assaulters of adults just as much as it apparently does in the people featured on TCAP. A person guilty of obvious misconduct of the type we have good reason to believe Lawrence Krauss committed doesn’t have to be engaged in some unusual self-deception to believe that they aren’t sexually harassing or sexually assaulting others. They need only engage in the quotidian deception of which the vast majority of us are guilty: believing that those who sexually assault and sexually harass and rape belong to a species apart where individuals are not complex mixtures of sympathetic and unsympathetic traits, but incarnations of pure evil. Krauss’ denials, rationalizations and minimizations are not only consistent with patterns of behavior typical of a large percentage of people who were later confirmed beyond doubt to have engaged in assault or harassment, they’re consistent with how anyone steeped in this myth reacts to the news that some complex human they know might very well have committed a sexualized crime.

Remember Steubenville? While many of us (rightly) talked about football culture and toxic masculinity playing roles in the community harassment and disbelief of the victim (despite video evidence taken by the perps themselves, I might add), football = good could not have generated the certainty in the perps’ innocence that so many in Steubenville seemed to display without being combined with the idea that rapists are never good, not even a little. The participation of the perps in the community’s football rituals was certainly seen as evidence that the perps were at least partly good, and therefore not the thoroughly evil rapists of common myth. But being a valedictorian, a volunteer in some program or other, and any number of other things can serve equally well (and have!) to convince others that a perp must be innocent.

This idea of guilt as wholistic identity, a full and accurate summation of a human’s existence, is not only a problem when jurors must render a verdict on an indictment against a white, preppy professional. It is a problem between the ears of the people who commit assault. It is a problem that allows them to commit assault.

One example of this is in the TCAP episode filmed in Ocean County, NJ:

Chris Hanson: You talk about oral sex with a girl

Adult: No, sir.

Chris Hanson: Whoa, no?!

Adult: Please don’t arrest me. Please, I swear to god. Please.

Chris Hanson: These are your words.

Adult: I know. I’m so embarrassed. Please. I’m really a good guy. Please. I swear I will never do this again.

Clearly here the adult believes that whether or not he is a “good guy” is relevant to whether or not he’s worthy of arrest. It’s not about whether he’s guilty of the elements that constitute a crime, it’s whether he’s “good” or “bad” – apparently in some existential or at least holistic way.

Another adult who targeted a decoy provides the second half of the manichaean rapist/good-person dichotomy:

Chris Hanson: So you kinda figured out what’s going on.

Adult: Huh. I mean you hear about it. And you sit there and you’re like, “Man, these poor guys, like…. These guys are such idiots,” and “What are these guys thinking?” And you know, and you’re like y’know you see some guys it’s just like, “Wow. Like, these guys are just really, really disturbed.” [emphasis mine]

Chris Hanson: Well, give me a sense of what went on in your mind to make you one of those guys.

Adult: Just bored and lonely. I mean, here’s my thing: I know there’s no excuse. You get caught up in a rut; you work 70 hours a week. Life is tough.

Chris Hanson: Yeah, but I still don’t get the link between working hard and grooming a 14 year old girl online to the point where you have a face to face meeting, in the hopes of having a sexual liaison.

Adult: I don’t know. Like I said, there’s no justification for it.

And yet, of course, the adult clearly felt it was acceptable to come visit the decoy posing as a 14 year old girl. I think we have to face the very real possibility that this adult didn’t bother to justify the behavior, because the adult didn’t perceive a need to justify it. To this adult, the people who ended up on Hanson’s show are “just really, really disturbed”. If one accepts this premise but doesn’t see oneself as disturbed, why would that person take seriously a risk of becoming one of the subjects of TCAP? The answer, of course, is that one wouldn’t. And there is every indication that this thinking is at least contributing to how people willing to sexually violate others manage to live with themselves in a rapist-hating society: no matter their behavior, they can point to the deranged other to prove that they are not themselves the rapists that seemingly everyone agrees deserve our hatred.

It is absolutely necessary that we continue to push for a model that makes behaviors unacceptable, not people. In teaching members of our community that it is the existence of rapists that is a threat to our community and not the acts of rape committed, people willing to rape will continue to do so, over and over again, reassured that, being full and complex (meaning, among other things, flawed) human beings, since they are acceptable people, their actions must be acceptable actions.

Without apologizing for the behavior of those adults caught seeking sex with (fictional) young kids on TCAP, it’s still possible to see that this is an area where better education about what rape is and why it’s unacceptable has the potential to prevent real crimes and to protect more people from harm. TCAP is consistent in portraying as mysterious (even incomprehensible) adults’ willingness to show up to meet decoys even after seeing previous episodes of TCAP. But it’s likely that TCAP’s portrayal is both wrong and feeding further into the community mythologies of rape culture that allow adults to convince themselves they are the good ones, and thus their attempts to have sex with children are different – and more acceptable – than those of “predators”.

Rape culture theory, then, can successfully predict and explain certain behaviors and behavioral tendencies that other models fail to adequately address. As much as some might demean or disdain the concepts and models and lessons of rape culture, our societies will be better off paying attention to its predictions and heeding its lessons that it can possibly be so long as the inhuman rapist myth persists, even in the watered down, “incomprehensible” form of Dateline NBC.


*1: The series is famous and infamous for various reasons, but if you’re unfamiliar with the premise, it involves the creation of fake profiles of fictional young teens, who then make appearances in internet chat spaces oriented toward romance and/or sex. Some of those spaces are explicitly about meeting people with whom one might eventually meet off-line, others are more question/answer spaces. But the point is always to wait for adult conversation partners to suggest sex, then to play the part of kids on the curious-to-enthusiastic end of the spectrum of interest in sex. For adults suggesting meeting offline, the decoys give the address of a house wired with hidden cameras. Most of those adults then show up to the house where they are taped from before they enter the door. Before things can progress to a point dangerous to the adult actors hired to portray the young teens adults think they are meeting, Chris Hanson comes out and uses the awkwardness of interrupting a moment that the adult thought was private to try to get the adult to comply with requests to sit down in an area well covered by cameras and then answer questions. After the interview is over and as soon as the adult leaves the home, the adult is arrested by local law enforcement.


  1. says

    This also touches on a common survivor experience–the experience of knowing who your perpetrator was, and understanding them to be all too human. It can be weird trying to explain to other people that no, they weren’t a wholly evil person, and no, that’s not a defense of their behavior. For many people it seems that expressing the slightest bit of compassion towards one’s own perpetrator is totally outside the realm of possibility, or else a sign of Stockholm syndrome.

  2. says

    It appears rather obvious to me that Bill Cosby learned his technique of drugging and raping women who were available to him as a sexual strategy. As he learned its, he perfected it and enhanced it to protect him from negative consequences (for him) by adding plausibly deniable cut-outs and legal protections.

    As predators learn that their technique works, they practice it more and more. Predators like Trump and Cosby hit upon a technique and keep doing because it’s an easy path for them to accomplish what they want.

    It’s important (to me only) to break down what they are doing as transactional, because it reveals it to us and them as a simple program that they are following.

  3. snuffcurry says

    in later episodes there are many, many subjects who bring up the TCAP series, specifically admit having watched the series, and acknowledge that they know meeting a teen for sex constitutes a crime.

    I have to admit, I don’t find this phenomenon particularly compelling evidence of rape and sexual violence as exceptional, but I may be missing something important here. Does one frequently find that perpetrators of other serious crimes, including crimes of violence, are sincerely unaware that what they’re doing or have done is a crime, is it rare for someone caught doing something criminal to have convinced themselves they are uniquely entitled to do so because of certain circumstances? That committing the crime, even repeatedly, does not make them an irredeemably bad person? It’s undoubtedly true, as you say, that what we know thus far about the ways in which sexually violent people lie to themselves, using the language and self-justifying logic of rape culture, suggests that there is room for a shifting of public consciousness towards a greater understanding of what rape is and what it does (as well as humanizing victims and allowing them to be flawed rather than expecting them to be saintly), but I’m not sure if this framing is going to help get us there. Fear of being caught and punished — especially in places where the catching and punishing is comparatively rare — has yet to function as a useful deterrent.

    If one accepts this premise but doesn’t see oneself as disturbed, why would that person take seriously a risk of becoming one of the subjects of TCAP?

    Because it is demonstrably easy to escape any legal consequences for sexual assault, much less social ones? Because outside of feel-good television, the people we most frequently demonize are the victims themselves? Few people define themselves by their crimes, for obvious rational reasons, just as for obvious rational reasons, victims often end up defining themselves by their abuse. Self-knowledge is often impossible for people who (a) are willing to believe to assuage future self-doubt that they are “compelled” (or entitled) to do things others don’t and aren’t and (b) are never caught.

  4. snuffcurry says

    I mean, the fact of the matter is that there are more victims than rapists, rapists are not uniquely demented devils, and even when we pretend that they are, we treat them better than their victims. Even Hanson is doing this: he’s emphasizing the letter of the law (this is illegal, which is why you should be ashamed) and not what violating that law might actually do to a real person. The entertainment value of the program is about the sleaziness and the “catching,” the game of bagging the predator. But there’s no further moral to the story. They never make the connection to the devastation that lay in the wake were the abuse both real and realized. The lesson becomes Don’t Get Caught, Don’t Embarrass Yourself, rather than Don’t Harm This Child.

  5. says

    This is good stuff. You’re right that TCAP is a good way to demonstrate rape culture in action. There is a huge social resistance to seeing rapists as more than evil caricatures that prevents people from identifying and objectifying the behavior.
    I can imagine that some people will still look for anything they can to continue to otherize these people in an opposite of attempts to dismiss rape accusations.

    And there’s versions of this phenomena in accusations of racism and other bigotry. While I was at Ponychan there was a poster who’s behavior was described as racist and they acted like we described them as a completely bad person. I told them I did think they were racist but that I didn’t hate them and they had trouble believing it to which I responded “people aren’t one thing, if I reasoned that way I would have to hate everyone”.

    In a related phenomena that counts as disinformation we also have the people that claim that feminists have expanded the definition of rape to include [insert your favorite hyperbole\lie], when it’s feminists that tend to be working on accurate, useful, working definitions of rape that encompass all victims. I think this bit of disinformation functionally interacts with the actual attempts to subvert the meaning of rape via things like alimony being called “financial rape”, or if you recall Phil Donohue claiming that the Catholic Church was the real rape victim (I think that was it, I need to look it up) and other attempts to muddy the definition of rape by society.

    One final observation. When I was staring at 4chan in morbid fascination “take a seat” became a meme. It was used in response to rapey comments and behavior, but only seemed to serve as humor to defuse tension. They were so close but couldn’t get beyond letting the humor defuse the negative feeling about rapey behavior.

    There are a lot of pieces holding this social bullshit together.

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