New York University Public Law and Legal Theory Working Papers

Document Type



Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, Forthcoming


In the last two decades, a new term—“sexual predator”—has arisen to describe criminals who commit sexual offenses against children. We used to refer to such offenders as “pedophiles” or perhaps “child molesters.” First emerging in the 1990s, the word “predator” has become a term of art in legal regulation and a mainstay in media reports and in the popular imagination. Yet since the term “predator” first emerged in legal discourse, its meaning has expanded and mutated to include a broadening array of sex criminals.

In this interdisciplinary paper, I explore the wildly popular– and controversial— television series called “To Catch A Predator” that played a dramatic role in shaping the category of “predator” in the popular imagination, in public policy and in law. My argument is that the show’s invocation of the category of “predator” both constituted and destabilized that category in surprising ways that have shaped the legal discourse on child predation.

Date of Authorship for this Version