It all starts with an innocuous “Hey”. The person on the other side of the screen is unknown and probably not who they say they are in their bio. The pictures on their chatroom profile are some kind of anime character or a generic icon. Names like “Dddy4UA” and “PdoLuvsFem” pop up in my DMs and I wonder, “What the actual…?” I realise I didn’t specify my age and that supposedly means only one thing.
When I did a – quite in-depth – search for information on people who chat with children online, the results were all about keeping your children safe from online predators and spotting the signs of grooming.
Nothing, addressing the adults who are doing the chatting. A lot of the time, parents are concerned about their children’s online safety from a distance and don’t realise that grooming can occur namelessly and facelessly. It is when an adult (more often than not) tries to build a trusting relationship with a child or a child’s family so that they can sexually abuse the child.
Grooming involves the person building connection and trust with a child and family over time and gaining trust so that they have access to the child. And sometimes it begins in these kinds of settings.
I respond to Dddy4UA a few minutes later, realising I have a bit of power to sway the conversation. “So u been with anyone my age before?” He says no but he wants to. I ask how old he thinks I am. “I hope ur around 11 or so.” I run with it, feeling really conflicted and pretty awful. I report his account as soliciting minors. The app does nothing. I can’t screenshot or screen record the conversation. I’m at a loss on what to do. I call a friend who’s a lawyer in the US. She says she’ll message me after looking up some things.
“You can’t do anything unless you’re an investigator. I’ll call one of my friends who does this type of thing but keep them talking for now. Get as much information as you can,” she texts me. Oh boy. I’m really in it now. What started as a lonely night quickly turned into a low-key undercover operation of sorts.
He’s talking about what he wants to do with this pre-teen who he spotted outside the local school. I’m terrified for her. “Will you act on it?” He says probably not. I can’t trust that. “Why not?” He says because he doesn’t want to get caught so he just fantasised online.
I would love to believe that but I can’t. It would be naive and frankly stupid. “Ah ok.” I type, not believing a word he says. “U wanna meet up?” Being blunt might just make him ‘fess up. “Are you really in Alabama?” he asks. “No, I’m in New York,” I respond, wondering if he is in Alabama and we can do something with this information.
Then I realise I never changed the default location when signing in on the app. “Interesting.” I want to ask why and where he is but the questions are getting suspiciously adult and obtrusive.
“So what u into?” I don’t know how to type like a kid, so I just go with what I know. “Lots of things,” he responds and goes quiet for about five minutes. Uh oh. Maybe he’s onto me.
Sex offender: The FBI ran an undercover operation in 2018 that saw over 9 000 child sex offenders being arrested.
The FBI ran an undercover operation in 2018 that saw over 9 000 child sex offenders being arrested. The online undercover sting involved various approaches on a variety of platforms. Some were proactive, where officers impersonated a child or an adult who has access to a young person in order to apprehend suspects before they offend. However, some were reactive where officers intervened in an undercover capacity after a suspect solicited a child online, which actively put the child at risk.
My morbid curiosity about what makes this person tick takes over and I am reminded of the early conversations I had with the man who would become my abuser when I was just four or five years old. Many of the signs of grooming can look like normal adult‐child relationships, which is why grooming is difficult to spot but having this knowledge from experience, I can see it from a mile away.
The British Government recently launched a £1.5 million campaign aimed at warning parents about the dangers posed by child abusers using Internet chat rooms, including a code of practice detailing measures youth and their parents can take to combat unwanted online attention. These fears are so high that proposals have been put forward to introduce a new offense called “Sexual Grooming”, which will allow police to charge people who lure children into sexual games over the Internet, even before the offense takes place.
Fifteen minutes later, he responds. “How old are you really?” I freeze and panic. “12”. “Sexy,” he says. I almost hurl. I don’t know how to respond. What if he asks for a picture? What did I get myself into? Thank goodness I get a call and can say “BRB”. I tell my partner what’s going on and he says I should just be careful. My lawyer friend calls with disappointing news. “There’s nothing that can be done because that website’s encryption doesn’t allow anyone without just cause to access its metadata.” I’m floored. Is this not just cause? “What constitutes just cause?” I ask and she sighs. “He has to have intent. And that’s pretty hard to prove.”
The nuances of this particular violation, often charged in federal court under Coercion and Enticement, 18 U.S.C. § 2422(a) or 18 U.S.C. § 2422(b) is key for a successful prosecution, the FBI says, along with the meticulous preservation of electronic communication evidence. This is essentially the evidence for the “search warrant” of sorts. Section 2422(b) of Title 18 provides that if the individual who has been persuaded, induced, enticed, or coerced to engage in prostitution or other criminal sexual act is under the age of 18, then the penalty is 15 years imprisonment and/or a fine.
This is very hard to prove online and will require a sustained conversation with the help of law enforcement. Way beyond my capacity at this point and I’m seriously unprepared for this.
“Back,” I tell him and by that time, he’s sent a few photos of himself (face blurred out) and fully clothed. “Oh, this is you?” He sends a wink and asks, “Any of you?” I say no because I want to be sure of who he is. Surprisingly, he responds with, “Fair enough.” I realise it’s a lost cause so I might as well just keep chatting about what the hell is going on in this man’s head. “So why do you like kids like me?”
Oops, maybe this is too much and he’s going to block me. “I don’t know,” he says. “I have these urges but I just chat online.” This is kind of heartening that he doesn’t act on his “urges”. “Oh, that’s cool then,” I say. I realise I can take pictures of my screen with my partner’s phone, but a lawyer friend says they’re useless because pictures of a screen cannot be counted as any evidence. “Those can be easily manipulated,” she texts back.
I’ve got nothing. I’m quiet for a while and he realises I’m not going to relieve his urges. “You seem distracted. Bye honey.” and he logs off.
It may not have been a salacious conversation but it definitely wasn’t innocent. I’m reeling and making myself a cup of tea. After a little bit of digging, I find out that a conversation online without any clear plans to solicit sex from a minor is regarded as consumption of child pornography. It falls under the psychological standard of sexually compulsive or addicted people who compulsively engage in sexual behaviours, including porn use, as a way to avoid stress, depression, and anxiety.
When the sex or porn addiction tends to escalate, vanilla porn becomes an interest or addiction to harder-core and maybe child porn. This conversation was not that. The US legal system has no provisions made for accidental conversations like this and neither does South Africa’s.
Psychologists agree that sadly, legal systems and vast parts of the psychiatric community are either unaware of or unmotivated to know more about the consumption of child sex content online. Instead, they seem satisfied with the most basic knowledge that states these users respond well to treatment. Thus, it is up to clinical professionals and defense attorneys to evaluate motivations, history, and the likelihood of future wrongdoing. As a believer in restorative justice, I am torn.
I throw up in the bathroom. I don’t sleep and end up nodding off after sunrise. This world is broken and seeing a small part of how messed up it really is, even for a few minutes, has rocked my entire perception of my little part of the world.