Many mornings, I wake to the LA Times’s ‘Essential California’ newsletter in my inbox, whose adjective often calls itself into question. One recent morning the headline was, ‘Would-be child predator caught by YouTube channel’, and I felt the opposite of what I assumed, once again, I was supposed to feel.

A 20-year-old student in San Diego has raised money and 137K subscribers on YouTube by posing as a teenager on social media and hunting out men who might want—as the subject, who goes by Ghost, is quoted saying—’to meet the kid for bad purposes.’ In the newsletter, they noted that Ghost was a fan of To Catch a Predator, and that’s when I started to feel better about my dislike of him.

You might be wondering what’s to dislike. What’s not to like about a young guy spending his time finding potential child abusers and stopping them before they harm children? That harm is real, and when we hear of it there’s a deep and heavy sickening feeling we get, reminded once again how hard and unfair the world can be to some people. Innocent people, too—like Marco, profiled in a New Yorker article I read recently, who in the 1980s was placed in foster care with a man with known pedophilic desires. Marco and his foster brother were molested most nights before bed, for years on end, because some people had rotten, ruinous ideas about the boundaries between sex and love.

We’re going to come back to Marco, but first let’s think again about Ghost and his project. Ghost was never a victim of child sexual abuse. (I was neither, it should be said up front.) ‘I do it for survivors, I do it for victims, I do it for kids out there,’ he said in the Times profile. ‘I serve the community.’

This last is what we should focus on. In this series of posts, I want to think about the figure of the ‘predator catcher’, the ‘pedo hunter’. I want to look at the service Ghost performs and his notions of service, and our notions of serving the community, and so I want also to look at community, and how Ghost and you and me understand it.

I’ll go first: For me to see that Ghost is serving, say, our community of California, I have to believe that community is a place where children are being abused, or under threat of abuse, by men they don’t know who are looking online to persuade these children into a sexual encounter. Though Ghost himself doesn’t use the P-word (at least not in the Times piece), let’s call this the Active Pedophile fantasy.

‘Fantasy’ is a tricky word, as it suggests so much positivity and romance. Fantasies are our troped and coded dreams of a better way we might live. And ‘fantasy’ cleaves troublingly to ‘sexual’ in a series of posts about child sexual abuse (CSA). Maybe ‘phantasy’ would be better; the word reeks of early psychoanalysis, but it also hides a phantom, another ghost we might think about how readily we’re haunted by.

But before we get into the argument I want to make this week—which is, in part, that we ‘go after’ ‘sexual predators’ because we can no longer persecute homosexuals—we should pause here, on what little stable ground I feel we have, before I ask you to take a leap of faith with me.

When an adult has abused a child, Victim and Perpetrator are clear in our minds. The power imbalance is clear in our minds. I’m not pointing to grey areas here (though I am insisting on greater nuance and understanding): a crime has happened, and the perpetrator should be punished. When an adult has not yet abused a child, how do we know he will? And when an adult finds he wants to abuse a child, what then? What should he do, and what do we in the community do with this knowledge?

Understanding justice need not strip us of our compassion, just as our desire to feel compassion does not blind us to justice.

This might sound like a lot of Jesus talk—hate the sin but love the sinner—and maybe that is whose ideas are informing my thinking about the Active Pedophile phantasy, but as someone who spent the first half of his life hating himself for the sex he wanted to have without being able to help it, I find that—when I indulge the Active Pedophile phantasy—the first thing I feel is sympathy, then worry, then a powerlessness I want to do something about.

If the Active Pedophile lives among us, in our community, please trust me that he needs our help.

Click here for Part II.