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Exploring the ethics of a "Sexsting"
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Actors read through the script of Sexsting in preparation for its first dramatic reading at the 2004 Playlabs Festival at the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis. (MPR Photo/Marianne Combs)
Many teenagers can tell horror stories of what goes on in on-line chat rooms. In recent years there have been a number of cases of older adults seeking out children for not just conversation, but for sex. In response the FBI has mounted sting operations to capture likely offenders before they have a chance to strike. A new play examines the ethics of such methods. "Sexsting" gets its first reading at the Playwrights' Center as part of its Playlabs Festival.

Minneapolis, Minn. — In "Sexsting," 46 year old John Doe, is frustrated with his marriage. He goes on-line looking for some chat room fun. He hooks up with what he thinks is a 14 year old girl. What he doesn't realize is that he's talking to another middle aged man - who just happens to work for the FBI.

The two engage in explicit conversations. After a while John Doe's relationship with his wife starts to improve and his interest in the young girl flags. After nine months of pleading and cajoling on the part of the FBI agent, codenamed "Sandi," John Doe agrees to fly out for a visit, presumably to consumate the relationship. When he arrives at the airport, the FBI arrests him. There was no victim and he harmed no one, but what he did was illegal.

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Image Raffanti and Baizley

"Sexsting" arose from the experiences of lawyer Susan Raffanti. She represents people who've been arrested for intent to have sex with a minor. She says more and more these taboo relationships are being tracked on-line, in chat rooms.

However the chat room, Raffanti says, is a fantasy world. The majority of people claiming to be 14 year old girls simply aren't. They're middle aged men and women, or young boys. At first Raffanti herself had never visited a chat room, so she did some exploring.

"I went on AOL. And then you just scroll down this list of incredibly sexy sounding things," says Raffanti. "So I go down to this chat room 'I love much older men' and I tried to get on. At first I could never get on because it was always full."

While conversation online is fine, actual sex with a minor is not. In an effort to capture sex offenders before they act, the FBI often carries out sting operations, in which an agent poses as a young girl in a chat room. As soon as an adult makes a move to actually consummate his or her relationship with a minor, the FBI moves in and makes an arrest. Raffanti says she first recognized the dramatic potential of the situation when she interviewed an FBI agent who had successfully lured in her client for a sting.

"I thought 'Oh my God! Well, of course he would know how to seduce someone just like himself.'"
- Lawyer Susan Raffanti

"I sat down at the table with the agent and my jaw just dropped in the first minute or two because he was just like my client," says Raffanti. "I thought 'Oh my God! Well, of course he would know how to seduce someone just like himself!"

So Raffanti went to playwright Doris Baizley, and together the two compiled various cases and actual transcripts of conversations into the play "Sexsting." Lawyer Susan Raffanti says she wants to see the play produced in order to raise awareness of what she believes is entrapment. Often, she says, these people living out their fantasies on the internet would never think of consummating a relationship. But the FBI agent is aggressively seductive in order to get his man. Anyone arrested, Raffanti says, is stuck with the label "sex offender" for life. Even if the potential victim didn't really exist.

"If it weren't for the internet they would be buying dirty magazines and going off into a private room and doing whatever they do," says Raffanti. "But because of the internet now, that activity that is not a crime is a crime. It's kind of like it's a crime if you do it on the internet."

The play's sympathies lie with people who are caught in these stings. But there are many who disagree, including Anoka County Attorney Bob Johnson.

"Should we have to wait until there's significant damage before we take out people who are trolling for children?"
- Anoka County Attorney Bob Johnson

He deals with similar cases on a regular basis - he guesses he's handled 10 in the past year. He has no problem with on-line stings that nab men preying on little girls. The fact that someone is interested in minors to begin with, then seeks contact with them for sexual conversation online, and finally takes action to contact these children, is evidence enough for an arrest, says Johnson.

"We see people all the time in the criminal justice system who are perfectly reasonable nice people in 95 percent of their life," says Johnson. "And then there's this one little part, where they do terrible things."

Johnson says he's believes in people's rights to privacy, and he doesn't believe in locking someone up and throwing away the key. But he'd much rather see law enforcement make an early strike on a likely suspect than have children suffer.

"I see it as entirely appropriate that law enforcement is going into these chat rooms and pre-emptively trying to take these people out," says Johnson. "Should we have to wait until there's significant damage before we take out people who are trolling for children?"

That question is likely to be discussed when "Sexsting" gets its first reading at the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis. Susan Raffanti and playwright Doris Baizley hope a theater will mount a full production of the play after hearing it read. Baizley says she hopes "Sexsting" eventually has a wide public audience, if only to draw people's attention to what she believes is a serious issue with broad implications.

"In the name of protecting our children we're really hurting a lot of people. We're really policing fantasy and imagination, which is my business. I'm a playwright. I have to think all the worst thoughts about people and that all has to be in my imagination, in my head," says Baizley. "So to imagine that if I talked about it online I could get arrested is pretty shocking."

For now, Baizley's main concern is whether "Sexsting" will be too shocking to find a home on stage.

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