IT felt like any other date. We dined, he flirted, I lied about my age. The adult man sitting in front of me believed I was a 15-year-old girl.
My date was the sixth in a series of undercover stings R.AGE to expose online sex predators who trawl chat apps for easy targets.
As it turns out, men with a penchant for minors don’t look anything like the scary, creepy guys you’d imagine them to be. They just look really, really normal.
He introduced himself as Dennis (not his real name). He was big boned, wore a plaid shirt that strained against his belly and had a flat bowl cut. We had met and chatted through BeeTalk, one of the many apps with “friend finder” features that allow you to chat with people nearby.
When we first started chatting, I thought to myself, “finally, someone normal”. After weeks of unsolicited pictures of men’s privates, it was like finding something rare and good in an awful world. But the thought still lingered – what was a 34-year-old man (as claimed by Dennis) doing chatting with a 15-year-old girl?
The answer presented itself a week later, when I said I was alone at home, watching TV. He asked if he could come over.
“We’ll only do what you want to do,” he said.
“If you don’t want to have sex, I can just massage you.”
We made arrangements to meet at a restaurant near “my house”.
But before that, we did some quick research on him, and we found out that Dennis worked in the media industry. Suddenly, the investigation became very personal – this man was one of us.
As I chatted with Dennis during our meet-up at a fast food joint, my toes were curling. We had hidden cameras filming him, including one on my person.
I was also concealing a microphone, which made me nervous – one wrong move and our cover could be blown. Two other cameras shooting from a distance cast a heat only I could feel.
Like a typically restless 15-year-old, I was constantly checking my phone.
“Ask him if he minds having sex with a 15-year-old,” read a text from a fellow R.AGE journalist who was coordinating the operation.
“That’s not too young,” he answered, smiling straight at me. “Other girls have lost it at a younger age, I know someone who lost it at 13. It’s up to you lah.”
Nice of him to give me a choice, but then he started to get pushy, to the point where he straight up asked me to have sex with him.
Only two weeks ago, the conviction of Richard Huckle, a serial paedophile from Britain who had molested and raped 23 Malaysian children, had horrified an entire nation. We called him a monster, a devil, and other things we can’t publish in a national paper.
But Huckle didn’t appear a monster, and neither did the man sitting across me, or any of the other predators I met.
In fact, as the project progressed, it became hard for us not to see these predators as people. They might be manipulative and opportunistic, with no qualms over taking advantage of vulnerable children, but people nonetheless.
One of the predators was a father who attends worship religiously. Another, we found out, is a university professor with multiple peer-approved journals on his resume.
And then there was Dennis, someone I could very easily bump into at a press conference someday.
But the problem is we keep making it the job of women and children to stay clear of these camouflaged predators, when the reality is you can’t really tell who they are most of the time until it’s too late.
So here’s a new idea – if you’ve ever sent messages like the ones I got from Dennis, you need to get professional help, ‘cos you’re the one with the problem.