Internet dating websites and apps have become a popular and successful way to meet people. But as exciting as this new method of dating might be, it’s also dangerous, as anyone has access to these interfaces. Anyone can make a profile, even if they are under the age of 18, and unfortunately these young users may attract adults. Old adults.
On January 13, Vice Media released a documentary called Age of Consent. Directed by Shawney Cohen, Age of Consent follows vigilante pedophile hunter Justin Payne as he tracks down and captures the older men who go after young users. How does Payne do this? He disguises himself as a 13-year-old boy named Christopher.
Payne operates in the middle ground of the law. He attracts pedophiles online, meets with them, and reports them to the police. But before reporting the men to the police, he leaks the videos he records while catching them. Payne posts these videos on social media, asking the men why they came to meet a 13-year-old boy. Unfortunately, when Payne reports these pedophiles, almost nothing is done because Payne’s tactics have no legal oversight.
Age of Consent starts with Payne and Gerry O’Brien, his accomplice and camera operator. The pair sit in Payne’s car as they call one of the pedophiles. Payne then acknowledges the severity of his actions when he says, “I have sympathy for these people, in the sense that they could lose their jobs [because of what I’m doing] … they could lose so much based on a video. But at the same time, where I wash that all away is that they came to meet a child. For sex.”
Payne talks to these men over dating apps, pretending to be a child. In one instance, one of the men offered to pay for pizza. When the man arrived, he was not greeted by a 13-year-old child, but rather, an angry vigilante hunter. To achieve a quick capture, Payne does not like to wear shoes; he wants to be quick on his feet in case he needs to run after the pedophiles. O’Brien always accompanies Payne for safety purposes.
Once Payne and O’Brien meet with these men and ask them their intentions, they usually deny everything, in between a lot of anger and swearing. One of the men even admitted, “I have a lot of respect for kids. I have two of my own.”
Throughout the 50-minute documentary, we follow Payne on a journey to exposing four pedophiles—a small number compared to the hundreds he has already caught.
The third pedophile Payne caught was a man he met with at a gas station. Payne confronted the pedophile and asked why he came to meet a 13-year-old. As usual, the man denied his intentions and inched away when he saw cameras. At the gas station, Payne shouted, “Everyone stay away from this guy, he likes to meet 13-year-olds off the internet.” This comment attracted gas customers, who gave their opinions about the man.
The man later called Payne and begged him to take the video down, as he feared he would lose his job. Within a few hours after posting the video, it reached almost a million views. The individual left Payne a message, crying and repeating, “Justin, please stop the video, I’m dying […].”
Payne admitted, “It’s this part where I’m uncomfortable, because this is somebody’s life.”
Near the end of the documentary, Payne sits with a host from CityNews. She asked him if he would ever give up vigilante hunting. He replied, “No way, never. There are too many of these guys out there and not enough of us doing this.”
“I want to see people punished, not dead,” he adds. Only two out of Payne’s 300 confrontations have resulted in police convictions.
Vice Media’s documentary is now streaming on vice.com and is available for viewing on YouTube.