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A sexual predator is a person seen as obtaining or trying to obtain sexual contact with another person in a metaphorically "predatory" or abusive manner. Analogous to how a predator hunts down its prey, so the sexual predator is thought to "hunt" for his or her sex partners. People who commit sex crimes, such as rape or child sexual abuse, are commonly referred to as sexual predators, particularly in tabloid media or as a power phrase by politicians.
According to the NBC news program Dateline, as of January 2006, law enforcement officials estimate that as many as 50,000 sexual predators are online at any given moment. That number has been cited by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in speeches touting the dangers of child predators. However, the origins of that figure have been questioned by Legal Times, and Dateline says it will no longer use it. Janis Wolak, of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, found that many parental fears about Internet sex predators are misinterpretations of the danger.
Definitions and distinctions
Etymology and usage
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover is attributed with the first known use of the term in the 1920s. It was popularized in the 1990s by Andrew Vachss and 48 Hours. The word is not found at all in newspapers of 1985 and 1986, but occurs 321 times in 1992, 865 times in 1994, and 924 times in 1995. Some U.S. states have a special status for criminals designated as sexually violent predators, which allows these offenders to be held in prison after their sentence is complete if they are considered to be a risk to the public. They can also be placed on a sex offender list which is viewable by everyone on the Internet. 
The term is applied according to a person's moral beliefs and does not necessarily denote criminal behavior. For example, a person who cruises a bar looking for consensual sex from someone else could be considered a sexual predator by some.
The BDSM community often uses "predator" as a term for someone who seeks out dominance and submission parties that are new to the lifestyle. These parties would use the submissive or dominant in a manner that suited their personal needs instead of encouraging them to grow and learn on their own about this culture. In this same circle and in broader circles, there are also predators who are simply hunters who seek a certain type of personality, age group, fetish, or play style; they often refer to themselves as predators and enjoy the game of Hunter/Prey. (For an example of this usage in broader circles, see Kim France's comments in The New York Times, on Janis Joplin's sexuality.)
Distinction from sex offenders
The term "sexual predator" is often considered distinct from "sex offender". For example, many U.S. states make legal distinctions between these categories, defining a "sexual offender" as a person who has committed a sexual offense. The term "sexual predator" is often used to refer to a person who habitually seeks out sexual situations that are deemed exploitative. However, in some states in the U.S., the term "sexual predator" is applied to anyone who has been convicted of certain crimes, regardless of whether or not there is a history of similar behavior. In the state of Illinois, for instance, a person convicted of any sex crime against a minor is designated a sexual predator, no matter the nature of the crime (violent versus statutory, or perpetrated against a young child versus a teenager), and regardless of past behavior. This has led to criticism that the term is being misused, or overused, and thus has lost its original meaning and effectiveness.
- Filler, Daniel (2001). "Making the Case for Megan's Law: A Study in Legislative Rhetoric". Indiana Law Journal. 76 (2). SSRN .
- Gonzales, Attorney General Alberto R. (April 20, 2006). "Transcript of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales’ Address to the Employees at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children". US Department of Justice.
- "Gonzales gives child porn 'wake-up call'". CNN. April 20, 2006.
- "Numbers Game: Gonzales Launches DOJ Project Safe Childhood With Mysterious Figure". Legal Times.
- "Prime Number". On The Media. NPR. May 26, 2006.
- "Fears of Internet predators unfounded, study finds". mcclatchydc.com.
- Filler, Daniel (2003). "Terrorism, Panic and Pedophilia". Virginia Journal of Social Policy & the Law. 10 (3). SSRN .
- Jenkins, Philip (2001). "Faculty: 'Go and Sin No More': Therapy and Exorcism in the Contemporary Rhetoric of Deviance". PSU.edu.
- "No Easy Answers: Sex Offender Laws in the US". Human Rights Watch Report. September 11, 2007.
- "Internet Safety Technical Task Force Report – Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies". Harvard Law School.
- France, Kim (May 2, 1999). "Nothin' Left to Lose: Janis Joplin proved that a female rocker could self-destruct as quickly as a man". The New York Times.