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Are Child-like Sex Robots Legal or Ethical?
It’s 9pm and Chris has fixed himself a plate of spaghetti for dinner. He makes the sauce from scratch just the way his mother taught him. A batch can feed him for nearly a week. Tonight he pours himself a glass of cherry soda and raises his glass to Cammy. He would prefer a glass of wine, but one of the conditions of keeping Cammy is that he doesn’t drink alcohol. Cammy is sitting opposite him, wearing the crisp white blouse and plaid skirt he bought for her last month. Her socks are knee-highs. She’s not wearing shoes. Cammy’s footwear can de tricky to put on—even with the Easy Arch upgrade. Chris asks Cammy to unbutton her blouse and finishes his soda as he listens to Cammy recite the twenty-second warning mandated by the federal government.
“Warning, you are about to engage in sexual contact with a robot who is designed to look like a child. This robot is not a child. Use of this robot does not permit or condone sexual contact with children. Sex with children is against the law and punishable by a mandatory ten year sentence.”
If this near-future scenario seems far-fetched consider the case of Kenneth Harrison, a 52-year old electrician from Newfoundland, Canada, who was arrested and charged for importing a sex doll designed to look like a child from Japan. The five feet long cardboard box containing the doll was flagged by the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) after entering the country in January 2013. According to a statement by the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, who performed a controlled delivery of the package to Harrison’s address, the box contained, "a prepubescent female doll, made of a foam-like consistency, that stands at 130 cm, approximately four-foot-two. It comes with clothes and other optional accessories. Some of those accessories could be and can be used for sexual gratification purposes.” Witnesses later testified in court that the doll has a vaginal opening and was shipped with a bottle of lubricant.
The Canadian government believes the doll meets the definition of child pornography and are vigorously prosecuting Harrison. Are they right? Is the use of childlike sex dolls and robots legal or ethical?
“Child sex dolls are already a reality,” says Marc Behrendt, a philosopher at ULB University in Belgium told NBC News, “and in the near future childlike sexbots will exist, so we have to decide what to do about this issue.”
Shin Takagi, the owner of the company Trottla whose doll was intercepted by Canadian customs, believes his dolls help people. “We should accept that there is no way to change someone’s fetishes,” he told The Atlantic. “I am helping people express their desires, legally and ethically. It’s not worth living if you have to live with repressed desire.”
Can Sex Dolls Prevent Pedophiles From Offending?
Takagi’s dolls don’t come cheap. The standard model costs $6,700. Takagi’s website lovingly portrays these dolls, some of whom are designed to look as young as five-years old, in a variety of settings and outfits: prim schoolgirl, Alice in Wonderland, fun at the beach. It’s unnerving to see how real they look, their eyes looking straight at the camera, their slender limbs bent to please as they enjoy tea parties, dress up and bath time. Takagi believes he is doing good. “I often receive letters from buyers,” he said. “The letters say, ‘Thanks to your dolls, I can keep from committing a crime.’”
He may be right. Data concerning the use of child sexbots is, perhaps understandably, scarce. What we do know from meta-analysis conducted by the Mayo Clinic is that treatments are not effective in changing pedophiles’ sexual orientation toward children. Once a pedophile, always a pedophile. Michael Seto from the University of Toronto has estimated one percent of adult men are pedophiles. That could mean as many as thirty-million men worldwide could be defined as pedophiles. Would sex robots help them?
Michael Seto believes access to sex dolls “needs to be carefully regulated, perhaps even prescribed.” Speaking to Swayr he says, “It could be a safe option for more prosocial individuals who are sincere about wanting to refrain from offending. But for other more antisocial individuals who don’t think it’s wrong to have sex with a child, it could be an incitement.”
Many researchers are concerned that use of sex robots may have a reinforcing effect on pedophiles, potentially normalizing sex with children and increasing the likelihood of urges being acted upon. A Canadian study of 341 child molesters concluded “pornography added significantly to the prediction of recidivism.” Simply put, pedophiles who offend are more likely to reoffend if they have access to deviant pornography. In his sentencing of Stuart Hazell, who in 2013 pled guilty to the sexually-motivated murder of a 12-year old British girl, Tia Sharp, the judge said to Hazell, “the records of your internet searching on your mobile phone make abundantly clear that you were looking out for pornographic pictures of pre-teen girls.”
Are Sex Robots Bad For Society in general?
Are sex robots necessarily deviant? Evelyn Schwarz, 30, opened Germany’s first sex doll brothel in April 2017. “They are non-sentient, they look good, are not sick,” she explained in a press conference, “they provide service without complaining.” Schwarz’s business is booming. Customers pay $90 per hour to interact with a female incapable of saying, “No.” Schwarz believes it is, "Better to be violent with a doll than with a woman.”
Not everyone agrees. Kathleen Richardson, a professor at De Montfort University and co-founder of the Campaign Against Sex Robots, questions a future where technology enables us to act out our darkest fantasies. “We are entering an egocentric world. We’ve already created a world full of sadists through pornography, prostitution and child sexual exploitation, so now we are going to give those sadists even less opportunities to develop their humanity by giving them dolls.”
Can We Help Non-Offending Pedophiles Manage Their Urges?
Gerold B [his name has been changed to protect his identity], a self-described non-offending pedophile from Missouri dreams of owning a childlike sex doll. Speaking to Swayr, he says, “I’ve seen them, of course. The ones out of Japan are works of art. A large part of my therapy is geared toward putting myself in children’s shoes. I know children are non-sexual beings, incapable of wanting or consenting to sex. I manage my urges on a daily basis. I didn’t ask for this sexual preference and can’t change it. It might be hard to understand this, but I’m one of the good guys. Owning a robot would allow me to fulfill my sexuality without hurting anyone.”
When asked if he was concerned that owning a doll would blur the lines between fantasy and reality, he replied, “No. I have lived my entire adult life with that line. It’s a canyon, children are on the other side, untouchable. A robot isn’t a child.”
International Laws Regarding Childlike Sex Robots
As of June 13, owning a child sex doll is no longer an option for Gerold B. The US House of Representatives unanimously passed the Curbing Realistic Exploitative Electronic Pedophilic Robots (CREEPER) Act, which bans the importation and transportation of child sex dolls in the US. The bill, sponsored by Dan Donovan (NY-R), aims to protect innocent children from predators. Donovan told Congress, “Right now, a few clicks on a computer can allow a predator to order a vile child sex doll. This is not only disturbing—but also endangers the most innocent among us. Once an abuser tires of practicing on a doll, it’s a small step to move on to a child. My bill takes necessary steps to stop these sickening dolls from reaching our communities. We must protect children from those who wish them harm.”
Gerold B is at pains to point out that he is not an abuser. “I haven’t touched a child. I don’t intend to touch a child. I am not an abuser. I’m an individual struggling with my impulses. Donovan doesn’t care about the difference between offending and non-offending pedophiles because he doesn’t care about understanding the issue. He cares about getting reelected.”
The U.S is one of many countries currently dealing with the legal implications of child sex robots. In the UK it’s currently legal to own a child sex robot but not import one. In June 2017 Andrew Dobson, 49, of Crewe, England, was sentenced at Chester crown court to two years and eight months in prison. Dobson pled guilty to importing an indecent object, a childlike sex doll he ordered over the internet from Hong Kong. In Australia penalties for importing child sexbots include fines up to $450,000 and ten years imprisonment. New Zealand Customs has a policy of destroying all child sex dolls they detect entering the country.
Can You Print A Sex Robot In Your Own Home?
But what if you could create a child sex robot in the comfort of your own living room? Advances in 3D printing and artificial intelligence could make self-manufacture a viable possibility in the near future. SexShop3D founder Thomas Sancelot claims people will be able to print their own sex robots from home within 10 years. “Sex robots and printing are among the top questions when asked about the future of our company and the future of the industry in general,” Sancelot told the Daily Star. “The adult industry and technology have always had a cozy relationship. If you think about bioprinting when talking about sex robots and the future of sex toys, that tells you how crazy the future could be.”
Historically sex has always driven technology. In the 1500s, fifty years after Gutenberg introduced the movable type printing press to Europe, Pietro Aretino, an Italian playwright, was using it to print erotic poetry. As soon as photography was invented, French artist Louis Daguerre improved the process and immediately began taking photographs of young women in the nude. Instant cameras, VHS tapes, cable TV, camcorders, webcams, chat rooms, virtual reality: technology reflects human nature and human desire. We want sex and use technology to get it.
How Much Traffic On The Dark Web is Driven By Pedophilia?
It’s been estimated that as much as thirty percent of the contents of the world wide web is porn. Statistics for the percentage of child porn online are more difficult to pin down. Most developed countries have laws preventing the viewing, downloading and hosting of child pornography, effectively forcing pedophiles and their communities underground into the dark web. In this shadowy world of encrypted anonymity, hidden services, access-by-invitation-only sites and blockchain currency, pedophiles swap files alongside hackers hawking stolen credit card numbers, arms dealings trading guns and drug dealers selling drugs.
At the Chaos Computer Congress in Hamburg in December 2014, University of Portsmouth computer science researcher Gareth Owen presented the results of a six month investigation into the contents of the dark web (full text available for purchase at IET Digital Library). Owen’s team discovered that more than four out of five hidden services visits on the dark web were to pedophilia sites. “Before we did this study, it was certainly my view that the dark net is a good thing,” Owen told Wired. “But it’s hampering the rights of children and creating a place where pedophiles can act with impunity.”
According to Owen most of these hidden service sites blatantly used the word “pedo” in their name. “It came as a huge shock to us. I don’t think anyone imagined it was on this scale.”
Pedophiles, like everyone else, use technology to connect with individuals who share their preferences. Gerald B no longer accesses child porn online as part of his ongoing treatment. He does not believe his sexual orientation toward children will change, however, but instead works to manage it. “It’s like Alcoholics Anonymous, I take it one day at a time. I know what’s out there on the internet, but I remind myself the children in the photos and videos were coerced and abused.”
Are Pedophiles Victims Of Childhood Sexual Abuse?
When asked if he himself was abused as a child, Gerald replies, “My father walked out on Mom when me and my sister were toddlers. She worked in the school cafeteria and the local gas station—anything to make ends meet. Meeting my stepdad was a life changer for us. Suddenly we were living in a house with a pool and a play-set in the yard. It was heaven. So when my stepdad came to visit me and my sister in secret some nights, we just thought that’s what we had to do keep him from leaving Mom. It was nearly thirty years later before it occurred to me to ask ‘What was a single guy with no kids doing with playground equipment in his yard?’”
Studies investigating the relationship between pedophilia and prior sexual abuse in children provide mixed results. It could be as high as thirty percent of pedophiles were victims of child abuse, or as low as four.
Why Do We Understand So Little About Pedophiles?
Gathering statistics on pedophiles can be tricky. Non-offending pedophiles are a hidden population, trying hard not to act on their urges. Branded as monsters by society, they fear coming forward to seek help. Most data therefore comes from offending pedophiles. Patrice Renaud, a psychologist at the University of Montreal, Canada, assesses whether or not suspected pedophiles pose a danger to others by hooking them up to an eye-tracker and a device that measures blood flow to the genitals, and then exposing them to sexual images. Until recently these photographs were of real children obtained during police raids. The practice has now been banned and Renaud is exploring the use of VR and synthetic pornography in assessing and treating pedophiles. He stops short at the idea of using sex robots, because there have been no studies on their affects or consequences. “We just don’t know the answer.” Kate Darling, a human-robot interaction researcher at MIT told New Scientist. “We have no idea what direction this goes in and we can’t research it.”
Finding funding for such research is problematic and finding pedophiles willing to participate in research is nearly impossible. “It’s very important to understand this because we need to do more to prevent child sexual abuse and exploitation,” says Seto.
Do We Need To Update Our Laws On Child Sex Abuse?
So where do we start? Sex dolls are evolving into sex robots and growing increasingly more sophisticated as AI enables them to interact with, and form emotional bonds with, their owners. The market for child sexbots is growing, even as countries are cracking down on them. Both law and scientific research are trailing behind technology. We need to understand these issues because they are playing out in real time as customs seize these dolls and courts prosecute their owners. The traditional view that child sex abuse involves child victims needs to be explored and updated. If a pedophile has intercourse with a robot are children harmed or endangered?
As Ron Arkin, a professor of robotics at the Georgia Institute of Technology, told a Forbidden Research panel at MIT’s Media Lab, “The cost if we don’t explore it is intolerably high.”
Ultimately we do not know if child sexbots satiate or incite. James Cantor, a clinical psychologist and editor-in-chief of the academic journal Sexual Abuse, said, “It is very possible that using child sex dolls could reduce someone’s risk of harming an actual child, but I am not aware of any such study actually having been conducted. Importantly, the reverse is also true: There is no evidence that using child sex dolls causes any increase in risk of molesting a real child.”
Experts Call For More Research On Sex Robots
Arkin agrees this is research that needs to be explored. “Whether the recidivism rate is ten percent, or fifty percent, that’s ten percent or fifty percent too much. And the point is if these people are released back into society, there will be more victims. Let’s just face that fact. And we need to find a way to cope with that. And this is potentially one.”
Gerold B says, “I won’t be ordering a robot from the internet any time soon. The CREEPER Act means I could be prosecuted as a child sex offender for receiving one in the mail. I’ve spent my entire adult life avoiding the stigma of being a child molester. It’s too risky. I could lose everything.” Currently there are no easy answers for Gerold B or society. In the future it’s possible child sex robots could be prescribed like methadone, the controlled substance used to regulate and manage opium addiction. Seto realizes it’s an uphill conversation moving forward. He tells Swayr, “I hope we don’t automatically reject the idea because it is seen as immoral or disgusting. We need viable options for helping pedophilic individuals not offend.”
Technology mirrors our best and worst impulses as humans. Sex will continue to shape technological advances and by doing so present us with new challenges and opportunities. It’s a brave new world, filled with unexplored and evolving moral, ethical and legal issues. Few people want to think about pedophilia. It’s a topic that only makes news when an offense has taken place and a child has been harmed. What we do know for a fact is that pedophiles aren’t going away. Tens of millions of men and women struggle with these urges on a daily basis. If we can prevent them from offending or reoffending our children will be safer. What need to know as a society is whether or not banning sex robots will bring us closer to, or move us farther away, from that goal.
J.V.Jones is a USA Today Bestselling writer whose acclaimed Sword of Shadows series is published by Tor Books.