“Better a robot than a real child”: The spurious logic used to justify child sex dolls

 

The BBC Three documentary The Future of Sex: Sex Robots and Us follows presenter James Young as he interviews manufacturers of lifelike sex dolls and robots around the world. In a Tokyo sex-doll factory in 2018, with headless dolls at varying stages of development strewn all around, one doll in particular catches Young’s attention. Unlike the other dolls modelled on adult women, this one is small.

Visibly uncomfortable and blinking back tears, Young asks, “What is this doll?” Hiro Okawa, the manufacturer, responds, “We have to leave it to the customer’s imagination for the actual age setting.” Apparently sensing Young’s distress, he adds, “Of course, I understand what you are trying to say. But there might be some kind of sentiment to petite, kid-like size.” With a shaking hand, Young wipes his eyes. Once outside, he describes the experience as “horrific” — adding that he “had to get out of there.”

Though highly controversial, child sex dolls like these are already on the market and have been sold through mainstream online retailers like Amazon and Wish for a number of years. Experts predict child sex robots will be next, and some believe they are already in production.

Sex dolls and robots: a cultural phenomenon

The production of life-like sex dolls and robots has attracted significant media attention and public interest. Sex dolls and robots have been the subject of documentaries, pornography, Hollywood films, television programs and academic conferences. Sex-doll brothels, where men can rent female sex dolls by the hour, already exist in a number of countries. According to sex-industry representatives, the innovation of sex-robot technology is one of the biggest trends in the industry, a “game-changer” and the way of the future.

The highly gendered nature of sex dolls and robots is rarely acknowledged by academic supporters of the products. The vast majority of these dolls and robots are embodied female, typically designed according to pornographic standards. Research indicates that sex-doll owners are overwhelmingly men. Child sex dolls are similarly gendered and modelled on the bodies of prepubescent girls. I am yet to see a male-bodied child doll. Essentially, these products are lifelike material representations of women and girls marketed for men’s sexual use.

Academic proponents of female-bodied sex dolls and robots fail to situate the products within the wider cultural context in which they are produced — one in which gender inequality persists, where male violence against women and children remains a serious global problem, and where women and girls are raped, beaten, abused and prostituted by men. Within an existing system of male dominance and female subordination, female-bodied sex dolls reinforce women’s subordinate status and the sexual objectification of women and girls. Despite this reality, a number of academics encourage the manufacture of these products for men’s sexual use, and some actually herald child sex dolls as a therapeutic treatment for child rapists — an approach that I see as both misguided and irresponsible.

Sex dolls and robots to fulfil men’s sexual needs

Academic proponents of sex dolls and robots pitch them as a solution to men’s apparent “sexual deprivation.” There is a lack of empirical research on the ramifications of the products, but appeasing male sexual desire takes precedence over any concern for the human rights of women and girls. According to David Levy, co-founder of UK-based robotics institute Intelligent Toys Ltd and author of the 2007 book Love and Sex with Robots, they could function as intimate partners, or as an alternative to paying for sexual services. Advocates such as Ezio Di Nucci argue that robots could function as an outlet for individuals who are “suffering” due to unfulfilled sexual needs. University of Manitoba associate professor Neil McArthur highlights the plight of young men struggling with the “uneven distribution of sexual satisfaction”:

Like other forms of inequality, sexual inequality has a widespread impact on society. When individuals, especially young males, are deprived of the prospect of sexual companionship, they can become a significant source of social instability … We might wonder to what degree the mere possession of a sex robot can alleviate the psychological and social costs of sexual deprivation.

Levy and other advocates claim that not only could sex dolls and robots provide an outlet for those individuals “deprived” of sex on demand, but also they could provide an outlet for individuals who wish to engage in “illegal and antisocial sexual practices” or to enact violent and sadistic fantasies at will. Some of these illegal sexual practices involve children.

“Therapeutic” child sex dolls and robots

Academics propose that child sex dolls could be used to treat paedophiles. At a 2014 robotics conference, Georgia Tech’s Mobile Robot Laboratory director Ronald Arkin suggested that child sex robots could be used for paedophiles in the same way that methadone is used to treat drug addicts, an idea that is gaining traction in academic circles. Université Libre de Bruxelles philosopher Marc Behrendt won the Inaugural David Levy Special Best Paper Award for his 2017 paper in which he proposed that child sexbots could function as an “alternative means of therapy” for paedophiles, with their use authorised by medical professionals and in consultation with ethics committees.

There is no shortage of proposals for how child sex dolls or robots for paedophilic use could be regulated. Some advocates concede that they shouldn’t be sold over the counter but could be made available to paedophiles under a range of conditions, such as registering with a psychiatrist (or alongside therapy and with close medical supervision). Users could be required to submit to random computer checks by police, or to obtain a special license, like a gun license, to purchase the dolls.

It’s hard to believe that proposals to involve public authorities in a market to trade in child sex dolls are being made at all. Even more disturbing is the notion of taxpayer-funded special measures catering to paedophiles’ sexual preferences, although such proposals would likely be appealing to paedophiles.

“Better a robot than a real child”

Academic advocates for child sex dolls dismiss objections as being rooted in a societal discomfort or disgust over adult-child sex. They label those opposed to child sex dolls as socially prudish, or as closed-minded to the possibilities of child-sex-doll use. University of Oslo researchers Ole Martin Moen and Aksel Braanen Sterri warn that when dealing with paedophilia, “our aim should not be to find outlets for our disgust and outrage.” According to Craig Harper, a psychological scientist at Nottingham Trent University, criminalising child-sex-doll ownership is “literally creating an offence without a victim for reasons of moral disgust.” The gendered nature of the dolls, designed to resemble female children for the sexual enjoyment of adult men, is ignored by these academics.

Others claim that societal discomfort could stand in the way of important further research.

Michael Seto, director of Forensic Rehabilitation Research at the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group, has said that he hopes “that people can get past their emotional reactions to the idea of child sex dolls or fictional child pornography, in the hope that we might find an option that helps people with paedophilia and makes children safer.” James Cantor, a Canadian psychologist and neuroscientist, similarly believes that prohibiting the use of child sex dolls and robots, which amounts to “blocking the harmless ways of masturbating,” may leave sex offenders more desperate and likely to offend. “Of course, some people will feel uncomfortable with this kind of research,” he continues. “But they should feel even more uncomfortable for as long as we remain without it.”

While it’s true that empirical data on the outcomes of child-sex-doll use does not exist, it is difficult to imagine how research of this nature could ever be conducted in an ethical way.

Some advocates frame the dolls, modelled on the bodies of female children, as a sex toy like any other. In an online discussion about child sex dolls, Cantor tweeted, “I’m okay with latex sex toys and don’t care what they look like.” In 2017, responding to news of paedophiles facing jail time for the import of child sex dolls, Cantor wrote in a tweet, “Australia protecting society from crimes against latex. Thought-crimes against latex.”

US-based organisation Prostasia Foundation — which campaigns against laws criminalising child sex dolls it claims are “unconstitutional, misguided and immoral” — also treats childlike sex dolls as mere sex toys, framing their use as “the personal and private use of sex toys.” Distinctive from other sex toys, however, child sex dolls are designed to facilitate men’s embodied fantasy experience of raping a little girl.

Child-sex-doll advocates pitch childlike dolls and robots as a solution to child sexual abuse. David Levy said, “It would be preferable for paedophiles to use robots as their sexual outlets than human children.” These advocates view paedophilia as a sexual orientation that may be outside the control of the individual. “Child molestation is a horrible crime, but experiencing sexual attraction that one cannot help is ethically neutral,” tweeted Cantor. Moen and Sterri argue that if paedophiles have no control over their sexual preferences, using a child sex doll or robot might be “one of the best strategies open to them, given the unfortunate situation in which they find themselves.”

Academic supporters of child sex dolls even go as far as suggesting that failing to provide paedophiles with child sex dolls to simulate child abuse could be harmful. Behrendt writes:

If the end justifies the means … any kind of therapeutic option should be considered, analysed, scrutinised, weighed and even tried … can civil society still afford to take the risk of seeing other unfortunate victims, unwittingly hooked to the appalling web of sex offenders? Other souls traumatised for life? Other murdered children?

Likewise, Cantor asks, “If we surveyed victims of childhood sexual abuse, I wonder how many would say they WISHED their abusers had a sex doll who might have taken their place?”

Child-sex-doll advocates claim that childlike dolls will prevent the abuse of actual children. However, there is no assurance that paedophiles who have access to child dolls will use them instead of, and not in addition to, children. There is no evidence for the previously popular idea that men perpetrate sexual violence against women, children and other men due to uncontrollable sexual desire, or because they do not have a sufficient outlet for their urges. Likewise, there is no evidence that child sex dolls will lead to a reduction in the abuse of children.

There is no shortage of sexual outlets available to men outside of traditional intimate relationships. Men can pursue sexual encounters by means of dating or hook-up apps; they can access an endless supply of pornography, view webcam models or engage in cybersex. In many parts of the world there is a thriving legal sex industry where men can access a range of women for sex, and now there are sex-doll brothels. Nonetheless, having access to these outlets has not stopped men from raping. On the contrary, sexual violence remains prevalent across the world.

The argument that child sex dolls could function as a sexual outlet, preventing individuals who would otherwise rape children from doing so, also fails to consider the wider cultural context in which these products are manufactured — a system of institutionalised male dominance, routine sexual objectification of women and a culture that eroticises girls.

Cultural messaging increasingly presents girls as sexually available and appealing. The “Teen” porn genre consistently features on the online pornography aggregator Pornhub’s list of most popular search terms. “Barely Legal” pornography featuring teens with pigtails, flat chests and braces can be purchased in newsagents and petrol stations. G-strings, padded bras and bikini tops, and underwear with sexually suggestive slogans are marketed to pre-teen girls. Advertising material depicts girls in sexualised and adultified ways. Schoolgirls are fetishised, and sexy-schoolgirl costumes are sold in mainstream retailers. Instagram routinely hosts sexualised content of underage girls and comment responses from predatory men. Major bookstores and online marketplaces have been exposed selling erotic e-books that feature incest and child abuse. Adult retailers sell male masturbators designed to emulate the vaginas of teenage girls — such as the Teenage Dream or Lolita Vibrating Vagina — with promotional material emphasising youth and innocence.

Not all child sex offenders are paedophiles

Claims from child-sex-doll advocates that the dolls could prevent child sexual abuse — because paedophiles will use dolls instead of children — are speculative. In order to justify the development of child sex dolls and robots, supporters would have to establish that child sexual abuse is perpetrated by medically designated “paedophiles,” and that paedophiles will use dolls instead of children.

But it is not just paedophiles who perpetrate crimes of sexual violence against children. Not all child sex offenders are paedophiles, and not all paedophiles sexually offend against children. According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, while some perpetrators of child sexual abuse are attracted to children, they may also have a sexual interest in, or offend against, adults. Child sex offenders may also act out of opportunity rather than sexual attraction to children. Research by Richard Wortley and Stephen Smallbone finds that situational and environmental factors play an important role in sexual offences against children, and further research highlights the role of opportunity in child sexual abuse — including institutional and church settings, online child exploitation and child sex tourism.

If child sexual abuse is also perpetrated by individuals who are not primarily sexually attracted to children — men who do not have a pre-existing sexual preference for children — then claims that child sex dolls could protect children from abuse are questionable. How effective could child sex dolls for paedophilic use be in preventing child abuse if many offenders are not actually paedophiles?

Even if it could be determined that child sexual abuse was perpetrated solely by paedophiles with a sexual preference for children, in order to justify the manufacture of child sex dolls or robots it would have to be further established that providing them for paedophiles would prevent their offending against children. According to Marie-Helen Maras and Lauren Shapiro from City University of New York, therapeutic child sex dolls for paedophilic use are “nonsensical and irrational.” Childlike sex dolls normalise child abuse and domination rather than inhibiting it and go against cognitive-behavioural-therapy goals, which challenge undesirable thoughts and behaviour.

Child sex dolls as a public service?

Shin Takagi is the owner of Trottla, a Japanese child-sex-doll manufacturer that produces dolls resembling girls as young as five. He is also a paedophile. Takagi believes that his dolls provide a public service for men like him. He professes to be helping paedophiles enact their sexual fantasies in a legal and ethical way, declaring, “It’s not worth living if you have to live with repressed desire.”

Online photo galleries feature hundreds of images of Trottla dolls designed to look like prepubescent girls. Dolls are photographed with pigtails and soft toys and simultaneously portrayed as sexually inviting. Lifelike pre-teen dolls are presented as ready and available for sex, in varying states of undress. Some are posed naked aside from knee socks. Others are costumed for seduction, in sheer lingerie, or with fishnet stockings and whips. One photo gallery includes a series of images of naked dolls lying supine on beds, their lifeless eyes staring into the distance, with heart-shaped patterns of whipped cream and strawberries concealing their genitals.

Some images are suggestive of voyeurism, such as upskirt pictures. Photographs of dolls in the bath taken from a distance suggest that they are being watched without their knowledge. The most chilling images are those that appear to replicate obvious child-abuse scenarios. One photograph shows a petite doll who appears to be a girl of perhaps six or seven, lying face down on a bed, her underpants having been pulled down.

Takagi’s child sex dolls come with a range of facial expressions. Some dolls appear to be smiling, others appear to be crying or in pain. He explained, “One must make a variety of expressions to fulfil a variety of client needs.” Takagi reportedly receives thank-you letters from satisfied customers, including doctors, school teachers and celebrities, who say that having access to these dolls prevents them from preying on children.

Child sex dolls and links to child sexual abuse

While child-sex-doll supporters argue that the dolls will prevent sexual offences against children, the opposite is the more likely outcome. Child sex dolls harm children through legitimising and normalising their sexual use. Instead of satisfying users’ sexual appetites for children, they could encourage and even strengthen these urges. Child sex dolls could have a “reinforcing effect” on paedophilic ideation, claims Peter Fagan from John Hopkins School of Medicine, and the use of such dolls could cause paedophilic urges to be acted on with more urgency.

Legislators and law-enforcement agencies believe that there could be a link between child sex dolls and sexual offending against children. A relationship between viewing child-exploitation material and contact offending has been established. There may also be a link between child-sex-doll ownership and possession of child-abuse material. In 2018, a police raid in Melbourne saw child sex dolls seized alongside “horrific” child-exploitation material, including videos of children and babies being tortured. In the United Kingdom, twenty out of twenty-six recent child-sex-doll offenders were found in possession of child-abuse material. Also in the United Kingdom, a surge in seizures of child sex dolls led police to identify previously unknown suspected paedophiles, resulting in seven men being charged, and six more facing allegations linked to child-exploitation images. According to the Crown Prosecution Services, child-sex-doll cases can be an indication of other offending against children.

A report from the Australian Institute of Criminology released last year argued that child sex dolls present a risk of escalation in sexual offences against children. Authors Rick Brown and Jane Shelling claimed that child sex dolls could “promote a continuum of behaviour that results in contact offending, by bridging the gap between fantasy and reality.” Patterns of escalation have already been documented in consumers of child-exploitation material, and researchers believe that consumers of child-abuse material could progress to using child dolls.

On a child-exploitation spectrum from viewing child exploitation to contact offending, performing sex acts on a childlike doll may be understood as a natural progression from viewing child-abuse material, and a step closer to sexually abusing a child. As Open University lecturer Litska Strikwerda acknowledges, using a child sex robot could be a much closer experience to actually sexually abusing a child. Maras and Shapiro argue that recent UK arrests for importing child sex dolls indicate that offenders escalate from viewing child-exploitation material to engaging in physical acts with child sex dolls:

In these cases, child pornography did “whet the appetite of the perpetrators” as their “thoughts” (fantasies about sex acts with children) became “behaviours” (through buying and importing the child sex doll to perform sex acts with it).

Child sex dolls could increase the likelihood of child abuse by reducing any barriers to committing sexual offences against children. Users could be desensitised to the harms of child sexual abuse, as dolls give no emotional feedback. Child sex dolls could also be used by sex offenders in the act of sexually assaulting a child. Child sex offenders could use childlike dolls as a tool to groom children for sexual abuse, just as predators have used pornography to groom children. Brown and Shelling note that sex dolls have been used to groom children for sexual abuse, and child sex dolls could arguably be even more effective for grooming children than adult sex dolls.

Legitimising child-abuse practices is not the answer

The Australian Institute of Criminology report on child sex dolls concludes that there is no evidence that the dolls prevent child sexual abuse. It also finds that “interaction with child sex dolls could increase the likelihood of child sexual abuse by desensitising the doll user to the physical, emotional and psychological harm caused by child sexual abuse … normalising the behaviour in the mind of the abuser.”

I cannot help but conclude that the academic arguments in support of child sex dolls are baseless, unconvincing and are open to being hijacked by vested interests. They prioritise men’s sexual preferences over the rights of girls. Academic advocates fail to consider the gendered dynamics involved in the production of female-bodied child dolls for adult men’s sexual use, or to situate their development within a cultural context of gender inequality.

If child sex dolls function as advocates claim, they will maintain paedophiles’ sexual urges for children. Rather than encouraging restraint or investing energy into pursuing healthier relationships or sexual practices, child sex dolls enable the realistic fantasy experience of sexually abusing a child.

Child sex dolls and robots do not offer a solution to child sexual abuse. Rather, they detract from meaningful attempts to address an epidemic of child abuse and obscure the cultural drivers that contribute to it, such as male power and the sexualisation of girls. If ending child sexual exploitation is the objective, the answer will never be found in legitimising these practices.

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