Three words (“child” + “sex” + “doll”) that should never appear together are suddenly—and disturbingly—making headlines around the world every week, as is the debate surrounding their implementation or banishment to either curb or reinforce pedophilia. The Stop Abuse Campaign has launched a new campaign designed to grab your attention. “Children play with dolls,” it reads. “Sex abusers should not.”
Most recently: A 33-year-old Essex man was found not guilty of importing a 3-foot-tall child sex doll in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, a case in Canada that began in 2013 with the intercepted “controlled delivery” of one such doll is still being prosecuted five years later. And in the United States, Rep. Dan Donovan (R-NY) just introduced legislation to ban the dolls, in a bill named Curbing Realistic Exploitative Electronic Pedophilic Robots, otherwise known as the CREEPER Act.
Unsurprisingly, heated controversy surrounds the subject, with some advocates suggesting child sex dolls could be used to deter the real-life fulfillment of pedophilic urges. Most notably, Juliet Grayson, chair of the Wales-based organization the Specialist Treatment Organization for the Prevention of Sexual Offending (StopSO), told The Independent that the prescription of child sex dolls might potentially curb assaults against human children.
However, in an email interview with The Daily Beast this week, Donovan shot down the notion that child sex dolls could be used to prevent abuse with a simple analogy.
“You don’t give an alcoholic a bottle of liquor to stop their addiction, so why would you provide a pedophile with a tool that would further normalize harmful actions?” Donovan asked. “Once a child sex abuser tires of practicing on a doll, it’s a small step to move on to an innocent child. This isn’t just speculation. Psychologists and researchers believe that these dolls reinforce, normalize, and encourage pedophilic behavior, potentially putting more children at risk to harm. It is absurd to argue that permitting sexual abuse against a realistic portrayal of a child somehow stops pedophiles from viewing real children as sexual outlets for their sick desires.”
With both the AI revolution and the cultural awakening that’s been coined the post-Weinstein effect, there is an intense focus right now on the best way to protect our most vulnerable populations against sexual abuse. Incidentally, conversations about pedophilia that once were shrouded in darkness are now being brought into the light. For example: Is it possible for pedophiles to get help before offending? How does grooming of children happen? What is the extent of child sexual abuse online? Should there be preemptive imprisonment for pedophiles at risk of molesting a child?
And now the latest debate: what to do about the forthcoming influx of child sex robots (and current reality of child sex dolls)? Writing convincingly of the need to clamp down on the “shadow trade” in child sex dolls and robots, professors Marie-Helen Maras and Lauren Shapiro present a meticulously researched argument for banning them in the December 2017 issue of the Journal of Internet Law.
- “Sex dolls and robots promote (the acceptance of) non-consensual sex and rape...”
- “Those who would argue against societal harm from the expression of aggression against life-like dolls and robots need only look at what happened in Austria at a technology expo where Samantha was exhibited. Despite being ‘molested’... when asked politely ‘How are you?’ Samantha responded, ‘Hi, I’m fine.’”
There can’t be a discussion of banning child sex dolls and robots without examining the landmark Supreme Court 2002 decision that struck down two key provisions of the 1996 Child Pornography Prevention Act as being too chilling on free speech: 1. porn that “appears to be... of a minor,” or 2. porn that “conveys the impression” that it is of a minor.
So could there be a danger of the same issue happening with the CREEPER Act?
“Let’s be clear, these dolls aren’t related to free speech,” Donovan responds to the question. “They are used to act out sick fantasies.”
In the United Kingdom, where a similar ban exists to the one being introduced by the CREEPER Act, authorities seized 128 child sex dolls last year, and 85 percent of the men who imported them were found to also be in possession of child pornography. Child sex dolls are already here, with child sex robots hitting the market soon—causing heated legal, ethical, and scientific debate around the world.
“I support the CREEPER Act and helped Congressman Donovan’s team draft it,” Noel Sharkey, co-director of the Foundation for Responsible Robotics, told The Daily Beast via email. “I believe that a ban on the general use of child-like sex robots is necessary because of the dangers that they may create. They could have a pernicious impact on society and potentially normalise sexual assault on minors. It would be relatively easy to make these as replicas of actual children from photographs. The way forward is to have international laws against them.”
Still, the topic inspires a merry-go-round of researcher versus researcher. On the one end of the spectrum, legal scholars Maras and Shapiro dismiss the possibility of potential therapeutic use of child sex dolls, writing, “Scientific evidence contradicts these claims as nonsensical and irrational.” On the other end, noted pedophilia researcher and Sexual Abuse Editor in Chief Michael Seto disagrees that such definitive evidence exists yet.
“I don’t understand why the authors can be so confident in their opinions given the lack of research on this topic,” Seto explained in an email to The Daily Beast. “I conduct research on pedophilia and sexual offending against children and I am not aware of any research on the impacts of access to child sex dolls or robots. The study that is cited in the article discusses factors that are important in the treatment of identified sex offenders to reduce offending. I know this research, and it does not address the impact of child sex dolls or robots, which are relatively new inventions.”
In a passionate piece for The Hill, Donovan made his case for the CREEPER Act, which has 18 congressional co-sponsors, explaining, “During my 20 years as a prosecutor, I put away animals who played out their disgusting fantasies on innocent children. What I saw and heard was enough to make anybody sick. Now, as a legislator in Congress, I’m introducing a bill to ban the newest outlet for pedophiles: child sex dolls. These lifelike, anatomically accurate recreations of young children include ‘accessories’ such as false eyelashes, wigs, warming devices, and cleaning tools.”
Donovan tells The Daily Beast his work as a prosecutor is linked closely to this current legislation: “Every case has stayed with me—there is no situation where a child was hurt or victimized that doesn’t leave your thoughts. As a former DA and current legislator, but more importantly as a father, I will do everything possible to stop crimes against children.”
After moving through the proper committees, Donovan says, “I hope to see [the CREEPER Act] considered quickly on the House floor. We must protect our nation’s children. I know the American public want this done—there is more than 160,000 signatures on a Change.org petition supporting my legislation.”
Maras and Shapiro assert in their recent editorial that the introduction of the CREEPER Act is a “step in the right direction,” but they also advocate for additional prohibitions which would “criminalize the manufacture and possession of both child sex dolls and child sex robots,” such as when criminals “find ways to evade criminal sanction by, for example, creating these child sex dolls and sex robots themselves (for example, using a 3D printer).”
Donovan responds, “Right now, the proliferation of these dolls is being pushed by manufacturers in international markets—not through 3D printers. We, of course, should be forward-looking to ensure that the law continues to keep up with technology—but my focus is stopping the ‘here and now.’ For example, ICE has already confiscated one of these dolls in the U.S. that was imported from abroad.”
So child sex dolls are already being imported into America?
“I have been in touch with ICE and know that a child sex doll was found during a bust,” explains Donovan. “While I can’t speak more on ongoing cases, I can say that this situation shows that these dolls are being shipped here now. The ability to obtain child sex dolls needs to be stopped immediately.”
But can the law even keep up with the technology?
“Writing legislation for technology we don’t yet know will exist in 10, 20-plus years time is a difficult task,” observes Emily C. Collins, a robotics researcher at the University of Liverpool and member of the Foundation for Responsible Robotics. “But it is not fruitless to attempt to do so… When a machine is built, the builders, in my opinion, should be asking, ‘How will this robot impact its users?’”
But how will child sex dolls and robots affect their users? Are pedophiles who have purchased the child sex dolls in fact “virtuous”?
Last year, 72-year-old David Turner, a church warden with local school oversight, was convicted of importing a child sex doll. In a landmark decision for this new form of sex crime against children, the judge ruled the importation of the item “obscene.” Authorities who later searched Turner’s home found two other child sex dolls and more than 34,000 child pornography images.
The pictures showed victims ages 3 to 16.