Sex robots are nothing if not controversial. Some say they perpetuate pornographic representations of women and fuel misogyny by suggesting that consent isn't required for sexual activity. Others call them a boon for people who have trouble with conventional sexual relationships — and couples with mismatched sex drives.
Now some experts are further stoking the sexbot debate by arguing that the devices could become a deterrent to child molestation. They envision a future in which pedophiles are prescribed childlike sexbots (CSBs) so they can act out their urges without victimizing anyone.
There's wide agreement among experts that neither child sex dolls nor CSBs should be freely available for purchase. But some experts say the time has come to conduct scientific research to gauge their possible use as a deterrent for pedophilia, a psychiatric disorder that causes sexual attraction to prepubescent children and that is now treated with psychotherapy or, in some cases, libido-curbing drugs.
The aim would be to examine whether, when used under clinical supervision, the devices could provide a safe outlet for individuals who are sexually attracted to children.
"We don't know the answers yet," says Dr. Ron Arkin, a professor of robotics at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and an expert on human-robot interactions. "But recidivism in child sex offenders is a major problem in society that needs to be addressed, and there's a possibility that technology may be able to help with that."
Safer outlet — or fueling the fire?
"Child sex dolls are already a reality, and in the near future childlike sexbots will exist, so we have to decide what to do about this issue," says Marc Behrendt, a philosopher at ULB University in Belgium. "Do we ban them completely, or do we investigate on a small scale whether this technology could be helpful in preventing attacks?"
With child-sized silicone sex dolls already being made and shipped globally by firms in China and Japan, Behrendt thinks it's just a matter of time before child sex dolls are given artificial intelligence and the ability to talk and move.
Laws may be one barrier to the use of CSBs as deterrents, though. In several countries, child-sized sex dolls are outlawed as child pornography. Similar laws have yet to be enacted in the U.S., but last month, U.S. Representative Dan Donovan (R-NY) introduced legislation that would ban the importation and distribution of child sex dolls and child sexbots.
"During my 20 years as a prosecutor, I put away animals who played out their disgusting fantasies on innocent children," Donovan said in a written statement. "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. They don't belong in our communities."
Donovan, of course, is hardly alone in his abhorrence of pedophilia and his concern about child sex dolls and sexbots.
"I've spoken to adults who were abused as children, and they don't support the use of CSBs," says Dr. Kathleen Richardson, a professor of ethics and culture of robots at De Montfort University in Leicester, England and director of the U.K.-based nonprofit Campaign Against Sex Robots. "They say that pedophiles who offend are so cut off from their own humanity that giving them a machine wouldn't address the underlying problem."
According to Richardson, there's no evidence that adult sex dolls or sexbots have curbed demand for prostitutes. And 85 percent of the men arrested for possession of child sex dolls in the U.K. in recent years were found to possess more familiar examples of child pornography.
Making simulations more realistic
At the University of Montreal, researchers led by psychologist Dr. Patrice Renaud are exploring the behavior of men with pedophilia by watching them navigate a virtual park filled with computer-simulated pre-adolescents.
Renaud and his subjects don virtual reality goggles and walk through the realistic-looking park and discuss the scenario — as a way to help the men learn coping mechanisms that curb their desires.
But realistic as the park is, Renaud says encounters with childlike robots in an actual room would be more effective as a tool for helping the men learn to control their urges in the face of temptation.
He says the bots could be programmed to display realistic fear to amplify the realism, adding that combining the encounters with cognitive behavioral therapy and electrical stimulation of the men's brains could help them develop the empathy they need to avoid perpetrating sexual assaults on children.
"Pedophilia is difficult to treat as you can't change this sexual preference," Renaud says, "but you can try to help these people understand how to deal with it."
For all his enthusiasm for employing CSBs in his research, however, Renaud is among those who are skeptical about the broader use of child sexbots. "I'm not sure we should take chances with that," he says. "Maybe some individuals would have the self-control to stick to robots, but for others the experience may push them further to seek out real children."
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