Debunking the myth that child sex abuse dolls could prevent the sexual abuse of children activist Caitlin Roper argues that the products facilitate a new form of technologically-mediated abuse of children. This piece gives readers some background on child sex abuse dolls and a greater understanding of the current debates around this issue from a radical feminist perspective and exposes how child sex abuse doll/robot technology can be utilised to abuse living children.
An American mother has shared her distress upon discovering a child sex abuse doll modelled on her eight-year-old daughter.
Last month, Terri received a Facebook message from a friend alerting her to images of a child sex abuse doll being sold on Amazon. When she opened the images, she realised the doll bore a striking resemblance to her daughter Kat. One picture appeared to recreate a photo of her daughter she had previously shared to Facebook.
“I read the message from my friend and saw the image, and I instantly started to cry uncontrollably. I was completely overwhelmed with a mix of emotions that I’ve never felt before,” Terri told Child Rescue Coalition.
“The image of the doll looked very similar to a photo I’ve taken of my daughter. This image had the same socks as my daughter and the same pose as my daughter on our sofa at home. She had that same sweatshirt and facial features as that image, even the same stuffed animal!”
While Amazon removed the doll several days after Terri contacted them, she then learned the doll was listed elsewhere. Terri is now working with Child Rescue Coalition to make child sex abuse dolls illegal in the US.
Terri’s ordeal has highlighted both the growing popularity of child sex abuse dolls and how easily they can be custom-designed to appear like a specific child.
LIFE-LIKE, ANATOMICALLY CORRECT, REPLICA CHILDREN FOR MEN’S SEXUAL USE
Child sex abuse dolls are lifelike, anatomically correct silicone sex dolls modelled on the bodies of children – typically girls – marketed for men’s sexual use. Their bodies, facial features and weight are similar to a living child, but they are also designed to accommodate an adult male’s penis.
Dolls like these have been sold through mainstream online retailers like Amazon, eBay, Wish and Alibaba. In China, child sex abuse dolls can be rented by the hour from sex shops and come with disposable private parts. In July, Australian grassroots campaigning movement Collective Shout exposed major Chinese e-commerce platform Alibaba selling child sex abuse dolls modelled on the bodies of pre-pubescent girls, toddlers and even infants, resulting in the products being removed from sale.
Academics and advocates for child sex abuse dolls claim their manufacture and use is a ‘victimless’ crime. Some have proposed they could be made available to paedophiles for therapeutic purposes, and pitch the dolls as a possible solution to child sexual abuse, speculating that if paedophiles can simulate child sexual abuse on childlike dolls it could prevent their abuse of living children.
“IT’S JUST A SEX TOY LIKE ANY OTHER”
An argument in support of child sex abuse dolls is that they are sex toys like any other. US-based organisation Prostasia Foundation describes the use of child sex abuse dolls as “the personal and private use of sex toys” and claims that laws against them are therefore “unconstitutional, misguided and immoral”. Canadian psychologist and neuroscientist James Cantor tweeted, “I’m okay with latex sex dolls and I don’t care what they look like”, and “Australia protecting society from crimes against latex. Thought crimes against latex.”
I’m okay with latex sex toys and don’t care what they look like.— Dr. James Cantor (@JamesCantorPhD) October 12, 2018
Australia protecting society from crimes against latex. Thought-crimes against latex. https://t.co/b6EQCCYNld— Dr. James Cantor (@JamesCantorPhD) February 4, 2017
If child sex abuse dolls are merely sex toys like any other, it could theoretically be argued they do not raise any unique ethical issues. But child sex abuse dolls, and sex dolls and robots more generally, are distinct from traditional sex toys on the basis of their embodiment in human form, specifically the female form. They are not merely latex sex toys. Their childlike appearance is not incidental, it’s the very point.
Child sex abuse dolls are intentionally designed to look and feel like a real child, to facilitate men’s embodied fantasy experience of raping a little girl. If they were nothing more than a latex sex toy, why should they be shaped like children? Why are some of these dolls marketed in a way that eroticises child abuse, with some appearing to be crying or in pain? The ability to simulate child sexual abuse is precisely the drawcard for users. Indeed, this is why some academics pitch child sex abuse dolls as an alternative to sexually abusing a child, because they believe the dolls could function as stand-ins for living children.
“YOU CAN’T RAPE A ROBOT”
Defenders of men’s access to female-bodied sex dolls and robots argue that they are objects, not moral agents, that they cannot be victims of rape or child sexual abuse and conclude there is no harm - as they say, “you can’t rape a robot.” But feminist objections to female-bodied sex dolls and robots have never focussed on harm to dolls and robots, or to inanimate objects, they are concerned with harm to women and children.
Sex dolls and robots function as a stand-in for a woman or child, and simulating rape or child sexual abuse on a doll or robot is a symbolic representation of the rape of a real woman or child. In his paper ‘Robots, Rape and Representation’ philosopher and Professor Robert Sparrow argues robots designed to facilitate rape fantasies are unethical, as a representation of the rape of a real woman, and an endorsement and encouragement of rape that may increase the rate of rape and that expresses disrespect of women.
“BETTER A ROBOT THAN A REAL CHILD”
Some academics and advocates for child sex abuse dolls claim paedophiles could use childlike dolls instead of children, and this would be a preferable outcome. Many of these advocates for child sex abuse dolls regard paedophilia as a legitimate sexual orientation, one that is unchangeable and outside the control of the individual, and are sympathetic to paedophiles with the view that sexual outlets should be made available to them.
University of Oslo researchers Ole Martin Moen and Aksel Braanen Sterri argue that if paedophiles have no control over their sexual preferences, using a child sex abuse doll or robot might be “one of the best strategies open to them, given the unfortunate situation in which they find themselves.” Likewise, author of Love and Sex with Robots, David Levy, told The Guardian, “It would be preferable for paedophiles to use robots as their sexual outlets than human children.”
But why is it positioned as either/or, as though the options are to make child sex abuse dolls or robots available to men, or for men to continue sexually abusing children? It is a flawed premise. There is no evidence that paedophiles will use child sex abuse dolls instead of and not in addition to children. And there’s a serious risk that child sex abuse dolls will strengthen and encourage users’ sexual desires for children.
The fact that the issue is framed as a choice between child sex abuse dolls or living children, as though those are the only options – that men be granted access to child sex abuse dolls or offend against actual children – is evidence of how men’s sexual desires go unchallenged. Men’s sexual preferences, even their desires to rape children, are elevated to the status of ‘needs’ that must be accommodated. Why are men’s sexual desires above scrutiny? Why can’t they be challenged? Men’s complete sexual freedom should not be prioritised over the rights of women and girls.
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 sufficient outlet for their ‘urges’. There is also no evidence that child sex abuse dolls will lead to a reduction in the abuse of children.
There is no shortage of sexual outlets available to men outside of intimate relationships. They can pursue casual sexual encounters through dating or hook-up apps, they can access an endless supply of pornography, webcam models, OnlyFans, or engage in cybersex. There are thriving legalised and decriminalised sex industries where men have their pick of prostituted women for sex on demand, and now, sex doll brothels.
Despite having access to all these sexual outlets, men have not stopped raping. On the contrary, men’s sexual violence remains prevalent throughout the world.
The argument then that child sex abuse dolls could prevent 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, the routine sexual objectification of women and a culture that eroticises girls.
Girls are routinely presented as sexually available and appealing. Many women report first experiencing sexual attention from adult men as children. “Teen porn” is consistently one of Pornhub’s most popular search terms. “Barely Legal” pornography depicting teens with pigtails, flat chests and braces is widely available. School girls are fetishised, and sexy school girl costumes are sold in mainstream retailers. Collective Shout has exposed major bookstores and online marketplaces selling erotic e-books that feature incest and child abuse, and Instagram’s hosting sexualised images of underage and even pre-pubescent girls.
Can we really separate men’s demand for child sex abuse dolls modelled on the bodies of pre-pubescent girls from a wider culture in which girls are sexualised and treated as appropriate objects of men’s sexual entertainment? The answer isn’t in finding new ways to cater to men’s sexual desires, but to go to the source, and address the cultural factors at play that encourage and legitimise predatory attitudes towards girls.
“CHILD SEX ABUSE DOLLS COULD PREVENT CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE”
Supporters of child sex abuse dolls claim they could prevent the sexual abuse of living children. But there is no evidence for this, and it’s difficult to imagine how research of this nature could be carried out in an ethical way. A 2019 report from the Australian Institute of Criminology suggests the opposite is true. The authors reviewed the research on sex dolls, child sexual exploitation material and sexual offending against children and concluded there was no evidence that child sex abuse dolls will prevent child sexual abuse, and that they could increase the risk of child abuse. From the report:
“[It is] reasonable to assume that interaction with child sex dolls could increase the likelihood of child sexual abuse by desensitising the user to the physical, emotional and psychological harm caused by child sexual abuse and normalising the behaviour in the mind of the abuser.”
The report also suggests child sex offenders could use the childlike dolls as a tool to groom children for sexual abuse, just as predators have used pornography to groom children.
“IT’S A VICTIMLESS CRIME”
Some advocates characterise the use of child sex abuse dolls as a ‘victimless’ crime, putting childlike dolls in the same category as sexualised depictions of children in drawings or cartoons, or artificial or computer-generated child abuse material, because no child is being abused in their production. Under Australian law, this content constitutes illegal child sexual exploitation material, as depictions of child sexual abuse (including virtual child sexual abuse) are thought to normalise the sexual use and abuse of children and encourage offenders.
The United Nations has taken the same approach to virtual child abuse material. From the 2020 United Nations Report from the Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children:
“The increased accessibility and availability of child sexual abuse material online appears to normalise this crime and may encourage potential offenders and increase the severity of abuse. This includes new phenomena, such as drawings and virtual representations of non-existing children in a sexualised manner, widely available on the Internet.
“The increasing social acceptance of early sexualisation is exacerbated by the widespread dissemination of child sexual abuse material on the Internet and the production of highly realistic representations of non-existing children. This objectification of children comforts offenders in their actions.”
THE HARM TO LIVING CHILDREN
Contrary to claims from defenders of child sex abuse dolls, the reality isn’t as simple as a doll or a child. Child sex abuse dolls don’t just aid in the fantasy of abusing a generic, hypothetical child. Buyers can commission a custom-made doll in the likeness of a known child.
Australian Member of Parliament Connie Bonaros, who introduced laws to criminalise child sex abuse dolls in South Australia, warned that images of children taken in public or sourced from social media could be used to create child sex abuse dolls.
"You can send a photo of a child to one of the manufacturers of these dolls and ask for that doll to look like that child," she said.
There is already evidence users of child sex abuse dolls are incorporating specific human children in their abuse fantasies. Last month, an Australian man was charged after police caught him with hundreds of images of child sexual exploitation material and five homemade child sex abuse dolls. The dolls, dressed in girls’ clothing, were reportedly made from stuffing and pantyhose with sex toys built into them. One had a laminated photo of a real child’s face attached to its head.
A Collective Shout investigation on the sexual exploitation of girls online uncovered a paedophile forum where men shared sexualised images of pre-teen girls originally posted on Instagram and shared their fantasies for raping them. One topic of conversation among these men was their desire for child sex abuse robots in the form of a particular nine-year-old child.
I came across this last year in an online forum.— LSKennedy (@LSKennedy5) September 4, 2020
He was referring to a 9 year old @Instagram model.
They’re waiting for these girls to be replicated as child sex abuse dolls and robots. pic.twitter.com/3A5er5GKHP
Far from being a ‘victimless’ crime, the development of child sex abuse dolls facilitates a new form of technologically-mediated child sexual abuse, one where men can simulate rape, abuse and torture of specific children using customised dolls. Child sex abuse dolls allow men to enact the abuse of children despite physical distance - the sexual abuse and violation of children without predators ever having access to them, without even knowing them or having ever come into contact with them.
In her autobiography Trigger Warning: My Lesbian Feminist Life, Sheila Jeffreys writes,
"It is clear that men will make use of whatever technology is available to engage in forms of terrorism against women and they tend to keep up with the changes efficiently." It is clear also that men’s sexual terrorism extends not just to women, but increasingly to girls too.
There is nothing ‘victimless’ about child sex abuse dolls. They normalise and legitimise children as sexual objects, and ultimately normalise the sexual use and abuse of children. Even though the products are still in their infancy, living children have already been harmed through their manufacture and use. It will get worse.
Those of us with an investment in the rights of women and children must fight this form of sexual terrorism. Men’s sexual desires must not come at the expense of the rights of women and girls.
Watch Caitlin's video presentation "Better a robot than a real child": Responding to arguments in support of child 'sex' dolls: