July 1, 2022

How is the law going to deal with child sex robots?

A tricky question for libertarians

The sex technology industry was estimated to be worth US$30 billion in 2018.  Sex robots, human-looking devices created for sexual gratification, are being sold by at least four companies for prices ranging between US$5,000 and US$15,000. One company apparently specialises in child sex robots.

John Danaher, a law lecturer at the National University of Ireland, Galway, asks in the BMJ Sexual and Reproductive Health blog whether this industry should be regulated.

In the UK, it already is. In 2017, the Crown Prosecution Services (CPS), alarmed by imports of these items, used a 1876 law – the Customs Consolidation Act – which banned the importation of “obscene” items into the UK.

Arguing that child sex dolls were obscene items, the CPS successfully prosecuted several individuals for purchasing them online and having them shipped to the UK.

As Danaher points out, this raises thorny ethical and legal questions. There is no doubt that the child sex robots are morally repugnant, but using them hurts no one. On what basis can they reasonably be banned? Broadly speaking there are two schools of thought, Danaher observes. Libertarians would conquer personal revulsion and argue that the state should not become involved.  Legal paternalists might say that permitting such devices would eventually lead to harm to others.

Somewhat reluctantly, Danaher takes the moralistic side. “It seems that there is something symbolically harmful about the act that warrants legal restriction. The category of deeply offensive symbolic harms is difficult to define. This is a problem because we wouldn’t (or, at least, I wouldn’t) want to encourage excessive state scrutiny of that category. But although the category may be difficult to define, child sex robots would seem to be the paradigmatic example of something that fits within it.”

This is bound to upset some people. US robotics expert Ronald Arkin has argued that robots could be used for research. “Child-like robots could be used for pedophiles the way methadone is used to treat drug addicts,” said Arkin a couple of years ago. He said research should be done to test the effectiveness of such a treatment.

Danaher disagrees. It would simply be too dangerous to test Arkin’s hypothesis. “Therapeutic interventions for child sex offending are already exceptionally difficult to adequately test. There is no reason to think it will be any easier if the therapeutic intervention involves child sex robots.”

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge 

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