18 July 2017
Dr Bela Chatterjee writes about her current research on a developing legal issue.

Although the combination of sex and robotic technology is far from new, robots for the purposes of sexual encounters appear to be the next big thing for the adult entertainment industry. Sex dolls themselves, unroboticised, are not new, but combined with state-of-the-art fabrication techniques, AI and programming apps, such dolls may be transformed to reach new levels of sophistication and realism, and are already on the market in certain jurisdictions. There is certainly an interesting debate to be had in this respect. For example, we might ask whether using such objects for sex is ethically appropriate. What do such artefacts suggest about consent when a robot or doll is available 24/7 and never says no? Are adult sex robots and dolls promoting unrealistic and misogynistic attitudes? Could they bring valuable intimate companionship to otherwise isolated people?

Yet notwithstanding these questions, there are other significant things to consider. My current research focuses on a less-well developed debate, namely what happens when such robots are created and used by those who have a sexual interest in children. Consideration of such a market is only gradually getting airtime in the public domain, but the recent Chester Crown Court case in June in relation to a ‘childlike sex doll’ that attracted widespread media coverage suggests that that we need to give thought to this topic from a legal perspective. 

Whilst the June conviction clearly establishes that such dolls do come within the reach of the criminal law, precisely how and to what extent is unclear. The conviction was actually made for importation of a doll, (it is unclear from reports as to whether it was roboticised) which had been purchased overseas. Under the Customs Consolidation Act 1876 s42, there is a prohibition on the importation of:
‘Indecent or obscene prints, paintings, photographs, books, cards, lithographic or other engravings, or any other indecent or obscene articles.’

In stating that ‘It is disgusting that this type of item exists anywhere on the internet’, the sentencing Judge seemed clear that the item met the description of indecent or obscene, terms which are not defined under the Act and which are controversial in terms of their legal definition. However, what would happen if the object had crossed the border undetected?  How might we deal domestically with the advertisement of such an item for sale? The mere fact of possession may not easily be linked to a chain of evidence in relation to the now-established crime of importation, and it is arguably now feasible that, given the drop in cost of technology such as 3D printers and the availability of sex-robot programming apps, such items could be created domestically. The current legal framework revolves around the creation and possession of two-dimensional imagery, namely indecent photographs and non-photographic obscene images of children and there appears to be no offence of possession (and presumably of creation) for either a child-like sex doll or, by analogy, of a similar robot.

The Chester conviction supports the presumption that the object ought to be criminalised, yet there is arguably no consensus on whether child sex robots and dolls ought to be criminalised in the first place. It has been argued that they might have therapeutic use for sex offenders, as a sort of ‘safety valve’ to divert the potential offender from turning their attentions to an actual child. Other voices suggest that this is a minority view. In their recent (2017) report on Responsible Robotics, the Foundation for Responsible Robotics explored this suggestion. They noted that a Japanese company had already been selling child sex robots for over a decade, but that there were serious questions over the ethicality of ‘treating’ sex offenders with such robots, in that it was incredibly difficult to test how such interventions might work, and such robots could have the opposite effect of reinforcing rather than suppressing problematic desires. As Ost’s work on non-photographic pornographic images (including imaginary images) of children (‘NPPIC’ for short) suggests, the evidence of a causal link between offending behaviour and possession of such material is not clearly established by hard evidence.

The current trajectory of the law would appear to suggest that despite the absence of proof of this link, criminalisation is likely. Accordingly, we need to consider whereabouts offences of advertising, dissemination, possession and creation of child sex dolls and robots would fit in the child protection framework. The existing NPPIC offence created by the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 would appear to provide the nearest model, and this could be extended to include three dimensional artefacts. However, we might pause to consider whether the new offence would be entirely commensurate. Would the fact that two dimensions had now moved to three render the offence more serious, in that such items could exacerbate the possibility of incitement to harm with their added realism? Would a doll be considered equivalent to a robot? Likewise, if the doll or robot was found to be somehow linked to a real, identifiable child, would its three-dimensionality likewise be seen to exacerbate the impact on the victim? It is these, and related questions, that my current research aims to explore.