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Should We Criminalize Robotic Rape and Child Sex Robots?

Debating the sticky topic of sex abuse against robots.

Should we criminalize robotic rape?

To John Danaher’s social circle, his legal fascination with sex robots is bizarre and otherworldly. Not everyone sees the point in discussing regulation when the technology doesn’t exist.

Yet advances in remote sex, artificial intelligence, and synthetics foreshadow a future complete with sexbots. Breakthroughs in each realm may merge to create truly humanoid beings.

Danaher, a legal philosopher from the National University of Ireland, Galway, is convinced humans will one day make them and use them to live out fantasies of rape and child sexual abuse.

“I think it’s undeniably the case that these robots will eventually be created,” he told Future of Sex. “People have always used technology for sexual expression or sexual satisfaction.”

In anticipation, Danaher has explored arguments for their criminalization in a paper published last December in the journal of Criminal Law and Philosophy. While not applicable today, his aim is to set up a platform for future debate.

The Case for Criminalization

“I’m not saying we should criminalize these acts tomorrow. I’m saying that we should think seriously about what we want to do with these kinds of acts and these kind of future technologies,” Danaher said on a Skype call.

To avoid a straightforward case, he excludes robots that meet the criteria for personhood. If it’s wrong to rape a person, then logically it’s also wrong to rape or abuse such a robot.

Instead, Danaher first focuses on a moralistic premise; how the acts could be prohibited on the belief that they harm the perpetrator’s moral character or is offensive to others. This may be similar to how classic vice laws have banned prostitution or recreational drug use.

“People might resist that conclusion because it seems so deeply invasive of an individual’s privacy or right to self-expression,” he said. “And it doesn’t harm other people.”

The second premise he puts forward is of wrongfulness—the idea that there is some kind of public wrong inherent to the acts, regardless of any potential harm to others.

To support this position, Danaher examined debates about ethics in virtual worlds and rape in video games. In particular, he looked at the work of American philosopher Stephanie Patridge.

Why Protect Robots?

According to Danaher, Patridge has argued that virtual rape is intrinsically wrong, even if no one is harmed. This is because the person performing the act shows a disturbing lack of sensitivity to its social meaning.

A counter to this claim is that because the person knows what’s happening isn’t real, he or she had no intent to commit an unjust act.

“There was some separation between their true intention and their action,” Danaher said.

But this may be less true in the case of robots.

Research shows people have a harder time performing violent acts in the real world than in virtual ones. These violent real-life acts include hitting someone’s leg with a sponge hammer or smashing a fake baby’s head on a table.

“One of the claims is that you have to overcome a lot more innate moral reluctance to engage in those acts,” Danaher said.

“You could argue performing acts with a robot, a physical robot, is much more indicative of a dubious moral character than a performance of an act in a virtual world.”

Weighing the Harms

On the flip side, Danaher said arguments for criminalization could be trumped. Studies could show the harms prevented by allowing robotic abuse could be greater than the harms inherent to the act.

“There are various robotics and law conferences over the past few years that have debated that issue, about whether these robots could be used essentially as a type of treatment for people with pedophilic tendencies,” he said.

For example, a panel on robot ethics held at the University of California, Berkeley, last year discussed whether the technology would feed or stifle predators.

It’s a messy debate, according to Danaher, especially if it’s compared to similar ones on violence and abuse depicted in X-rated videos. It’s still not clear whether people who consume these materials later carry out these acts in the real world.

Information on fantasies of rape and child sexual abuse is also lacking, he added. Most focus on why heterosexual women fantasize about being raped, and not on why someone would think about doing it.

While some papers suggest 40% of men imagine committing sexual violence, samples sizes are small and limited to college-aged men, Danaher said. How widespread these desires are in the broader community or over a lifetime is not clear.

“Who knows what the future holds in relation to this area,” Danaher said.

“That’s one area, one topic that I think deserves more research and consideration in the future… whether robots could be used as a kind of treatment or preventative for real rape of humans and abuse of children.”

Do you think rape and abuse of robots should be illegal?

Featured image source: Martin Bilski

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  • OkinKun

    No. Simply no. Unless you believe in banning sex toys.. And if you’re one of those people, F-off.. Mind your own business what people do with themselves. No one should have that level of moral authority over others.

    The ONLY way you might be able to justify criminalizing such a thing, is IF the robot’s AI has true consciousness, and is not a willing participant. Which gets into some confusing, hard to prove territory..

    And at this point, we have no idea what is possible in that regard, and we are no where near that stage in technology, decades out if not longer. So it is FAR too soon to be considering such a thing, as serious policy. We don’t have a right to deal with issues that far off into the future, it’s unfair to people in the future, who will understand the issue better. All this would do is create unjust laws, and more harm than good.

    Also, there is no such thing as a “child robot”.. A robot doesn’t “grow up” from an innocent immature mind, into an adult mind capable of consenting. A robot can always consent, because we programed it to. Even if the robot has consciousness, at that point we would have so much control over the inner-workings of their mind, that you cannot equate it to a human or a child. The only exception might be if someone created an intelligent machine, designed after the brain of a human baby, with capability of learning/growing/maturing. In that case it truly might be comparable to a human child, as it would be made to be raised like one. At that point we might agree that it would be wrong to rape, or otherwise traumatize such a life-form. However, I doubt such a thing would/could happen, or would ever reach the hands of the public.

    I’m FINE with perverts using whatever sex toy they want, if it keeps them from abusing real people. If a pedophile has a “child doll” secretly at home, I could care less, as long as they never act on a real child. I’ll never be in favor of arresting people for their inner thoughts, or what they do with themselves in private. If/When these sorta robots do start showing up, they’ll be nothing more than dolls with some programing..

    • Jenna Owsianik

      Thanks for the comment. Most people seem to be unwilling to criminalize based on the moralistic premise, that it offends the community. Though Danaher’s other argument about how such acts show a lack of sensitivity to the social meaning of rape and child sexual abuse is intriguing. True, if using these robots makes someone less likely to hurt a real person, that’s fantastic. On the other hand, Danaher does explore how robotic rape may make someone more inclined to hurt real people, so I’m not so quick to disregard that perspective.

      • SalaciousPrurience

        To play devil’s advocate, these assertions by Danaher are based on assumptions of social and moral standards which are not held to be universally true. While I am personally a staunch supporter of consent-first sexuality, I have taken note that there is a trend for social groups to assume the worst about a given scenario if it appears to emulate something they see as abhorrent.
        To draw an example; play-rape in a kinky, but safe-sane-consensual partnership. Rationally, if both parties are consenting, aware of the risks (both physical and emotional), and are still mutually interested in pursuing the fantasy rape scenario while engaging in risk-reducing methods, does it not rationally stand to reason that these consenting individuals are morally correct in their decisions? Yet, still, society as a larger whole seems to consider these scenarios completely unacceptable for the perception that it is somehow “too close to the real thing.” That is not the fault of the consenting individuals engaged in their mutually-pleasurable activities, but instead in society for not being perceptive enough to see the difference. I do not believe we should be bowing to this prudish hivemind mentality, but instead seeking to engage and educate others so that they may understand the logical decision-making which lead the individuals to make their choices to explore such fantasies.
        Extending this argument in to the realm of artificial rape simulation: If it is the user and manufacturer’s consenting agreement that the function of the product is to emulate such sexual fantasies, then what right does society have to dictate otherwise? If the product meets the regulated standards for safety, and the user does not risk any non-informed and non-consenting individual or group with the use of the device, what ground does morality have to stand on against the intended use of the rape simulator?
        The argument is made that fantasizing about or emulating rape or abuse in a controlled environment somehow displays a lack of sensitivity to their meanings. However, I have not seen any attempts at detailed and precise explanations of the conditions of that argument. In fact, it has been my personal experience that the opposite holds most true. It is often individuals who have a deep and personal understanding of actual rape experiences or the motivators behind their occurance which seek out healthy and controlled simulations of the behaviour. The people who actively and actually engage in REAL rape are the ones who demonstrate lacks of sensitivity. By the very nature of attempting to engage in a simulation of activity, the participants demonstrate that they ARE actively attempting to be sensitive and conscientious of the meaning behind their actions.

        And then there’s the other argument about what constitutes a “child,” as that too is different in various cultures and societies, and leads to the questions of “what constitutes a robot or simulation of a child?” While legally speaking, there is generally a clear-cut answer in many countries around the world, it is a murkier subject when you approach it from a logical standpoint of human behavioural science and biology.
        Food for thought.

        • Jenna Owsianik

          You raise great points. In the comments section here, I’m not personally putting forth an argument that child sex robots or robots designed to fulfill rape fantasies should be illegal or legal. The whole discussion is fascinating, however, and there are so many angles to explore, especially since there is so much data we don’t have and because such robots do not yet exist.

          I’m not convinced that because a user and manufacturer of such a robot might both agree that it’s designed to emulate rape fantasies that that has anything to do with sexual consent. The robot cannot consent, and it’s just being treated like property. If a man was to tell another man it would be OK if the other man acted out his rape fantasies on his wife, and the second man agreed, that has nothing to do with the woman. That doesn’t bring out true sexual consent. However, as Danaher’s arguments rule out personhood of the robot, to me consent of the robot is besides the point because it’s not considered conscious.

          What you say about consent in BDSM communities makes sense. In such spaces, the people involved are actively seeking consent and talking about it, if it’s healthy BDSM. I’ve heard people say such sexual experiences can often be more consensual because people actually ask first if certain actions are OK. On the other hand, a lot of people outside the BDSM community don’t have such discussions but rely on social cues that can of course be misread. But I’ve also heard about abuse in BDSM communities that was NOT consensual.

  • Why the focus on child and rape sex phantasy. I sounds like a strawman to me. Because i would say say that most men and women will buy a sex bot for bog standard vanilla sex.

    Same as most porn show bog standard vanilla sex.

    • Jenna Owsianik

      Although I don’t know if most people would buy a sexbot for “vanilla sex,” doesn’t it reason to say that many people would be interested in getting sexbots for types of sex they can’t get humans to have with them? At least not easily?

      • But that could well be vanilla sex. Lets be honest here: A lot of people don’t have sex with another human at all. Despite the over-sexualisation in our society less people have sex.

        Marriage rates are on a decline. Birth rates are on the decline. More people then ever live on there own. And the only sexual partner they have is a porn actor or actress.

        And this is why some people argue against sex bots. Not to protect robots or children. Especially not robots. Because for the foreseeable future they will just be oversized Fleshlights or Didos. And why would anybody want to protect the rights of a Fleshlight or Dido?

        There is no rational reason here. However, there is a hidden agenda. Same as banning prostitution and recent moves to ban porn:

        They want men and women to marry again.

        But those who shout for bans get cause and effect wrong. The true reason for the decline of the marriage rate is the change in divorce law in 1970th.

        It took over a generation for the effect to fully mature. But google #MGTOW and see what the no fault divorce did to society.