Let’s talk about sex (dolls)

Sex is a controversial topic. At the moment it’s tied up with a range of political hot button issues. From the #MeToo movement, to female objectification, to the presence of open anti-contact paedophiles on social media platforms, nothing gets us going as much as a highly-charged conversation about sex.

Newer generation sex dolls are fully customizable, raising questions about the objectification of real women. (photo credit: Ry Crist/CNET — https://www.cnet.com/au/pictures/sex-robots-sexbots-abyss-creations-factory-realdoll-harmony/3/)

Recently, one topic that has gained increasing attention is that of the use of sex dolls (in this essay, the term “sex dolls” is used to encompass a range of objects, from inanimate latex dolls with limited function, through to newer and more interactive ‘sex robots’).

Furore over sex dolls is nothing new, but it has recently reached fever-pitch. The UK’s Channel 4 has recently released a documentary about sex doll users, including those who seek to engage with the interactive robots mentioned above — you can watch that using the link below.

Recent conversations, though, have turned to whether those who use sex dolls pose a risk to women and children. One issue with these conversations, though, is that they aren’t conversations at all. They tend to be ideologically driven rants, with dissenters being shouted done and haunted out of the conversation.

Just take a look at the thread(s) emerging from the tweet below, when I tried to have a constructive debate on Twitter (note — the more I try this approach, the less I think Twitter is a suitable platform for this).

For the remainder of this essay, my aim is to set out the arguments and evidence in relation to both sides of this debate.


The argument in favour of sex dolls

The argument in favour of sex doll use is quite simple — these dolls are essentially pieces of latex that provide a sexual outlet for those who, for either personal or legal reasons, are not able to act out their sexual fantasies and urges in the real world.

Let’s first look at the personal reasons.

Sex doll users often report feeling lonely. This is one of the themes that really comes through strongly in the Channel 4 documentary above, and also in online fora of sex doll users. For these men (as doll owners are overwhelmingly male), their dolls are more than just an outlet for sex. They offer companionship, friendship, and love (some owners even dislike the word ‘owner’, and prefer to be referred to as ‘doll lovers’).

Mental health problems — whether related to social anxiety, personal insecurity, or more serious issues around disordered personality — undoubtedly play a role in the development and maintenance of healthy (or ‘normal’) relationships with real women. Because of the fact that we all have sexual drives and instincts, men with issues such as these may look to dolls as a more active way (compared to standard pornography) to obtain sexual gratification and release.

Naturally, these personal reasons are more related to those men who own adult-looking sex dolls, rather than dolls that resemble children. The owners of child-like sex dolls may have additional reasons for their use that are related to the law.

Like sex dolls, paedophilia is a controversial topic in its own right. The conflation between paedophilia and the sexual abuse of children is commonplace within society (there is clearly a link, but these two terms are not synonyms), which leads to emotional reactions to the ‘paedophile’ label that are similar to those made about ‘sexual offenders’ more generally.

The potential use of child-like sex dolls for people with paedophilic sexual interests has been the topic of very emotional debate recently. The sexual abuse prevention charity StopSO were accused by some members of the British tabloid press of advocating for the use of such dolls as ‘prescriptions’ for paedophilia.

Quoted in the Daily Mail newspaper, StopSO’s chair, Juliet Grayson, said:

If someone comes forward and says, “I am attracted to young children, and I want help to ensure that I never act on that attraction, so that I never harm a child,” then maybe society should consider the use of dolls in a carefully regulated way. Perhaps a “prescription” for the use of a child sex doll could be given, alongside therapy, mentoring and supervision, could help the individual remain law abiding and fully accountable for their behaviour. This carefully regulated use of child sex dolls might be one way to keep children safe. It feels like dangerous territory, but is certainly worthy of consideration.

This is an interesting argument to make. A range of experts in the area of child sexual abuse have made the argument that the prevention of offending should be made a higher priority than the current approach of waiting for an offence to take place before doing anything about it.

This is the essence of the mantra that “prevention is better than cure”.

When evaluating this argument about the potentially protective role of child sex dolls, though, it is important to consider what the available data say about the role of sexually explicit material.

In a 2009 meta-analysis conducted by Christopher Ferguson and Richard Hartley, it was reported that the broad effects of pornography consumption on rates of sexual aggression were negative. In their conclusion, the authors stated that:

Victimization rates for rape in the United States demonstrate an inverse relationship between pornography consumption and rape rates. Data from other nations have suggested similar relationships. Although these data cannot be used to determine that pornography has a cathartic effect on rape behavior, combined with the weak evidence in support of negative causal hypotheses from the scientific literature, it is concluded that it is time to discard the hypothesis that pornography contributes to increased sexual assault behavior.

Expanding this conclusion to the topic of child sex dolls, there may be an argument to make that dolls could help some paedophiles to abstain from sexually abusing real children.

Of course, this is a rather abstract way of looking at the effects of sexually explicit materials and sexual offending. A team led by Milton Diamond examined the effects of pornography consumption on rates of sexual abuse, and found support for the cathartic effect hinted at by Ferguson and Hartley. Diamond’s team drew upon a period in Czech law whereby the ownership of pornography (including material involving children) was legal. They reported a significant reduction in rates of sexual abuse during this time, which echoed similar trends in Denmark and Japan in relation to the sexual abuse of children.

Diamond and his collaborators stopped short of suggesting that so-called pornographic material involving real children should be legalized. Instead, they argued that artificially-produced material might serve as a useful preventative substitute for some people with sexual interests in children who are actively trying to not offend against real children.

Child-like sex dolls clearly fulfill this brief of artificially-produced material, and therefore the suggestion that these dolls might be a suitable ‘prescription’ option for some paedophiles does appear to have some empirical backing.


The argument against sex dolls

Of course, there’s more than one side to the debate about the use of sex dolls as cathartic tools for preventing sexual violence. Those opposed to their use typically make one or more of the following arguments.

  1. Sex dolls objectify women
  2. Sex dolls normalize and act as a gateway to real-life sexual violence

The first point is arguably the most obvious argument to find support for. We know that the vast majority of sex doll users are male, and that the ‘sex’ of the dolls they buy are female. If these dolls are being used purely for sexual gratification, then this leads to the potential for the link between the concepts of ‘women’ and ‘made for me to have sex with’ to be maladaptively formed in the minds of sex doll users.

Of course, we need to consider the definition of ‘objectification’ when looking in-depth at this argument. Recent work published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science by Edward Orehek and Casey Weaverling, objectification is defined as a process by which people are used in a ‘means-goal’ way. That is, somebody is objectified if they are used by somebody else as a means to achieve a particular goal.

If we are to apply this definition to the sex doll debate, it leaves a number of conceptual gaps in the argument against sex dolls. For example, it might be that it is the customization of sex dolls (a growing trend made possible with advancements in emerging technologies) that is objectifying, given that this opens up the possibility for specific women to be depicted, than the mere reality of sex dolls in a general sense.

Female objectification has long been a social concern. The rise of custom sex dolls has increased this worry.

Even then, is the depicted woman being objectified within the context of Orehek and Weaverling’s definition? After all, it is a depiction of her that is being used as the means for the user’s goal of sexual gratification, rather than her herself. This is a philosophical question that those who object to the use of sex dolls have yet to grapple with.

One thing that we do know, though, is that seeing women as sex objects is a significant risk factor for sexual aggression. According to research conducted by Devon Polaschek and Theresa Gannon with convicted rapists, a ‘women as sex objects’ implicit theory was present in approximately 70% of offences. With this in mind, the experience of having inanimate female forms exclusively for sexual gratification could lead to increased risk of sexual aggression for some doll users, with this having links to the second objection — that sex doll use could act as a gateway to real sexual violence.

Again, the lack of data specifically in relation to sex doll use leads us to turn to closely allied research areas. Mark Griffiths, a distinguished professor of behavioural addictions, emphasises six characteristics that could indicate that somebody engaging in a particular behaviour is ‘addicted’: salience, mood modification, conflict, tolerance, relapse, and withdrawal.

Along with several colleagues, Griffiths has developed the Problematic Pornography Consumption Scale, in which these six characteristics are statistically represented. In this regard, it could be suggested that sex doll use has the potential to lead to increased tolerance, with an associated behavioural response to this being the seeking out of more extreme material. This might start out with more varied activities being engaged in with the doll itself, but if even this becomes less satisfying that could put real individuals at risk of sexual violence.


So where should we go from here?

In response to the idea of child-like sex dolls being used as tools for the prevention of sexual violence, the NSPCC’s Jon Brown said the following:

There is no evidence to support the idea that the use of so-called child sex dolls helps prevent potential abusers from committing contact offences against real children.

This is correct. At the moment, there is no evidence to suggest that using sex dolls (whether child-like, or in the form of an adult) has any cathartic effect in relation to sexual aggression. That said, quite how researchers would design such a study to establish that effect isn’t clear. For instance, it would be unethical to conduct a randomized controlled trial if this could have the effect of increasing the risk of women or children being sexually victimized.

Instead, we need to use established models of sexual violence to understand whether there are specific groups of people for whom sex dolls might be cathartic, and others for whom their use would be dangerous. This is an argument that has been made by others in the field of sexual offending, such as Michael Seto, who suggests:

For some paedophiles, access to artificial child pornography or to child sex dolls could be a safer outlet for their sexual urges, reducing the likelihood that they would seek out child pornography or sex with real children. For others, having these substitutes might only aggravate their sense of frustration.

Seto’s own motivation-facilitation model could help to distinguish between those two groups. The model looks something like this: those who are likely to commit a sexual offence can be said to have certain motivations for doing so, and facilitators for helping them to overcome barriers to enacting those motivations. An example of a motivation would be sexual interest (e.g., paedophilia), while motivations may include issues such as antisocial tendencies, or substance misuse problems.

It may be the case that those individuals who desire a sex doll could be assessed in relation to the presence of various ‘facilitators’ of sexual violence. For example, if they are found to have high levels of cognitive distortions about sex, relationships, women, or children, or if they are particularly antisocial, then they may not be a viable candidate for what might be termed ‘sex doll preventative therapy’. However, those who have lowers levels of such facilitators of abuse may more more appropriate for such an intervention — particularly if there is no other legal outlet for their sexual interests.

In short, there is no easy or definitive answer to whether the use of sex dolls is an indicator of potential risk for sexual violence perpetration. A substantial amount of research is still needed, but throwing the baby out with the bathwater and legislating before we have any data whatsoever is likely to be a negative move.


Dr. Craig Harper is a social psychologist from the UK. You can find more information about his work via Twitter, YouTube, and his website.