AN ANALYSIS BOTH COMICAL AND SERIOUS OF THE CHILD SEX DOLL DEBATE

It had to happen. It was just a matter of time. In fact it’s been happening incrementally, probably since before we came down from the trees. When there was nothing around we just shut our eyes and masturbated to what we imagined. For some it was adults, for others children, and for still others sometimes adults and sometimes children. In what proportions we don’t know because there was no Kinsey Report back then, no Masters and Johnson with clipboards at the mouth of our caves. And we still don’t know, because lusting after children has become something of a thought-crime of late, if not legally then certainly socially.

When there was something around – something we might associate with a token of the type for whom we lusted – we used it as a masturbatory aid. The smell of a piece of clothing, a lock of hair, a shoe, a handbag … Association has no limits.

Fast forward to modern times. You can’t tell me no man ever masturbated gazing into the sultry eyes of his daughter’s Barbie doll, or that no one ever bought a bigger baby doll rather than a smaller one so he could improvise a hole between its legs and line it with something soft and warm. So let’s not get too excited. Child sex dolls, commercially produced, distributed and consumed, have been with us for centuries.

Zealous defenders of the common good have burned books ever since there have been books to burn. But people tell each other stories, those stories are written in our minds, and as soon as the Torquemadas aren’t looking, they’re committed once again to paper. Zealous crusaders for the penitent silence God demands of us have smashed cd’s ever since there’s been cd’s to smash. But people hum and tap their fingers anyhow. And soon enough they find other media by which to invite others with them into perdition. So I’m not terribly concerned that people who want these dolls may have to improvise a little, or spend a little more for the contraband dropped just offshore to be retrieved in the dead of night by brave men in fisherman’s knits and blackened faces.

Eventually all this enforcement will just seem silly, as it did with Prohibition, prohibitive taxes on cigarettes, hardcore porn, and yes, someday soon – or so I predict – child porn. The civil liberties issue is there, of course. And I don’t mean to minimize it. But at the end of the day the customer is always right. And apparently there are more customers in the queue for sex dolls, both adult and child, than for the new Tesla.

But that doesn’t settle the issue. Which issue? The issue of whether our disapproval of these dolls, adult or child, is justified.

Look, there are all kinds of malfeasance the criminalization of which will never do away with completely. Think of murder, think of theft, think of tax evasion. But that hardly means we shouldn’t criminalize these things, provided criminalization reduces the frequency of this malfeasance. Even supposing, however implausibly, that consumption of alcohol and abortion were both wrong, their criminalization failed to reduce their frequencies. Hence their decriminalization. But one could hope that criminalization of child sex dolls will, if not reduce their frequency, then at least retard the increase in their frequency.

So as I say, the debate need not focus, at least not up front, on enforceability. If there’s no justification in interfering with their production, distribution and consumption, then the enforceability issue doesn’t arise. If and when it does arise we can then talk about the balance between the need for criminalization and the invasiveness of enforcing it.

In short, then, we need to know what if anything is wrong with the production, distribution and consumption of child sex dolls.

In the case of child pornography, one could argue that the harm lies in its production. But that argument is getting weaker and weaker as animation gets more and more sophisticated. Very soon now, if not already, animation will outperform live action pornography, both adult and child, both economically and aesthetically.

Inadvertent production is another story. A trusted uncle posts unstaged but nonetheless provocative photos of his young nephew or niece on a child porn site. Since few very small children are recognizable from one year to the next, the right to privacy is probably not being all that seriously violated. And besides, this is one area where what counts as provocative really is in the eye, or loins, of the beholder.

In any event, mens rea isn’t enough. There has to be actus reus. So to convict the judge must himself confess to being stimulated, or pretend he’s not but the man on the Clapham omnibus would be. Either that or the actus reus must be met by the venue in which the images are being shown. The baby Jesus in the manger is one thing. The identical baby Larry in the identical manger is something else. The law has to try not to make a laughing stock of itself. But the juxtaposition at the front of the courtroom of these two images would be just a tad risible.

Then what about some third party – one incapable of interfering with the interference – filming the sexual interference with the child? Then what we have, it seems, is something jurisprudentially indistinguishable from the photo-journalist filming, for example, an ISIS execution. Here the public’s right to know what’s going on in the world – or so it’s standardly argued – trumps the victim’s right to privacy. Fair enough. But then why should small children be afforded greater such rights than an equally innocent adult?

So here the issue must come down to seemliness. It’s unseemly to expose the public to ugliness. That’s why newscasts do tend to cut away from the uglier scenes of man’s inhumanity to man. Or to child. But the pedophile doesn’t find the scene ugly. Quite the contrary. That’s what makes him a pedophile. Come to think of it, by definition. So since no one’s forcing you to look, neither should anyone force him not to.

So confining ourselves, as we have so far, to Mill’s harm principle, there seems to be no good reason, or soon won’t be, to criminalize the production, distribution and consumption of child pornography, and so by parity of reasoning, no good reason to criminalize the production, distribution and consumption of child sex dolls.

But this might be too quick. In addition to Mill’s harm principle there’s Joel Feinberg’s offense principle. No one’s being asked to watch the consumer having his way with his doll, but apparently the very knowledge that he is is deeply offensive to some people.

But it hardly needs saying that this argument proves too much. We fought wars to assuage our outrage at how others worship, and in the wake of that slaughter we decided to live and let live rather than kill and let kill. Anyone who wants to reprise those wars we should kill right now, to save us the bother of having to do it later. This applies to both the recent surge in Islamicism in the Moslem world and of the Christian right in America. No, Fatima, no Virginia, what I do in the privacy of my bedroom is none of your fucking business!

Still too quick. Neither the harm principle nor the offense principle captures what’s come to be called the symbolic harms argument. It’s been most rigourously articulated by Melinda Vadas in a 1987 Journal of Philosophy paper entitled “Could Pornography be the Subordination of Women?”, but it’s since been ratified by the Supreme Court of Canada in its dicta in Butler (1992).

Suppose a female student comes to my office to discuss a paper. I’m looking at her over my glasses, as I’m wont to do when I’m listening intently. but behind me is one of those tacky Mexican velvet paintings of a nude woman. The question is not whether I’m looking at her the same way I’d be looking at a male student. It’s whether she feels herself being looked at the same way I’d be looking at a male student. And that painting has a great deal to do with that. So, argues Vadas, insofar as pornography represents women as meat, and women know they’re being represented that way, such representation needn’t cause the subordination of women because it just is the subordination of women.

I think Vadas is right. But does the argument transfer, first to child porn, and thence to child sex dolls? It’s hard to see how. Child porn doesn’t subordinate children. Children just are subordinate to adults. That’s just what we mean by their being children and our being adults. And so how does a child sex doll subordinate them further? By representing them as acceptable objects of lust? But why wouldn’t they be? Surely that’s what has to be established. And however that is established, it can’t, on pain of circularity, invoke the symbolic harms argument.

And there’s something odd – is there not? – about saying some object, animate or not, ought not to be an object of lust. In what sense of ‘ought’? God has made it clear that a man ought not to lay with a man as with a woman. Well, okay, no one’s asking Him to. But what makes Him think He’s entitled to impose His heterosexuality on the rest of us?

Leaving aside for the moment what does and doesn’t count as an infant, a child, a statutory child, and so on – and so what would count as pedophilia – I’d guess that pedophilia plays a much bigger role in male sexual fantasy than homosexuality. The latter, or so I’m told, runs about 7%. The former must be well over 50%. By which I don’t mean 50% of us are pedophiles. I just mean that for 50% of us pedophilia is included in our fantasy repertoire. If having a sexual response to children is ‘an abomination in the eyes of God’, He’s going to have a whole lot of retooling to do come the Rapture.

Okay, so the unacceptability of lusting after children can’t lie in either the lusting, nor on their being children, but rather in one’s acting on that lust. Is masturbating with a child in mind acting on one’s pedophilia? Presumably not. Is masturbating with a child-associated masturbatory aid acting on it? Hard to see the distinction. So it must be that masturbating with a child-associated masturbatory aid, like a picture or a doll, is thought likely to increase the likelihood of acting on one’s pedophilia with an actual child.

There’s a preponderance of evidence that those who have acted on their pedophilia entertained pedophile fantasies before doing so. But that’s just a duh. The question is whether these fantasies upped the frequency of the actual interference. Common sense might tell us they must. But common sense is often wrong. Hard to prove it wrong, of course, since it’s hard to imagine how research into it would pass muster with the ethics board.

Nor can we invoke what’s called the precautionary principle, which counsels us, when operating under two or even one-dimensional uncertainty, to take the safer route. But since it’s as much common sense that access to child sex dolls would actually be cathartic rather than provocative, we’re not sure which route is in fact the safer one.

Then try this. Sexual play is practice for the real thing. Practicing on children, even if only simulacra of children, is just poor sexual training. Children aren’t sex partners, and a fortiori neither are dolls. Real adult sex partners don’t act like either children or dolls, and certainly not like child sex dolls. And a fortiori real children don’t act like dolls. For one thing, they cry when you hurt them, and that, for most pedophiles of my acquaintance, is an immediate turn-off.

But the bad training argument hangs on the image of a young man prepping for his first ‘going all the way’, buying the doll, getting the hang of things with it, losing his virginity, and then selling it on Ebay. I’m not saying this couldn’t happen. I’m just saying it doesn’t. It doesn’t because that’s not what people buy these dolls for.

All right, let’s try again. Sex with a prostitute is cheating. Not on one’s wife, though certainly that too if one were married. No, it’s cheating because it’s getting sexual access without having to invest the time and energy the rest of us do. Sex with a sex doll is doubly cheating because it’s getting sexual access without having to pay the prostitute. And sex with a child sex doll is the ultimate cheat because it’s getting sexual access without even having to conjure the illusion of having to work for it. That is, with an adult sex doll one might run a conquest scenario in one’s head. But no such scenario would make sense with a child.

I’m not sure this is right. It seems to me the pedophile could imagine himself seducing the child, though I concede that a resistance scenario, available with the adult doll, would be a bit of stretch with the child one.

Still, I don’t think there’s much to this authenticity argument. The authenticity objection to prostitution is that it puts the prostitute in a position of having to be inauthentic, not the john. Replacing her with a doll relieves the prostitute of that burden. But maybe that’s the problem. It’s yet another case of automation putting real breadwinners out of work. And that, I think, the proliferation of sex dolls will, especially when, with economy of scale, these products become affordable on pretty much any budget.

But it’s not just prostitutes who’ll now have to fend for themselves with more ‘honest’ toil. It’s also a lot of ordinary women who’ve been making their way in the world on the backs of their sexuality. The sex doll is the men’s movement’s revenge on the lesbian separatists. If you say you don’t need us, well neither do we need you!

But from feminists or others, the worry seems to be that these dolls, adult or child, are going to have a devastating impact on the fundamental nature of our social relations, relations which supervene in large measure on our interpersonal sexuality. When one’s buddy is having sex with his Angela Jolie simulacra, how long can the neo-Luddite keep up his claim to the moral high ground with his aging crone? Just as drones and google glasses are doing away with all pretense of privacy, so will sex dolls retire the sexual component of love. Philia will survive. And maybe, if He’s lucky, agape. But not eros. And with eros goes the lion’s share of all poetry, music, drama, and art.

But what does this really amount to, if not the same argument that your same-sex marriage devalues my heterosexual marriage. This is nonsense, on stilts. One could as readily argue that heterosexual marriage devalues same-sex marriage, which, since it doesn’t, neither does the opposite. So no, Virginia, you’re not going to be so special any more, at least not for your vagina. I guess you’re just going to have to find your self-esteem somewhere above your waist.

The argument for these dolls is predictable enough. It’s simply false that there’s a girl for every guy. And certainly false that there’s a child for every pedophile. Some guys just really are too ugly, or socially inept, or isolated in a fire tower, or whatever. To deprive these people of a fundamental human need is a violation of a fundamental human right. It’s not a positive right. No one has a correlative duty to provide these ‘losers’ with sex. But it’s a negative right, imposing a duty not to interfere with their pursuit of it.

My intuitions tell me that the human rights argument trumps. It wouldn’t if there were actionable costs to the exercise of this right. But so far as I can tell, there aren’t.

Of course I’ve been thinking about this entirely from the male perspective. Suppose it were women buying male dolls and so cutting me out of the action. That would be a very different story. Turnabout is not fair play. What’s good for the goose is definitely not good for the gander. Then I’d have to rethink the issue from the ground up.

A dildo is one thing, and if it were attached to a doll in the image and likeness of me, I could probably live with that. But I have a sneaking suspicion the doll wouldn’t be in my image and likeness, because women are notoriously shallow. But I suppose I’ll just have to bite the bullet and concede that if automation renders me redundant, I shall walk off into the sunset knowing I was there when I was needed.

Note to self: Maybe not a line to recommend to post-menopausal women looking to console themselves for the loss of their husbands’ fidelity.

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