Can Technology Help Treat Pedophiles?

"Forbidden Research" weighs the risks and opportunities

The MIT Center for Civic Media recently held a series of panel discussions called Forbidden Research. Dedicated to discussing the intersection of taboos and scientific inquiry, one of the most provocative panels was billed as “Sexual Deviance: Can Technology Protect Our Children?” The “live-blog” transcript summarizes the obstacles that the scientific community faces in dealing with pedophilia:

That court case, Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, struck down two provisions of the Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996 that were found to be “overbroad”. That decision was handed down in 2002, and 14 years later, the technology has come a long way. Could a pedophile be brought into temptation for guided, therapeutic purposes in a simulation? Could simulated child pornography, or even a childlike robotic sex doll be a risk reducing outlet that curbs child abuse? Has moral outrage clouded our ability to better understand and address what should be framed as a mental health issue?

It is overly optimistic to expect any treatment of a mental health disorder to function flawlessly as a cure. This includes the present methods of dealing with pedophiles. The Mayo Clinic published a meta-analysis that found traditional methods of cognitive behavioral therapy and chemical castration “do not change the pedophile’s basic sexual orientation toward children.”

One of the most shocking possibilities is the idea that advanced robotics could bring with it an extremely realistic sex doll, like those in the development of Matt McMullen’s Abyss Creations. Something more anatomically correct than the traditional inflatable woman (or man) has provoked enough moral grumbling. Giving it artificial intelligence has raised serious ethical questions. Combining it with the stature and details of children, like those seen in the Trottla dolls is another real possibility bringing challenging new legal and behavioral questions as well. Trottla’s founder Shin Takagi, a self-acknowledged pedophile, denounces child abuse, but speaks from his own experience as someone who fights that urge every day. He believes his dolls are “helping people express their desires, legally and ethically.” His products, a lineup of lifelike but lifeless silicone girls, are not always received as legal or ethical. Currently, a Canadian man is on trial for ordering one of Takagi’s dolls, which was seized by Canadian Border Services and deemed in violation of Canada’s child pornography laws.

One panelist, Dr. Kate Darling, is a research specialist at the MIT Media Lab, with a specific interest in how technology intersects with society. “When child-size robots come to market, will they be used to address desires and protect children,” she asks, “or to normalize it and put more children at risk? There’s no way for us to know.” Darling sees these urges not as a “moral failing,” but a psychological issue—one notably misunderstood in the clinical sense, because self-reporting pedophiles are immediately reported to the necessary authorities by law. Darling also cited the balance of free speech and obscenity being inconsistent regarding the legal status of child pornography where no children are harmed in the production: “What is exploitative,” she asks, “and what is put into legal frameworks because it is uncomfortable?”

Ron Arkin, a roboethicist and professor of robotics at Georgia Tech, asks if sex with a robot can “serve sort of like methadone” for sexual deviants. “There are research questions that need to be explored,” says Ron Ark, a roboethicist and professor of robotics at Georgia Tech. “Any time past offenders are released back into society, there will be more victims.”

Arkin believes that a research agenda needs to be established before we can embrace or dismiss the use of robotics to deal with the urges of pedophiles. If conclusive research supported the notion that realistic sex dolls would reduce risk, he believes that simulated sex could be one solution among many. He compares it to methadone in the course of treating addiction to opiates.

“We have an ethical obligation to do this research,” Arkin says.

Without better research, providing an outlet to pedophiles is currently a double edged sword. It is only through speculation and anecdotes that we can attach the benefits of a victimless release, or the cognitive behavioral notions of normalization leading to increased victimization. This, of course, is putting the cart before the horse, when we don’t have a clear idea of how many pedophiles there are, let alone how they would react to increasingly accessible simulated child pornography. Estimates on the number of pedophiles in the population vary, from 0.5 per cent of the population to 4 percent.

In response to the Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition decision, then FBI Crimes Against Children Unit Chief Michael Heimbach felt that it was a dangerous precedent to set as child pornography harms children when it is used by molesters to “groom” their victims by normalizing sex to them, whether illustrated or authentic, and a potential tool of child abuse. Heimbach’s argument against virtual child pornography at the time was that it was a highly improbable defense claim. In his opinion, convincing computer generated images depicting minors in obscene acts were too hard for child pornographers to produce; making them legally viable meant that real child pornography, having changed file type too many times, could become indistinguishable as real or virtual, creating a protective loophole.

A study on the recidivism of child molesters and their pornography use in Canada found that “after controlling for general and specific risk factors for sexual aggression, pornography added significantly to the prediction of recidivism.” A counterpoint to existing studies exists: psychologist Judith Herman told The Daily Beast that we’re not getting any better understanding of pedophilia in the current climate of mandatory reporting. “Truthfully, I don’t think the psychiatric profession has much of a clue about pedophiles,” she said. Studies are based largely on convicted sex offenders, which she sees as “a very unrepresentative group” of outliers.

Dr. Patrice Renaud has worked in “assessing deviant preferences in sexual offenders” using virtual immersion. In lay terms, Renaud has pushed the envelope of what can be done: subjects sent to him by court order are observed as they react to a variety of sexual stimulus. These reactions are measured by eye-tracking technology, EEG scans, and penile plethysmographs—devices that register blood-flow to the subject’s genitals.

Conducting such research with pedophiles requires the controversial use of child pornography; made available for research purposes from police raids. Renaud found that the materials he had been granted access to were a start, but not standardized enough to work reliably with. It was a moot point, though, as this approach was ultimately banned, and his access was denied.

Renaud’s lab is now working to develop VR that can more accurately identify pedophiles, but he also sees a future in synthetic pornography as a treatment, as VR has worked for other psychological conditions. One therapeutic (and non-pornographic) use would take pedophiles through a simulation of a park guided by a therapist. Renaud speculates that in the future, combining VR with neurofeedback directed at the empathy centers of the brain could help them better understand how traumatizing their actions are to their victims. Renaud does not see the benefits of a better sex doll outweighing the risks.

“I wouldn’t take any chance with that kind of use of robotics,” says Renaud. “Maybe some very intelligent and controlled individual could have such contact only with dolls.” He worries that it could be the tipping point for others, who would only have their urges driven towards a real victim.

Renaud maintains that “the data we have on recidivism is nebulous because it’s really hard to study this group,” and that VR could make a better understanding of pedophiles possible. Those who suffer the affects of pedophilia are twofold: there are the victims of a pedophile’s actions, and there are pedophiles who are aware of what is fundamentally wrong about the sexual urges they experience. It’s a tough pill to swallow, especially for children who are sexual victims, or their protectors.

Journalist Christina Couch, another panelist, sees the potential of VR to lend insight to pedophilia as it does to other disorders, like PTSD, depression, phobias, and addiction. She notes that it’s important to consider better research involving the victims of pedophiles as well. “This type of tech isn’t a one-way street,” Couch says. “We we talk about amplifying research methods, it’s not just for offenders.”

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders maintains that pedophilia is a paraphilic disorder—a “behavior that causes mental distress to a person or makes the person a serious threat to the psychological and physical well-being of other individuals,” including “a desire for sexual behavior involving unwilling person or person unable to give legal consent.”

Clinically speaking, pedophilia is now called “pedophilic disorder”, but what hasn’t changed is the limited amount of hard research that has been done, and the flaws in what has been done. Arkin says that he supports an increase in “strictly controlled science evaluation” regarding pedophiles, noting that the tight grip of policing this population has turned up little knowledge—even recidivism rates are poorly documented, despite the many laws that dictate keeping records of sex offenders.

There is no answer presently as to whether or not there is a social benefit to creating simulated child pornography. Creating a better framework to conduct the necessary research in is important. Moral disinclination needs to be weighed against risk assessment in the undisputed goal of preventing child abuse. While new technology sparks new debate in what is and isn’t an acceptable solution, it is indisputable that better understanding pedophiles should not be relegated to the realm of “forbidden research.” There are pedophiles who believe in harm reduction, who are willing to seek help, but cannot solve their problem if they are discouraged from admitting it.

While truly scholarly and scientific address to these topics is halted, child abuse and child pornography continues to be distributed. Software has been developed to trace child pornographers through pattern-recognition, and the FBI has hijacked child porn sites to capture its visitors. Defense attorneys of those caught in the sting tried to shift the blame, pointing out that the FBI hosted the site temporarily: in effect, using government servers to distribute child pornography.

Obviously, this is not the goal of their actions, but it does give context to the idea that there are instances in which unsettling notions need to be put aside for effective action to be taken. Where do we draw the line between providing pornography and preventing it? There’s an obvious difference in the case of the FBI. It’s a stretch of the imagination and legalese to accuse the FBI of promoting the distribution of child pornography. The question is whether or not penalization alone is effective in prevention.

Comparisons are easily drawn to the prosecution of drug addicts: 1.5 million of the 2.3 million inmates in the U.S. prison system meet the clinical criteria for substance abuse and addiction, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, with only 11 per cent receiving treatment during their incarceration. Despite having 5 per cent of the world’s population, we have a quarter of the world’s prisoners and consume two thirds of the world’s drugs.

This is not meant to suggest that child abuse needs to be treated more leniently, but that our current approach could use reevaluation: Dr. Klaus Beier initiated the pedophile prevention network Don’t Offend. Beier has offered the kind of free and confidential treatment not available in America. Initially, pedophiles were reached out to through print, TV and billboards with a simple question: “Do you like children in ways you shouldn’t?” In 2012, a more targeted approach supported by Google Adwords would connect individuals entering common child pornography search terms to Don’t Offend’s site and services.

In a 2014 report published by Baier, an average of 15-20 individuals have contacted the Berlin research office monthly, leading to 1959 applications, 845 assessments, and treatment offers to 412 individuals.

Recidivism is poorly understood, but seemingly high. The instances of child abuse being conducted institutionally by public servants for decades are numerous. From educators and athletic officials to religious leaders and other public servants, it has created a very reasonable paranoia, but that paranoia has paralyzed effective response to the problem. It seems worthwhile to at least explore, with great caution, a better means of understanding the problem. From there, we can pursue better preventative measures. As Arkin warns, “The cost if we don’t explore it is intolerably high.”