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We Must Act Now To Stop Child Sex Dolls Creating An 'Acceptable' Route To Paedophilia

Disturbing technological advances are revolutionising the underground sex industry - and provoking strong debate.
scyther5 via Getty Images

Disturbing technological advances are revolutionising the underground sex industry - and provoking strong debate.

Incredibly lifelike child sex dolls have hit the headlines recently as imports from China and Japan hit our shores but, while most people would find them grotesque or at least distasteful, are they actually hurting anybody?

Surely children are being protected if people who might otherwise abuse them have access to an inanimate - albeit very childlike - object?

Don't bet on it.

We know that people who ordered child sex dolls often strayed into other sex crimes. Of the seven men charged with importing the dolls into the UK so far, six also faced child porn allegations.

The recent prosecution of former school governor David Turner for importing a doll has been a welcome clarification of the law on this disturbing new development in child abuse.

Obscene or indecent object

A landmark ruling by a judge at Canterbury Crown Court last month deemed Turner's anatomically detailed 3ft 10in doll - which was dressed in a fishnet bodystocking - an obscene or indecent object, clarifying what had previously been a legal grey area.

But this could mark the start of a much wider debate about sexual abuse in the years ahead.

We all know that technology is forging ahead at a rapid pace but what I find surprising - and potentially very worrying - is the expectation from 'futurologists' that it will transform sexual experience.

The prototype doll imported by Turner could just be the thin end of the wedge.

Last month's ruling signals that we, as a society, are not prepared to normalise or tolerate paedophilic tendencies, regardless of whether they actually physically or emotionally target a specific child. This may prove an important precedent in the future as artificial and simulated devices that could be misappropriated by paedophiles become more and more common.

But there is a more pressing and immediate dynamic to this debate. The Digital Economy Act, which was passed just before this year's General Election, contained welcome and long overdue measures to verify the age of anyone accessing a pornographic website.

I have spoken before about how important this is in replicating online the restrictions we have on pornography in the real world. We don't allow under 18s in sex shops so why would we give them free rein to view explicit content on the internet?

But the snap election meant the Bill was wrapped up rather more quickly than anticipated and left one important issue unresolved - the explosion in internet pornography has meant it is impossible for one single regulator to oversee it as in pre-internet times.

Responsible porn websites moderate for illegal content, following the definitions of outlawed 'extreme pornography' set out in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. But the more restrictive 'prohibited material' regulations demanded by the British Board of Film Classification to pass films for '18' or 'R18' certification aren't currently applicable to online content.

Illegal behaviour

As a result, a pornographic grey area has emerged on the internet, allowing content that, while not in itself illegal, may encourage illegal behaviour. Simulated acts of child abuse or incest performed by adult - but usually childlike in appearance - actors currently do not come under prosecutable territory on the internet, even though films depicting such acts would never receive classification for sale in licenced sex shops.

Similarly, with recent advances in the quality of CGI there is an emerging culture of non-photographic visual depictions of child sexual abuse, for example in a genre of explicit Japanese manga-style animation or imagery called Hentai. It is illegal under UK law so where it is found on any servers based in the UK the Internet Watch Foundation acts to get it taken down or restricts access to it. However, where the material is housed on a server outside of the UK it remains visible and accessible from within the UK.

These loopholes must be closed and Parliament needs to hold a debate as soon as possible to clarify what definition of pornography websites should be moderating for so we can make sure the law stays ahead of technology and protects children and young people.

Most people understand that viewing child abuse images is not a victimless crime. Witnessing the abuse for sexual gratification makes people complicit in that abuse and, even when they are simulated images of children, they are culpable in creating a demand for such material, risking the normalisation of sexual interest in children.

The same goes for sex dolls. Some people may argue that allowing paedophiles access to a child sex doll might actually be a way of protecting children. Some have even suggested making the dolls available on prescription.

But there's no evidence that proves this at the moment and I'm not willing to gamble with children's safety.

Clear connection

In fact, evidence from the National Crime Agency shows there's a clear connection between possessing indecent dolls and a sexual interest in children and owners tend to also be charged with offences like being in possession of indecent images of children.

Barnardo's specialist workers see first-hand the harm suffered by children who have been sexually groomed, exploited and abused.

What's vital now for the protection of children is that sexual simulations or automations do not allow a dangerous culture to begin to permeate.

Paedophiles usually graduate from lesser offences to more serious crimes - the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre says there is a clear link between viewing indecent images of children and going on to commit contact abuse.

Whether it's animated child abuse or child sex dolls, we must not risk providing any 'acceptable' routes to developing a sexual interest in children.

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