Should this man go to prison for buying a child sex doll?

This month, in Canada, a man will stand trial for possessing child pornography even though the porn didn’t involve any actual child.

Back in 2013, Canadian border agents intercepted a package from Japan that they deemed suspicious. In it was a 4’2″ doll, dressed in a school uniform. The child-sized, anatomically-correct doll, authorities later said, was clearly intended “for sexual gratification purposes.” Under Canada’s criminal code, that meant the doll was equivalent to child pornography.

The officers allowed the package to be delivered to the home of Kenneth Harrisson, 50, but then showed up, seized the doll and arrested him. Harrisson was charged with possessing child pornography and mailing obscene matter, two counts that could land him up to seven years in prison. He was also charged with violations of Canada’s customs laws for smuggling and possession of prohibited goods.

“The social commentary here in Canada is very much for some people questioning why this case is even proceeding,” said Harrison’s attorney, Bob Buckingham, who said he couldn’t discuss details of the case but is currently trying to get a new judge assigned to the trial. “If this case proceeds to argument, there will be a great deal of discussion about child pornography law in Canada, and who it is designed to protect.”

Canada, it turns out, has some of the most extreme laws around pedophilia. Any sexually explicit depiction of a child is illegal there—even when that child is rendered in pixels or plastic.

“If you Google ‘sex doll,’ you could become a child-pornography suspect, because you might have broken the Criminal Code of Canada’s S. 163.1,” one local columnist wrote of Harrisson’s case. “Child-pornography laws are so expansive they encompass not just actions, but thoughts and fantasies.”

While not literally true, it’s pretty close. And it’s not just Canada. In Australia, another man was recently charged for possessing child abuse material because he’d purchased a $2,500 pre-pubescent female doll with a “removable silicon genital insert” from the Australian arm of a Chinese website.

Advances in robotics, animation and immersive reality glasses mean that technology can increasingly make our fantasies come true. But what if your fantasies are despicable to the majority of humanity? How actively should the law work to prevent and punish deviant virtual realities?

“There are two separate issues here,” Dr. Michael Seto, a leading researcher on pedophilia at the Royal Ottowa Health Care group, told me. “There’s how we feel about the idea of having sex with a child, morally. And then there’s the practical question of what kind of impact does it really have? Can it help someone?”

Some fantasy providers self-regulate. The founder of California-based RealDoll—once deemed the “Rolls-Royce of sex dolls“—told Vanity Fair that the company will never make dolls that look like either animals or children. But others are willing to cater to deviant tastes. For about $200, you can purchase a cheap sex doll with a “Lolita girl face” on the Chinese marketplace AliExpress. Higher-end dolls are available from Japanese company Trottla, which was founded by a man who, himself, felt attracted to children and is convinced the dolls save children.

“I am helping people express their desires, legally and ethically,” Trottla founder Shin Takagi recently told The Atlantic. “It’s not worth living if you have to live with repressed desire.”

Seto, the pedophilia researcher, says that for some pedophiles, some form of virtual sex might help mitigate desire and offer an improvement in quality of life. Whether it’s helpful or harmful likely depends on the person, he said.

Many people assume it’s harmful. When one Kentucky neighbor saw a Trottla box dropped off at the house next door, she worried it meant the children in the neighborhood were at risk. The neighbor wondered if she should call the police.

On the other side of the debate is how far you can go in criminalizing thoughts and desires that don’t actually hurt anyone. Were Harrisson a resident of the U.S., said Ryan Calo, a professor at University of Washington who studies technology and the law, he probably wouldn’t be headed to trial. The 1996 Child Pornography Prevention Act made virtual child pornography illegal, but the Supreme Court overturned that ban in 2002, saying First Amendment freedom of speech rights protect computer-generated images, as well as porn where young adults pose as children. The law, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the majority decision, “prohibits speech that records no crime and creates no victims by its production.”

The next year, Congress, not to be deterred, passed the PROTECT Act which banned “virtually indistinguishable” child porn.

“There is a lot of ambiguity around what exactly the law permits,” said Calo. “What it does for certain permit are depictions that are very obviously fake or virtual.”

At this point, the child sex dolls readily available on the market mostly look like creepy life-sized American Girl Dolls—in other words, they don’t pass the real kid test. But if Harrisson received a child-sized version of the amazingly realistic RealDoll, even in the U.S., the question of legality becomes more ambiguous. RealDolls are so real that Howard Stern said back in 1997 that he actually preferred it to sex with a real woman. This summer, RealDoll announced investments in AI and moving heads that are aimed at turning the sex dolls into sexbots.

Imagine those same high-tech advancements for child sex dolls, and what that could mean for people with pedophilia. If having sex with an indistinguishable-from-real, fake child isn’t actually hurting anyone, should it really be illegal?

Finished RealDolls at the Abyss Creations factory in California.Getty Images

Finished RealDolls at the Abyss Creations factory in California.

Pedophilia is considered to be a disorder by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the bible of mental illness) if it causes a person either “marked distress or interpersonal difficulty” or to act on their interest. At one point, the DSM actually revised its definition of pedophilia to call it a “sexual orientation” (though changed it again after the revision caused outrage). Experts estimate that somewhere around 1 percent of men experience sexual attraction to children, but a far smaller percentage actually pursue sexual contact with them.

When virtual opportunities arose to act on and discuss their disorder, people identifying as pedophiles seized them. Back in 2007, the media and lawmakers were shocked and horrified by “virtual pedophile rings” in the popular online world Second Life. Meanwhile, sites like Virtuous Pedophiles, which launched in 2012, provide a supportive online community for pedophiles that believe that sex with children is wrong.

“Society really doesn’t tend to think of pedophiles as people,” said the founder of that site, who operates under the pseudonym Ethan Edwards. “They see them only as offenders. So it’s easy to say, ‘Don’t do anything remotely sexual.’”

“I generally have the view that what you do privately that no one else finds out about cannot harm them,” he said.

It isn’t clear whether, for pedophiles, experiencing virtual sex with children acts as methadone or as the gateway to molesting children in the real world. There are arguments for both camps, but in the end there simply isn’t enough evidence to back either one up. And that’s unlikely to change any time soon—researching pedophilia is just too controversial and hard to fund. There aren’t a whole lot of scientists clamoring to be the one to put pedophiles in a room with (possibly illegal) child sex dolls every week for a year to see how they respond.

“My feeling as a clinician and a researcher who has been working in this field a long time is that there probably isn’t just one effect of engaging with virtual child porn,” pedophilia researcher Seto said. “You have one group whose motivated to not offend and somewhere like Second Life could provide an outlet for them without risk of actually acting on their desires for children. Then there’s another group for whom it might actually fuel the desire.”

Seto compared the child porn debate to watching adult porn.

“For the large majority of people, watching explicit or violent porn doesn’t actually have real life negative effects,” he said. Studies have found that exposing research subjects to violent porn doesn’t change their attitudes toward women or sexual assault, though results might be different for people who specifically seek out violent porn. “But for people with other risk factors, it can become an aggravating factor. It can become agitating instead of satisfying.”

Seto told me that personally, he falls in the camp of believing that the idea of virtual sex with children doesn’t inherently cause any real world damage. He views the potential harms as too hypothetical, rooted more in our inability to view the situation with logic and empathy than anything else.

“Without allowing options like virtual sex, we’re basically saying you can’t have any kind of sexuality,” he said. “We are saying ‘Don’t have feelings, don’t have desires, just eliminate it,’ and I don’t think that’s realistic. Technologies like VR could be beneficial to at least some individuals.”

When the Canadian sex doll case goes to trial this month, at issue is the relatively straightforward question of whether a man broke Canadian law by smuggling a child sex doll into the country from Japan. But there is a second question on trial that is much more complex: whether society is able to suspend moral judgement and allow for the possibility that desires we find reprehensible are okay if the only victim is a doll.