Virtual Sex May Help Pedophiles Fight Their Urges. Should We Allow It?
Pedophilia is one of society’s greatest taboos. It’s a topic not easily broached for obvious reasons, but for those suffering from it, that taboo nature makes it increasingly difficult to seek treatment and support. While preying on children is certainly a behavior that is never acceptable, those coping with pedophilia require the same kind of medical, physical, and therapeutic healthcare that sufferers of psychiatric disorders like anorexia, schizophrenia, and post-traumatic stress disorder do. However, due to the stigma surrounding the disease – specifically because of the potential for the victimization of children at the hands of those suffering from the illness – pedophiles are often less likely to seek out treatment as are those suffering from other psychological disorders. This brings forth a catch-22 of sorts wherein those suffering from pedophilia must come forward to receive treatment but those who come forward are often harassed, arrested, stigmatized, and otherwise abandoned by society as a whole, and so the need for treatment goes unexplored. This is particularly true for those who realize their symptoms but who try desperately to silence the tendencies to act upon their urges, but who find little to no access to treatment because they are afraid to ask for it. However, there are some pedophilia advocacy groups who are arguing for a provocative new form of treatment which could help others, and it involves the use of virtual sex.
The health benefits of computer games, video games and virtual reality have become more and more nuanced since the technologies have become as mainstream as did television in its prime. While at first the consensus that playing such games was a good stress reliever seemed to be the only positive benefit of the couch-potato inducing activity, more and more examples of gaming technology helping those suffering with serious ailments have started to populate the discussion. Studies have shown that moderate playing of video games can have a positive impact on children suffering from illnesses like autism and depression. Other studies have shown that certain video games can help improve the motor skills of very young children, and still others show that both video games and virtual reality can help improve our decision-making skills, our memory, our ability to relieve stress, and a host of other physical and mental ailments. For every report which claims to prove that playing violent video games or drifting off into virtual-reality worlds causes an increase in aggression or a decrease in socialization skills, there are more and more reports of these forms of entertainment actually providing much more than a momentary escape. In many instances, they have actually begun to show meaningful therapeutic and preventative properties.
In recent years, researchers have begun to explore the use of virtual reality in the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, particularly in veterans. Also known as “exposure therapy,” the use of VR within the framework of PTSD treatment works as a surrogate of sorts, one that re-enacts the battlefield in ways that trigger a specific traumatic event. According to Psychology Today, exposure therapy is used in the hopes of “decreasing the emotional and physical distress associated with the event. The process of habituation-or the decreased response to a stimulus after repeated exposure-is assumed to be the force that decreases this distress.” In theory, then, this form of treatment involves placing the patient in the exact same scenario which caused the disorder in the first place in an effort to give the brain enough exposure to the scenario to allow it to form new (and less harmful) ways of reacting to it. If this kind of thinking works for veterans, then why not pedophiles?
Vice’s new women-focused outlet Broadly writer Cecilia D’Anastasio explored that idea in her piece titled “Can Virtual Sex Prevent Pedophiles from Harming Children in Real Life?” The premise of the article is that some pedophilia sufferers are championing the use of virtual sex with child avatars as an effective form of treatment, but that some health professionals are raising some valid concerns about its implementation as a “cure.” It centers around the advent of role-playing computer games in which users can interact with avatars of their liking (online virtual worlds like Second Life and the Sims Online are good reference points), including avatars designed to look like prepubescent children. In certain realms of the online gaming world, users who had a predilection for engaging with child avatars began to form their own underground communities, and according to those who spoke with D’Anastasio, it’s been going on for more than a decade. To them, “it is a victimless platform to engage in sex with children. Some say it even acts as an outlet for their physical desires.” Furthermore, “driven underground and left literally to their own devices, pedophiles are leaning heavily on these erotically charged videogames, virtual worlds, and the communities surrounding them. These online venues, they attest, mitigate their desire to pursue their fantasies in real life.”
However, traditional modes of treatment – including lifelong therapy – are touted as the best option by many medical professionals. As D’Anastasio writes, “sitting alone at home, sinking hours into virtual worlds, could further isolate pedophiles from more reliable professional and social resources: therapy, community bonds, anti-androgen treatment.” But that view continues to ignore the most obvious fact – seeking out treatment for pedophilia is at best humiliating and at worst a surefire way to a life of stigma and punishment. “There are surprisingly few resources to support non-offending pedophiles,” she explains. “Most formal treatment remains under carceral jurisdiction (once a pedophile is charged, incarcerated, or on parole or probation for a sex offense). In prison, pedophiles have access to group talk therapy, although fellow inmates regularly attack sex offenders once their crime is disclosed. Upon release, cognitive-behavioral therapy like Pavlovian conditioning is a common route.” In some cases, “chemical castration, a slow-release testosterone neutralizer, remains a popular route for lowering pedophiles’ sex drives, though it’s typically only offered to sex offenders.”
Unsurprisingly, then, the use of virtual sex offers an attractive alternative. It allows for the release of a desire without victimizing any children for many pedophiles. It also makes it so “pedophiles can navigate bustling cities or populated streets without fear of judgment. In online virtual worlds, they can socialize knowing their avatar body won’t be incarcerated if they inadvertently reveal their pedophilia. And in those digital bodies, pedophiles can engage in sexual scenarios forbidden outside digital contexts.” But a moral dilemma does arise. At what point does enabling – and even encouraging – pedophiles to resort to virtual sex serve as a replacement for other forms of therapy? As one advocate for the prevention of sexual abuse against children tells D’Anastasio, “even in a virtual reality world, it’s a dangerous activity that puts children in a sexual position. For many folks, it makes it more difficult to resist temptation.”
It’s far too soon to report on the efficacy of virtual reality sex with children as a formal treatment option for pedophiles. In fact, it seems that for the most part, it still remains a form of treatment sufferers need to get involved with on their own time, and not within the stable of a medically supervised session, such as those for the veterans who get treated with VR. Pedophilia will certainly remain a “fringe” disorder, in that conversations about how to treat pedophiles remains mostly hush-hush. And not just “treat” in a medical sense, but also in a human sense. Is a pedophile who has never acted on his or her desires not worthy of support? What makes a non-acting pedophile any different from a person who doesn’t act on rape fantasies? Perhaps in conjunction with therapy, group support, and other forms of traditional treatment, virtual sex with children could assuage the desires in pedophiles that make us uncomfortable. Is there harm in trying?