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Canada’s Child Sex Doll Trial Raises Uncomfortable Questions About Paedophilia and the Law

A man was arrested for ordering a child sex doll through the mail, but a growing number of experts think child pornography laws are too harsh.

Dorian Geiger


Photo via Flickr user Quinn Dombrowski

In 2013, Canadian border agents intercepted a suspicious package coming from Japan that was addressed to a residence in Newfoundland. That package contained a life-like sex doll. But it wasn't a typical sex doll—it resembled a small child.

The recipient of that package, Kenneth Harrisson, was arrested and charged with possessing child pornography and mailing obscene matter. He has pleaded not guilty and is now preparing to stand trial this spring. Harrisson could face up to seven years in prison if found guilty.

Under Canada's Criminal Code Section 163.1, a child sex doll constitutes child pornography; a real child does not technically need to be portrayed for the definition of child pornography to be met.

"Incidents of this nature can be considered criminal," Sergeant Colin McNeil, a spokesperson for the Newfoundland police force, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, told VICE. McNeil said he could not speak in more detail about the case while it's before the courts.

Harrisson has only been charged in relation to the sex doll, and his lawyer, Bob Buckingham, says he does not have a previous criminal record.

There are several instances of cases in Canada where individuals have been arrested and charged for possessing cartoon or anime pornography depicting children. It appears many of these materials are coming from Asia, and particularly Japan, where child pornography was just recently banned in 2014. Animated child porn, though, is still legal there.

Harrisson's case with a sex doll, however, is somewhat unprecedented. The law says that the definition of child pornography is met when a, "A photographic, film, video, or other visual representation, whether or not it was made by electronic or mechanical means, [that] (i) shows a person who is or is depicted as being under the age of eighteen years and is engaged in or is depicted as engaged in explicit sexual activity, or (ii) the dominant characteristic of which is the depiction, for a sexual purpose, of a sexual organ or the anal region of a person under the age of eighteen years."

Under such a sweeping designation of child pornography, it's pretty obvious how Harrisson's child sex doll would be included: It is technically a "visual representation" of someone under 18 years of age "made by mechanical means," whose dominant characteristic is "for a sexual purpose."

Harrisson's case marks the first-known time in Atlantic Canada that child pornography charges have extended beyond drawings, literature, or digital representations—something that has surprised law enforcement, criminologists, psychologists, lawyers, and media across the country.

"I had never come across an item such as that myself in my own experience and subsequently, I haven't seen anything similar," said Daryl Hooper, a Canada Border Services Agency investigator who was involved in the case's investigation and who has been working for the agency for roughly 25 years.

At a press conference after Harrisson's arrest, authorities described the child-like doll as being made of foam, dressed in a school uniform, and standing at a height of 4'2. It included "accessories that would be used for sexual gratification purposes," they said. It's unclear what sex the doll represented.

"What is interesting about the case is that past case law on child pornography and obscenity in Canada has primarily focused on visual, audiovisual, or written representations—that is, on images or stories rather than on three-dimensional objects," Anita Lam, a criminology professor at York University, told VICE.

As the courts prepare to tackle the sex doll case, Harrisson's trial contains larger implications on legal, moral, and scientific levels. The most prominent question being raised is whether having a child sex doll automatically makes the owner a pedophile.

Experts that study pedophilia aren't so sure.

"Some people remain who have the belief that giving into one's sexual fantasy makes a person more into whatever it is he or she is into; that somehow masturbating to an image of a child is what makes a person into a pedophile," said Dr. James Cantor, a pedophilia expert and University of Toronto-based researcher who specializes in the neuroscience of sex.

Essentially, according to Cantor, not all pedophiles are technically child molesters, and conversely, not all child pornography users are pedophiles or child molesters, either.

"People are uncomfortable with [the idea of a child sex doll] because they think it might cause a person to become pedophilic, but there's no evidence [to suggest that]," Cantor added, likening the government's case against Harrisson to "witch-hunting" and something of a thought crime.

The American Psychiatric Association has included pedophilia in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders since 1968. Although most medical definitions of pedophilia define it as a disorder pertaining to a sustained sexual interest in children, some researchers think there's an ambiguous gray area as to whether a person is actually a pedophile if he or she has not actually acted out his or her desires.

According to the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, "Many in society are likely to equate pedophilia with child molestation... Viewing child pornography should not be considered a useful diagnostic indicator of a pedophilic disorder."

Cantor, the pedophilia expert, is adamant that Canadian lawmakers have jumped the gun on child pornography legislation, despite—or in spite of—a lack of research.

"In the instance of written fiction, drawings, or artistic works, computer renderings, or in this specific case—a three-dimensional depiction—there is no victim, there is no person being harmed. It's just the idea that someone would find a picture of a child sexually arousing that's disturbing to people," said Cantor. "In free society, we don't ban things because somebody finds it icky. We only ban it if there's actual potential harm on the line."

Cantor's voice is among a number of medical experts, criminologists, and legal professionals who, citing a lack of research, have labeled Canada's child pornography laws problematic and bordering on draconian.

"We shouldn't confuse the moral reaction that many people have to the idea of child pornography with the potential harm involved. No real children are involved in anime or other virtual content," said Dr. Michael Seto, a forensic psychologist specializing in pedophilic behavior, and who serves as the director of University of Ottawa's Institute of Mental Health Research's Forensic Research Unit.

Apart from somewhat outdated child pornography laws, the Harrisson trial also highlights the sheer lack of research that has been conducted on pedophilia. Because of Canada's strict laws, experts have absolutely no clue how pedophiles might react to virtual child pornography. It's not a well-funded field nor a widely researched one—the topic is just too taboo to be taken seriously, even in many scientific or academic circles.

But there is an increasing need for study into the matter, especially when it comes to virtual technologies. Technology is vastly outpacing the law when it comes to things that could be considered virtual child pornography. Virtual reality technologies such as Oculus Rift are here, and artificially intelligent sex dolls nearly are, too. And it's reasonable to assume that child pornography manufacturers and child sex doll makers, like Japanese-based Trottla, are jumping on these technologies as well.

"Research could help develop more effective laws," said Seto. "For example, if it were shown that access to virtual child pornography was a safe and the only viable outlet for many pedophiles, perhaps there could be a legal exemption for this kind of content. Or the law could focus on depictions of real children only, as in the US."

Seto said that his research aims to prevent the exploitation and sexual abuse of children. Despite this, Seto himself has even been accused of being a pedophile sympathizer.

"I think the taboo about pedophilia is so strong that people can be suspicious about why someone would want to study it," he said.

Seto and others may never be able to medically answer some of the questions Harrisson's case may raise, especially if they themselves are considered the boogeymen.

The University of Toronto clinical psychologist and sexologist, Cantor, also said people have baselessly insinuated that he himself is a pedophile too, purely because of his research field. However, the clinical psychologist and sexologist is sympathetic to Harrisson's case and others like his.

"I do not at all condone sexual abuse, but it is very easy for me to be sympathetic toward someone who, through no fault of his own, was saddled with a sexual interest he can't actualize, express, or tell even his closest friends or family," he described.

"He didn't ask for it, he can't do anything to change it, and it could have happened to any of us just as easily. How could I not sympathize?"

Complications in assigning a judge to Harrisson's trial has delayed the matter, but his lawyer confirmed the case will be heard in the city's Provincial Court in late May.

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