If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one to hear it, does it make a sound?
It’s the kind of thought experiment that can keep philosophers arguing happily for hours, but whatever answer they agree on is – as far as I can see – irrelevant to the daily lives of the rest of us. A similar, and much more serious, question arises with virtual reality and robotics, though. And this one really does matter.
If a man grooms a child-avatar for sex in a virtual world, has he done anything wrong?
This was the question raised by a play I first saw in 2015, that I’ve been mulling ever since (and got to see again recently, which has helped to solidify my thoughts). The Nether, by Jennifer Haley, is set in the not-too-distant future when much of life is conducted in virtual reality worlds – only the richest students go to physical universities here, the rest are taught in virtual schools in The Nether. In fact, the online world is so much more appealing than our own, that people are starting to ‘cross over’ – to live full time in the fantasy realm, while their bodies waste away, hooked up to life support machines in the real one. [Note the following contains significant plot-spoilers for The Nether, though as far as I’m aware it’s not currently showing anywhere in the world!]
The play opens in an interrogation room. A man – Papa – is being questioned about the secret area he has created in The Nether called ‘The Hideaway’. In it men – or rather avatars representing men – can indulge their sexual appetites with (avatars representing) children. The detective questioning Papa is disgusted and appalled by this but, Papa asks, what crime has he committed? What wrong has he done?
His area is clearly labelled as for adults only, and the users behind the child avatars are adults, so no child has been hurt. In fact, Papa argues, the very reason he set up the Hideaway was because he had been attracted to a child in the real world. He managed to resist her, but set up a space where he could indulge his predilections safely, without being a threat to real little girls.
It sounds reasonable, and yet the detective can’t shake the feeling that it is not right. Papa and his clients have experienced an inappropriate desire and instead of fighting against it, denying it, or getting psychiatric help, they have indulged it.
What do you think? Had they done anything wrong?
Still too abstract a concept? Well how about this. In the UK right now you can buy very realistic sex dolls that are designed to look like children as young as three. So you don’t just have to indulge your paedophilia online, but can do it in a much more immediate and real way.
Again, no real children have been hurt, and there are those who suggest these dolls could actually be ‘prescribed’ for paedophiles as a ‘safe’ way of expressing their desires. Others disagree, though, arguing that
there is a risk that those using these child sex dolls or realistic props could become desensitised and their behaviour becomes normalised to them, so that they go on to harm children themselves, as is often the case with those who view indecent images.
So are these things only wrong if they lead to their users committing the actual crime? I don’t think so.
Why not? Well first, from a very practical, everyday level – if we see a child who likes to rip the heads of dolls, we don’t smile indulgently and say “Ah well, at least he/she doesn’t do it to real people”. We feel that the child has got some serious aggression issues and take him/her for counselling as soon as possible.
But secondly, the Bible makes it very clear that we don’t only sin against God and each other when we do wrong things, but when we think them, too:
‘You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matt 5:21-22, 27-28)
In fact, many of the original ten commandments were more to do with the attitude of the heart and mind than with the actions overflowing from them. Living an upright life is at least as much about what we think, what we desire, and what we focus our minds upon as it is about what we do.
Jonathan Haidt notes that it is an anomaly of Western culture that we find it hard to understand why an action might be wrong if it doesn’t cause harm to someone. The Bible, and our own instincts, show us this is not true. There is an absolute right way to treat sex and violating that – whether in virtual reality, through images or with a doll – is just as wrong as violating it with a human.