There aren’t a lot of other options. “Paedophilia is something that’s very difficult to treat,” he says. “You cannot change this sexual preference in itself as you can change a bad habit like smoking.” Those who do find their way to treatment can try cognitive behavioral therapy; in many countries, the more drastic option of chemical castration is available – or even forcible under law. Online, anonymous groups such as Virtuous Pedophiles have convened, offering support to people who don’t want to act on their desires, but who also don’t want to risk speaking to a therapist.
Perhaps, Renaud suggests, VR – coupled for example, with cognitive behavioural therapy – can help people learn to cope with and understand their desires. One project he’s working on will offer a walk through a computer-simulated park filled with “criminal opportunities”. He suggests another future therapy might combine virtual reality with neurofeedback to parts of the brain associated with empathy, to help paedophiles who have committed offences better grasp what their victims experience, in the hopes that this will prevent them from reoffending. In a controlled lab setting, a sex robot might help make the simulations seem even more realistic, adding touch and texture to these experiences.
Some researchers are cautiously optimistic about the idea. “It is possible that virtual child pornography content or other simulations such as child sex dolls or robots might be a safer outlet for at least some individuals who are sexually attracted to children,” says Michael C. Seto, director of the Forensic Research Unit at the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group in Canada.