Yesterday, Deborah Orr wrote in the Guardian about ‘creepy’ sex robots. She began with a statement from Noel Sharkey – a robotics professor at Sheffield Uni – who earlier in the week had terrified people by claiming that one day people might lose their virginities to robots. Shock! Horror! Misery! Woe! Another way to perpetuate the myth of virginity as a valuable jewel which people must save to give to someone special!
Deborah questioned this, which is good, but she then launched in to a lot of the same disappointing fearmongering about sex tech that I’ve seen before. Let’s have a look. And then a rant.
Knee-jerk sex robot arguments
Here are a couple of quotes from Deborah Orr’s article.
‘It’s not overly optimistic to believe that the argument that women have complete autonomy over their own bodies is getting through. But this development? Automated bodies, designed to look and feel like women – it feels like an enormous refutation. “What? We are expected to see you as complete human beings, with your own minds and thoughts and choices? We aren’t having that. We have the technology to refuse this abomination.”’
I… OK. I think firstly it takes quite a lot to look at the current robotic technology and see anything like a substitute or replacement for a real person. Secondly, to claim that people turn to sex robots purely because they want a sex partner with no autonomy is to fundamentally write off all the numerous reasons why some people use technology to enhance their sex lives.
Moreover, a lot of the arguments against sex robots rely on this bizarre logical glitch:
- On one hand, in order to shock us, they need to assert that sex robots are going to be so realistic they replace people.
- On the other, in order to be horrified by ‘objectification’, they need to hold that sex robots are so far from people that the idea of fucking one is abhorrent.
These two things are interesting and useful to explore on their own, but they do not belong together as part and parcel of the same argument.
“There is nothing less erotic than someone believing or insisting that whatever else might be going on in another person’s mind – even “I do not want this” – they still have the right to have their “sexual needs” met. The people who are attracted to the idea of sex robots are the people who look at women and sex in this way. The idea that business and technology are so keen to oblige such narcissistic and sociopathic individuals is repellent.”
Again, here’s a glitch: no human being has a right to have sex with any other human being. Because in order to exercise your right, at some point you would have to remove someone else’s right to bodily autonomy. We’ve done this one before.
However, to claim that because you have no fundamental right to sexual contact, you are ‘sociopathic’ if you want to find ways to sexually satisfy yourself? That’s an abhorrent way to write off sexual desire.
Finally, who is to say that ‘the people who are attracted to the idea of sex robots are the people who look at women and sex in this way’? I would happily shag a robot, and I don’t think that having sex with a robot (no matter what its apparent gender) is born of some kind of twisted internal loathing of women, or contempt for basic consent.
Every argument against sex robots
Every time someone writes a new article about why sex robots are terrifying and will bring about the collapse of civilisation, I usually spot one – or all – of these problems hiding beneath the surface. Next time this discussion comes up (as it will – over and over), see if you can play bingo with this list…
They are painfully, obviously, relentlessly straight: yes, at the moment sex robots are primarily made for (and bought by) straight guys. Much of our sex industry is geared towards straight guys: that is a product of living in a society that for so long has presented male sexuality as the default option. Go type ‘sexy’ into Google search and see how long it takes you to find a picture that isn’t clearly geared towards a straight dude. We can – and will – change this. And long before robots have gained anything like consciousness, there will be robots to perform a whole lot more tasks than simply saying ‘oh yeah’ in a robot voice while you hump them.
They demonise male sexuality: I’m not going to tell you that men can’t be scary. Men are responsible for a shitload of sexual violence – and we should not write off the gender-based ways in which our society treats sexuality (for instance, expecting that men will have sex with anything that moves, or that they can be ‘excused’ abhorrent sexual assault because they couldn’t help themselves, etc etc). However, arguing that the popularity of sex robots will ‘inevitably’ lead to men being incapable of relating to women, or that it will turn men into ‘narcissistic’ and even ‘sociopathic’ creatures is:
a) deeply offensive and wrong. To paraphrase a common feminist argument – would you say this about your husband, your son, your brother?
b) propping up the exact same rape culture that tells us women were ‘asking for it.’ If your argument for banning sex robots is genuinely ‘oh but men will all turn into these awful people because they can’t help themselves’ then have a good long think about what you’re really telling us, and what impact that has on men’s accountability.
They forget that sex toys have been a valuable tool for people whose sexuality has often been ignored: the obvious group here is ‘women’ – vibrators exploded in popularity partly because they allowed women to access pleasure that for centuries had been considered impossible or vulgar. Yay for vibrators! Which objectify, well… men sometimes. Penises. Even pink bunny rabbits.
But it’s not just women – many of the advances in sex tech allow people to have sexual experiences that they may otherwise not have had. The PULSE by HotOctopuss, for instance, which was developed based on medical tech used in IVF for people with spinal injuries. That’s a sex toy which enables many people – who suffer from erectile dysfunction or who have often serious mobility problems – to masturbate, where before they could not.
They ignore that sex ‘robots’ and dolls have been a part of human sexuality for centuries: yes, it’s true. Not just in the form of ‘Dames du voyage’ – dolls made out of sacks which sailors would use to keep them company on long sea journeys, but also in stories and legends. Humans are creative people – we do not, and never have, simply wanted to fuck other humans. In a brilliant article which takes a measured look at sex and robotics, computer scientist Kate Devlin talks about even more ancient fascination with artificial people:
“The relationship between humans and their artificial counterparts runs right back to the myths of ancient Greece, where sculptor Pygmalion’s statue was brought to life with a kiss. It is the stuff of legend and of science fiction – part of our written history and a part of our imagined future.”
Genuinely interesting questions on sex robots
As a primer, for anyone thinking of writing or commissioning on sex robots, here are a few ethical questions that I think are genuinely interesting.
What happens when you fall in love with one?
Asimov’s law of robotics says: first, do no harm. Which can be interpreted simply when your robot is, for instance, caring for you in a nursing home. But what about when it enters into (or pretends to enter into) an emotional relationship with you? Is it possible for a robot to ‘do no harm’ when the very acts it’s performing are ones which draw you closer to it? And how about the second part of the first law: “a robot may not … through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” How does that work when humans develop attachment – as they inevitably will?
How do we research interactions with robots ethically?
Some research suggests that intimate relationships can help people live longer (there’s debate about this though). But if it’s true, do we have a moral duty to explore how we can give this support to people who might not have a human partner? If you’re thinking ‘no, that’s abhorrent’ – remember that there already exist robots who provide companionship for exactly this reason. Why could sex (and love) robots not be used in similar ways?
What of robot fetishists?
What of people who have a specific and exclusive fetish for robots? I had a fascinating guest blogger here once who wrote a gorgeous piece about his plushophilia: a fetish for stuffed toy animals. It’s more than likely that there are some people who only want to have sex with robots – and who are we to say that they can’t?
And oh God so many more. Those are just a few of the questions that popped into my head while I was drinking coffee and bashing this blog post out. There are even more interesting questions to explore when we look at practicality (If we can build a robot for pleasure, why make it look human at all? Could we not give it a Doxy wand attachment or multiple hands like in the picture that illustrates this post?) or when we start investigating the impact of robots on our relationships (if robots aren’t conscious, is it still cheating if you fuck one? And as someone pointed out on that blog post – are we likely to form different styles of relationships depending on how well we understand the technology? I’m more likely to assume benevolent or malevolent tendencies to my computer than my computer-engineer partner is, in part because I don’t understand the mechanics).
And more – those who object to sex robots, do they also object to sex toys? Many of them object to sex work, I’ve noticed, but how would they feel about me shagging a blow-up doll? Would their objections depend on how realistic it was or whether it had a Siri-style chatbot attached to its face? Where do you draw the line, other than just the point at which your gut instinct tells you ‘eww’? How would they feel about sex robots in a world without gender expectations or sexual violence? How do they feel about me taking a care robot – such as PARO the seal, used to help dementia and alzheimers patients – and rubbing myself against it for sexual gratification? Is it OK because that’s not what the robot is designed for? Or is it unacceptable and deviant? In which case, I’ve got some YouPorn videos to show you, in which humans fuck everything from pumpkins to beer cans to sofas, because we’re an odd lot and we like a good wank.
These questions are interesting. They’re worth exploring. They’re far more interesting than broad-brush condemnations of technology. And that’s as true today as it has been for hundreds of years. Every time there’s a new innovation, there are people gearing up to smash it to pieces because it’s terrifying and different and oh God won’t you think of the children?! In fact, technology is what you make of it – in itself it’s morally neutral. That’s as true for sex tech as it is for smartphones, medical tech, and even fun AI like AlphaGo. We need to explore these things so we can learn to use technology for good, across every aspect of the human experience: that might mean caring for people with dementia, cleaning up rivers, making food, playing chess or hoovering our house at midnight. And yes, because sex is also a fundamental part of the human experience, it means exploring that too.
I know I often come across as relentlessly positive when it comes to sex tech – that’s partly because I am a starry-eyed optimist who believes that on balance humanity is a pretty decent bunch of people. But I’m not saying that we should embrace sex robots with closed eyes and open arms, just as I’d never say that the porn industry is all sunshine and ethics. What I’m saying – no, wailing desperately in the hope someone will listen – is that if we want to critique sex tech, let’s do it properly.
Let’s ask the interesting questions, not just the easy ones.