The sex robots debate: we can do better

Awesome image by Stuart F Taylor

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.

11 Comments

  • Fkk Blog says:

    Er, is the fact that most “of our sex industry is geared towards straight guys” not simply a reflection of the significantly higher sex drive of men compared to women? How exactly would you propose to change this??

    • Joseph says:

      Is there any actual evidence that men have a higher sex drive? Because every bit of anecdotal evidence in my life is that women do (three relationships which encountered problems with mismatched sexual desire, always the woman who wanted more sex). I’m guessing it’s just a mix of performative gender and the fact that sex has lower consequences for men in 21st century life.

      • Fkk Blog says:

        There’s lots of evidence, try this for a summary: http://psr.sagepub.com/content/5/3/242.short

        • Girl on the net says:

          What Joseph said. Sexuality (and gender fwiw) is another area where we’re learning new things all the time, and even more so now we realise just how much of an impact nurture + society has on the ways people behave sexually. Your link is nice, but I think the idea that we’ve conclusively’proved’ that one gender has a demonstrably higher sex drive than other genders is ridiculously simplistic.

          Also not really the point of the piece, but if you click some of the links in that para you can see my thoughts on that in more detail.

          • Fearless diver says:

            GOTN has replied well to this post, and having looked at your link that does seem to be the conclusion. But I think the methods they use in this type of study, and the times involved are really really important. As I’m sure you, and the other readers here do too, males generally over the past 30 years or so which the studies cover have been much more sexually free. This can be ween in the expectations of the frequency of masturbation, and in the filming and advertisement of porn.
            So if the researchers were using older film, and the women involved felt at all more pressured to be less sexual, or this was in past expresse sexuality, then I think the results could hold, but this would prove more what was seen as acceptable of the times than actually how much of a sex drive either sex. As a result I would expect later samples to be less conclusive, and I would hope future samples to be even less so.

            On the article itself GOTN, it’s another really impressive one. An an enjoyable read.

  • Paul wood says:

    Futurama Did a good episode where Fry dates a Lucy Loo robot and they touched on some of the topics here , season 3 episode 15 I dated a robot and I think the did another one where Amy falls in love with be Bender the bending robot where robot love is socially taboo

  • Paul wood says:

    The Surrogates comic book series and then a film with Bruce Willis. Where people live out their lives in (remote control vehicles) as a form of telepresence in their daily lives and interactions with one-other that had some intriguing idea about sex , sexual orientation and changing gender

  • rare deeds says:

    I think there are two sorts of interesting questions (well, at least two, to begin with!).

    The first would be in the area of subjectivity – about how it would *feel* to have sex with robots.

    The second, as you suggest, is in a wholly other area – at a certain point, robots will stop being mere objects (this is also, in party, the premise behind the first set of questions). All our ethical frameworks thus far are predicated on human-robot interactions. This is in part a consequence of the AI-driven dominance of discourses around robotics. But there is another approach to the development of robotic consciousness, stemming from social, or swarm, robotics. Here, the emphasis would have to be on thinking how to frame any sort of ethics that was responsive to the distinctive culture of any robot “society”.

    I think both sorts of sets of questions have the potential to revolutionise how we think about sexuality.

  • SpaceCaptainSmith says:

    You’ve put a lot of thought into this topic, haven’t you. :) Well, it is fun to think about…

    I’m still not quite sure what it is these people are objecting to. As you say, ‘sex robots’ are not really anything new: besides vibrators and other sex toys, some people have built ‘fucking machines’ which are basically very primitive sexbots. But they don’t look human. And sex dolls exist, of course, but they don’t move or respond. The objection appears to be specifically to sex machines which look like humans and interact sexually somewhat like humans. The moral significance of this isn’t terribly clear; the argument seems to be based on a vague idea that people would start treating each other like machines. But it’s just as possible that the reverse could happen; isn’t it likely that, if cheap and lifelike sex robots existed, this would reduce the demand for human prostitutes? (So why aren’t they the ones protesting against them…)

    I’m inclined to think the objections are less based in logic, and more in a deep-rooted sense of repulsion against anything that’s uncomfortably close to human – the ‘Uncanny Valley’ effect. Sex robots seem to violate a metaphysical taboo separating humans from objects. (Of course, that’s just why some people like them.)

    The questions raised here are far more interesting, e.g. the one about falling in love with a robot. Isaac Asimov’s original collection ‘I, Robot’ included a story a bit like that: rather than someone falling for the robot, the robot lied to Scientist A that Scientist B was in love with her, because telling the truth that he wasn’t would cause her emotional harm. That brings up some big questions about just what ‘do no harm’ means.

  • Jessica says:

    How I wish you’d said ‘closed eyes and open legs”!

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