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Is it cheating if you fuck a robot?

If you’re not yet up to date on Channel 4’s uncanny-valley AI drama Humans, then please note that this blog post contains spoilers up to episode 5. 

Never one to shy away from the big questions, this week I had a fairly heated debate with a gentleman about the issue of whether robot sex is cheating. I know, it doesn’t really seem relevant, right? After all, this is far-into-the-future shit that we won’t have to deal with for hundreds of years yet. How close are we really to creating a fuckable robot?

Well, depending on your definition of ‘fuckable robot’, one already exists. Sure, we’re still in the early days, but there are many cool techy pleasure toys on the market (I’m thinking fucking machines or masturbators with some kind of mechanical/buzzy element, toys designed with wifi/bluetooth apps, that kind of thing) but realistically we’re getting pretty inventive. There are toys which you can pair together over long distances (like this Kiiroo masturbator, which twins with an insertable vibrator, and aims to wank you off in time to the vibrator use). We also have fairly realistic-looking sex dolls, which – if twinned with this kind of technology – would create a passably robotic lover.

It is well exciting.

I’ve talked before about robot sex, when a bloody strange opinion poll reported that only 17% of people said they’d have sex with a robot. My answer to this question is ‘hell yes,’ especially if the robot is pretty good at sex. But what prompted the debate the other day wasn’t whether or not either of us would do it, but whether doing it would count – to either of us – as ‘cheating.’

Is it hot if you fuck a robot?

Here’s where the spoilers come in. In Channel 4’s Humans (which I enjoy because I fucking love anything that deals with the consciousness questions surrounding AI), a family acquires a synth (basically a house robot) and in one of the early episodes the possibility of sex is planted in the mind of the husband. He discovers a sealed packet with ‘+18 options’ written on the outside, and cheekily hides it in his pocket. Naturally, ever since this happened, I have been waiting for the inevitable moment when he activates those options and has a grisly, perfunctory hump of the family’s synthetic companion.

I was not disappointed.

I’ll admit, so you understand my bias here, that I am deeply aroused by watching a man have soulless, functional, guilt-inducing sex. That’s probably one for another day, to be honest, because I could spend a long time waxing lyrical about the delights of watching his face twist in self-disgust as he comes. It works with things other than robots, too. Basically, if a guy has a wank he’s a bit ashamed about, I will probably be having a shameful wank of my own while I watch it.

Anyway, that wasn’t the question. The question was:

Is it cheating if you fuck a robot?

My general definition of cheating is that it’s cheating if you do something that falls outside the boundaries you’ve agreed with your partner. For some couples this might mean a quick snog is cheating. For others you’re not ‘cheating’ unless you have full sex and you lie about it afterwards: we all have different ways of making things work. However, that comes with the massive caveat that your partner’s requests must be reasonable. I wouldn’t tell a guy that he’s cheating on me if he has a wank, nor vice versa. And if he’s just having a wank, then who am I to dictate how he does it?

Here’s the problem, though: while I could not possibly conceive of this type of robot sex being ‘just a wank’, the guy I spoke to did. Utterly and unequivocally. If a robot is not conscious, then it is not a person: therefore you’re just having a wank. Even if they look 100% human. Even if they have tits and eyes and speech and all that jazz. Even if – and I think here’s the crux of the issue – they give a passable impression of consciousness.

Here’s where I fall down. Because while I can accept that it’s perfectly possible for an unconscious object (like a robot or what have you) to fool you into believing that it is conscious, I can’t deal with the disconnect required for the guy in this situation. In the face of such a believable pantomime of consciousness, to maintain the belief that he’s just wanking seems very odd indeed.

If you have seen Humans, forget for a second that the robot (Anita/Mia) has consciousness hidden somewhere: we’re just talking here about a creature that, despite taking a passable swipe at the Turing test, is nevertheless definitely ‘a thing’ rather than ‘a person’. For him that was enough to demote sex to masturbation: his knowledge of the ‘thingness’, no matter how much personhood someone might appear to have. For me: just the impression of personhood was enough to make me feel like the whole affair should be approached differently. Perhaps given our radically different views, it would be cheating if I fucked the robot, but not if he did.

That sounds wrong, though. We’re both doing the same thing (in my hypothetical future-robot-sex scenario), so how can the only difference be what’s happening in our heads?

I think my issue here is that in order to actually do that – fuck a robot that appeared human in all other respects, yet still categorise it as a wank – you’d have to turn off whatever bit of your brain gives you a tendency to empathise. It’s not like we magically understand exactly what is and isn’t conscious, and to what degree. We don’t know for a fact, on first glance, that this pig is more sentient than that oyster: we just have instincts that point us in the right direction. And when our instincts kick in, we’re likely to treat things differently if we think they can understand the way we’re behaving. Of course these instincts misfire sometimes (like when we attribute complex personalities to hamsters, or cry if someone punches a muppet in the face), but in general they’re sound: if something looks like it thinks and feels, we’re best acting as if it can actually think and feel.

At the end of the day, I have no idea if you can think and feel, but I act as if you do because it feels like the safest option.

So, in the robot sex scenario, I can rationally comprehend that a robot may be no more sentient than a masturbation sleeve, and all the logical pieces fit together that tell me it’s not technically ‘cheating’ if my partner were to fuck one, and yet (I think) I can still have a rational reason to feel a bit squicky about it. Not because the act itself is bad, but because the robot does such a good impression of consciousness that treating it as if it had none makes me uncomfortable about the person who is ‘wanking’ with it. In the same way I’d be uncomfortable if they immediately dropped the knee-jerk politeness tics that help us all get along (please, thank you, sorry – that kind of thing).

If a robot acts, speaks, and behaves as if it’s a genuinely conscious person, then it can never be simply ‘a wank.’ In fact, faced with a robot that seems like a person, acting as if it isn’t is, ironically, quite robotic. Perhaps, if tech ever gets us close to a vision of human interaction with sex robots we’ll need to come up with a new word: something that describes a relationship that isn’t human/human, based on equal and mutual consciousness, but that isn’t human/machine either. Something more sophisticated than the kind of interaction you’d have with your toaster, or your vibrating masturbation sheath. I’m not yet sold on the cheating question, and it’d depend a lot on your individual relationships, but I’m sticking with my initial gutpunch discomfort on the broader topic: while robot sex might not be a ‘fuck’ in the way that we’d generally understand it, it’s definitely more than a wank.


  • David says:

    Thank you for a thought-provoking post.

    I’m not sure there’s any meaningful difference between a robot which behaves as though it is conscious, and one which *is* conscious; we have no way of telling the difference, and, let’s face it, we can’t even prove that other people are conscious. If it acts like a sentient being, then the safest bet seems to be treating it as a sentient being, rather than as a really advanced wanking sheath.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Ah definitely – this is exactly where I’m coming from, although you put it far more succinctly than I did in my own waffle =)

    • Metastopheles says:

      I agree with this completely.

      Having said that the problem obviously comes in with at what point do we determine something is conscious. I read about a chatbot that acts like an 13 year old boy that passed the Turing test in the last couple of years (citation here: ) but we’re not giving it human rights yet.

      I don’t watch the tv-series so I can’t comment yet on how real ‘seeming’ the robots in that show act, but I think before we can go around bestowing every chatbot with the right to vote we should determine what the cut off point is.

      I think it is cheating because there is the possibility of forming an emotional connection, whether that runs one or two ways or not between the parties involved. Since a toy or a hand is not an ‘actor’ in any real sense, but something that requires activation and use of the wanking individual, this is obviously not cheating. Of course if you’re one of those people who can ‘fall in love’ with objects (cars, swords, etc) then that’s a different matter.

      It also goes without saying that I would form a relationship and have sex with a synthetic being. I find in fiction i’ve always been drawn to those tragic love stories between AI and human, Cortana and Master Chief, Andrew and Portia (from Bicentennial Man) and so on. I think i’d even rather prefer something like that over human relationships.

  • D. says:

    I’m with the guy. Was he a software developer by any chance? :-) Maybe having a fair idea of how the trick (of faking sentience) would be done makes it less emotionally convincing?

    • Girl on the net says:

      Haha, he may have been =p And you’re right – maybe where there’s more understanding of why a program spits out a particular answer, it’s easier to suspend that bit of you that wants to attribute intent to things (see also me saying “my computer fucking hates me” when it crashes, while a developer would just look for the bit that was causing the problem without attributing an actual personality).

    • Girl on the net says:

      Holy shit that video: “I dream about learning the meaning of love.”
      I didn’t know that RD were experimenting with AI, but I reckon they’ll probably do quite well (especially in terms of working out what doesn’t work and what hits the uncanny valley thing). Particularly liked this comment “According to McMullen, the key to avoiding a creepy Uncanny Valley while adding the new movement and reaction is making sure the dolls still look like dolls, instead of detailed copies of real people” – YES. One of the things I don’t buy about Humans is that the synths are all made to look not just human but individual. I think if we were to have sentient(ish) or sentient acting robots, there is no way humanity would choose to make them look like us. I think we’d crave the ‘other’ ness and being able to tell at a glance who was and wasn’t a synth. Like, we’d colour them blue or make them look like the robots in the Will Smith film, I reckon. We’re far too fragile to live side by side with something that looks like us. I think.

  • Ay None says:

    I could drag out bits of my Philosophy degree and start talking about Searle’s Chinese Room and the like, but it’s too early to be that pretentious right now.

    I think once you have a device that gives a passable imitation of consciousness then you’re well within your rights to start asking questions of anyone who maintains it’s still just a wank. Because surely they’re getting something from it that’s more than just a functional orgasm? A sheath won’t independently react to what you’re doing; it doesn’t make the right noises or tell you how good it feels. Once you get to that level of ‘consciousness’ you’re closer to sex with a prostitute than to wanking; if you hire a prostitute they’ll say whatever you need but when it’s done you walk away and there’s an understanding that there’s no real emotional connection there.

    So: is it cheating to hire a prostitute for a functional fuck? If so, is it any different to be using a robot in that way?

    And if you think this question is tricky, wait until we have to start asking if robots can give meaningful consent…

    • Girl on the net says:

      I think the difference (for me) isn’t in whether the fuck is functional or not. I don’t think I’d be happy if a partner I’d agreed to be monogamous with shagged a sex worker, even if it were functional. But then I’m not massively happy drawing a comparison between robots and sex workers because sex workers are people, and conscious people at that – they consent or do not consent and I think there’s a vast difference.

      But the idea of whether robots can consent is a really interesting one – I touched on this a bit in the previous blog on robots. Basically I reckon if we accept that a robot can be sentient or conscious, then we can accept that it can consent. What follows from that is that in any situation where it can’t consent (i.e. where it was sentient but programmed to say ‘yes’ to all human orders/desires) then that would be immoral and appalling. If, on the other hand, a robot could choose (like Jude Law in AI) to become a sex worker, then to refuse to fuck someone on the basis that they’re robotic rather than flesh-based would seem like an odd kind of bias. Maybe. Anyway, here’s the previous one:

      • Ay None says:

        My intention wasn’t to declare sex workers equivalent to robots in this hypothetical situation, but merely to suggest a similarity of experience from the point of view of the other party (and leaving aside the issue of consent, for this discussion).

        For me, I think the question of cheating comes down to what the person is gaining from the experience and whether it’s reasonable to deny them that outside of the relationship. So most (but by no means all) people would accept that they can’t insist on sole possession of their partner’s orgasms, and thus wanking isn’t cheating. But many people consider sex with someone outside the relationship to be cheating, because they don’t consider it unreasonable to want to be the only person gets that from.

        Does sex with a hypothetical robot offer something that wanking with a regular sex toy doesn’t? Absolutely it does. Is it therefore reasonable for your partner to request that you don’t do it? Quite possibly, if you’re in a monogamous relationship.

        It’s that human-like experience that would make me wary of anyone who was too wedded to the idea that it was ‘just’ a wank and they should absolutely be allowed to do it.

        • Girl on the net says:

          Ah, I totally see what you mean. And yeah I think the whole ‘cheating’ thing is difficult because it’s so dependent on people’s relationships and what they’ve agreed within their own rules and boundaries. I think we’re on the same page re: the human-like experience. If a guy had sex with a real doll (or a robot so obviously rubbish and robotic that there wasn’t even a question of consciousness) then I think I’d be fine with it (or, in fact, actively turned on because of my thing for guys doing quick functional wanks/fucks). But yeah, it’s that suspension of empathy required to conceive of something conscious-seeming as ‘just a wank’ that gets me.

  • mike says:

    Robots might not need to look, behave or think like a real human before they become disruptive to human relationships. Near enough or different enough might suit some people better than a human-human relationship. Also, the mechanism of an advanced sex robot may not resemble a human at all and be capable of entertaining multiple partners simultaneously.

    • Girl on the net says:

      “the mechanism of an advanced sex robot may not resemble a human at all and be capable of entertaining multiple partners simultaneously.” Wow – that has put so many things in my head. That’s a bloody good point. If we were to create a robot to fulfill sexual needs, then its design may be drastically different to the humanoid look of most sci fi robots.

      • Thrasymachus says:

        I found myself asking the same question you did when I saw the scene, and the idea of an “advanced sex robot” was the first thing that came to mind (not in an erotic sense, sorry – the curse of a philosophy graduate).

        Simply put, I thought a more effective “fuck bot” wouldn’t look like that. I guess for me personally, the mimicry of humanity is a creepy turn off (maybe for that guy too), but that doesn’t make me empathise with it – the opposite in fact. We might have similar feelings on the matter (also, this thing looks after your kids – learn some boundaries ffs!) but it seems weird to me (not in a negative sense – just foreign) that you would say:

        “I can’t deal with the disconnect required for the guy in this situation. In the face of such a believable pantomime of consciousness, to maintain the belief that he’s just wanking seems very odd indeed.”

        Weird if only – and I know this is a presumption on my part – that under those conditions, you’re still quite accepting of having this thing be an actual slave. I personally think the entire family offer way too much… “courtesy” to a glorified Rumba. It seems unhealthy, or creepy – to say “please” and “thank you” to it or care whether it laughs or not (obviously ignoring the whole “Mia” thing). It’s because I know that’s how I feel about “real” people, and also that I’d never make real people my indentured servants – I wouldn’t “recycle” them and or leave them in a forest alone to hide their existence.

        The “believability” argument would have to apply to everything – the idea that there are “degrees” to how much a person can have value, based on how believable they come across, is kinda scary to me. I’m not proposing that is what you are saying, but I guess in the same way you “can’t deal with the disconnect”, I can’t deal with idea that he is doing anything more than humping a talking vacuum cleaner – because if that was ever in question, it should have come up way earlier than him activating adult mode (remember that scene when he kept saying “it’s not real, it’s not real”?).

        That being said (I promise, this is nearly done) the concept of reporting “inappropriate touching”, especially when children are concerned, makes sense if you’re going to have a believably human robot (and one example of why that’s a really bad idea to me) – because we wouldn’t want people who are still developing socially/mentally or perhaps have social or mental impairments, to start confusing how to treat objects and people. This includes what (nearly) happened at the party. Considering the way they were acting, I’d argue this was symptomatic of existing behavioural problems – like if they could’ve “got away” with doing that to a real woman, they would have.

      • Peter Ellis says:

        Also, what do you mean by “a robot”? Do you mean the physical hardware, or the software running on it? Given wireless technology, you could have one ‘personality’ (one AI simulation) that runs many independent physical units…

  • v21 says:

    Cheating is a pretty small part of it, to my mind. Thinking about this, it seems like there’s a spectrum of consciousness, with different considerations at different parts. Fuck an object, like a vibrating wank-sleeve or whatever just count as wanks. Fuck a being with personhood, and their consent is very important. But if the entity falls in between, then surely the situation is the same as having sex with a animal or a child – basically, Don’t Do It. They don’t have the capacity to consent, but are aware enough of what’s happening for their consent to be relevant.

    Would a robot fall into that “valley of consent”? I don’t actually know. I’m presuming that consciousness is a spectrum, but it’s obviously a more complex process than that. I really like the Edsger Dijkstra quote “The question of whether machines can think is about as relevant as the question of whether submarines can swim.”. A tricky thought experiment here: if you build a machine to enthusiastically consent to sex (without the rest of personhood, to the extent that that’s possible), is that really consent? Is it consent if someone else built it? Is it consent if you don’t know it was built that way? At some point you have to start respecting a robot’s autonomy, I think.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Ooh yes good questions. I think basically no – if it’s programmed to consent then that’s not consent in the true meaning of the word, any more than it’s consent if you raise a person to believe that there are certain orders it absolutely must obey. Basically I think as soon as we accept that something is consciously able to make its own decisions, then we must treat those decisions with the same weight as we would if they were made by a human. Acting as if something is a person, even if it’s not quite high enough on the ‘consciousness scale’ for us to be 100% certain that it is a person.

      I think I disagree on the fact that if it falls in between then Don’t Do It, though: while a child or an animal may lack the ability to consent, they definitely aren’t lacking in consciousness or personhood, which I think is were they’d differ from robots. I suspect, though, that if we did have conscious-*seeming* robots, there’d be many for whom this closeness to humanity would mean they’d be freaked out by the idea of shagging one. I can totally get that, although I think I probably still would (and wouldn’t see anything immoral in it).

      • Woo says:

        Would consent have any value if there was no alternative? I questioned the idea of the dolly brothel. The sensient robot being incensed by being asked to act as though afraid was murderously empathetic.

        Is there any thrill of the chase if the prey has no chance to escape?

  • themaninthepost says:

    Just to deviate from the thread slightly only because I have nothing add to the well written replies. If you are in to Humans I recommend ‘Ex Mechina’ it’s a film that came out a few months ago. It’s very excellent, you’ll love it.

    • Girl on the net says:

      I’ve seen it, ta – it’s good. I think it should have ended ever so slightly sooner, though. Without posting spoilers, I mean the bit where the static starts. Would have LOVED that as an ending.

      • David says:

        Oh really? I thought the whole idea of embodiment should have been left behind…

      • SpaceCaptainSmith says:

        I’ve just watched the film and I’m not sure exactly which bit you mean, but I agree it went on just a few minutes too long. But the final twist was perfect.

        Totally with you on the sex-with-robots question as well (although in Ex Machina, unlike in Humans, the robot is unquestionably conscious anyway).

        • Girl on the net says:

          Ah, so [SPOILER ALERT STOP READING IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EX MACHINA] I mean the bit where she traps him in the building and leaves via the lift. Basically it was just so beautifully cruel and desolate, and I think made a much stronger gutpunch ending than just having her out and about in the world.

          Agree on Ex Machina as well – definitely conscious. If not in exactly the same way as a human (because who knows?) but close enough that to treat her in a way we wouldn’t treat a human would be morally abhorrent.

          p.s. sorry about the blocking – your comment’s been approved, it’s just that all comments with links in get sent to pending – I try to approve them as soon as I see them though!

  • Charlie says:

    So I had to skip through most of it because I haven’t watch the show yet, but I agree with you. If the robot is designed to simulate feelings, emotions, and consciousness, then I don’t buy into the idea that it’s just a wank. There’s too much socio-psychological interplay with such a robot that mimics an actual one night stand or affair. It simulates a human interaction more than a Fleshlight, or popping in a DVD of porn. It’s too slippery of a slope to say it isn’t cheating.

  • Aaron says:

    My perspective is that if you feel the need to hide something, as he did, then whether your partner thinks it’s cheating or not, YOU clearly do. If having sex with a machine is all hunky-dory within the terms of a particular relationship, why hide it?

    • David says:

      I’m not sure that argument holds together, Aaron – plenty of people hide masturbation / porn from their partners, but that isn’t generally held to be cheating.

      • Aaron says:

        They hide the details of when/where/how it’s done, certainly. But I don’t know that there’s that many relationships where there isn’t a tacit understanding that it happens.

      • syrup says:

        It isn’t held to be cheating because of the ‘reasonable caveat’ mentioned by GOTN too — but that’s demanding a minimum standard of “you can’t tell me not to wank”, rather than anything having to do with ‘reasonableness’.

        Some people might feel that their partner masturbating is similar to cheating, and then a “but this blog here says it’s okay!” reply doesn’t get you anywhere.
        You need to define what’s okay and what’s not with your partner, and that includes how they feel about masturbation, masturbation with porn, masturbation with fleshlights or sex robots, mutual masturbation, masturbation with strangers, etc.
        Just because it’s generally seen as ‘okay’ among ‘reasonable’ people doesn’t mean some can’t react negatively to it.

        And after you have that talk, knowing that your partner is okay with you masturbating or watching porn also may help you stop the guilty feelings that make you hide that behaviour from them, y’know?

        So yes, I completely disagree with the ‘must be reasonable caveat’ @ OP. It’s up to the two (or more) involved people to decide how they feel about this, not to contemporary societal standards of what is or is not reasonable.

  • Vida says:

    Sommer Marsden has a story in Geek Love about this from the robot’s point of view, and it’s heartbreaking. I’m not sure I agree with you, but reading that story would have anyone sold in a minute :)

  • Oh boy, you really set up an argument there. We both masturbate, but Peter hasn’t done so for some time as he saves his ability to recover to deal with our lovemaking. If he feels like a wank he just gives me a kiss and we make love. Anytime, anywhere as far as I’m concerned. My needs are greater and the shower-head gets brought into play at least two or three times a week and I own a few toys I use on my own regularly. I mention all of that because your article has brought up so many trains of thought.

    He offered to masturbate me with my toys if I asked him to, but I don’t ask. I’m embarrassed despite our intimacy. Asking him to wank me is a bit like telling him his refactory period is too long, so it is a form of criticism, also, how would he feel if he’d given me half a dozen vibrator orgasms and I still wanted more? It does happen sometimes when I’m ladywanking – a hour or more is not unusual. He thought he’d get depressed. It is not on, is it?

    We both accept the other can wank, but I’d prefer to have sex when he wanted wanks, but know he can’t keep up with that for me when I need a wank. It is a real problem and we’re best left to our own devices (pun intended).

    Now, moving on to how this argument developed over the robots in HUMANS, I was comfortable to say he could have sex with one because it was really just a machine, but he told me he’d be insanely jealous if I used one. I asked why and he said it was because, as far as he was concerned, the robot would be warm, feel like a man, would cuddle and kiss me, caress and arouse me and ejaculate warm imitation semen into me at the precise moment I had my orgasm. He knows he can’t quite promise that sort of performance or ability and he would feel I was cheating because I would eventually prefer the bot to him. I can’t understand that because if he was having sex with the female version it would be, as far as I was concerned, just a fuck-sleeve.

    We both agreed this needed much, much more thought.

    Finally, one of the bots (the sexy blonde) in HUMANS has, of course, got so repelled by the degradation she was being put through by a human male that she killed him. I’d say that was lack of consent, wouldn’t you? LOL.

  • TMTS says:

    I agree that it depends on the boundaries of a particular relationship.

    In more general terms, it’s a question of a robot possessing a “personhood”, for want of a better term. And to determine this one, I’d tend to use a more drastic criterion for the thought experiment. Is a robot something that you are (ethically) allowed to destroy, switch off forever etc? If you can destroy it on a whim, it’s not a person. If you can’t, it’s a person of some kind and fucking it is not just a wank. If you can, it’s an object, and you’re wanking.

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