Can – and should – sex robots withdraw consent?

Image by the awesome Stuart F Taylor

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but our robots in 2018 aren’t quite at ‘Westworld’ standard yet. A couple of articles recently about sex robots and consent have led me to wonder if some people genuinely think our tech is advanced enough to create sentient humanoids, capable of a full range of emotions and thoughts. But even though sex robots can’t actually feel anything, should they be programmed to pretend? Specifically: can – and should – sex robots withdraw consent?

Let’s start with the literal basics: sex robots are very basic. They can move a little, talk a little, and perform very simple conversations. I don’t say this to diminish the hard work of engineers who are building them, because even a robot that can chat about the weather is a pretty impressive machine. But it is not ‘consciousness’ in any way we would understand it. Your sex robot can learn your name, and potentially start to learn what the ‘best’ responses are to give you (“Hello GOTN you’re looking lovely today, and well done on completing your to-do list!”) but even though we can fall in love with sex robots, the robots can’t yet love us back. They aren’t capable of original thought, desire, fear, love, or any of that stuff. They are also not capable of consenting to sexual activity. Don’t freak out though – they’re not capable of not consenting either.

To me, a non-techy individual, computers are essentially boxes of magic. I find it tricky to avoid anthropomorphising them. My laptop hates me, for instance, as evidenced by the fact that it only truly fucks up and loses all my work when I happen to be on a tight deadline. Obviously this isn’t true – my laptop doesn’t hold any animus towards me, and my belief that it does things only when I desperately need it not to is a result of confirmation bias in my flawed human brain. My laptop is a machine. It no more hates me than my washing machine ‘hates’ me when I put it on the wrong setting and it shrinks all my sexiest pants. My partner – who does understand computers – occasionally has to have stern words with me when I’m getting teary over tech, explaining that computers are “just rocks that we tricked into thinking.” No matter how real they might seem, they are not – at the moment – people.

Even at their most advanced, sex robots are still dumber – in the literal sense of having less processing capacity – than your average smartphone.

Why do we care if sex robots ‘consent’?

Given the limitations of your average sex robot, it is strange to ask the question ‘does this sex robot consent?’ After all, we wouldn’t ask this question of your washing machine. Both sex robots and washing machines are designed and programmed to accept your load, but for only one of these things do we care whether the machine pretends to enjoy it.

Do I sound callous here? I hope so. Because part of the point of making that comparison is to tap into something that makes you uncomfortable – the fact that sex robots do not look like machines. So it feels like there’s something different here – something more than just an appliance with an ‘on’ switch. We see these robots as more significant than our washing machines because they look like us. And we don’t like people dishing out cruelty to things that look like us – it’s why burning effigies of Guy Fawkes at bonfire night can seem more ghoulish than just chucking logs on a fire, and why you’d probably be less bothered by me stabbing your favourite cushion than your favourite teddy bear.Crucially, at the moment that is only a feeling – there is nothing ‘real’ or sensitive or conscious or feeling about a sex robot. On some level, even though we know that to be true, many of us are still uncomfortable seeing sex robots in positions that we’d never want a human forced into.

There’s also the argument – put forward by many people who are anti-sex-robot – that the fact that sex robots look like us puts them in a different category because their appearance alone makes them proxies for other people. Let’s be honest here, sex robots don’t really look like ‘people’ – they look like women. Usually young, slim, cisgender women. Women parodied by the male gaze, filtered through a lens of societal misogyny, and sculpted into the teenage wank-fantasy of whichever straight man happens to be in charge of production. Because I’m so fascinated by sex robots – and unwilling to immediately condemn them as The Beginning Of The End Of Mankind – I often get accused of ignoring the rampant misogyny that is so prevalent in the industry, so I hope that including this here shows I’m not unaware of the problems. We churn out sex robots that look like young women, and then we sell them mainly to men who want to fuck them. Many of the guys who buy these robots will either hate or fear women in real life, and many will be dudes who could do with seeing women as more than just youthful holes to fuck.

I am not unaware of this problem, and as a result I’m interested in the ways in which sex robot manufacturers take on board and respond to some of the criticisms of how they construct their products.My own answer to the question ‘can sex robots consent?’ is a wholehearted ‘no.’ With the limited tech we have, your sex robot can no more consent than your Fleshlight can, or your vibrator, or your smartphone. So asking ‘how do we get a robot to consent?’ is nonsense – like asking how to make friends with Alexa, or how to show Siri what love is. But given the fact that these robots are going to interact with human beings, I do think there’s value in exploring how a robot might give the appearance of consent – or lack of it.

How should sex robots withdraw consent?

Recently a company called Synthea Amatus announced that they were testing out a way for sex robots to withdraw consent.

That, in itself, is interesting. I like the idea, and I think it’s well worth exploring for a whole bunch of reasons. From a commercial perspective, if people are looking for more and more ‘realistic’ sex robots, then it stands to reason the most realistic ones will be those which aren’t always going to do exactly what you want them to, exactly when you want it. While some will no doubt want robots that ‘put out’ on demand, simple wish-fulfilment is the easy path, and often human beings want to be able to work for something. It’s why video games don’t just give you all your weapons upgrades during the tutorial then let you blast your way easily through to level 12. From an education and ethics perspective, of course, having sex robots which say ‘no’ sometimes could be an excellent way to teach those who might buy them that consensual sex isn’t something you can always have on tap. And finally, Asimov’s laws of robotics say that robots should ‘do no harm’ – so for a sex robot which can recognise when further sexual contact with a particular human might be damaging to that human, being able to shut down and withdraw consent could be of enormous benefit.

So this sex robot – Samantha – has been programmed to withdraw consent by shutting down.

And boy, do some people not like that.

In Gizmodo, AJ Dellinger explained how it works:

“The new update is called “dummy mode” (a weird and arguably offensive name choice) and can be activated in a number of situations. If a partner is disrespecting the bot or touching it in an aggressive manner, the motorized parts of Samantha—hands, arms, hips, facial expressions, etc.—will shut down and it will become unresponsive. It will also enter into dummy mode if it is feeling bored by its partner’s advances.”

But AJ does not like this way of dealing with the situation, because it isn’t extreme enough.

“While Samantha can render itself unresponsive, it can’t actually prevent its partner from having sex. There are no repercussions for the person if they choose to just go to town on the motionless robot, which seems like it might be teaching the exact opposite of the intended lesson.”

The fact that Samantha ‘can’t actually prevent its partner from having sex’ doesn’t seem like a massive problem here. What ‘repercussions’ would AJ have meted out to the user? Should it explode? Shoot spikes out of its bum? Cut the user’s cock off with an inbuilt vaginal chainsaw? Remember, please, that this is an appliance. It’s something that is sold to consumers to give them sexual pleasure. Would you buy a Fleshlight if it were programmed to explode if it detected you watching problematic pornography? No. And you wouldn’t even need to be a consumer of problematic pornography for this to put you off buying one – the possibility of malfunction or false positive means that the risk of owning one of these is that your dick might get blown off. 

It’s not just ridiculous to want sex robots to respond violently if someone ignores their ‘withdraw consent’ cues – the way we talk about sex robots often highlights our attitudes towards certain humans, and we’re now going down a path which implies there is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ way for actual human women to respond to rape. Here’s an extract from a similarly pissed off article about Samantha’s ‘dummy mode’, this time from Mel Magazine:

“Here’s where it gets so creepy it’s almost too lifelike: There’s nothing stopping users from having sex with her anyway. It’s not as if her genitalia comes equipped with a swift iron gate that prevents penetration, or a set of hidden vagina dentata. She lies there, unable to do what a real woman could do in a real-life forced sexual encounter.”

Sorry – what? What exactly do ‘real women’ do in a real-life forced sexual encounter? Because ‘entirely shutting down’ sounds to me like a pretty common way to deal with something so traumatic. We’re told often that the response to frightening situations is ‘fight or flight’, but in fact more recently some psychologists have argued that we should instead talk about ‘fight, flight or freeze’ because so many people in traumatic situations will just freeze up completely. This is especially important to remember in cases of rape or sexual assault, where many women have reported either freezing or even complying with and trying to appease their rapist because that may be the best way for them to survive. Pushing a narrative that ‘real women’ all fight back violently in a sexual assault scenario is deeply damaging to victims of sexual assault – it contributes to the ‘why didn’t you just run/fight/scream?’ narrative that contributes to rape culture and makes prosecutions for these crimes so difficult.

There is no ‘right’ way to respond to sexual assault, because everyone has different ways of processing traumatic experiences. Many of us – like Samantha – would simply shut down.

Is ‘shutting down’ the right way for a sex robot to withdraw consent?

If I were pushed to come up with a way for a sex robot to indicate ‘I don’t consent to this’, I’d probably suggest a total shutdown too. Naturally I don’t think sex robots are capable of consent at all, but if I had to programme one to look like it was withdrawing consent, saying ‘no’ and then totally shutdown would seem like the best option.

1. It’s the clearest way, given our current technology, to indicate ‘no.’

2. It does not harm the user, who is a human being, and therefore whose safety should be paramount in any situation.

3. It has ramifications for the user.

That last one might come as a surprise to you seeing as I just wrote a long section about sex robots not chopping your dick off, but let’s face it: a total shutdown is a significant thing. In the Mel Mag piece, Tracy Moore says that despite Samantha’s shutdown “men can still fuck the doll, and fuck it they likely will, making Samantha’s ability to say no about as important of an upgrade as the iPhone 8” and goes on to ask “Won’t this just be a boon to necrophiliacs or “starfishers” who prefer a motionless lay?”

If they were into a motionless lay, why on Earth would they have bought a sex robot in the first place? Essentially, a sex robot is just an upgrade on an old-fashioned sex doll: a toy which, incidentally, has been around for thousands of years in various forms. If someone wants a ‘realistic’ necrophiliac experience, they can buy the dolls for a fraction of the cost of one of these expensive, talking sexbots. Perhaps a better comparison isn’t an iPhone upgrade but an iPhone downgrade.

Let’s say your phone detects that you’re sending unsolicited dick pics to random people on Twitter. It recognises this as non-consensual behaviour, and so it immediately shuts down the app and limits your phone’s features to prevent you from doing it any more. Whether cutting off your internet, disabling your camera, or whatever: this expensive thing is denying you the service that you’ve paid for. It won’t stop you from being a creepy fuck, of course, but it’d be hard to argue that you either wouldn’t notice the difference, or that you’d actively get off on having an appliance that refused to work in the way that you’d paid for.

Sex robots and consent: DON’T PANIC

One of the reasons I love the sex robots debate is it gives us an opportunity to explore sexual ethics in depth. But one of the things that frustrates me about it is so often those who are arguing that we should ban sex robots, or at the very least be terrified of the damage they will wreak on humanity, end up saying things that are actively harmful to humans. The criticism of Samantha’s ‘dummy mode’ shut down seems to be that:

a) it’s not going to chop users’ cocks off – a function that would render the entire thing dangerously unusable and therefore obsolete.

b) that ‘shutting down’ isn’t something a real human woman would ever do if she were being sexually assaulted – an assumption that displays a total lack of understanding of human behaviour, and which is incredibly harmful to actual human women.

c) that the people who are fucking sex robots aren’t going to care whether the robot consents anyway – a point that I’d argue isn’t quite the zinger they seem to think it is, because most people who buy sex robots will understand that they are not conscious like humans are.

If you care about whether your appliance ‘consents’ to what you’re using it for, programming a shutdown seems to me the most sensible way to convey this to the user, without that user being harmed. And while I don’t want to nail my flag to Synthea Amatus’ mast – maybe decades into the future where they’re making genderless sex robots which don’t all look like copies of the same wank fantasy – I think in this case they’ve done something interesting that has given us more to think about when it comes to robots and the appearance of sexual consent. But I’d love to hear other ideas if you think there are better ways of doing this: or if you think that we shouldn’t be doing this at all – that a robot is a robot, and weaving in consent cues blurs the lines too much between robot and real-life human.

As I said at the beginning, we’re not in Westworld yet. We’re not even really in Humans (a much better show if you ask me: more action, fewer tediously meandering conversations, and no boring cowboys either). When we worry about whether sex robots consent – or think or feel or believe or love – we’re fundamentally misunderstanding what these things are. We can argue that their appearance means we have to be more careful with them than washing machines, but we shouldn’t start setting a machine’s pretence of consent on an equal par with human consent. It is fundamentally not the same thing.


  • Along the same broad lines, when I deal a dog, I always end my commands with ‘please’. I do this even though I know the dog is supposed to obey, and that they will not necessarily be mollified by my superficial politeness, but so that I do not despise myself for sounding callous and so that if kids or grown-ups overhear, it will not further train them into thinking that ‘please’ is optional when you have the upper hand in a debate, even with non-human animals.
    Extrapolation to non-animal humanoids is straightforward.

  • Jen says:

    Fascinating post! I have to admit I felt quite a reaction when I read the quote from Mel Magazine about the ‘dummy mode’ – it instantly felt like a bizarre thing to say about how women react in a sexual assault situation. You put the whole thing succinctly – the narrative that ‘real women fight back’ is such a damaging (and out of date) one.

  • Lexy says:

    The paragraph about repercussions made me laugh and howl. Loudly!

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