Sex Robots – why we should be concerned

Sex Robots – why we should be concerned

Arguments from a Campaign Against Sex Robots…

Dr Kathleen Richardson is Senior Research Fellow in the Ethics of Robotics Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility (De Montfort University, Leicester, UK)

Florence Gildea is studying for a Masters in Sociology at the University of Cambridge, and has a B.A in History from Cambridge.


Foto: Icarus, by Joseph Scissorhands


May 5th 2017

The ability to enjoy sex as a co-experience, where one’s values, thoughts, feelings, wants, desires, needs and hopes are acknowledged by a partner, is a historical achievement for women. This has not been the norm for most of history, nor is it universally realised today: for millions of women around the world, the martial premium on virginity, religious prohibition, and the commercial sex trade, prevent them from being treated as equal sexual partners. Therefore, this distinctive way of experiencing sex – the result of cultural shifts, greater recognition of human rights, and the feminist movement – needs to be defended.

We believe that campaigning against sex robots is necessary to that defence. Sex robots, we maintain, do not further the progression of equality and mutuality in sex, but represent a step backwards by perpetuating objectification and hence blurring distinctions between sex, masturbation and rape.

If sex is a co-experience, involving a mutual, parallel and simultaneous experience between humans who are radically different from humanmade artefacts, then it follows that penile, digit, or oral penetration of an object does not constitute sex. This is the case whether the penetrated ‘object’, is in fact an objectified human being or an anthropomorphised object. Penile, digit, or oral penetration of a human being as though they were an object, such as the kind of acts that occur in the commercial ‘sex’ (rape) trade are acts of rape.

The above can be understood better as rape – here the penetrated ‘object’ does have a consciousness (is a living human being), needs, desires and so forth, but they are not acknowledged and are used as a means to an end-sexual gratification. Objectification is a way of treating and relating to a human like they were an object. Objectification is integral to the commercial ‘sex’ (rape) trade where human bodies are bought, rented and exchanged for sex. By contrast, the penetration of an object, in this case a sex robot is masturbation, not sex, because the object is not a subjective being, with thoughts and feelings to be taken into account. This is the case no matter what fantasies the user projects onto the sex robot, and no matter how well the sex robot imitates some humanlike behaviours. There is flawed thinking behind the use of the terms ‘sex robot’ or ‘sex doll’.

Sex dolls or sex robots are not participating in any sex. Dolls and robots do not have sexed bodies which include reproductive organs, hormones and are not part of a living species. Dolls and robots are humanmade artefacts; commercial products (commodities) that are assembled together as property that can be bought and sold.

The wording of ‘sex’ doll or ‘sex’ robot presents the robot or doll as a substitute for a human being, with which something close to a sexual relationship between two humans can be enjoyed. Yet this makes another category error, assuming that being close in appearance to, and mimicking the functions of, a human is sufficient to replicate an interpersonal relationship. It is an illusion!

For there is no subjectivity behind those glassy eyes. There is no mind with which the human partner can relate. There is a physical form, but no embodied consciousness. There may be a voice, but no internal dialogue. That voice may imply feelings, but they do not express a psychological reality. One can no more relate to a sex robot or sex doll than to a ventriloquist’s dummy (except at least we know that behind the scenes the ventriloquist’s dummy is being manipulated by human hand(s) without it being mystified as ‘neutral’ technology).

Robots are presented as potential companions for humans, a word which means ‘fellow, mate, friend, partner’, stemming from the Latin ‘to break bread with’. But, as the modern rephrasing of the common idiom might go: you can lead your sex robot to the bread basket, but you can’t make her eat. She may be next to you, but she is not with you; you share nothing.

The notion that sex robots or dolls can provide companionship, may be a comforting illusion, and one which brings sexual pleasure, but it is a dangerous one. For by calling the penetration of a robot or doll, ‘sex’, one associates ‘sex’ with a one-sided, self-centred, narcissistic sexual experience. If this is replicated in an interpersonal sexual encounter (and it is well established that our sexual preferences and proclivities are often rooted in the sexual experience we have had), then it can be seen how sex robots and dolls can contribute to the cultural entanglement between sex, masturbation and rape.

Masturbation – a sexual experience you have alone.

Sex – a co-experience with another.

Rape – using a human being like they were a sexual instrument/sexual assault.

The confusion of rape, sex and masturbation is a useful one for those who support the prostitution trade and also those that argue that robots can be utilised for both sex and love. We are used to thinking of sexual partners as persons with whom we might share feelings of love; it is a less common leap from an object of masturbation to romantic companionship. Confusing sex with masturbation may be relatively harmless when it comes to using objects for sexual gratification. But when these muddled definitions mean humans are related to as objects, the implications are far more severe. For instance, Monta and Julka’s 2009 study found that the conception of sex as a commodity among men was significantly correlated with ‘rape myth’ acceptance (attitudes that support rape, deny rape, or assign responsibility to the victim), attraction to violent sexual practices, and less frequent use of condoms while with a prostituted person. Defining sex as a co-experience is thus necessary to encourage sexual behaviours which take seriously the prevention of violence against women, men and children and emphasises the risks of pregnancy or STDs.

Sex robots are often given a place in a progressive narrative, one where further taboos around sexuality will be broken down and a greater range of human experience embraced. David Levy, in this regard, compares the recognition of same-sex marriage with how human-robot relationships will be viewed by the mid-21st century. He presents this as elevating the robot to the level of the human. But in reality, the comparison also reduces the human to an object. For it implies that there is nothing distinctive about human subjectivity that is requisite for love and companionship. Imitations and illusions are sufficient substitutes for actual minds and personalities.

Rather than representing progress, therefore, it seems likely that sex robots are a re-articulation of an already widespread phenomenon: the treatment of humans as (sexual) objects, and the treatment of sex as a commodity. We should be less concerned with elevating robots to the level of humans, and accordingly granting them rights than we are with the dehumanisation of persons. For instance, the notion that a ‘personality’ which was the product of a selection of programmed variables could be proximate that of a human is only possible if one is accustomed to viewing a person as a no more than the sum of its atomised parts.

The reduction of personhood to character-types is especially problematic when they are associated with destructive stereotypes: one of the pre-programmed personalities for Roxxxy, the sex robot developed by True Companion, is ‘Frigid Farah’ who resists a user’s sexual advances while ‘Young Yoko’ is described as ‘oh so young (barely eighteen)’ in contrast to ‘Wild Wendy’. These personalities epitomise the virgin/ whore dichotomy, but even worse, seemingly normalise attraction to underage girls, and sexual assault.

Viewed this way, as reflecting and further stimulating, the dehumanisation of oneself and others, sex robots can be seen as part of a wider culture of objectification. They find their place, then, not in a narrative of sexual liberation, but connected to modern pathologies like eating disorders, obsessions with fitness and cosmetic surgery. Each of these is undergirded by the view of the body as a project. Just as the robot is created by a team of experts who work on and develop its separate parts, so ‘experts’ profit from the widespread cultural dissatisfaction with our bodies. Sex robots are, in turn, likely to feed that dissatisfaction. Sexual use of robots or dolls with body-shapes which are naturally impossible is likely to inspire dissatisfaction with the natural form, just as pornography consumption breeds sexual dysfunction among men accustomed to being aroused by images of young, shaven, surgically enhanced women. Furthermore, as many young women now compare themselves to porn-stars- hence the rise of cosmetic procedures like labioplasty- so are they likely to find themselves deficient when men’s sexual attentions are directed at sex robots which never age, put on weight, get pregnant, or say no to sexual advances.

It might be argued that the solution, then, is to encourage the production of sex robots designed to appear male. But to argue for an equality of the lowest common denominator- where everyone relates to all others as an object- is to exacerbate the problem, not provide a solution.

The sex doll user makes a self-serving jump from knowing the sex doll could never experience dissatisfaction (for, in truth, it experiences nothing) to the fantasy that it is always satisfied. In reality, the only satisfaction that matters is the ‘user’, he receives both masturbatory gratification and the impossibility of rejection.