sex robots, inequality, and consequentialism

sex robots, inequality, and consequentialism August 10, 2016

Sex robots: they may sound like the stuff of pulp sci-fi or futuristic erotica, but they’re predicted to be the next big fetish on the sex market. We’re not just talking about sex dolls, or elaborate technology for stimulation: these are already out there, and have been – in one form or another – for centuries. Sex robots recently on the market are more like expensive high-tech electrical dolls, but manufacturers are working on improving simulated sentience and even AI. The sex market of the very near future may come to rely increasingly on robots designed to mimic humans, with sophisticated motion-sensing interactive technologies.

In an article on sex robots in The Mirror, psychologist Dr. Helen Driscoll observes:

“As virtual reality becomes more realistic and immersive and is able to mimic and even improve on the experience of sex with a human partner; it is conceivable that some will choose this in preference to sex with a less than perfect human being.”

“People may also begin to fall in love with their virtual reality partners.”

From one perspective, this is eerie new territory, the stuff of which cynical sci-fi writers can easily craft darkly comic cautionary tales. From another perspective, there is nothing new under the sun. The motif of humans falling in love with artistic / technological simulacra, the work of their own hands, is enshrined in the myth of Pygmalion falling in love with the statue he himself created, and repeated in different variations through folklore and literature. The phenomenon of the male poet creating in verse a version (pun intended) of his unattainable object of desire, the better to both control her and be captivated by her, dominates the tradition of erotic verse (Dante, I’m looking at you).

A notable difference, however, is reliance on technology. Anyone can learn to write a poem, but not everyone can afford a sophisticated sex robot. There is also the phenomenon of distance and difference: the woman in the poem, or even the woman in the statue, remains still out of reach, at a distance. Like the lover and beloved in Keats’ poem, “forever wilt thou love, and she be fair.”  Falling in love with a created or semi-created object is part of the structure of eros because of the built in and inevitable impossibility of attainment. Keats understood that this was part of art’s function: to present a contact with beauty that keeps one hungering, not sickened or cloyed with satiety.

Sex robots, on the other hand, are built to satisfy desires. They are built to provide an illusion of presence that no poem or statue beloved can never offer. In this respect, a sex robot is the complete opposite of the facebook friend you never meet in person: in the first case, there is immediate physical contact but with no actual real other person in the mix; in the second case, there is a real person out there, but no face to face encounter with him or her. In both cases one makes an act of faith in establishing a connection, but in only one case is the act of faith built upon a reality outside one’s own desires and projections.

And it is notable that the sex-robot market caters heavily to males. Even while arguing against a ban on sex robots, Kate Devlin admits this in “Why Trying to Ban Sex Robots is Wrong”:

Yes, we impose our beliefs on these machines: We anthropomorphise and we bring our prejudices and assumptions with us. Sex robots have, like much of the technology we use today, been designed by men, for men. Think of the objects we use everyday: smartphones better suited to a man’s larger hands and the pockets of men’s clothes, or pacemakers only suitable for 20% of women.

But a number of feminist activists are demanding that sex robots be banned. Kathleen Richardson and Erik Billing argue that this new product will serve only to perpetuate gender inequalities – and, any quick Google search on the topic of “sex robots” confirms their suspicion (as well as creating a very sketchy looking search history), as the products are clearly marketed on the basis of existing sexist stereotypes and predicated on the basis of an almost caricatured male desire.  Richardson sees deep problems with the paradigm of prostitution in human-robot relations, arguing in The Asymmetrical ‘Relationship’: Parallels Between Prostitution and the Development of Sex Robots that “prostitution is no ordinary activity and relies on the ability to use a person as a thing and this is why parallels between sex robots and prostitution are so frequently found by their advocates.”

Supporters of sex robots take what I view as a dangerously naive sex-positive position in favor of a presumed right to or need for sexual intimacy. The idea that sex robots will help ease the solitude of lonely humans is touching, but unrealistic, not only because machines cannot replicate human relationship, but also because such ease would be available only to the rich – as is, indeed, already the case with access to high-class “sex workers” (as opposed to prostitutes whose services are available and affordable only because of extreme systemic abuse). So, on top of the gender inequality that Richardson and Billing have identified, sex robots catering to the intimate needs of a dominantly male consumer market will also reinforce income inequality and social injustice. We have here a fetishized conception of “need” which brackets out the real experience of the majority of humans, focusing instead only on the consumptions of a privileged upper class.

There’s an even creepier dimension, however: some presume that sex robots can provide satisfaction for certain forbidden, shameful, or even illegal tastes. At the Forbidden Research Evnt, recently, the question was posed as to whether sex robots could protect children from sexual predators.  Might children be safe from pedophiles if pedophiles satiate their desires with robots designed to mimic sexually available human children?

I’m inclined to say no, for a variety of reasons. I’ll touch briefly on a few here:

  1. Again, not everyone can afford a sex robot custom made to cater to his or her tastes; even if some program were to be made available for supplying this “need” there would inevitably be a divide between the high-end and the low-end product. Leaving those with access only to the low end product to seek a more satisfactory release in the “real thing.”
  2. As technologies improve, the line between the human organism / person and the AI motion-sensing robot will be increasingly blurred. If “consent” is programmed into a robot simulating a child, will consent come to be expected of children, thus heightening the likelihood of abuse? Or what if people have a fetish for the frightened non-consensual partner, and robots are programmed accordingly? This means it would be impossible to tell the difference between a real child resisting abuse, and a robot child simulating resistance. This is true, by the way, not only in cases of pedephilia: men who cherish rape fantasies would prefer custom-made sex robots that struggle and put up a fight.
  3. “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it,” Oscar Wilde famously said. And this is true in the realm of eros, which is why the unconsummated passions burn the fiercest. But we’re outside the realm of eros here, and in the capitalist domain of gratification and product – and, thus, of addiction. And when it comes to addiction, yielding to a desire does not make it go away; instead, it decreases the capacity for resistance. Allowing potential predators to molest custom-made human simulations would only increase the likelihood that they would extent their reach to actual humans.
  4. The presumption that moral and social ills could be solved is we just give rapists or pedophiles robots to satisfy themselves with is flawed, because it looks only at the material effect of an action, not at the internal form of the act itself. This is a sort of consequentialism that forgets about the condition of the human psykhe. Even if it were possible that sex robots would protect humans from abuse, even if all instances of abuse were erased, the moral character of a society is sick, if many of its members are accustomed to acting on desires to violate, force, and demean. Even if no one is violated, forced, or demeaned, many people would regularly be violating, forcing, and demeaning. They would also be deeply unhappy.

Here’s one area on which defenders of a Catholic sex ethic can find common ground with feminists. We can recognize that there is such a thing as a moral code in sexual activity, that what is done sexually to another person matters – and, also, what one is in the habit of doing sexually, even if not to another person, also matters. We do not want to live in a society in which acts of rape and abuse are normalized, even on robots.

“Make love, not war” says one defender of sex robots. But there’s nothing loving about the kind of desires sex robots are potentially being designed to satisfy.

image credit:,_1938).jpg. Public domain in the US

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