Sex has gotten even messier in the 21st century, writes Amber Healy:
This goes beyond the risk of sexually transmitted infections, beyond HIV/AIDS or pregnancy, beyond even the embarrassment of a one-night stand that was clearly a mistake when the sun rises.
In the era of #MeToo and talking about consent — is it hot? Is it a turnoff? Can it be both? — and conspiracy theories involving high-profile players, politicians, leaders and blatantly false rumors of children being shipped in mass-produced wardrobes, the idea of finding a partner that doesn’t make everything such a product and is along for a good time might seem, to some (and to some men in particular) like an impossible dream.
Enter sex robots: as a concept, they’ve been around for more than 200 years, initially conceived (for lack of a better term) as a way to keep sailors occupied and distracted on the high seas. In 2022, they’re a winking reality for some, mostly men, as an easier way to find companionship and a “partner” for their deepest fantasies, without having to talk or buy dinner or listen to a woman talk about her day before the prospect of intimacy can be approached.
But for all the ease and simplicity of these robots, there are complications that need to be addressed.
When a person’s sexual partner is computer components in a silicon body, made to individual specifications and fantasies, incapable of resisting or turning down advances, does that open the door for violent urges to be brought to the forefront? When the partner isn’t a person but a very real-looking doll, is anything taboo? Consider, too, the capabilities of artificial intelligence and the possibility that these robots can be programmed to speak, maybe even to “think” and carry on realistic conversations with their partner/owner: If the rise of the machines includes sex robots, will they have the right to say no?
Can sex robots be sentinet? Do they deserve rights?
When asked to conjure an image of a sex doll, one of the campy, inflatable dolls popular at stag and bachelor parties might come to mind. Those started circulating in the 1960s and are still sold in novelty stores. But things have come a long way in the past 60 years.
Companies are now selling, and customizing, silicone-based dolls; the more advanced (and more expensive) models have the ability to move and some can speak with a limited vocabulary. This opens a number of questions, including whether, as technology advances, these dolls and their increasingly capable robotic features develop the ability to have “real” conversations with their owners. If they do, does that signify a kind of intelligence that would confer upon them certain rights?
To go backwards in order to move ahead, consider that, in 2017, the government of Saudi Arabia awarded citizenship to Sophia, a robot created mostly to celebrate the country’s support of robotics, artificial intelligence and related industries.
We also live in the time of Alexa and Siri, AI tools to help make routine tasks around the house and errands a little easier.
It didn’t take long for those digital assistants to find themselves on the receiving end of, let’s call it dirty talk, for lack of a better term. Alexa’s manufacturers, within the first few years of the product’s release, reprogrammed the software to restrict its ability to respond to lewd or sexually explicit or harassing questions, prompts or language, but that doesn’t prevent those kinds of
comments from being delivered — an estimated 5% of user interactions were unquestionably sexual in nature, based on reports from digital assistant developers.
As sex dolls or robots inevitably gain more AI capabilities, it is inevitable that the technology driving the being will develop the ability to have “normal” conversations with its human companion or owner (the correct terminology is difficult to pinpoint at this time, apologies for being a little wordy). That’s already causing problems in other areas of the world — Google in July fired a developer who was working on its Language Model for Dialogue Applications (Lamda) after the developer, Blake Lemoine, went public to say the technology was becoming sentient and “speaking” with him on topics including morality, religion and emotions. Google, in confirming Lemoine’s firing, reiterated that the software was simply reacting to a line of questioning in the way it was trained, via machine learning, to respond and was not displaying any kind of sentience.
All of this to say: If sex dolls eventually contain highly sophisticated AI that allows for intuitive responses to touch and conversation, is it possible that they could be granted “rights” in the sense that they’d have the “right” to say no to sexual advances if they were not “in the mood,” so to speak?
This is a question years away from having to be discussed or legally argued, of course, but every advance in technology has led to societal changes. Remember that blank cassette tapes were considered a scourge on the music industry that was terrified at the time that people would — gasp! — use them to copy tapes and otherwise record their own music at home off the radio, decades before Spotify would ruin the industry.
But it’s still worth considering, “In 2017-18, the European Commission proposed giving ‘electronic personalities’ certain legal rights and responsibilities, such as liability for any damage they cause,” says Annette Masterson, a PhD student in the Media and Communication Department at Temple University. “Ultimately, the idea of rights is tied to degrees of sentience. If designers incorporate code with the intent of self-awareness and independent thought, then a sex robot could be categorized as neither purely a machine nor a person. What those rights are is dependent not just on the political structures at the point but also on the evolution and needs of humanity.”
When it comes to consent specifically, research into this question has been happening for years. “Sexual consent is a central ethical principle and having the control to make your own decisions has many positive repercussions,” Masterson continues. “This question has two parallel answers: Does artificial intelligence have this kind of advanced processing, and would the ‘being’ benefit from consenting rights? I do think the evolution of AI will spark the evaluation of self-governance and consent, and sex robots will be just one area affected. However, the prediction that sex robots will want to retreat from their owners (if that would still be the term) is unknown.”
To extrapolate even further, if sex robots become sentient, and develop the ability to “think” for themselves, could that result in, say, a reclassification of sex robots as sex workers, leading to the possiblity of unioization? Could they have the equivalent of a civil rights movement, demanding better treatment or some of the monetary and housing considerations given in committed interpersonal relationships? We might only have a few decades before we find out.
The darker side of sex robots
There are also ethical questions involved in the development and advancement of sex robots and increasingly lifelike dolls.
On the one hand, some researchers, ethicists and social scientists say replacing dangerous and illegal sexual preferences and activities with interactions with human analogs could keep those kinds of actions from taking place with actual people. A man — and based on all market research, the vast majority of shoppers and users of sex robots are cis-het men — could turn his frustration about being unlucky in love with women into a different kind of relationship with a silicone-based doll who looks as he’d like her to look, dresses exactly as he’d like her to dress, always be open and willing to indulge his advances and never question anything he wants. Would that help restrict and redirect anger he might otherwise feel toward the women who have rejected him? Could sex robots “cure” the self-named incel population, those involuntarily celibate individuals who sometimes turn to violence and blame women for refusing to consent to their sexual advances?
Or take it a step further — for those men who live with preferences toward younger women, or even children, might sex robots with younger features allow them a “safer” way to carry out those fantasies without putting real, innocent people in danger?
There has been legislation introduced internationally to prohibit the production and sale of child-like sex robots, with the UK passing legislation that anyone found purchasing or owning a sex doll that looks like a child can be sentenced to up to five years in prison. The argument used there, and in similar legislation passed in the United States House of Representatives in 2018, was that access to and use of child-like robotic dolls could “desensitize” adults and somehow encourage their actions, leading them to eventually seek out a real-life experience, much in the same way that heroin and opioid users chase the feeling of their initial high with greater doses of narcotics.
The Prostasia Foundation, a San Francisco-based advocacy group, says this type of legislation is immoral. Targeted a proposed bill in Kentucky which would make owning a child-like sex robot on par with child abuse, the organization asks why dolls are being given the same rights and protections as children. “Under no circumstances should the abuse of a real child be treated as equivalent to the possession of a lifeless sex doll. To assert otherwise is to diminish the rights of real children and to trivialize their abuse.”
The Prostasia Foundation goes on to say the proposed bill would “criminalize what experts believe could be a possible harmless outlet for those with sexual interests in children. It would also open the door to state legislatures stepping in to regulate other private, consensual acts between adults.”
Australian officials say they’ve seen a noticeable uptick in the sale and seizure of child-like robots in the past few years, with the Australian Border Force seizing 226 child-like dolls and/or parts in the 2020-21 fiscal year, a considerable increase from the 138 seized in 2019-2020. The dolls are being imported from mainland China, Japan and Hong Kong and were shipped across Australia.
There is limited evidence at this point about whether access to human analogues would help or hurt those with unorthodox, violent of otherwise illegal sexual preferences.
In 2017, an “intelligent sex robot” named Samantha was on display at the Arts Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria. The doll was programmed to respond more to sexual advances the more she was “romanced.” However, by the end of the convention, the robot had to be returned
to the manufacturer for repairs, with damage to her breasts, legs, arms — two fingers were broken. Despite the damage, the AI continued to work properly.
That same year, Sergi Prieto, owner of what he believed was the first brothel dedicated to sex robots and dolls, said he was receiving requests for dolls to be dressed and positioned in such a way that he had to deny customers their demands, specifically for underage-looking dolls or to carry out rape fantasies. He called it an “ethical option for us not to provide this kind of service” because his business did not want to “promote this kind of behavior.”
How widespread abusive behavior is as it pertains to sex dolls and robots is hard to know, “due to longstanding issues with access to the community and taboo; however, this has changed in the last few years,” Masterson says. “Surveys and analyses of doll communities have found a tendency to emphasize companionship and emotional connections with their doll(s). Users report planning outfits for their dolls and brushing their hair, among other caring behaviors.” There also appear to be “complex negotiations of heteronormative values and masculinity” on user forums, she says, citing research from the University of Wyoming. Kenneth Hanson, a researcher there, interviewed some doll owners to learn more about the appeal of a non-human partner or companion. “This research also showed concern from doll owners over individuals exhibiting toxic masculinity as not within the spirit of the community. However, from the limited research, having a human partner(s) in addition to a doll or robot is not entirely uncommon. In fact, RealDoll (founder and CEO Matt) McMullen revealed that coupled individuals’ purchases increased during the pandemic.”
As for acts of violence committed against the dolls or other inappropriate use, Masterson says the concept “has not truly been tested. Discussions on using a doll violently are less common in the doll community; this could also be tied to the price, which starts at $10,000 before customization. With greater access to sex doll and robot users, new research has not found users to have more violent tendencies than non-users or a causal link that using a sex robot would increase violence. Obviously, more study needs to be done to ensure we understand the effects of sex robots, like any new technology.”
And as with any new technology, it’s very likely the larger impact of these devices will extend beyond any possibilities considered now, or in the short-term, to change our lives in ways unthinkable at this moment.