In defense of sex robots

There’s more than meets the eye.
There’s more than meets the eye.
Image: Reuters/Albert Gea
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Imagine this: a man reaches out to grab the enormous silicone breast of his sex robot, and she chastises him. “Stop. You didn’t ask me permission,” she tells him. “You can’t touch me without consent.” While this may sound like a scene from a feminist sci-fi utopia, it could soon be our reality.

Sex robots can improve relationships between the sexes. I know, I know—you’ve probably heard the opposite argument, that sex robots will destroy relationships by teaching men to expect all  women to be subservient, sexual receptacles. The founder of the Campaign Against Sex Robots, Kathleen Richardson, argues that the existence of sex robots will increase levels of sexual assault and cause men to objectify women. Others have written think pieces about how using sex robots can encourage men to rape women in real life.

Why are we so afraid of sex robots? It’s not because the technology is so advanced (because it’s not). It’s because sex robots seem to express the worst of our sexual culture: men feeling entitled to live out their fantasies on female bodies. But not all fantasies become realities, and there’s a more positive future we can work toward.

It makes sense to fear sex robots in the #MeToo era. Sexual-assault allegations are piling up so frequently that it’s difficult to keep track. The idea that men would purchase a lifelike female sex robot who can be programmed to be submissive or reluctant is frightening to many. Even if sex robots wouldn’t lead to rape, the thinking goes that they could condition men to think that a woman’s role is to sexually please a man.

Yes, a sex robot could teach men to objectify women, but it wouldn’t have to. Sex robots are merely a form of technology, and all technologies are the product of human imagination, desires, and choices. Sex robots won’t inevitably further rape culture or promote sexual assault, just as it is not inevitable that Twitter promotes sexual harassment or video games encourage violence.

In fact, sex robots could be programmed to do the opposite of what we fear: They could teach men (and women and gender non-binary people) about consent and female sexual pleasure. Since sex robots are in their infancy, now is the time to start shaping them into the technology we want them to be, not the technology we fear.

Robot sex education

With their ability to provide tactile and verbal feedback, sex robots could serve as top-notch sex-education tools. (Bonus: Unlike a human sex-ed teacher, a robot also won’t pass judgment.)

We’re already used to using lifelike dolls to teach people important skills. What about Rescue Annie, the CPR doll who has “the most kissed face” in the world? She has taught over 400 million people how to perform this life-saving technique with little downside. And how many students leave their CPR classes thinking that women are just lifeless dolls needing to be saved?

One of the biggest tools that teenagers and adults alike need to be taught is consent. And what better way to teach it than within a simulated sexual situation itself? Instead of learning the fundamental rules of consent with a stranger in inebriated circumstances, where a misunderstanding could lead to arrest, you could learn with a sex doll imbued with artificial intelligence. It would certainly be more fun than awkwardly sitting in an auditorium during freshman orientation while a doo-wop group warbles these lyrics:

So if you’re hangin’ with your girl
You think you might go for a whirl
All you’ve got to do … is get consent!”

Instead, it would be insightful to actually learn by doing. You could pair students with sex robots and have them interact as if they were at a party and trying to get laid. As they communicate, they would receive detailed feedback in real time. For example, if after asking the bot for permission and kissing her, the student begins to touch the bot’s genitals, then she could be programmed to tell them to stop. She could explain that she hasn’t consented to be touched in that way just because she consented to the kiss.

It’s not just consent that sex robots could teach—they could also teach sexual techniques or be a sort of sex-education machine. Adults could learn how to give sexual pleasure and better please their partners through experimenting with a bot. A female sex robot could be programmed to respond to various types of pressure on the clitoris, suggest different methods, and could even recommend the use of a vibrator or other sex toys. A male sex robot could teach men and women about the pleasures of prostate stimulation, the degree of pressure that most people find pleasurable on their testicles, and what is just too much.

Brent (who requested not to use his last name), the president and founder of sex-doll company 1 AM Doll USA, thinks sex dolls could teach men to be better lovers. “If you have a guy who has no confidence and finishes in a few minutes, [a sex doll would allow him] to be able to perform at a higher standard,” Brent told Quartz. “I do think that for education, it’s got to be better than letting our kids find some pornography.”

In the past, the idea of high-tech sex-education has only existed as parody, such as the cunnilingus training app Lickster. But a more sophisticated—and just as fun—model could soon become our new reality.

Designing sex robots

Just what is the difference between a sex robot and a sex doll? According to philosopher of technology John Danaher, a sex robot must be shaped like a human, possess “some degree of artificial intelligence,” and be capable of moving in a human-like fashion. On the other hand, sex dolls are merely sex toys shaped like people.

Of the few sex robots that exist, most look like female porn stars with young, buxom, perfect bodies and exaggerated femininity. The sex robot’s precursor, the sex doll (which, unlike the sex robot, usually doesn’t talk or move its head on its own), looked similar: Sex-doll brothels are a thing, and some porn stars have their own sex dolls designed to look like them.

But sex bots don’t have to look this way—they only do because most of their designers are men. And what many men want are tiny-waisted, pneumatic paragons of exaggerated femininity. During my research for my sex-toy history book, Buzz, I encountered very few female sex-doll designers. However, Brent says that “a lot of people who work in the factory in China are women,” and one of those women helps with design. That said, most of their products are skewed to men, and three of them have been designed to resemble female porn stars.

According to anti-sex robot activist Richardson, sex bots are dangerous because they reproduce the female prostitute/male client relationship, causing men to think of all women as mere receptacles for their sexual desires. “Extending relations of prostitution into machines is neither ethical, nor is it safe,” Richardson writes in her 2015 SIGCAS Computers & Society position paper. “If anything the development of sex robots will further reinforce relations of power that do not recognize both parties as human subjects.”

But if more women dived into the industry, sex robots would likely begin to reflect different values. This is what happened with sex toys. Before women  entered the sex-toy industry in the 1970s, sex toys were, for the most part, hyper realistic, resembling anatomical models of the penis. There were numerous reasons for this, not just because men designed them, but also because the laws at the time outlawed advertising sex toys that were not substitutes for penetrative sex. Many women (lesbians, especially) were so turned off by the dildos on the market that they refused to buy them and publicly denounced them. When women began designing sex toys, the number one concern stopped being realism, and instead became sexual pleasure.

The ultimate goal of sex-doll and robot design currently appears to be recreating the body of an ideal human, down to the nipples and pubic hair (or lack thereof). However, this represents a failure of imagination and steers the bots into “the uncanny valley,” that creepy space between obviously artificial and convincingly real. Why do sex dolls have to look exactly like humans? Women’s sex toys today are more geometric than realistic—from sleek and rectangular to trapezoidal with rounded corners—and they reliably deliver pleasure.

“I think there could be [a market for sex robots for women] in an abstracted form,” says Dr. Kate Devlin, a senior lecturer in the department of computing at Goldsmiths, University of London. “Women have vibrators that are discreet. Sex robots are big, life-size, and obvious. I wonder if that plays a part [in the lack of a market]?”

If you design sex dolls with female pleasure as the main goal, they’d start to look a lot different. For example, sex robots for women should be designed to make up for what men’s natural anatomy lacks: a clitoral stimulator. As over half of women can’t regularly have orgasms from intercourse alone, it makes sense to build a device into a sex doll that will satisfy that need. So why don’t male sex dolls have vibrators built into them above the doll’s pubic bone already?

The most sophisticated sex doll companies in the world aren’t using their high-tech techniques to figure out how to get women off—they’re using it to figure out how to make a fake penis even more realistic. For example, Sinesthetics is proud to have developed technology that allows them to create more realistic-feeling testicles by suspending individual balls into a silicone scrotum. But when’s the last time that a woman has said, “Y’know what my vibrator is missing? A more realistic scrotum.”

It’s unlikely that men will ever design a sex robot that will put female pleasure over their own egos. But men and women could work together to design sex bots to stimulate women.

Instead of seeing sex robots as a reflection of our cultural fears, we should think of them as a technology that can help fix the sex crises we face. By using them to teach consent, guide our partners to better satisfy us, and then use them to better satisfy ourselves, we can welcome them into our bedrooms. Sex robots don’t have to be our enemies: They can be our partners instead.