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.

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