‘Sex robots combine the propensity people have to panic about technology with their propensity to panic about sex.’
This essay is associated with Tina Horn’s sex, kink, gender, and love podcast ‘Why Are People Into That?’
Sex robots might murder us! Sex robots promote rape! Sex robots promote the rape of children! Sex robots will perpetuate unrealistic expectations of the female body and sexual availability! Sex robots will contribute to the objectification of women!
These and many other concern-trolling sentiments have been popping up in headlines lately, so much that you might think the commercial availability of Avas and Gigolo Joes could be just around the corner. In reality, artificially intelligent robots capable of intimacy could be as far as a hundred years away.
So why are we grappling with all of these thorny ethics of consent and sentience right now?
As my recent podcast guest Rose Eveleth puts it, “Sex robots combine the propensity people have to panic about technology with their propensity to panic about sex.”
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I’ve never done a speculative (why would people be into that?!) episode of my show before, but it was only a matter of time before I allowed my intense love of science fiction to overthrow everything. I’m fascinated by the allegory of sex robots, in part because most of the aforementioned concerns about them are suspiciously close to the flawed arguments that conservatives and second wave feminists make about sex work.
I knew Rose would be the right person to combine scientific integrity with sex positive politics and geeky creativity.
Rose is a science journalist who has written some exceptional pieces about the future of sex tech. She is also the creator, host, and producer of Flash Forward, which she aptly describes as “Black Mirror meets Radiolab.” Every episode combines imaginative science fiction sound design with rigorous inquiry into the “What If?” it poses. The Flash Forward episode “Love At First Bot” skips a lot of the usual moral handwringing to ask some practical questions about robot mobility, rental rates, and storage.
I spend so much time in the realm of the abstract that it’s refreshing to have someone like Rose bring me down to Earth, even when talking about something that literally doesn’t exist. In our interview she frequently brought up studies to back up her arguments, and in some cases hesitated to even speculate on a subject if she didn’t have the data to cite. She also has a biting feminist wit, observing that, “There’s a tendency for men in tech to trust machines more than they trust women.”
When imagining what sex robots would be like, I think we miss the point when we put their projected humanity first in our minds. After all, we have a whole lot of adjusting to do as a species before machines pass through the uncanny valley (where their “realness” is more disturbing than familiarizing) and begin to pass the Turing Test (aka persuade us of their indisguisablibity from humans).
It’s pretty obvious that we should be foregrounding the machine part of our sex machines. A sex robot will be a sex toy, not unlike a vibrator, butt plug, sleeve, or dildo in terms of practical application to our bodies and fantasies. Having sex with a robot means, in effect, you’re having sex with yourself. Just as a vibrator can give you an orgasm that is often more personal and pragmatic than the pleasure you experience with a partner, intimacy with a more sophisticated machine might provide the function of exploration and satisfaction.
Rose points out that for women, a properly functioning, obedient machine could provide the possibility of no-strings-attached sex without the threat of assault.
Imagine a toy with the hydraulic power to pick you up and give you that real passionate sweaty fuck-fest feeling. Or a toy that you can mount and hump until you’re exhausted, perhaps with a self-lubricating orifice and entertaining moans of pleasure. Your toy could have any body type or any gender, any personality or pheromone smell; it might even look otherworldly. Meanwhile, we will still seek connection with non-artificially intelligent, flawed flesh and blood, just as your favorite Fleshlight isn’t a substitute for sentient love.Having sex with a robot means, in effect, you’re having sex with yourself. Click To Tweet
Some people will consider robot sex to be cheating, just like some people consider porn watching or a strip club lap dance to be cheating. Others will likely find the inhumanity of the robot to be the ideal place to blow off steam without the threat of mutual attachment. Oh, and with the proper cleaning, robot sex will be safer sex!
Think about the ways a robot could be incorporated into your partner or group sex life. One of the benefits of a threesome is the mechanical possibilities of extra bodies. A robot third could prop your body into supported positions to be available to your partner, even acting as a new form of bondage. Or they could simply provide extra sensations — plowing you from behind while you go down on someone, or acting as a full-sized butt plug for one partner during intercourse — for over-stimulated bliss.
A robot could stimulate the clit or other erogenous zones while a partner focuses on holes, or vice versa. A robot could provide pleasure while a human partner provides pain, or vice versa. Or a robot could just be an impassive voyeur to your otherwise private sex life. It could provide analysis, encouragement, dirty talk, or expert instruction.
Then there’s the possibilities of everyone becoming sex cyborgs: part organic, part machine. If you could surgically enhance your body to fuck in a way you never had before, would you? What if a synthetic strap-on or canal could be connected to your nervous system for play, and then removed? What if the same possibilities existed for gender and identity affirmation?Humans will still seek connection with non-artificially intelligent, flawed flesh and blood. Click To Tweet
I’m delighted imagining a little BB8-style droid whirling around an orgy with fresh supplies of lube, condoms, water bottles, or little finger sandwiches for the busy grinding players. A robot could gracefully disinfect your toys right after use so you could stay luxuriating in your human afterglow. The only ethical issue with this is that service submissives the world over would have to come up with new ways to make themselves useful!
Inevitably, robots will become their own kink. An android companion could be a tech status symbol like a smartphone, marketed as a way to “fully experience the future.” But for some, the inhumanity of the robot will be a source of erotic shame. I’m certain we’ll see cuckolding scenarios where hapless men watch their wives get off fucking a hired “synth,” screaming in ecstasy that he could never please her with that puny human cock!
Then again, there is humiliation potential in “not being able to get a real girl” as we see in the current cultural attitudes about sex dolls. And I do think we will fetishize the Turing test, molding situations around robot deception and “passing.”
I think the most important angle to use when thinking about sex robots is to realize they’ll be the sex labor force of the future. Rose even suggested thinking of them more in terms of caregiving skills, as we are also contemplating robots to provide support to the elderly, sick, and disabled.
I love imagining a future where sex workers are able to seize the means of production, programming, designing, operating, and marketing sex tech. Who knows better than sex workers how consumers will relate to this new frontier of desire and consumption?