According to some technology news sources, the day of sex robots is upon us. I for one, do not welcome our silicon soulmates.
I consider myself an ardent futurist, the rare modern-day believer in the power of technology and the potential of progress. I am not the sort who fears artificial intelligence and robotics. I look forward to a utopian future full of human/machine interaction. However, there is one way that I feel that humans should not be interacting with robots, and that is as a replacement sexual partner. Rather than humanizing machines, this technological development will mechanize and degrade humans in the eyes of users. The interest of heterosexual males in sex robots is a symptom of a patriarchal society and rape culture and is a serious concern for women and modern feminism.
Born Sexy Yesterday
The trope ‘Born Sexy Yesterday’ is a theme, prevalent especially in fantasy and science fiction, in which a female protagonist enters a story in an adult, sexualized physical form, but with the brain of a child. The ignorant woman drops into some manner of conflict in a confusing, chaotic setting, and the male protagonist of the story rescues the naif, educates her, and brings her up to speed. Of course, in the process, the young woman and the heroic father(ish) figure fall in love (and have sex, onscreen or off). Leeloo, the orange-haired female lead of The Fifth Element, and Quorra from TRON: Legacy are just two of many examples.
At first this seemed to me a corollary to the fairy tale princess, or even the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ trope, penchant for oddly colored hair included, but upon further examination, it is something more sinister. The dream girl in this case is a COMPLETELY blank slate. Everything this woman knows, or at least the important stuff, is provided by the male hero. Every step in the education of our sexy newborn is a series of unlockable achievements that culminate in her ultimate status as a sex partner. It is a video game in which the ‘win screen’ is male sexual fulfillment.
Enter the Sex Robots
Sex robots are the exact sort of ‘gamification’ of the quest for sex illustrated in the ‘Born Sexy Yesterday’ theme. Rather than a fully passive object, the ‘bot requires a series of interactions or steps for ‘activation’ but not truly for the purposes of teaching it, or actually interacting with it in a meaningful way. Instead, it is rather for the purpose of ‘unlocking’ intercourse. These are simple devices, more machines than robots, so the ‘game’ is rather easy to ‘win’
“Samantha” will allow sexual activity only after a kiss and a few other physical interactions registered by pressure sensors. “Harmony” can hold a superficial ‘conversation’ before sex and can simulate orgasm “on command”. This is not even treated like a Non-Player Character goal in a well-designed video game, where the ‘needs’ of others factor into the gameplay. The user need not complete any task other than “command” simulated female sexual response. There is no alternate goal, all paths lead to sex with a semi-animate humanoid for the satisfaction of a user.
It is a Nintendo with Benefits
If this particular type of human/machine interaction continued indefinitely in an isolated ‘couple’, it would likely be harmless to the society at large. One could argue that a sex bot may even be helpful for people who don’t interact well with others. However, no human exists in such complete isolation. The person who has sex with a robot/thing will eventually interact with another person. Being habituated to the program of the type described, in which the interaction with a sex robot by definition always resulted in the end game of sex, bodes ill for the relationships of the user with actual women, whom he may see similarly as objects for sexual consumption. Young users would be particularly susceptible. Youth access to sex robots is not unimaginable in a world where the average age of first exposure to pornography is 11. ‘Sex-gamers’ may have difficulty realizing that the real world and the world they inhabit are not a game.
A Step Closer to Black Mirror Territory
We already live in a world where some men view women as little more than sex objects. Such objectification runs rampant in the male-dominated online communities of gamers and trolls. What then of a future in which an actual ‘sex object’ designed to look like a woman exists? It seems entirely possible that, consciously, unconsciously, or in some combination of the two, the sex-robot user, would come to see women in a similar way, as a game in which the objective is to ‘unlock’ sex by going through superficial motions. It is troubling that someone would view another person in this way. It is also troubling that the sex-robot user would likely be in for a rather rude awakening. What then would be the result? What would be the outcome of being confronted with the truth that women are not simply programmed to be the recipients of hetero-male sexual attention?
Men whose primary social interaction is of the digital variety have committed violent acts, claiming lack of sexual attention as their motive. In an online video, Santa Barbara mass-shooter Elliot Roger’s claimed he wanted to punish women for rejecting him and as part of his spree, opened fire on a sorority. He was a member of a misogynistic online group for the purposes of picking up women, and other members of his virtual community mirrored his violent ideas. Other mass shooters in recent memory have blamed their violent deeds on not having a girlfriend or even “the growing power of women”. They invariably post their misogynist manifestos to sympathetic online onlookers.
Men who believe they deserve access to sex often perpetuate sexual abuse of women. The seamier areas of the net abound with this type of thinking. Misogyny abounds in the online ‘troll’ community: trolls threaten women who have ideas they dislike, or who have ideas at all, with violence and sexual assault. The crowd-sourced, voyeuristic dating service created by Jon Hamm’s character in the “White Christmas” episode of Black Mirror is not too far from today’s dark internet underbelly. It is not unbelievable to think that further acts could be committed by frustrated men with an oversimplistic, oversexualized view of women, further amplified by the availability of always-‘willing’ sex toys.
Building a Better Geek-Trap
Further adding to the potential creepy Black Mirror-ness of all sex robots is that they can be designed to user specifications. Appearances are exaggerated to the point of fetish. Impossibly large breasts, anime eyes, MPDG hair colors, and other options can be customized and ordered. Once again, this warped view of female perfection based on an immature, fantasy-based hetero-male ‘ideal’ is unrealistic and contributes to a view of women as sex objects that must conform, in this case physically, to the desires of others. These unrealistic female proportions abound in anime, video games, and science fiction/fantasy entertainment. This is not to say these genres and misogyny are inexorably linked. In fact, the best of this genre is in fact highly progressive and even empowering of women, but there is a trend towards viewing women unrealistically in these media outlets.
Did Scar-Jo Ok This?
Finally, what are the likeness or intellectual property rights related to sex robots? An episode of the animated program Futurama lightheartedly tackled the issue of illegal downloading when the main character Fry downloaded the likeness and personality of actress Lucy Liu into a generic robot body, much to the chagrin of the real Lucy Liu, or at least her head.
An experimenter recently created an interactive automaton of actress Scarlett Johansson, allegedly to ‘fulfill a childhood dream’. What then, are the rights of the real Johansson? What say does she have regarding the robot’s likeness? It is an extension of stalking, and one that is entirely without legal protection for the victim. It is also telling that Johansson has roles in many recent films popular with that may in fact be the prime sex-robot audience. She plays Black Widow in Marvel superhero films, which have been criticized for their marginalization and objectification of female characters. Black Widow is excluded from the toy line and the tee-shirts, but gets a bootleg sex robot? Go figure. Geek culture does not have to be antifeminist, but often is so, and recently seems to be taken a sharp turn in that direction. It is also linked with the online community and its less-than-progressive elements.
No Ghost in the Machine
In addition to all of the above concerns, what of the actual emotional needs and psychological growth of the gamer? The argument that this interaction is harmless and merely a different type of relationship is incorrect. Any relationship with a sex robot is merely an echo chamber, worse than the most insular online communities. It is a singular voice, mirrored and parroted back. The interaction is narcissistic to the extreme, and will merely reinforce ideas of the user, even dangerous or counterproductive ones such as I earlier noted.
In a real relationship between humans, both parties synthesize new ideas which enter the conversation. The parties can dissolve the relationship if new ideas prove too difficult to accept or incorporate. With sex robots, there is no introduction of new ideas. What can be provided by a subhuman intelligence programmed to fulfill orders, and which cannot even leave the bedroom under its own power? There is no ‘relationship’ with a sex robot. There is a static interaction, from which one party is incapable of leaving. The worst elements of a socially marginalized male with unrealistic, fantasy-based views of women and a fragile sense of his own masculinity could be frighteningly amplified in this situation.
Feminism, Humanism, and Sex Robots
The ramifications of a world in which sex robots exist is a feminist issue, and as such it is inherently a humanist issue. Objectification and oversexualization of women is an issue in today’s world which has the potential to be exacerbated by use and misuse of technology. We cannot afford to be push it off until the late stages of development, as early adopters and adapters are already on the scene. The future is now, and the future, like it or not, will involve human interaction with robots. It may begin by having some rather strange conversations. Not having these conversations would be a mistake. We must lay down guidelines for the future development of human/machine interaction, not only for the development of devices, but for the retention of our humanity. We are on the verge of a great technological change for our species, but we will have to pay serious attention to the best of what makes us human.
Today’s guest contributor prefers to remain anonymous. His professional work is firmly grounded in science and he has a decades-long love for the possibilities of science fiction as science reality. Except for sex robots.