Sex with Robots | Vol. 2 / No. 46.4

What a sad little lovebot | Photo: LittleGreyCoconut, CC BY 2.0
What a sad little lovebot | Photo: LittleGreyCoconut, CC BY 2.0

This week’s news about a movement against sex robot development has got me thinking out loud again. Read on, though, as you might expect, this post deals with adult subject matter. Nothing too vulgar, but just, you know, ‘reader beware’ and all that jazz.


Move over, killer robots: a new “movement” has started, with the intended goal of opposing sex robots. You can’t make this stuff up.

In the movement’s position paper, apparently to be published in a forthcoming issue of the (explicitly not peer-reviewed) ACM SIGCAS newsletter, Dr. Kathleen Richardson of De Montfort University in Leicester parallels the similarities between buying a robot for sex and paying a prostitute for sex. We agree (and it’s plain to see) that there are similarities — when a woman (or man) is paid for sex, the payment for the use of the purchased body is an act of power. In the vast majority of cases of worldwide prostitution, that power resides almost entirely in the purchaser (though, of course, there are exceptions: to deny — in the rare case of a woman who actively chooses to perform sexual acts for money — that the seller holds some of the power as the one who may choose to provide a service or not would be paternalistic. But certainly worldwide this case is in the decided minority.) The act of purchasing sex from anything but an enthusiastically consenting seller has the effect of turning the seller into the product, and in that sense, into an object. Robots — at this point all robots but in the future perhaps only non-sentient ones — are objects. In these things we agree.

But that is where our agreement ends, because as far as I’m concerned, buying a (non-sentient) robot for sex is no more immoral than watching smutty cartoons, and if you’ve got an ethical problem with that, well, I don’t know what to tell you. Buying a robot for sex isn’t metaphorically turning the purchased body into an object; it’s buying an actual object.

Richardson keeps making the case that they’re similar. They are similar. But not identical. And at no point does she make the necessary logical connections that would lead to the conclusion that non-sentient robots for sex should be banned. Here is the bulk of her argument:

I propose that extending relations of prostitution into machines is neither ethical, nor is it safe. If anything the development of sex robots will further reinforce relations of power that do not recognise both parties as human subjects. Only the buyer of sex is recognised as a subject, the seller of sex (and by virtue the sex-robot) is merely a thing to have sex with. As Baron-Cohen shows, empathy is an important human quality. The structure of prostitution encourages empathy to be effectively ‘turned-off’. Following in the footsteps of ethical robot campaigns, I propose to launch a campaign against sex robots, so that issues in prostitution can be discussed more widely in the field of robotics. I have to tried to show how human lifeworlds of gender and sexuality are inflected in making of sex robots [sic], and that these robots will contribute to gendered inequalities found in the sex industry. I did not create these parallels between prostitution and the making of sex robots, these have been cultivated and explicitly promoted by Levy [1]. By campaigning against sex robots, we will also promote a discussion about the ethics of gender and sex in robotics and help to draw attention to the serious issues faced by those in prostitution.

Most of this is fluff with little in the way of logic applied. First, she doesn’t make an ethical case against “extending relations of prostitution into machines,” nor does she do more than “propose” it is unsafe (a term she fails to define). Second, a (non-sentient) robot literally is “merely a thing to have sex with,” with or without the prostitution angle, which appears to be a complete non-sequitur at this point. Prostitution does require empathy to be, in essence, “turned off” (or at least requires a hell of a lot of self-deception or deliberate “not thinking about it”), but only for the duration of the “relationship” and/or only with regard to the fact that prostitution involves treating real humans like objects. This does not apply to treating objects like objects. (And don’t get me started on why she feels the need to quote Simon Baron-Cohen — or mention autism — just to let the reader know that empathy is “important.” FFS.)

But there are two claims that require further discussion. The first is that sex robots “will contribute to gendered inequalities found in the sex industry,” and the second is that “the development of sex robots will further reinforce relations of power that do not recognize both parties as human subjects.”

To the first, I fail to see how, because having sex with a robot is like having sex with a person for money, it will contribute to gender inequalities in the sex industry. Just because two things are alike doesn’t suggest one will automatically affect the other. Richardson never really explains the connection, either. But just thinking out loud here, how might it work? Perhaps a person who buys sex with some regularity will purchase a sex robot, and then on those occasions when he returns to buying sex from a human, will treat that human more like an object. That is certainly one feasible possibility. But there’s little evidence to support any kind of universality. In fact, one of the quotes she cites from a man who buys sex suggests that the possibility of life-like sex robots (despite her claims about sex toys — we’ll get to that in a second) might have a mitigating effect on the number of people purchasing sex. He says “I feel sorry for these girls but this is what I want.” If he does feel sorry for them (and it’s a big if, I realize), then he and others like him might well choose the convincing human-analogue rather than the economically/socially oppressed/coerced human.

But, she says, sex toys have not reduced the amount of prostitution in the world. No kidding. Pardon my incredulity, but for a sex toy to reduce the purchasing of sex from a human, it would have to actually be like having sex with a human, something no sex toy has ever yet accomplished. It’s unsurprising in the extreme (at least, to me) that the existence of the “fleshlight” and “real dolls” haven’t curtailed prostitution. But if a genuinely convincing sex robot could be made? That might well do the trick.

What we don’t know is that it will have an effect on prostitution at all, and Richardson presents no convincing reason to think otherwise.

The second issue, that “the development of sex robots will further reinforce relations of power that do not recognize both parties as human subjects,” is easily dismissed with a quip — non-sentient robots aren’t human subjects, ha-ha — but it does bring up an interesting point. If lifelike sex robots become commonplace — not just the odd robot brothel here and there, but, say, in the home as commonly as other sex toys for instance — will they change the way we as a society have sex with each other, and the way we view our intimate partners?

That’s definitely a maybe.

See here’s the thing: nobody’s ever made a lifelike, convincing sex robot. But we have made other robots, and, well, how we treat them is pretty variable. Studies seem to show that people empathize with robots. We don’t always (fare thee well, HitchBot), but often we do. But the more charismatic they seem, I’m betting the more we’ll treat them like humans — including, probably, feeling bad about buying them for sex (if you were already inclined, that is, to feel bad about buying sex. If not, well, probably no positive change there.).

So here’s my unscientific prediction of what’ll happen once sex robots become a reality (because let’s be honest, just like autonomous weaponized drones, it’s just going to happen, ban or not): it won’t change anything substantive. It won’t affect prostitution rates, it won’t ruin families, it won’t make us view each other as sex objects (any more than we already do, anyway). It’ll just be another thing to talk about in the unending debate about what is and isn’t good sexual behaviour, something we never seem to tire of talking about.


Richard Ford Burley is a doctoral candidate in English at Boston College, where he’s writing about remix culture and the processes that generate texts in the Middle Ages and on the internet. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, and feminism (and lifelike sexbots) here at This Week In Tomorrow.