Like London buses, three diverse and rather important sex robot essays and papers looking at the possible implications of them for society, have all appeared at the same time (or in the third case, recently resurfaced).
All three deserve reading, or even studying, and I’d like to give some brief thoughts on them, together with a highlighted sample from each. Two of them are so important, or at least interesting and provocative, that I might give some more extensive ruminations upon both of them separately in two further posts.
If you don’t want to read my thoughts, but you would like to take a look at the articles, here are the links to all three:
Photo of the finishing touches to ‘Alexa’ above is from the Twitter feed of DS Doll Robotics.
Davd W. Wahl On The Pros And Cons In This Emerging Sexual Age
The first is an excellent and concise summary of the pros and cons of sex robots for society, or at least what are commonly presented as the positives and negatives by each side in the ‘sexbot war’ that is it seems, gaining momentum as these things loom over the horizon. The author, a sex therapist writing as a blogger for Psychology Today, does acknowledge that true sex robots are likely further away than most people think. He is also a researcher on ‘women’s studies’. It seems that this is the only type of male academic who is allowed to contribute to the sex robot discussion. However, as I said, to be fair it’s a very balanced and lucid summary of the positions of both sides of the debate at present.
Factors contributing to an individual’s sense of well-being, in the use of a sex robot, include sexual and, perhaps, emotional companionship for those who are unable to find human partners. With an advanced enough AI form, a human could form a potentially satisfying relationship with a robotic partner.
Those supporting the use of sex robots argue that sexually transmitted diseases are not transmitted through a sex robot; it may release sexual frustrations in those who would otherwise vent in public via sexual harassment or assault; or it’s a good tool to learn from and garner sexual experience before having human relations.
It may be as simple as a fun addition to the sexual canon for both individuals and couples. Couples who have considered having a threesome even suggest that it may be a healthy alternative to add a sex robot as a third and bypass the complications of including a third human. Finally, in many cases, it’s seen to be a natural progression of social interaction for those who are champions of technology.
Should Sex Robots Be Given As A Right For The Disabled And Elderly?
The second piece falls certainly into the ‘pro’ category in its view of sex robots. In fact, it’s a rare academic paper that presents a very positive argument for sex robots, or at least for their use by the elderly and disabled. It has been widely reported and commented on in the media – such as here at the Seattle Times. Perhaps it’s because the author of the paper – Nancy Jecker of the UW’s School of Medicine – cleverly brought in a connection between the current Covid crisis and a possible mitigating role for sex robots. Lockdowns, with the elderly and vulnerable being asked to shelter even more than the rest of the population, is bringing particular hardship and loneliness for this demographic. Nancy Jecker points out that the market for sex robots is commonly considered to be for able-bodied men, but that they may provide a real need for sexual comfort among the elderly and disabled, whose sexual needs are often ridiculed due to ‘agism’.
While it may appear troublesome that the author focuses on the elderly AND disabled as a valid demographic to make use of sex robots, she does explicitly state that young men unable to attract women could be subject to the same implications of the argument, but decides she will pursue that topic ‘for another day’ – perhaps wisely given the current stigma associated with the ‘Incel’ community (Involuntary (mostly male) Celibates)
In fact, there’s no doubt that this article firmly adds to the emerging discussion on ‘sex redistribution’, first prominently raised perhaps by the economist Robin Hanson in a controversial piece in 2018, and then taken up in a New York Times opinion piece shortly after. This is the controversial idea that ‘sex redistribution’ might be a valid policy goal of governments in the same way that income redistribution is. That is, that government and society might have a duty to ensure that all citizens have their fundamental sexual needs fulfilled, in the same way there is a duty to ensure everybody has their other basic needs met (at a minimum level at least) such as income, and physical health.
She also promotes sex robots on the basis that they are NOT ‘objects’, but rather stimulate real human personality and interaction. This is a very interesting and a very clever argument to make, because the anti-sex robot lobby – particularly feminists – are trying to get sex robots banned on the grounds that they ARE objects, and that their use somehow ‘objectifies’ women. Of course, if men wanted to simply treat women as objects, they would not want sex robots, but rather be contented with inanimate sex dolls.
The sexual lives of older adults is a neglected topic in medical research and practice. It was not until 2007 that the first national US study of sexuality among home-dwelling older adults was published,1 extending our understanding of later-life sexuality beyond observations of institutionalised persons with dementia.2 Contrary to common stereotypes of older adults as asexual, the landmark study showed that more than half (53%) of older adults aged 65–74 years were sexually active, and more than a quarter (26%) of older adults aged 75–85 years were.3 One explanation for the near absence of inquiry prior to 2007 is ageism. The WHO defines ‘ageism’ as ‘stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination towards people on the basis of age’, which ‘cuts across the life-course and stems from the perception that a person might be too old or too young to be or to do something’ (Officer, p299).4 Not only in research but also in everyday life, ageism infiltrates attitudes about sexuality: attempts by older persons to express sexuality and intimacy are often ridiculed,5 while stereotypes depict older adults as asexual,6 prudish and beyond sex.7 Within healthcare, providers routinely avoid the topic of sexual health with patients over 65 years, despite a much higher frequency of health-related sexual concerns in this age group.8 9
This paper highlights the ethical importance of combatting ageism about later-life sexuality by pointing to ways in which it relates to human dignity and to central human capabilities, such as the ability to generate a personally meaningful story or narrative of one’s life; be physically, mentally and emotionally healthy; experience bodily integrity; affiliate and bond with others; feel and express a range of human emotions; and choose a plan of life. Focusing on older people with disabilities, the paper sets forth an ethical argument for affording access to sex robots as part of reasonable efforts to support central human capabilities at a floor level. The argument has some force with respect to all older people, since age-related changes affecting sexual functioning impact all people as they grow old. It also carries implications for younger people who lack access to sex partners; for example, in China, gender imbalance resulting from Mao’s one-child policy has made it difficult for young men who prefer sex with women to find a partner. Yet, I bracket discussion of these topics for another day and focus on older people with disabilities, including both those with and those without human partners. Throughout the paper, the term, ‘sex robots’ is used to refer to ‘life-size machine entities with human-like appearance, movement, and behaviour, designed to interact with people in erotic and romantic ways… with capabilities ranging from simple verbal responses, to physical movements, to more advanced artificial intelligence’ (Gersen, p1794–95).10 Unlike other objects used to enhance sexual activity, sex robots simulate being with another human being and involve forming a human–robot relationship.
The argument for affording access to sex robots for older people with disabilities develops stepwise: (1) I begin by dispelling ageism and negative stereotypes about later-life sexuality, showing their deep historical roots in medicine and science; (2) next, the paper sets forth a positive argument, grounded in capability accounts of justice, for making available sex robots for older people with disabilities; the argument links such support to respect for human dignity; (3) finally, after responding to objections, I conclude that sex robots are a critically important tool to support sexuality for older persons with disabilities. While often depicted as a product designed for younger, able-bodied people, this paper is a bid for reimagining sex robots as a product to support older adults with disabilities.
Diana Fleischman On ‘Uncanny Vulvas’
The third piece on sex robots, from an academic evolutionary psychology blogger, falls more into the category of anti-sex robot literature, although the author does extensively consider the argument that sex robots could be a kind of opium for unhappy and sexually frustrated young incel types who might otherwise go on to shoot up schools and the like.
It’s almost a running gag that many women fear they will be replaced by sex robots. But (invariably female) opponents of sex robots can’t just say that sex robots must be banned ‘because they might replace us in the bedroom’. It requires a little more sophistication than that to be taken seriously. So anti-sexbot campaigners fall back on feminist tropes about ‘objectification’ and the likes. However, Diana Fleischman here tries to present an argument, based on evolutionary science, that makes the case for sex robots potentially endangering the human species itself.
Of course, the idea that humanity might fade away because we’re all too busy bonking sex robots or having sexy fun in virtual reality, is a also a bit of a cliche, and it’s arguable whether or not the argument made in her article, or at least the conclusion, is really much more sophisticated. It is, however, certainly preceded by a very interesting and lengthy discussion on the ways in which sex robots might disrupt the ‘economics of sex’, particularly through creating ‘a female majority sexual market’ which might (according to previous research into such societies) lead to women having more casual sex (as women have to lower their bar to dropping their panties in order to out-compete the other women for sex).
Unfortunately, her final conclusion, based on the idea of ‘fake reproductive fitness signals’ perhaps leading to the extinction of humanity (and even a solution to Fermi’s Paradox) doesn’t strike me as convincing. Haven’t women been presenting ‘fake reproductive fitness signals’ through the clever use of makeup (and fashion etc.) for millennia? Admittedly, unlike with sex robots, women wearing make-up do still reproduce even if exaggerating their sexual fitness (and make-up perhaps increases the likelihood of reproduction). But what about the female contraceptive pill, and dare I say it – abortion on demand (not that I am expressing any kind of view on abortion here)? Surely they are as much ‘fake reproductive fitness signals’ as sex robots can ever be?
Well, the point is I guess, that claiming something is bad because it leads to sex without reproduction, isn’t really a consistent argument to make in today’s world, unless you hold that the argument only applies to men (or you really do believe it on religious grounds). Perhaps we should just embrace technology to enrich all our sex lives, while separating sex from reproduction?
The title of her essay – the rather brilliant ‘Uncanny Vulvas’ is a play on the ‘Uncanny Valley’ description of sex dolls (and robots) that are very human like but disconcertingly still evidently not quite human.
Perhaps we should encourage some men to use sex robots. Men who get environmental cues that they’re evolutionary dead-ends disproportionately menace society. In the 1980s, evolutionary psychologist couple Wilson and Daly found that perpetrators of violence and homicide had something in common: they were young, single and didn’t have access to the kinds of resources with which to win mates. Polygynous societies in which wealthier men have access to multiple women are more violent and less stable because they have a class of young men without the prospect of getting a mate. Monogamy, rather than being the state of nature, may have been an important cultural technology for reducing violence.
Men have much greater variance of reproductive success than women. Sometimes they get cues that they have nothing to lose you have everything to gain from taking risks through violence, sexual or otherwise. This is one reason that pornography decreases the rate of sexual assault. When men get cues that women are interested in them, even if those women are mere representations, their evolved psychology leads them to less risky ways of attempting to achieve reproductive success. How many teenaged boys would be able to build up the resentment to commit mass shootings or suicide if they had a beautiful sex robot at home?
Importantly, this is distinct from Freudian catharsis, or “discharge theory” (pun intended). There isn’t evidence that aggressive or sexual impulses can be purged by “getting them out of your system.” The motivation for these impulses is instead weakened by environmental cues that indicate you don’t need to engage in risky strategies to achieve reproductive success. The cues a sex robot would provide to the evolved psychology of a previously disgruntled teenager would be “you’re achieving incredible mating success and status by staying at home and playing video games, keep at it!”
This feeling of achievement from merely staying at home, playing video games and having sex with a robot is, of course, a double-edged sword. We could call this “counterfeit fitness” – subjective cues of evolutionary success without real-world ramifications. Society and education incentivize effort with markers of status like diplomas, potentially a means to an end for reproductive success. The men who would have been most likely to have access to multiple women throughout history were men high in status, like kings and men high in dominance, like warlords. Video games and social media already undermine the native psychological mechanisms that make us work towards status — they supply more immediate rewards and take far less effort than anything we work towards out in the real world. Sex robots are only going to make that worse, especially for young men. The game Love Plus, in which the ultimate reward is simply getting to know a virtual girl and attaining her virtual signals of approval has already replaced pursuing dating real women for thousands of men. Imagine if winning a video game was punctuated not with just saving the princess but having sex with her. Imagine if men could have the diversity of sexual experience of Genghis Khan, Muhammad, or John F. Kennedy without actually achieving anything. Sex robots are about to make the virtual world even more alluring.