With all that’s going on in our political climate, sex robots aren’t something a lot of people are concerned about. But, they should be.
Sex robots are a gateway of sorts. Their use allows for the proliferation of the idea that the ideal sexual partner (particularly women) should submit, say nothing, and serve. They’re a stepping stone to normalizing abusive relationships. On its most basic level, a sex robot is a literal objectification of a human body.
This was a step to be expected in the evolution of sex toys. Sex technology is a $15 billion dollar yearly industry, and companies like Exdoll, KinkySDolls, Realbotix, and Real Doll have taken advantage of that sum to build on demands for sex robots.
This demand can be translated as a perverse desire (mostly from men) for sex that is completely non-committal, actions that are completely nonconsequential, and completely devoid of consent.
Sex robots are a particularly contentious issue in Houston, where Canadian company KinkySDolls recently attempted to open what some are describing as a robot brothel. Several Christian leaders and activist groups went against the company on a religious basis. My concern, however, isn’t with the word of the Bible, but with the word robots can’t actually say — “yes.”
In other words, robots are currently incapable of giving true consent. Their lack of free will and emotion mean that even if sex robots expressed a clear desire to have sex, their consent or lack thereof wouldn’t mean anything. It’s a dangerous scenario.
Lack of consent also exists with non-humanoid sex toys like vibrators. But unlike a vibrator, a sex robot deeply resembles a human (albeit one with exaggerated features).
Humanoid robots designed for sex are particularly concerning because they have the potential to end up serving no purpose other than to be twisted and complicit depictions of human intimacy. The moment we become complacent with our treatment of these robots in discourse, we risk the complete actualization of that perverse purpose.
RealBotix programs their robots to moan and engage in extremely basic conversation. What RealBotix has not programmed their robots to do is say “no.”
This isn’t surprising. The founder of Realbotix, Matt McMullen, sees no potential issues with his technology.
“There are millions of real women who do more damage to objectify women than any robot could ever do,” McMullen said in an interview with Forbes in September.
It’s ironic that McMullen talks about “real women” as something different than his robots. On his website, the company advertises their model with the slogan “Be the first to never be lonely again!” This seems to say that robots are capable of providing the same level of companionship as real women.
Yet, the site describes their leading model (named Harmony) as a sort of perfect “woman” — one who can stimulate feelings of companionship without needing reciprocation. The company advertises their female sex robots in a way that seems to forget their intrinsic lack of humanity.
Regardless of whether or not McMullen’s belief is true, his statement does little to justify why it would be acceptable for his robots to contribute to a culture of objectification in any way.
McMullen’s misogyny further reduces the credibility of his company. It’s clear that his goal isn’t to help lonely people feel loved, but to make money by whatever means necessary — even if that means creating, marketing, and idealizing hyper-sexualized versions of the human body.
Much like inappropriate relationships between those in charge and those beneath them in the workforce, human/sex robot relationships are dominated by an unfair balance of power. Not only are robots incapable of giving consent, but they’re also incapable of leaving their users.
Machine awareness could further complicate issues; robots might not give consent but would be forced to engage in sex acts due to their less-than-human status. While these sex robots don’t necessarily feel discomfort (or anything at all really) at this stage in their development, they’re a part of a bigger societal problem.
When taking into consideration the rape culture present at most college campuses, sex robots aren’t what’s going to skyrocket sexual assault statistics. But, they do contribute to dangerous ideas about sex. The idea of a perfect, complacent, and purchasable individual is hardly helping reform our society in regard to body image issues, consent, and sex-positive education.
The second that our society starts normalizing relationships with robots, we begin a descent smoothed down by machine oil, silicone, and the current pervasive rape culture into a world where real human relationships are replaced by ones that are idealistic, fabricated, and permeated with power imbalances.
In the same way that media and culture involving sex mirrors or influences the lives of viewers, users of sex robots and those who accept their presence without question are subconsciously indoctrinated to believe that consent isn’t necessary, and that sexual abuse is socially acceptable.
Eamon Morris PZ ’22 is from Orange, CA. He’s allergic to anything without caffeine.
Eamon Morris PZ ’22 is from Orange, California. He’s one of TSL’s opinions editors.