The Ethical Crisis Behind the Rise of Sexbots
There’s a moment in Ex Machina, midway through the film, where a naked woman lies ready and waiting on a bed. She’s completely devoid of emotion, an object serving an erotic fantasy. The woman, it turns out, is a sex robot. It’s a pop culture cliché, a man’s quest to create the perfect robot companion to stick his dick into that began to gain prominence with Ira Levin’s 1972 thriller, The Stepford Wives. What a difference half a century can make. Thanks to the breakneck speed of technology, sexbots have transcended fiction, blossoming into a groundbreaking industry that’s already created everything from full-bodied robots with patent-pending closing eye features to VR-linked sextoys that snap onto videogame controllers.
However, for all the technical achievements they’ve made to improve silicone breasts, manufacturers have also become the subject of a larger discussion about what the rise of sexbots will mean for humanity. The concern is not whether Skynet’s destruction of Earth will now feature realistic robovaginas, but rather what ethics will be put in place to keep these sex robots in check. Will the robots contribute to the objectification of people as sex objects? Or will they form a natural next step in human intimacy?
The answer, like the industry itself, begins with a look towards the future. For futurologist Dr. Ian Pearson, the year 2050 is the marker for when robot sex will have officially begun to overtake the standard human-on-human variety. “It’s not going to replace conventional sex. I think it just lives alongside it quite happily,” he explained last week during our Skype call. “It completes an individual act but doesn’t complete you overall.”
“I think sex dolls enhance peoples’ lives. But I don’t think we’re going to see [them] replace human-to-human contact.”
It’s a sentiment shared by EOS Creative’s Bill Spracklin, who has been hard at work creating a product called VirtuaDolls. Part sex toy, part VR, it connects to a video game called Girls of Arcadia, which, according to their Indiegogo campaign, promises to bring your fantasies to life. “I think sex dolls enhance peoples’ lives,” he said. “But I don’t think we’re going to see [them] replace human-to-human contact. I would hate to see that happen.” It’s more of a masturbatory aid than a lover, which is what some in the industry have begun working toward with their lifelike creations.
It’s a future that Dr. Pearson sees as inevitable after spending over 30 years studying the robotics industry. Alongside the vision of mainstream robosex comes a stern belief that they’ll also come equipped with emotions and empathy. It’s a feature missing from today’s crop of robotic sex toys—no matter how advanced their silicon nipples have become—and is one of the most essential tenets of the growing anti-sexbot movement. Last year, Kathleen Richardson and Erik Billing launched the Campaign Against Sex Robots to draw attention to the potentially detrimental effects that sexbots will bring to society. They’re afraid that the creation of these mechanical companions has lacked a clear sense of ethical guidelines, which are key to creating safe and respectful emotional bonds.
“When it comes to the world of relationships, the best ethics we can have when thinking about human relationships is equality and freedom,” Richardson told me over a Skype call. “Even though people can be very hurtful towards each other, they can change each other in ways that machines cannot. You wouldn’t even have that possibility anymore [with sexbots].” Sexual freedom (or consent) may seem irrelevant given that robots are technically machines, but it’s a necessary concern—especially when the robot’s function is to create realistic sexual experiences.
Nobody has a right to just have sex with someone else without asking, and by creating sexbots that lack the need for consent, Richardson fears it could create a schism in peoples’ real-life sexual relationships. Studies have shown that men who hire prostitutes show less empathy for women, and they share characteristics that are linked to sexual violence. Additionally, men who objectify and focus on a woman’s appearance are more likely to coerce or pressure them into sex acts. That’s cause for concern when you consider the fact that the entire sexbot industry is modeled on creating the perfect partner, devoid of personality or emotions.
Even within the world of Girls of Arcadia, the character models advertised on the VirtuaDolls fundraising page are walking stereotypes of promiscuous women, complete with skimpy outfits and big breasts. When the concern about these designs was brought up to Spracklin, he was quick to denounce any fear of objectification that one might have about a video game where you literally skip the storyline and go straight to VR-fucking the women.
“Even though people can be very hurtful towards each other, they can change each other in ways that machines cannot. You wouldn’t even have that possibility anymore [with sexbots].”
“We want this to be an immersive experience, but we understand some people won’t have the time for [the storyline],” he explained. “We want there to be a little bit of a connection with the character. We have no intention of being like, ‘Here’s a sex object.’ We’re not trying to do anything like that.” But creating women that are blank slates—whether through sexbots or sex toys—makes them into a sex object whether that is the creator’s intention or not. Until these robots are suffused with emotions and the ability to give consent, it will seem as if the entire sexbot industry is built on a foundation of objectification.
Viewing women as sex objects is by no means an original or isolated problem. Yet, when pressed about the concern that this could corrode a healthy future for the sex robot industry, the responses were alarmingly nonchalant. “Some people treat women like sex objects anyways, they’ll probably continue to do so,” Dr. Pearson said when asked about the concern. “Those of us who treat women with more respect will continue to do that.” For his part, Spracklin was a lot more creative about the idea that his video game about having sex with scantily clad women contributes to objectification. “I think a lot of people see it as objectifying women, but what they’re missing is that there’s a whole other unexplored territory here that doesn’t involve women,” he explained. “You’re going to be able to experience things that are just not possible on Earth.”
The sexbot industry, by default, is about creating sex objects. It’s not an issue that can be swept under the rug by the promise of having sex with minotaurs, aliens, or furries, as Spracklin eluded to when discussing the future of VirtuaDolls. Nor is it a problem that can be waved away with the excuse that it’s inevitable, as Dr. Pearson said. Sex is a wonderful thing, but it relies on an ethical commitment to consent that has not yet been translated into the world of technology. It may never happen.
That isn’t to say that the entire idea of creating lifelike robots should be abandoned. The robotics industry has always worked hard to help out disadvantaged groups like the elderly and disabled. “Some have got mental illnesses that prevent them from forming strong emotional bonds,” Dr. Pearson explained. “For a person with autism, it could be good for teaching them emotional skills and human skills before they try experimenting with real life people.” When stripped of their sexual servitude, companion robots created as platonic aides are unquestionably positive. But as the sexbot industry pushes forward, will it find a way to break its habit of sexual objectification? We’ll have to wait until 2050 to really find out.
Stay tuned to Milk for more sex n’ tech.
Lead image by Kathryn Chadason. All other images via Real Doll, VirtuaDolls, and Girls of Arcadia.