The campaign against sex robots is missing the point

We're missing the digital forest for the silicon trees.


Harris O'Malley

Internet Culture

Published Sep 21, 2015   Updated May 27, 2021, 10:49 pm CDT

Last week, the blogosphere woke up and took notice of a campaign advocating for the banning of building robots for the purpose of having sex with them. 

Kathleen Richardson of De Montfort University and Erik Billing of the University of Skövde are the founders of Campaign against Sex Robots. According to their website, their campaign is akin to the campaign to halt the development of autonomous weapons systems—tacitly putting (proposed) animatronic Real Dolls on the same level as drones and landmines. In their mind, they believe that allowing the development of mechanical sex partners would further degrade human relationships—training men to treat women and children strictly as objects.

Since then, it’s become a topic of both incredulous wonder and debate. Richardson and Billing argue that sex robots are inherently dehumanizing to women, while author David Levy believes that relationships with robots are not just desirable but inevitable, theorizing that they will be commonplace by 2050. Meanwhile, men’s rights advocates believe that this is all a feminist conspiracy to deprive them of their sexbots because of course they do

But while it’s fun to debate the ethics of using robots for sex—and I’m not yet convinced that this isn’t a hoax—I think that in doing so, we miss the digital forest for the silicon trees.

There’s more to sex robots than the sex

Part of the problem with sex robots is that we’re letting sex get in the way of, well, everything else.

One of the biggest blind spots in Richardson and Billings’ campaign against sex robots is that they reject the idea that people might be interested in these droids for any reason other than getting their rocks off. To them, the future ‘bots are strictly orgasm-providers, and the men—because they see this as being an exclusively male interest—are only looking to stick it in something that won’t talk back or say no.

However, just as with sex toys, it ignores that there are reasons someone might be interested in a robotic sex partner other than a new and novel form of masturbation. And while the most obvious is for kink or fetish-play within a relationship, there’s another, simpler possibility: simple companionship.

While it’s fun to debate the ethics of using robots for sex, I think that in doing so, we miss the digital forest for the silicon trees.

Some people have issues handling basic human relationships—yet still desire someone to provide companionship, affection and, yes, sex. Whether it’s a matter of a lack of social skills, a paralyzing level of social anxiety, fear of rejection, or simply being on the autism spectrum, there is a sizable market of people who want a companion that they can relate to—one with almost infinite patience, who won’t be turned off or repelled by their quirks or handicaps. 

This isn’t simply a thought exercise or fodder for movies like Lars and the Real Girl. There’s already a desire for these sorts of virtual companions. One of the most popular games in Japan is the New Love Plus dating sim, which allows a player to woo and date a virtual girl through his 3DS. Some people are so attached to their virtual girlfriends that they go on literal vacations with them.  

It’s tempting to laugh at these people, to pathologize them and to insist that they need to be “fixed.” But in doing so, we ignore that these are real people with real, legitimate concerns. When a virtual girlfriend—with less-virtual flesh—can provide them with some happiness and companionship, then wherein lies the harm? Far from “replacing” women or encouraging us to see them as objects, sex bots can provide a companion for people who are, for whatever reason, unable to participate in the same relationships as the rest of society.

It’s not about robots in the first place

To be perfectly honest, I don’t think this is as much about banning sex robots as it is about sex work. The campaign’s position paper focuses less on robot sex than it does flesh and blood sex-workers. It’s filled with debunked statistics, scare quotes from supposed johns, and dubious logical leaps regarding the use of sex toys and the hiring of sex workers.  

From their website: 

The development of sex robots and the ideas to support their production show the immense horrors still present in the world of prostitution which is built on the “perceived” inferiority of women and children and therefore justifies their uses as sex objects.

Richardson repeatedly compares the use of robots for sex to a prostitute/john relationship—which is telling, considering that she’s also gone on the record as being against Amnesty International’s call to decriminalize sex work. The implication is that by definition, a sex worker is exploited by others and that people who visit sex workers only do so in order to get their rocks off. 

The problem with this vision is that in trying to end one form of exploitation and dehumanization they end up dehumanizing sex workers themselves. They presume that there is only one narrative for why somebody might want to go into sex work—something that might be easily debunked by actually talking to sex workers. By ignoring and rejecting the idea that people might choose to go into sex work, they essentially rob sex workers of their agency. Considering the campaign’s desire to prevent the sexual exploitation of objects, the irony is rather palpable.

The problem isn’t the robots, the problem is society

In an interview with the BBC, Richardson says: “We think that the creation of such robots will contribute to detrimental relationships between men and women, adults and children, men and men and women and women.” Why? Because to her, it will serve to reinforce the objectification of women and that it will further codify stereotypes of how women are “supposed” to behave. The implication is that by having sex with robots, men will come to further see this is how “women” are supposed to be.

Except we don’t need sexy androids for this; we live in a society that already objectifies women. Even in a post-Third Wave feminist world, the media continues to portray women as existing simply to serve men as props and rewards. Men are taught that they “deserve” a supermodel for a girlfriend just for showing up. 

How many movies have we seen—from An Officer and a Gentleman and The Karate Kid to Back to the Future and Iron Man—where the hero is rewarded with hot girl who loves him because he’s just that awesome? The subtext is simple and obvious: By doing X, Y and Z, we are supposed to be given a beautiful woman—it’s our reward for being The Hero. Hell, the recent Adam Sandler movie Pixels didn’t bother with subtext; women were literally trophies for the men saving the day. 

Anita Sarkeesian’s YouTube series Tropes vs. Women documents this phenomenon in gaming culture, showing how women’s bodies are consumable objects for men.

Now to be fair, there are people who are excited about the potential of sex bots to diminish the importance of women—men who already objectify women and see them as things. The Men’s Rights subreddit is positively rapturous over the potential of sex-bots reducing women’s sexual market value. To them, women have too much power by virtue of being the gatekeepers of sex. Should men have other options—in this case, sex bots—then women would find their sexual value undercut and thus be forced into serving men the way men deserve.

But these beliefs precede the existence of sex bots. They’re rooted in societal messages that continually downplay women’s agency and value, particularly in relation to men.

Don’t get me wrong: As a thought experiment, the ethics of using robots for sex is intriguing. If we take the concept of sentient, intelligent robots as a given, then it throws questions about consent and freedom into stark relief. Can a being that is literally programmed to have sex with others be considered to be giving full and enthusiastic consent? Would rooting and jailbreaking a robot’s programming in order to make it want to have sex with it’s user be rape or a violation of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act? 

But to treat robots as a legitimate threat to relationships and women’s autonomy is absurd. Blaming theoretical sex robots for the mistreatment of women is to mistake the symptom for the cause. 

Harris O’Malley is a dating coach who provides geek dating advice at his blog Paging Dr. NerdLove, the Dr. NerdLove podcast, and the Good Men Project.

Screengrab via Fresh Movie Trailers/YouTube

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*First Published: Sep 21, 2015, 5:24 pm CDT