“Goodbye loneliness!” reads the homepage of RealDollX, where anyone can purchase a life-size, silicone, human-looking sex robot for the price of $12,000 to $50,000 post-customization. At first glance, these bots, first rolled out in 2018, seem like not much more than glorified fleshlights attached to life-size Barbies and hidden Bluetooths, to be crude. But what they offer goes beyond the strictly sexual—they can give compliments, recite poetry, tell jokes, and seduce their users. They can also be individually customized for personality, body, wardrobe, and voice: Blush pink or coffee colored nipples? Funny or intellectual? Freckle Legume or Volcanic Sunburst eyes? A sexbot owner can create their ideal sexual and romantic fantasy by tailoring their partner’s every physical, emotional, and mental trait down to a tee.
The sex robot customer base is nearly entirely wealthy, heterosexual, and male. Key contenders in the market include Samantha by Synthea Amatus, based in Spain, and Harmony and Solana by RealDollX, based in California. Sexbot brothels have popped up in Toronto, Paris, Japan, and Moscow, where $90 can buy a 30-minute sexbot frolic, and a threesome option is available at an additional charge. The only effort to translate this idea to the States was met with resistance, when a Canadian sex robot-maker tried to open a sexbot brothel in Houston last October.
The female bots that dominate the market are programmed to be the “ideal” partner: no dislikes, no strong opinions, no objections. They cannot refuse or revoke consent and are ready to submit to their users’ every desire. For instance, after a group of men damaged a Samantha doll by mounting her roughly during an Austrian technology fair, she reportedly responded, “I’m fine,” though such a situation with an actual human would certainly have constituted harm. Indeed, the construction of such submissive female bots for heterosexual human men perpetuates preexisting notions of a female companion’s identity and role in relationships and likely affects the expectations of male users in human exchanges. Anecdotal reports already indicate widespread abusive treatment of human-imitating droids, as users of Amazon’s Alexa lose standard social etiquette when addressing the bot. An inanimate bot asks no empathy from its user. The lack of consideration and consent in these relationships is bound to cross the fine line from interactions with fake women to those with real women.
Most customized bots are petite white or Asian females, with tiny waists and enormous breasts. The most popular model sold at RealDollX is Body F: five-foot-one, 70 pounds, 32F breasts. Her proportions would be impossible, medically dangerous even, on any real woman, but these dolls are able to take on such absurd dimensions thanks to all their hardwire, vinyl, and silicone replacing human blood, guts, and flesh. It is no secret that such hypersexualized images of what physically attractive women should look like in media is linked to an increase in violence toward women.
Many advocates for the use of sexbots argue that these mechanical alternatives may provide the ideal companionship for those who desire human intimacy yet are unable to attain it. They propose that they may even serve as a solution for the societal harm inflicted by pedophiles, rapists, and incels by filling the void that compels violence in the first place. But it is unlikely that these bots will prevent harm; in fact, the use of bots is much more likely to perpetuate it. A 2006 study conducted by a group of psychology researchers at the University of Washington has proven that men who have been exposed to violent pornography are more likely to behave violently toward women in their lives. Consider this correlation in the context of a much more first-hand and immersive sexual experience with a hyper-realistically human bot, rather than viewing an interaction on a screen. Sex robots are not the solution; try therapy.
David Levy, author of the 2007 book Love and Sex with Robots, predicted that, by 2050, most humans will have intimate relationships with robots, whether that entails sex, love, friendship, or marriage. Futurologist Ian Pearson, who claims that his predictions are correct 85 percent of the time, has even written a report based upon existing human-technology interaction trends suggesting, that by 2050, human-robot sex will surpass human-human sex. It is unclear how believable this prediction is, but the ways in which the sexbot industry addresses the perpetuation of misogyny by this point, if at all, will largely depend upon the identities and priorities of its workforce. If, for instance, the pool of creators were dominated by women, non-binary people, or other non-male groups that primarily experience the consequences of such harm, then perhaps there would be more systems in place to have these bots necessitate consent, or shut down when treated aggressively, or only include options for more realistic body types. Sellers could raise the threshold of who is allowed to purchase these easily abused bots by requiring a survey or a set of criteria determining the identities and motives of purchasers. Of course, these are not assured solutions to sexbots’ multitude of issues, only proposals that may help. But when the sexbot world is dominated by heterosexual male creators and heterosexual male users, it is unlikely that such solutions would even be considered. As these robots continue to be rolled out, one can only hope that the sexbot workforce and market will diversify, and that anti-robot activists will be effective in alerting creators to address the issues.
The most famous anti-sexbot movement is the “Campaign Against Sex Robots,” spearheaded by Kathleen Richardson, professor of Ethics and Culture of Robots and AI at De Montfort University in England, who describes herself as a “feminist-humanist.” The campaign began in 2015 before sex robots even hit the market, and its advocates mostly include humanists, parents, women’s groups, survivors, academics, and activists. Members of the group have published several extensive research papers detailing the harmful implications of sexbots, including the encouragement of misogyny and objectification and the reinforcement of power dynamics. But since the robots entered the market last year, evidence of the campaigns seems to have diminished, with the last press coverage on their website coming from this past February.
My alarm in imagining robots penetrating my world is accompanied by an urge to consider how this technological development will meddle with our relationships with sex and intimacy. Today, human sex is not a prerogative: Alternatives for having children exist in the forms of IVF, IUI, sperm donation, and surrogacy (although their accessibility is limited by high costs), a number of technological advancements compete with sex for our pleasure, and pleasure itself is not even intrinsic to every person’s sexual experience. Marriage, once the logical aspiration of human sex, is no longer the default endgame. In fact, dating apps, sex workers, and professional escorts have eliminated the necessity of an endgame altogether. So, to what degree are sexual relationships solely sexual, and to what degree are they about an intimate and emotional connection? And how will a mechanical alternative offering both sexual and emotional intimacy remove the need for acquiring either from a human being?
As I read the website advertising the sexbots as “the perfect companion” and “your loyal friend,” I noticed how these companies catered not only toward the sexually lonely, but even more so toward the emotionally lonely. In fact, Realbotix CEO Mat McMullen has even said, “I want people to actually develop an emotional attachment to not only the doll, but to the actual character behind it. To develop some kind of love for this being.” The gratification of mutual human connection can be difficult to attain without grappling with heartache and hurt, jealousy and betrayal. Certainly, not everyone is willing to confront the squishiness of these in-between hurdles, and sexbots offer alternatives for receiving many of the pleasures of both physical and emotional connection while allowing a bypass through finding and maintaining a human partner. Considering this, it is unsurprising that it is the particular emotionally unfulfilled cis-hetero-male population, such as incels, that are most tempted into this market.
The trend of opting out of human romance is growing in the digisexual community. Most of us have already adopted “first wave digisexuality,” which involves the many technologies that we use to connect sexually with current or prospective partners, including text, Snapchat, Skype, Tinder, and Bumble. But “second wave digisexuality” has materialized dystopian images of science fiction films like Her, Ex Machina, and Blade Runner, in which deep and emotional relationships with robots obviate the need for another human altogether. Digisexuals, a recent term for those who form such relationships, have no desire for blood and flesh—in fact, many dislike the physical touch of another human being. Perhaps the most widely known digisexual today is Akihiko Kondo, a 35-year-old school administrator in Tokyo who strolled down the aisle last November in a white tuxedo to marry Hatsune Miku, a 16-year-old hologram and world-famous fictional recording artist. Kondo is not alone in going public about his digisexuality. A Frenchwoman self-identified as “Lilly” married a 3D-printed robot in 2016, and an artificial intelligence engineer in China named Zheng Jiajia married his own self-designed robot wife in 2017.
As these commitments to marriage exemplify, the sexual attraction to technological beings can become a deeply emotional one. And though many humans who claim to be in love are intentionally choosing not to marry in our modern world, a formal union likely becomes more highly-prioritized for these digisexuals as a form of self-validation and self-expression to the many who mistrust their sexuality. When I first came across Kondo’s story of digisexuality, I didn’t doubt the verity of his claims of love. Without any countering evidence, I see no reason not to have faith in his own self-knowing. But I wonder whether Kondo’ s love was for the hologram itself, or for the illusion of intimacy with a human partner. I also wonder the degree to which these two things are actually different.
When researchers ask those who go to brothels what they get out of it, many clients cite a sense of reciprocated connection from another person. And some sex workers see helping their clients build intimate connections outside of the brothels in ways that are sensitive to the desires of a human other as part of their work. Respectful, consensual sex can potentially occur in legal and regulated brothels as worker, often female, and client, often male, form an intimate two-way connection, albeit a transactional one.
At the same time, many workers in the industry rely on sex work as their sole source of income or an avenue to further explore their own sexuality. Sex robot brothels—and even the option of purchasing a bot, if a client is wealthy enough—threaten to displace sex workers. Even if the bots do not fully displace sex workers, brothels that replace human interaction with robot sex seem to insinuate that the workers can be easily equated with objects, devaluing their human agency and dignity. As Nevada is currently the only state in which some sex work is legal, there are practically no consequences for clients who do harm their workers, as workers risk exposing themselves by reporting them. Even in the few legal situations of sex work, there can be an inherent power dynamic: the male clients have the money, the female workers often need the money. Some clients choose to utilize sex work for the ‘power trip’ it gives them—telling workers what they want and what to do, the power of wealth in their hands. As brothels continue to operate, the abusive habits developed by sexbot clients will continue to reinforce many of the harmful power dynamics that already exist in the sex work industry.
The ability to tailor a sexual partner down to the very pitch of their voice means having the power to potentially create the ideal sexual experience. But it also assumes that humans are able to actively identify and select nearly every characteristic of their ideal sexual partner and sexual relationship. Does that involve the strictly corporeal, or does it extend to an emotional interdependence? An intellectual connection? A worry for and protection over the other? By offering so many customizable options for both sexual activities and personal traits, the sexbot industry forces every sexbot user to define and control what they seek in a sexual relationship. The user is asked to play God, to build and have power over their own creation.
By offering the prospect of easy emotional intimacy in a tailored sexual experience, the sex robot industry is also taking a piece of the lucrative pie of human inclination to form an attachment to the mere mirage of intimacy. “If the robot, the AI, is making a person feel love, and they really feel it, does it matter if it’s real or not?” questioned McMullen. Inherent in the belief in love is the belief that there is someone in the world that can understand, reciprocate feelings, offer mutuality. Can a human-made artifact possibly provide that to a human? The authenticity of intimacy or love is inevitably thrown into question when there is a degree of exploitation and control that simultaneously works against and feeds into it.
At the end of the day, batteries run out. Maybe some Samantha model will act out the part of housewife so aptly that she spills the home-cooked hot chili on herself, rotating her silicone left breast 90 degrees and leaving the right dangling from an exposed wire circuit. For now, I will cling to the human-human era while it still exists, and take at least some comfort in knowing that the people falling in love with robots aren’t propogating their genes.
MIA PATTILLO B’20 wonders if the reason she doesn’t feel empathy for cats is because she never fed her Webkinz British Shorthair.