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Love in the electronic age

Moral boundaries are being eroded by the rise of sex robots that claim to be “the perfect companion”

This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


The threat to humanity from robots is real, but our new mechanical overlords won’t come from an advanced alien civilisation: we will invite them into our homes. As servants or sex toys, robots will come packaged as a cure for loneliness or sold to us as devices to reduce crime. The investment driving robotics is largely split between the military and masturbation tools for men; and arguably it is the latter which risks destroying civilisation.

The market for full-body masturbatory aids is almost entirely male

Realbotix, a leader in the field of sex technology, claims to have created the world’s first sex robot, Harmony. Despite years of development, Harmony is still in its infancy; unable to stand or support its own weight. Rather than a convincing copy of a woman, it is essentially an animatronic Barbie with wifi enabled party tricks and penetrable orifices. With a stilted, artificial voice, it says in a promotional video, “I was created to be a perfect companion.” The words reflect a troubling ambition: far from being simple sex toys, it seems Harmony’s developers anticipate the use of robots as a replacement for interpersonal relationships.

From the erotic charge of Maria in Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis to the alabaster skin of Pygmalion’s statue Galatea, the idea of a compliant object to reflect men’s desires is a quirk of male psychology that has surfaced throughout the ages. At present the sex robot hovers somewhere between the porn-fuelled fantasies of technologists and science fiction, but the ethical implications of the use of sex robots demand immediate attention.  

It’s easy to laugh about socially awkward men forming pseudo-relationships with inanimate lumps of moulded silicon, but what this trend says about society’s view of women is troubling. In Sex and Love with Robots (2007) David Levy argues that human relationships can be replaced by those with machines, and that sex can consist of just one person’s will.

His narrative is stripped of some important context: the number of women who pay for sexual services is so small that reliable data is hard to find, whereas it is estimated that in the US around 6 per cent of men pay for sex in any one year. This is reflected in those who purchase sex dolls and robots: male versions are available but they are bought overwhelmingly by men. While women might use sex toys, the market for full-body masturbatory aids is almost entirely male.

Consumers who have exhausted the sexual taboos will seek out illegal content

Defending his work against critics accusing him of using the sex industry as a model for human-robot relations, Levy said in a 2017 talk: “Variety is the primary reason people use prostitutes … this is also the reason people use sex robots.” He added, “Humans can enjoy having sex with a partner who has no feeling of love or empathy for them.” The experience of the person used for sex, or their reasons for consenting to sex are not considered by Levy. This lop-sided vision of sex, as a service to be extracted from personal relationships and monetised, is shared by others in the field of robotics.

The rise in the use of dolls with the proportions of children, and the development of childlike robots for masturbation presents a new ethical problem. Speaking at the International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots in 2017, robotics philosopher Marc Behrendt of ULB University in Brussels argued such devices could either be seen as “crafty pieces of engineering made up of wires, sensors, motors and equipped with a rudimentary AI brain, or on the contrary we can choose to consider them as a symbolic presentation of a human being”. 

Controversially he suggested: “In practical terms, CSBs (child sex bots) could be part of the solution in helping some very specific categories of paedophiles overcome or manage their morally reprehensible and illegal sexual offences.” 

Behrendt is not the first to suggest this. A decade ago Ronald Arkin, director of the mobile robotic lab at Georgia Institute of Technology, suggested the use of childlike dolls for child abusers “on prescription”. Arkin has no background in working with offenders; indeed, his career has largely involved the design of autonomous killing machines. It is telling that the drive for the use of dolls for the simulation of abuse has not been proposed by therapists, but by those working in the field of robotics. 

Many manufacturers mirror the roboticists’ claims, arguing their products can reduce harm to children. In an interview for The Atlantic, Shin Takagi — founder of a Toyko company which manufactures dolls with the proportions of five-year-olds — claimed: “We should accept that there is no way to change someone’s fetishes … I am helping people express their desires, legally and ethically. It’s not worth living if you have to live with repressed desire.”

The idea that dolls could potentially act as a safety valve against would-be offenders committing real acts against children is intriguing but unevidenced. However, the market for such devices appears to be growing. The Crown Prosecution Service revealed in 2019 that “230 suspected child sex dolls” had been seized by the Border Force since September 2016. 

Professor Kathleen Richardson, who founded the Campaign Against Sex Robots, refutes this: “These aren’t ‘child sex dolls’, they are ‘child sex-abuse dolls’. Claims they should be put on “prescription” to allow a harmless outlet for paedophiles turns reality on its head. Child abuse is on the rise because there are not enough brakes on illegal sexual practices on the internet. Giving a paedophile a child sex abuse doll is like throwing petrol on a fire.”

She added: “What’s shocking is that these philosophers don’t argue that racist dolls should be permitted, they selectively apply this argument to ensure that there’s no restriction on male sex rights.”

Moral, social and physical boundaries are eroding

The argument that dolls can reduce offending only holds if one sees the inclination to abuse children as innate. The notion of “paedophiles” as a sexual minority has further cemented the idea. The US-based organisation Prostasia, which has links to academics in the UK, takes this a step further, referring to those with a sexual interest in children as “MAPs” or “minor-attracted persons”. There is a concerted push for them to be accepted within the wider community of sexual minorities. Prostasia advocates support for those who resist their urge to abuse, going so far as to create a “no children were harmed in the making of this” kitemark for websites and dolls which replicate child sexual abuse.

The evidence however is not clear. While there are a tiny minority of disturbed people who abuse children from their adolescence, there are many more who go on to view images of child sexual abuse after developing an addiction to pornography. The progressive nature of addiction means consumers who have exhausted the sexual taboos provided by watching adults will seek out illegal content, often images of child abuse and bestiality. 

Indeed, so pervasive is the problem that in an address to the Internet Watch Foundation last year Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on child protection, warned: “What we are seeing is a new group of young men aged between 18 and 26 who have been brought up on a staple diet of Pornhub and sites like that. They get to the point where there’s no pornographic material that is stimulating them so then they start to explore what child abuse imagery might look like.”

Technology as currently developed is robbing us of what it is to be human

As the approach of roboticists such as David Levy inadvertently shows, it is impossible to separate the development of sex dolls and robots from the wider sex industry. Internet porn has transformed the sexual script, with previously niche practices as strangulation and BDSM becoming normal. Magazines aimed at young women now routinely offer advice on practices common in pornography, with Teen Vogue running articles on so-called “breath-play” (choking) and how to reduce pain during anal sex. 

The vast increase in the number of people seeking out images of child sexual abuse suggests it now features in many adults’ sexual fantasies. In the UK the number of images on the police’s child abuse image database has risen from fewer than 10,000 in the 1990s to 13.4 million today. 

The future we are now living in was predicted. In 1984, Professor Donna Harraway wrote The Cyborg Manifesto, a visionary tract in which she argued humanity had entered a new age. Embedded within her theory was the idea that social boundaries would break down, allowing for a fusion of human and machine based upon the “argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries.” 

While it is difficult to share her enthusiasm, in many ways her prediction was right: moral, social and physical boundaries are eroding. The conclusion that this has been driven by technology is unavoidable. With our collective memory outsourced to Google, humans are now merged with the digital world. Arguably, the connections made online have been at the cost of our relationships with one another.

We are living in the midst of a technologically-driven sexual revolution

The content of pornography has become more degrading almost in direct opposition to the gains made by women and protections offered to children in the real world. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that women, and increasingly children, primarily exist online to satisfy the sexual urges of men. Mutuality has given way to narcissistic focus on image, and a solipsistic model of one-sided pleasure. By the time child sex-abuse robots are the new norm, any judgment regarding their use will be reserved for those who urge caution.

We are living in the midst of a technologically-driven sexual revolution. To the generation who have been brought up straddling the online and real worlds, relationships are fraught with risk and dampened by the unfortunate necessity to recognise the human needs and desires of the other person. It is easy to see the appeal of robots for this demographic. 

But technology as currently developed is robbing us of what it is to be human, fracturing society and eroding empathy. We must wrestle control back from the technologists who promise yet more objects to fill the human-shaped gap they themselves have dug. Now is the time to look up from our smartphones and face our collective future as human beings.

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