The ethical and sociological implications of the sex robot business
[cw: mentions of rape]
The future of sexual fulfilment is here in the form of a fully programmable and easily controlled entity, and if that statement doesn’t put you on edge then you may want to re-evaluate some things. Humanoid sex robots are already on the market, currently restricted in popularity due to their extortionate price tag, but are projected to break into the general market relatively soon. The advancement in technological pleasure has induced widespread debate among commentators and yet has not slowed nor shifted current developments in this field. However, sociological discussion surrounding sex robots should be taken into consideration, as the impacts could be far reaching.
Supporters for sex robot normalisation highlight the positive psychological relief they can provide to consumers. People who may suffer severe social anxiety, or any other disorder or disposition which may render them adverse to meeting new people, getting out the house, or forming emotional attachments, can use sex robots to fulfil their need for affection and, in some cases, communication – some more advanced models are now actually capable of maintaining conversation. These advantages in themselves could be problematic – by supporting social isolation, this technology potentially encourages acceptance of retreat rather than pushing people to seek help and recovery. As well as helping people who struggle with social acceptance, it has also been argued that sex robots could help those who experience unconventional or unethical sexual desires. For instance, paedophiles may be able to find cathartic release for strong or uncontrollable desires in a way that keeps children safe. However, as in many cases of cathartic release, the main danger is the unconscious acceptance and normalisation of repeated actions. Who is to say someone who releases dangerous sexual desires on a sex robot won’t simply be conditioned to believe that their behaviour is standard, permitting a spread outside of secure environments.
The fear of normalising problematic behaviour can be expanded to worries of how sex robots may influence attitudes towards women. Investigative journalists who have ventured into working robot brothels have noted the objectifying nature customers often inflict on sex robots. Sex robots are usually made to be flexible and compliant; and the sex itself will tend to be one sided in both consent and desire. Continuing the acceptance of men who are able to completely dictate their sexual acts can be dangerous, as the tendency for these controlling behaviours to leak into everyday life are likely and extremely detrimental. There are some models that have been produced that require the user to “seduce” the robot before sex can commence – however, frighteningly, this addition will likely be abused and exploited by people who crave to recreate acts of rape. Even if the more drastic cases of objectification are removed, programming gender can still drag gender equality back decades. A 2014 Nesta study explored gender programming and found male assigned machines to be more proficient at repairing technical devices whereas female assigned machines were more suited to domestic, caring services. It is clear that programmers working in this booming business have a limited grasp of gender expression, perpetuating female stereotypes. If the sex robot business does expand as far as projected, soon these compliant, gender stereotyped symbols will represent women all round the world, and may even be the only representation experienced by isolated people.
On top of this, the expanding business of sex robots could potentially have repercussions for human sex workers. Workers in this industry are already often excluded from basic human rights and receive very little support. The addition of sex robots could aid business, but will most likely harm it. In one way, sex robots may deter abusive customers away thus reducing the risk sex workers face. However, pulling customers away may result in a lack of proficient funding for sex workers to support themselves. If robot brothels become more common and the purchase and upkeep of them becomes relatively cheap, hiring prices may drop, encouraging customers to use them over human brothels – potentially putting them out of business. Alternatively, if sex robots remain expensive, brothels trying to keep up with the times may not be able to support both human and sex robots, forcing them into retirement.
The final consideration is one which should certainly be talked about more, despite the controversy of its need – robot ethics. The main driving force behind robotic development is the progression of human-like qualities; to achieve this, robots can be programmed with personalities, opinions, preferences. All of which raises the question – when does a robot become sentient? In the future, could a sex robot with artificial intelligence be considered as having the same rights as a human and therefore the right to say no to sexual acts? This issue has been probed with developments in artificial intelligence, mostly in popular culture and films like Ex Machina. With fast expanding advancements in this area of technology, discussions of artificial consent and laws surrounding this must catch up. We cannot subject a new generation of life to forced behavioural acts. Just as human rights laws still need improving for human sex workers, they also need to be established for sex robots, especially if they include AI. Unfortunately, judging by the lack of progression in human rights already, this will likely be drastically delayed.
As positive an addition sex robots could be to society, especially to those who have trouble establishing social relationships, there are clearly still a number of drawbacks that must be taken into consideration before this technology becomes mainstream. Most potentially adverse repercussions, however, could be solved. More care in design of gender to avoid stereotypes, as well as the establishment of AI sex robot rights, is desperately needed. As with many advancements in technology, sex robots could be a harmless addition to society – but only if not abused.
[Michaela Barton – @lowkeypigeon]