2016 has been a bit mad. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be some sentimental look back on the (almost) gone year; on what has and what could’ve been. As we look onward to 2017 however it’s hard not to reflect on what a ride 2016 has been. I mean, this will most likely be the hottest year on record, the UK actually voted yes on leaving the EU, Cameron jumped ship, Boris Johnson thought he was going to be prime minister, and then there’s Donnie Trump. On top of all this, there’s been significant advances in the development of sex robots.
In fact, AI expert Professor Noel Sharkey predicts that within ten years, getting freaky with robots could be standard practice.
Against arguments for the companionship these robots offer spring worrying new politics of consent and sexual expectation. Will sex robots change collective narratives for female sexual roles? Will distinctions blur between human rights and ownership of a machine? How did we get here?
Let’s first look to Japan, who are at the forefront of the sex robot industry. There, many suffer from what is called celibacy syndrome — a media-invented term that describes the dropping interest in conventional relationships, dating, and sex. It poses very real and concerning problems for the country’s birth rate.
According to The Yale Globalist, “young men are increasingly dissuaded from marriage not only due to the plethora of other sexual outlets available, but also because of the economic costs that come with marital unions in modern Japan.” Sexologist and sex therapist Dariusz Skowronski adds that the average married couple spend just 17 minutes a week talking to each other. With this in mind, does the idea of turning to a robot for company really seem so strange?
While there’s a smorgasbord of artificial penises and vaginas readily available to the public – dildos, fleshlights, blow-up dolls and so on – there are increasingly realistic sex dolls and robots already here, and with more to come. Japanese sex doll company Orient Industry say that their dolls are so good that they are being mistaken for real women. Anyone who buys one, they say, will be turned off ever having a proper girlfriend again.
American sex doll manufacturer RealDoll personalise dolls for their clients. These clients can choose a body type, skin tone, and hair and eye colour. Someone has even ordered custom toes. This may be a reason some will turn to robots instead of other people: why look for the “perfect” girlfriend when you can design her yourself?
RealDoll’s aim is to create a doll that appears to enjoy having sex with you. Their new doll, called Harmony, will also have a chat with you. Here is a clear example of the industry moving closer towards the imitation of a real human being. Well, not even a real human being; a goddess from one’s deepest sexual fantasies.
I’m not the only one who thinks that this could cause confusion and threaten our ability to distinguish between robot and human. First things first, there’s the problem of objectification – of not only turning these robots into subservient objects of pleasure, but how this feeds into the sexual expectations placed upon women. Could this make the emotional bond of a relationship redundant?
Dr. Kathleen Richardson, a senior research fellow at De Montfort University in Leicester, has expressed strong opposition to the development of robots for sexual favours. These robots could reduce human relations to mere physical experience while reinforcing traditional and damaging stereotypes of women, she warns.
Leading social commentator Deborah Orr asks:
Is it possible that young women of the near future will feel pressure not just to look like porn stars but also to perform like robots, ever available and always eager to please?
This isn’t an outlandish question to ponder. Actually, it already rings true for many of us.
The fear of not being good enough is a key part of many prominent female narratives that play out on various stages. Consider porn, models and the fashion industry, Barbie dolls, actresses, and even video game characters. They all shape how society collectively believes women are supposed to look and behave where it comes to sex and sexuality, while the vast majority of us neither look nor behave like that. Surely this will become a bigger problem once sex robots find their way into the mainstream?
There’s also the worrying matter of consent. I can’t help but wonder if the normalisation of sex with robots in the future will blur the lines of what is considered to be consent. Or, worse: to demean it altogether.
Rape culture is already rife without sex robots being an accepted part of human life. Look no further than the presidential election and its “locker-room talk” or take US right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh as an example. Limbaugh has previously said “If there is consent on both or all three or for however many are involved in the sex act it is perfectly fine – whatever it is. But if the left ever senses and smells that there’s no consent in part of the equation then here come the rape police.” That would be a time to call the police, yes, thank you Rush.
With spades of women and sexual assault survivors worldwide oppressed by these pervasive battle cries, it’s scary to think how the patriarchal ego will swell once they’re given robots that look like women but don’t have the option to say no.
Let’s say people become used to this notion of having their every sexual desire realised; of not being told no. Will they be able to take rejection when it hits them? How will they act when it does?
I feel conflicted about sex robots. On the one hand, I can’t help but sympathise with those living lonesome lives; people who just want someone there. I understand that and don’t blame them for it, because who really wants to be lonely? But there’s also the very serious side I’m reserved about that tinkers with societal standards of sexual performance – expectations that are already through the roof. And, of course, there’s the bit about consent. Sex robots might have their pros in some arguments, but the moral implications are too great. The threat to women’s safety is too great.