This article is dedicated to the Ancient Greek legend of Aspasia as a warning about sex robots, in hope that her words can be highlighted and recognized, in accordance with the suffering she endured as a courtesan, a prostitute to wealthy men in Ancient Greece.
Aspasia was denied a voice.
For too long history books have sought to recognize her ‘proximity’ to the famous male counterparts of Greece, and demonized her for working as a ‘courtesan,’.
She is known for her association with Ancient Greek philosophers including Pericles, Socrates and Plato – but she was also one of the most remarkable females to live in the Ancient World. This article honours her legacy.
I draw parallels between Aspasia of ancient Greece and robotics for various reasons.
Firstly, she is representative of a robot herself. Every record of her word is a secondary source. She was spoken for through Socrates, or noted by Plato. There is little record of her own voice, in the same way a robot will never record their autonomy; for the simple reason that it does not exist. She reaches our minds through portrayal by her male counterparts, who, ironically, also called on her for sexual favours.
And that invites the second link between Aspasia and robotics. Idealist thinking would suggest there might never be another woman like Aspasia again, if we substitute prostituted persons, with robots.
Sex robots are presented as alternatives to prostitutes by researchers Ian Yeoman and Michelle Mars or David Levy who uncritically think this automation of the sex trade is an innocent application of the technology. But what is really happening in the buying of sex, and do we really want to engineer this in robots?
I am a writer and researcher examining the topic of prostitution. In the course of my research, I have interviewed over forty escorts from the North-West of England. These women have shared with me the fact that sexual submission is not enough for some buyers of sex and the simple act of selling sex is not enough.
For too long, male misconception has encouraged the belief that prostitutes allow for the enactment of safe sexual fantasy and desire.
A prostituted persons’ susceptibility to sexual abuse holds the key to their ability to sexually gratify, much more so than their aesthetic features and abilities to engage the buyers of sex:
“Before I accepted his money he would agree that we would not kiss. Then just before he was about to orgasm, he’d smother his face on mine – and as I’d move and turn away his stubble would scratch against me. He was trying to kiss me. And am I wrong to say it takes more from me emotionally and physically, then what he was already taking with his dick inside me? He liked the discomfort it gave me, and even if he didn’t, he still orgasms. So what does that say?”
Whether her buyer of sex just wanted a climax, or enjoyed seeing her writhe away time and time again, we will never know. What I do know from listening to women talk about the buyers of sex who peel away condoms, force fingers up anuses and coerce drugs upon women, is that: what they cannot take from the woman ultimately fosters the sexual gratification.
As sex robots are proposed as alternatives to prostitutes, the engineering of a physical act is not enough. Roboticists would have engineer subservience so this could please the user. Would it be possible to engineer ground rules in a robot so they could be pushed by the buyers/owners? Could we make a robot reject initial persuasions for kissing, or condom use, only to then eventually allow the buyer to do as he wishes to mimic what happens in the day to day lives of prostituted women? If you want to build a sex robot to replace a prostitute you must build a machine that can simulate being hurt, threatened, violated and abused.
Would it be possible to engineer a ‘tipping point’ that could be engaged when clients insert fingers in unwanted areas. Could the robot be engineered to fear violence? Seeing fear in the eyes of the prostituted is what buyers enjoy. Will the robot be able to show hurt, pain or anxiety?
However, this is simply beyond the point:
‘I saw him for months. I would say we couldn’t do something at first and he would it anyway. So eventually, because he would see me all the time, I would back down on things I originally said, and let him do it straight away. But it wasn’t enough, then he would ask for more. Eventually, they want you to engage in anal sex. I cannot recall the times I’ve had a lad say to me “Oh you don’t take it up the arse? Why not girl?”’
Indeed, a sex robot could take away the pain for a barrage of unwanted requests that prostituted persons endure on a day to day basis.
Regular and new buyers of sex both push boundaries in different ways. They push these boundaries for the sole reasons of sexual gratification. A robot cannot psychologically reciprocate the fear and rejection that women display that is key to understanding how prostitution works, and why it is a field of coercion:
“I will let them know at the start: “I don’t kiss, everything is with a condom. No anal.” But if I had a pound for every time they started pestering me twenty minutes into the time, I wouldn’t be doing this job anymore. They don’t care about pushing boundaries because in their eyes, your boundaries have disappeared because you sell sex. It’s the double standards in our society that continue to reinforce this too. Girls having sex without payment is already a genuine issue – so who cares about the sexual boundaries of a sex worker? In societies eyes; you don’t have any sexual boundaries. If you make a decision to sell your body for sex, in the eyes of anyone who is enlightened to your decision, you don’t have any limits to your sexual activity.”
Sex robots would have to be designed to respond to male cruelty to be truly effective as replacement prostituted persons.
Researchers would have to engineer a sexual threshold that can mimic the fluctuating nature of sex, fear, coercion and violence and these will be a necessary part of that which is engineered.
There are no equations for the sordid, emotional games that the buyers of sex and pimps play with prostitutes.
The simple truth of this matter is; if we could make the ultimate sex robot it will have to respond to cruelty, violence, coercion, disrespect, all that the prostituted person experiences in the course of selling sex.
Make no mistake: most prostituted women experience sexual abuse. And if we look to reproduce this in a robot, we are directly mimicking and reproducing sexual abuse on an objectified, female-form.
If we create the ultimate sex AI, it would have to learn fear, repulsion and desire. We already know the haunting ability for AI to learn less-desirable traits; look only at the Microsoft AI who became racist and abusive on twitter after less than 48 hours. With that in mind, what could a sexual AI learn in a brothel?
It is worrying to imagine what an AI could learn from humans having sex when it is bought as a commodity.
I want to end with the only few words we know from Aspasia. Her wisdom is as relevant today as it was in Ancient Greece. We know that Aspasia learned a great deal about our human inability to settle for what we have and she is known to have asked:
“If your neighbour had gold that was purer than yours,” Aspasia asked Xenophon’s wife, “would you rather have her gold or yours? “Hers,” was the reply. “And if she had richer jewels and finer clothes?” “I would rather have hers.” “And if she had a better husband than yours?” At the woman’s embarrassed silence, Aspasia began to question the husband, asking him the same things, but substituting horses for gold and land for clothes and asking him finally if he would prefer his neighbour’s wife if she were better than her own. At his embarrassed silence, reading their thoughts, she said, “Each of you would like the best husband or wife: and since neither of you has achieved perfection, each of you will always regret this ideal.’
In other words; we should seek to be the best ourselves before we wish for the ‘best’ ideals in another.
So building the ultimate sex robot it to build a frightening version of real life.
Within all these stories and Aspasia’s legend, we know that what some are willing to give will never be enough. Aspasia’s own words, and the words of the prostituted also warn us to create the best we can in ourselves before we seek to do so in others, including our robots and AI
Eleanor Hancock is a Contributor. She is studying English and Communication Studies as an undergraduate at Liverpool University. She is currently writing a book about the lives of women who work at an escort agency in the North-East of England. Her interests revolve around the use of technology in the sex industry and the ethical implications this has for the women who work there.