When we launched the Campaign Against Sex Robots in September 2015 we received hundreds of messages from not so well wishing men saying ‘well, what about vibrators and dildos? Women have had sex robots for years’.
Just to clarify, the campaign never advocated a ban on sex robots. The only robots we advocate a ban for are child sex dolls. We don’t agree that child rapist fantasies and activities should be supported in any form. Children cannot protect themselves from paedophilic culture, we must abolish it completely so that children are safe. The campaign is also not a campaign against vibrators, blow-up dolls or fleshlights.
Back to vibrators and sex robots. What are the critics really saying? They are arguing a sex robot and a vibrator are the same because both are mechanically inspired toys used for sexual activity such as masturbation or sex with other(s).
For most outside the fields of AI and robotics it is a clear line –a vibrator is equivalent to a sex robot.
It is understandable that links are drawn between vibrators and sex robots, as they are both humanmade artefacts. Here we are in agreement, even with MRAs such as MGTOW.
Simulations of body parts pre-exist the commercial and mechanical production of them. Males and females have been using objects for masturbatory and sexual gratification that protrude or are hollow evidenced in early records. Objects that match the shape of a sexual surface is nothing revolutionary.
However, to look at a vibrator (a phallus shape with motors), and compare that to a full humanoid female clearly shows that something different is at work.
The campaign against sex robots was not established to ‘ban’ sex toys (specifically vibrators, fleshlights). The campaign was established as an outcome of what robotic and AI researchers were claiming about sex robots. These advocates claim that robotic machines can take on human roles without consequence to human society.
For these advocates, such as David Levy, he takes a human propensity to anthropomorphise objects (attribute human like characteristics to things) as the first step necessary to support having ‘sexual relationships’ with machines. And he takes a practice that treats humans as things – prostitution – and blends these two themes together in an argument for sex robots. Levy suggests that as the technology develops and sex robots become as sophisticated as you see in the channel 4 TV series Humans, a life with sex robots will just be the norm. It won’t matter if you are with a human or a robot.
The biggest confusion is perhaps with the term ‘robot’. Robots are objects of fiction as well as technology and their capacities as fictional objects can become confused (even by experts) with their capacities as technological objects. The robots you see in Humans or other science fiction are human actors pretending to be robots! That’s why they are so sophisticated! Anyone who’s been in the company of actual technological robots will tell you these depictions are fantasy and grossly unrealistic. Making a robot look humanlike is the ‘easiest’ part of robotics.
Niska, a robot prostitute from the Channel 4 TV series Humans –Niska is a fictional character played by a human actor (Emily Berrington) who in her ROLE is pretending to be a robot!
Let us take this claim at face value and agree with the overinflated predictions about robot and AI technology. We already agree humans’ anthropomorphise objects, and can get sexual pleasure from inanimate things.
The question is not whether it is possible for humans to have sexual pleasure with an inanimate thing, but can a mechanical sex doll, vibrator, fleshlight have sex with a human? Can a humanmade artefact have an experience of sex? Can an artefact participate in sex?
The answer is NO! Sex is not a property of humanmade artefacts or inanimate things, only living beings.
Humans, nonhuman animals and living organisms have sexed bodies. These sexed bodies are what make it possible to have sex and to reproduce within a species. Sexed bodies come with sex organs, reproductive capacities and hormones. Moreover, all humans come from a sexed body. Humans come from a womb and from the combination of an egg and sperm. We know that the egg and sperm can be extracted from the body and fertilization of an egg can take place outside of the womb, but then the fertilized egg is placed back into the body of woman to grow in her womb. Moreover, the fact you can extract some sexed elements in the process does not actually erase their properties as sexed biological entities. The sexed being is bound up with membership of a species, in our case the human species.
Sex is a property of life. All living beings are sexed.
Vibrators, dildos, fleshlights and blow-up dolls are things that can be used for the purpose of masturbation or sexual pleasure with others by a sexed human. We know from sexual fetishes that a person maybe aroused by many things including shoes, revolving doors or even the Eiffel Tower. As sexed beings, humans attribute their own sexual feelings to all kinds of objects. In this sense, as a doll is a thing, it shares with these other objects its thinglike status. But the object is not participating or reciprocating. It does not matter how much robotics or AI you add to the machine, it has no experience of sex. But humans do.
But analogical comparisons between mechanical sex robots and dildos and vibrators only work so far because of the way that male and female sexuality is structured in society. And herein lies the crux of the arguments against sex robots – that persons are not things.
Unfortunately human sexuality is mediated by a sex trade; a commercial industry that allows people (mostly males) to profit from and access the bodies of others (mainly women and children’s bodies).
The sex trade is primarily addressed at men, and males become the buyers/owners/users of ‘products’ – these products are human bodies. The commercialised sex trade affects men and women, adults and children in different ways. As men hold more economic and political power, some men abuse this power by engaging with human beings as objects, commercialised sexual products. In every city in the world there is a commercial sex trade. There is infrastructure that males can access to buy sex from female bodies. The sex trade creates a market of buyers and sellers (males in the main) and products (females and children in the main).
Sex robots are mainly humanoid women that are inspired by sex trade practices, Levy and others point to prostitution as the model of exchange that provides a platform for human-robot sex.
When asked by a reporter from Scientific America on where he got the ideas for sex robots David Levy, author of Love+Sex with Robots said ‘I got the idea that sex with dolls is like sex with prostitutes – you know the prostitute doesn’t love you and care for you, is only interested in the size of your wallet. So I think robots can simulate love, but even if they can’t, so what?.. I thought prostitution was a very good analogy’. He is literally equating a human person (a prostitute) with a doll, a thing, a robot.
Moreover, the real issue here is one of human empathy. The sex trade allows human beings (the prostituted) to be treated and related to as things. Whereas machines do not have sexed bodies, humans do have sexed bodies. And when a person is related to without taking into account her/his sexed body it is dehumanising.
The Invisible-Men project – a look at what “John’s” say about the women they exploit in prostitution. Do these men sound like they are relating to these women as human beings?
Moreover, companies such as Trottla who design child sex dolls are driven by an industry of child abuse and the sexualisation of children. These objects do not exist outside the contemporary way in which abusive sex is orchestrated through the sex trade. And these are activities as a human culture we should aim to eradicate and abolish not keep endorsing with the production of more of these objects, practices and ideas.
Sex robots and Realdolls perpetuate a view of women that is not accurate, and harmful. Women’s sexuality does not exist inside the worldview and practices of pornographers, pimps and child abusers. Mechanical sex dolls are just a further elaboration of this point of view that presents women and children are nothing more than objects who exist primarily to gratify owners/buyers/users.
Sex is not a property of things, but of living beings. Sex is a property of life. It is not something that can be manufactured, because it is inseparable from an experience of life, the body, lived relations and reproduction. This is also why persons must not be related to as things, because they are not things. Humans can’t switch off being alive to become things for the commercialised sex trade. And things that are not alive are not sexed.
Persons are not things and things are not persons. Supporting practices that present persons as things and things as persons will continue to impact on the real lived lives of human beings in the most horrific ways.
Kathleen Richardson is the Director of the Campaign Against Sex Robots. She studied her doctorate degree in social anthropology at the University of Cambridge and conducts research into the making of ‘socially’ inspired robots as therapeutic assistants, companions and sexual others. She is interested in the commercialised production of human relations and bodies and advocates an Abolitionist-Feminism. She is a Senior Research Fellow in the Ethics of Robotics at De Montfort University.