Are prostitutes’ robots?, by Eleanor Hancock

Are prostitutes’ robots?

It may seem a strange question, but it remains the question central in the quest for sexual robotics and indeed, in looking at the commercial trade in humans bodies that is the cornerstone of the prostitution and pornography industries.


Dehumanizing Women

Skinning a Sex Doll

By Sharon Wright, Artist

Usage rights with kind permission


If we assume that we can replace persons in prostitution with robots, then it is by no means illogical to assume that women in prostitution are in some way like robots.

Robots were created by playwright Karel Čapek in his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). In R.U.R. the robots are humanlike instruments. The robots are denied personhood, subjectivity, feeling and freedom. The term “robot” is routinely used as a means to describe a person’s lack of feeling, and/or lack of treatment as a human being.


Original cover of R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robots).

But for advocates of sex robots, who describe prostitutes like robots, shows there is something at work in prostitution that makes a person in it, less than human in the eyes of the buyers of human bodies – mainly men (99% of buyers of human bodies for sex are men) and wider society.

In recent pop-culture, we have watched the escapades of a London escort, as Billie-Piper depicted a strong, powerful woman in charge of her own career in the series ‘Secret Diary of a Call Girl.’ It seems unlikely that someone like the character she portrays, full of character and admission, could have their behaviour or persona likened to that of a robot. However, the reality of escorting is rarely similar to the television series and the likelihood of the control being with the prostituted person in most escorting agencies in the UK is mainly a fiction. But the similarities between robots and prostitutes are reflected in the power structure of their positions (the buyers of bodies for sex don’t have to follow the normal rules they have to follow with all other human beings), as well as the way in the human being performs in the role itself and in order to survive she must dissociate and become like a robot.


Without generalizing, most people can assume that prostitution is far from pleasant, involving unwanted sexual intercourse, with men whom they would not normally even find attractive. Various memoirs and discourses suggest the idea of ‘separating’ mind and body in order to perform the job, or developing an alter ego and engaging with his identity, when working.

Through my own interviews with escorts in the North-West area, this is an idea that I have found particularly prevalent. A driver at one escort agency in Chester, explained the idea of ‘split personality’ or ‘alter-ego,’ within the agency he worked for:

“The girls who end up with the worse drug and alcohol problems are the ones that separate themselves. Some girls make an alter ego, another identity. Perhaps it’s easier to let someone else harm this other person, or let this other person they believe themselves to be behave in the crazy ways they do. Often I hear the line ‘I woke up and was like “what the fuck happened?”’ It’s crazy ‘cause you know that they know what they doin’ but there’s also some insane part of you that thinks “how could they know?” Cause a lot of the time they’re upset you know, they go out and carry on partying after doing hours with clients and spend all their money on benders. Half the time I think it’s to escape what they just did. And then that’s where the confusion hits. Who really am I? Cause I kept telling myself I wasn’t this girl that went out and sold her body. I told myself that that was someone else. But when you look in the mirror and you don’t have any more money to keep blurring that reflection all your left with is yourself. There’s only so many times you can take your mind off like a jacket and not get start to forget where you put it. You can’t bury that person any more than you can bury your own body. It’s a dangerous game this double identity thing, but how can you really be this job as yourself? Secrets and lies; this is the foundations on which escorting is built. So I guess it’s only natural these girls tell themselves lies. It’s all part of the job.”

It seems strange that the adaption of what is perceived in others to be mental illness, is used as a coping mechanism for those in prostitution. When we engage in the ideas of mental illness and escorting, how can we say this is something we wish to reproduce through robots?


Surviving through dissociation

Skinning a Sex Doll

By Sharon Wright, Artist

Usage rights with kind permission

Of course, robots are exempt from mental illness and this line of thinking could even argue sexual robotics would remove the ‘collateral’ human damage that lies within the current sex market. But sex workers encounter mental illness often as a repercussion of the sex work itself, or are ill before the work has even begun therefore we need to ask: what is so bad about the sex industry that it results in damage to individual mental health? Another primary question would be: what is it about the sex industry that traps mentally ill within the work?


Mental illness has carried stigma for thousands of years, with unfair treatment and misunderstanding being the primary problem in societal conception of the mentally ill. Schizophrenia is a mental illness, which often carries depiction of ‘split personalities,’ although recent research has since recognized various other mental illnesses, which have symptoms associated with ‘split personality,’ such as multiple personality disorder, bipolar and depression. This idea of a ‘split personality’ being mentally impairing, is something prevalent in human history, with individuals facing stigma against their mental illness. The idea of a split personality is something particularly prevalent within the sex industry; and even in popular culture.

The Secret Diary of a Call Girl highlights the difficulty of being able to separate work/reality for an escort, as well as bringing light to the lies they have to tell loved ones. Many escorts I have personally spoke with, talk of ‘separating’ their mind and body sometimes, in order to cope with the nature of the work. For example, one woman discussed the idea of believing it really was another person conducting the “sex work”, so to some extent, this separation of mind and body certainly carries connotations of mental illness, particularly that which relates to personality disorder, as the separation occurs as a coping mechanism.


The prostituted woman broken up into parts

 Skinning a Sex Doll

By Sharon Wright, Artist

Usage rights with kind permission

Why is this relevant to sexual robotics? Are persons in prostitution, robots? The answer is no, these women and men are sentient, intelligent, conscious human beings. Does the prostitution industry try to make robots of women? The answer is yes! When we consider the detrimental effect of prostitution has on an individual’s body and mind, it’s strange we wish to continue to produce this, firstly in the reproduction of the prostitution industry, and then by replicating these harmful ideas in robots.


Eleanor Hancock is a Contributor. She is studying a masters degree exploring prostitution and technology 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. She will be speaking at Brave New World event in November in Leiden, The Netherlands.