In the real world, sex robots are a relatively new phenomenon — manufacturers like the ones behind the RealDoll sex doll have only begun to make serious attempts to commercially produce them within the last few years. But long before they were being beta-tested in labs, sex robots set up shop in the human imagination. Sexualized robots and androids have been a part of sci-fi culture since its earliest incarnations, from E.T.A. Hoffman's 1816 short story "The Sandman" to Maschinenmensch, the female robot in 1927's Metropolis, to the murderous Pris in Blade Runner and the characters of Westworld. The idea of a partner made of metal instead of flesh (and without an annoying human personality) is one that humans have long found both entrancing and revolting.
But even though we've given sex robots a lot of real estate in the public imagination, we haven't necessarily given a ton of thought to how they might change human society — and it's time we start, given that the reality of sex robots is just around the bend. Last April, RealDoll's Realbotix division released an app called Harmony AI that allows users to interact with a VR partner, and animatronic heads linked to the app are available for pre-order.
This urgency is why Professor Noel Sharkey and Dr. Aimee van Wynsberghe published the consultation report by the Foundation of Responsible Robotics. In their report, Sharkey and van Wynsberghe examine how the future of sex with robots impact our ideas on sex and gender, female beauty ideals, consent, and sexuality as a whole.
There's been little examination about how sex robots might change our ideas about gender in particular — which is why Bustle spoke to Sharkey, as well as several other experts, on the topic. Robots don't have any inherent gender — will having sex with them convince humans that gender is less of a necessity in our world, as well? Or will it reinforce negative traditional gender stereotypes? Currently, there is a strong gender divide when it comes to sex dolls: only 5-10 percent of RealDolls customers are women. Will those numbers remain the same for sex robots? Or will they be closer to the 44 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 60 who have used a sex toy? Though concrete answers remain in the future, one thing is for certain — being able to purchase a programmable partner is going to change a lot about our lives.
Why Do Sex Robots Have Genders, Anyway?
Robots are, innately, genderless; it's our own ideas about sex and socialization that lead us to decide that they are gendered. "Most humanoid robots today are both literally and superficially genderless. Their features and voices are neither male nor female," robotics expert Chris Middleton tells Bustle. "However, it's noticeable that some people feel uncomfortable saying 'it' when referring to something that has a face, voice, and body." Middleton compares people's discomfort with gender-free robots to the tradition of giving ships and planes female names.
Robotics report co-author Sharkey tells Bustle that non-gendered "delivery boxes and hoovers and drones" would make up the bulk of robotics over the next 20 years. According to him, the only reason sex robots have genders imposed on them — or are humanoid at all — is due to consumer tastes. And, he noted, a robot with greater gender flexibility could be part of the commercial appeal of the idea, allowing the person or couple using the robot to vary the sexual experience more greatly from use to use.
"Why use the human body at all?"
For Dr. Trudy Barber, an expert on cybersexualities and digital culture at the University of Portsmouth, gender in sex robots is a reflection of the current time — as ideas about gender change, so will ideas about the gender of sex robots. "At the moment we’re seeing in in real people a certain amount of gender fluidity," she tells Bustle. "As we see that in real time in real people, of course we’re going to see that mirrored in the sex entertainment doll."
But Barber believes that gender might cease to be a category of interest altogether when it comes to sex robots, too. "In the future," Barber asks, "why use the human body at all? Why not use some abstract context of physicality that might be more interesting?" (Part of this process, she argued, was necessarily to have more women involved in the design of sex robotics, as it's currently a male-dominated field.)
Will Sex Robots Impact Female Beauty Standards?
Though both male and female sex dolls currently exist, most attention is given to female dolls, as male dolls make up a very small sector of the market — as a 2017 article in the Guardian on RealDolls reported, "None of the male dolls are selling very well. In fact, Abyss is in the process of revamping its entire male line."
In addition to comprising the lion's share of the market, female sex dolls have also attracted attention due to the fact that they typically embody very conventional female beauty ideals, with small bodies and extremely large breasts; as Dr. Barber described them, they can be "kind of tacky and funny... like extended Barbie dolls."
"It has nothing to do with real women at all; this is a completely different lot of sexual activity."
In fact, many robots today are consciously made to look a little less than life-like, so as not to go into the "uncanny valley" and creep people out. "A common feature of robot design today is to make them appear non-threatening — almost cartoon like in some cases — so that we feel inclined to take care of them," Middleton tells Bustle. In that context, the modern sex doll is possibly deliberately designed to not reflect reality. Sex robots "do fit into ridiculous, almost computer-game, anti-gravity breast portrayals," Barber comments, "and I think it fits into a caricature bracket. It has nothing to do with real women at all; this is a completely different lot of sexual activity. It's like a cartoony version of the human body." And cartoon is mere fantasy. But how powerful is fantasy in influencing reality?
Dr. Barber is circumspect. "I think it goes beyond gender stereotyping," she said. "You'll eventually end up with a huge range of dolls of different types. There’s a lot of hype and lots of scare-mongering about this. You can argue about gender stereotyping, but I think it’s got to start from somewhere, so this is like a rough drawing that will end up as something very sophisticated in years to come." In her vision, the cartoonish sex dolls of today might give way to something more intriguing, and less adherent to serious stereotypes, tomorrow.
Will Sex Robots Change Our Ideas About Consent?
The passivity and pliability of sex robots is worrying for some observers, who are concerned that it might encourage people to view female sexual passivity as "normal" — and teach users troubling lessons about consent.
To be clear, this is far from a foregone conclusion within the robotics community, and many of the experts we spoke to did not raise the issue. However, it is part of the larger conversation about sex robots, and not necessarily an issue with an easy answer.
"The advent of sex robots... confirms a dehumanized and distorted view of human sexuality."
Sharkey's report quotes lawyer and legal scholar Sinziana Gutiu's 2012 presentation on robots and consent, which states, "By circumventing any need for consent, sex robots eliminate the need for communication, mutual respect and compromise in the sexual relationship...Of greatest concern is how sex robots will affect men’s ability to identify and understand consent in sexual interactions with women."
Dr. Kathleen Richardson, an academic who campaigns against sex robots, agrees. She tells Bustle that "the advent of sex robots... confirms a dehumanized and distorted view of human sexuality." And in a June 2017 op-ed for the New York Times, feminist author Laura Bates worried that since sex robots cannot consent — and some, indeed, are programmed to resist the user's sexual advances — their existence may allow users to "risk normalizing rape by giving it a publicly acceptable face."
Conversely, David Levy, AI expert and author of Love and Sex With Robots, told Time earlier this year that "If [sex robots are] programmed to consent, I think that qualifies as consent. Not everyone agrees with me. There is an argument that if we’re programming a robot to do something then it’s not genuine consent. But I think we should accept their actions at face-value."
The logistics of robotic sexual consent — and its potential impact on greater human behavior — are a while off still. But given the ongoing cultural conversation about sexual consent and how rife it is with conflict, misunderstandings, and legal concerns, they're worth considering now.
Will Sex Robots Change Our Ideas About Sexuality?
There's an underlying current in conversations about sexual robotics that this represents a watershed moment: that now, from the perspective of sexual evolution, is a fundamental point that will have far-reaching implications for our understanding of the sexual world. That, however, is only one way of looking at it. Sex work, sex toys, pornography and various other aids to human sexual activity have existed for millennia, and their effects and relationship to our sex lives have always been complex and many-sided.
"If it’s happening to us, it’s going to happen to what we create."
"I think it is part of an evolutionary sexual strategy," Barber tells Bustle. "As we grow up, we develop love maps of our ideal partner and sexual preferences. New technologies are enabling us to experiment with those love maps, as in Second Life and artificial boyfriends and girlfriends in augmented reality. It's only natural that we’re going to try and connect up with our technologies and environments, rather in the same way as we wear intelligent clothing. It will be part of our evolution."
For her, "the sex doll is a kind of mirror to how we perceive ourselves in this moment in time. Throughout the history of the idea of robots, particularly in popular culture, they’ve been a cultural statement about what’s happening in society at the moment... If it’s happening to us, it’s going to happen to what we create." In that sense, sex robotics are part of a much bigger world, one in which technology of all kinds is shifting and responding to our needs and beliefs.
So while sex robots may change our understanding of gender, ongoing changes to our understanding of gender will also change sex robots — it's a highway, rather than a one-way street.
As for whether any of this will cause women to become more interested in sex robots than they are in sex dolls remains to be seen. Sharkey speculates that women might be interested in male robots as they become more popular, though his report cited a 2016 study in which two thirds of women were opposed to using sex dolls. Truly, only time — and advances in circuitry — will tell.