Why Is The Sex Robot Revolution Leaving Women Behind?
For the month of September, Bustle’s Sex TBH package is talking about sex, honestly. We’re delving into how women approach the things they’re taught to be shy or embarrassed about in the bedroom — and, in doing so, we're liberating people to live their best (sex) lives. Let’s do it.
Though we live in an era of self-driving cars and iPhones, it often feels like the kind of inventions promised by science fiction — teleportation decks! Hologram communication! Some kind of laser that can instantly cure UTIs! — are still a long way off. But by the end of 2017, one long-time sci-fi fantasy will become real: Abyss Creations (the company behind the Real Doll sex dolls) will release what is widely being referred to as the world's first sex robot. Called Harmony, she's not quite a fully-mobile sex robot — she has a moving face, speech capabilities, and a personality the user can create via an app, but she can't, say, hump you wildly until dawn or join you in a post-coital plate of Pad Thai. Yet. And frankly, I'm jealous. While she represents a breakthrough in the field of sexual robotics, it's impossible to miss the fact that Harmony is designed for heterosexual cis men. I'm a heterosexual cis woman — when the hell do I get a sex robot?
Of course, there is nothing to prevent any person of any gender from being attracted to or purchasing Harmony (and Abyss founder Matt McMullen has noted that a male version of the sex robot app is in the works). But no part of Harmony vibrates (a feature she shares with standard Real Dolls) — and considering the fact that 73 percent of women prefer or need clitoral stimulation in order to orgasm, that seems like a pretty clear sign that Harmony wasn't designed with female use in mind.
And though Real Dolls can be customized to almost any look, the Harmony shown in promotional materials has the biologically improbably large breasts and tiny waist of a 1990s comic book heroine, mimicking cultural and stereotypical expectations of female beauty.
It's not totally shocking that the first-ever sex robot would be designed with straight male pleasure in mind. Most people buying sex dolls today are men; according to a 2012 study conducted by academic Sarah Valverde, the average sex doll owner is a man aged 40-65. And though male Real Dolls are available, they're far less popular than the female versions, comprising only 10 percent of Abyss's doll sales. (Though no hard data is available on why this is, the aforementioned fact that Real Dolls don't vibrate — and that only 25 percent of women can orgasm from penetration alone — would seem to play a role.)
And then there are the cultural expectations. Fiction from ETA Hoffman's 1816 short story "The Sandman" to Westworld has imagined robotic sex as primarily a male pursuit, to the point that when we hear the word "sex robot," many people probably picture a heterosexual man having sex with a female robot (specifically, one with enormous robo-bosoms). And these preconceptions often shape real-world research, too: a much-discussed 2016 study out of the University of Duisburg-Essen found that 40 percent of 263 heterosexual men surveyed would consider buying a sex robot — but the researchers didn't seem to ask a single woman the same question.
But while expectations about sex robots have stayed relatively static through the decades, women's sex lives haven't. A lot of things that were historically considered to be straight men's sexual territory are no longer so — especially in the realm of sex and sex toys. In 1976, sexual researchers found that "less than one percent" of U.S. women had used vibrators; according to a 2008 survey, 53 percent of U.S. women have used a vibrator, and a 2012 survey by adult toy company Adam and Eve found that vibrator purchases account for 19.2 percent of the $15 billion U.S. sex toy industry. So if our ideas about female sexuality have changed, why wouldn't our ideas about sex robots change, as well?
And, on a more personal level, the idea of a sex robot like the one Jude Law plays in A.I. — one that tells me I'm beautiful, cares only for my pleasure, and, you know, looks like Jude Law — certainly leaves me... moved. I can't be the only one, right?
So why doesn't anyone seem interested in designing a sex robot specifically for women?
Could it just be that I'm a weirdo, and my interest in robo-lovin' is an anomaly? A lot of research would suggest so: "Are We Ready For Sex Robots?", a 2016 Tufts University study surveying a group of 100 men and women, found that men were more open to sex robots in general than women. The male subjects also found the use of sex robots more "appropriate" for a wide variety of functions, from sex education to group sex to using sex robots to improve self-esteem, than their female counterparts. Overall, the survey found that more than two-thirds of men surveyed were in favor of having sex with a robot, while almost two-thirds of women were against it.
We can't ascribe too much meaning to a 100 person survey — or assume that these responses mean that men are naturally horny bastards while women are more turned on by romantic stuff, like long walks on the beach and jointly filing taxes. Although, that's one theory — as counselor, dating expert, and "Popular Man" blogger David Bennett tells Bustle, "Men generally view sexuality in terms of physical beauty and a short-term experience, while women place more importance on emotional connection, conversation, longer-term commitment, a man's level of dominance, and how he smells."
Um, maybe. But when I began speaking to women who have spent years doing pioneering work developing female-oriented sex toys, I ran into another explanation: that the things many women seek from their sex toys are not necessarily what sex robots have to give.
Alicia Sinclair, founder of female-oriented sex toy lines b-Vibe and Le Wand and a certified sex educator, tells Bustle that in her years of work, she's found that women often look for products that "serve a function," like heightening partnered sex or making masturbation easier, rather than sex toys that mimic a specific sexual part (see: the boom in women's sex toys with smooth, abstracted shapes, as opposed to older vibrators that attempted to replicate penises, complete with faux veins). In Sinclair's experience, she's often found that "women are really focused on getting products that provide them with an experience and not a replacement for something."
Alex Fine, CEO and co-founder of Dame Products, a female-owned sex toy company that focuses on designing sex toys for couples, makes a similar point: when looking at sex toys, many women seek "either greater connection with their partner, or greater connection with themselves...and a robot doesn't necessarily offer those things."
Intriguingly, the Tufts survey reported that male and female respondents alike generally agreed that having sex with sex robots was an experience closer to masturbation than human partnered sex; they likened it to using a vibrator. Does that explain why designing sex robots for female consumers is such a low priority — because women already have enough vibrators?
When I began researching this story, I thought it was odd that sex robots weren't being marketed to women, as women have been at the cutting edge of sexual technology for over 100 years, since the first portable vibrator — a steam-powered contraption called "the Manipulator" — was invented in 1869. (I know, it's too perfect; I couldn't believe it either.)
But maybe that's why, though male sex dolls are available, no one is creating sex robots designed specifically for female sexual satisfaction. While only a handful of sex toys are marketed specifically to men (and even fewer specifically to heterosexual men), women of all orientations can hop online and find a cornucopia of sex toys — from vibrators to butt plugs to dildo harnesses to BDSM toys — created with a female consumer in mind.
As Cristina Escalante, the COO of software development company The SilverLogic, tells Bustle, "Currently, female-oriented electric or battery-powered devices are mainstream and accessible, and have been so since at least the late '80s... From this point of view, the male intercourse robot industry is merely catching up to what is available to females." She adds that "robots that perform PIV *intercourse* in particular wouldn't be expected to be in high demand by women for (obvious to women) anatomical reasons." In short: why pine for a $6,000 sex bot when you can get the most satisfying orgasm of your life from a $60 vibrator?
But when I asked some women in my own life about sex robots — hey, you try to work on an article about sex robots for two months without constantly bringing it up over brunch, OK? — I heard that not only did they agree that sex robots were a natural extension of sex toys; they were interested because they felt like a natural extension of sex toys. "I don't see how it's that different from vibrators," Carrie*, 26, told Bustle. Carrie was not chomping at the bit to ride the first trolley into Westworld — she told me she was more likely to try a sex robot if she heard good feedback about them from friends beforehand. But she did point out that while they wouldn't necessarily provide a physical breakthrough for women, they could provide an emotional breakthrough: sex robots could eliminate the guilt many women feel when asking their partners to perform the kinds of repetitive actions that make them orgasm. "Finally, a man I don't have to feel selfish wanting an orgasm from," Carrie says. "Women deserve this. If we need robots to close the damn orgasm gap, then so be it."
When surveying the historical landscape of sex-bot fantasies — from the "Fembots" of Austin Powers to Spike Jonze's Her — it's pretty easy to see that female desires aren't even really in the equation. And while that could be because female tastes just naturally don't skew that way, it's worth examining whether women have been discouraged from having the kind of sex that sex robots represent.
When the Tufts survey came out last year, sex and technology expert Shelley Ronen sat down with Broadly to hash out some of the reasons women might not be interested in sex robots. Ronan entertained a number of theories — including that women might reject the idea of sex robots because they've internalized misogynistic societal judgments about female sexuality. "Perhaps women [in the survey]," Ronen noted "are responding to that social pressure, knowing that sex with an object, which is a form of meaningless sex, would be more harshly perceived." Or more simply, he's a stud, she's a slut.
We only have theories here, as the study didn't ask respondents why they felt the things they did. But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made — for women, having sex simply for selfish pleasure is considered roughly as taboo as a man having sex with 19 robots and one baked ham. So of course an expensive, elaborate tool that exists solely to make you feel good would fly in the face of everything women are told to want.
Fine — whose company has pioneered cutting-edge sex technology, including a hands-free vibrator called EVA — notes that while many women may be more interested in person-to-person connection in sex in a way that makes sex robots less interesting to them, "If so many men are purchasing it and are interested in it, I have a hard time imagining that there isn't some version of it...that women would want."
Some people take the idea that women are inherently uninterested in sex robots one step further, positing that sex robots are an actual threat to women. Dr. Kathleen Richardson, a senior research fellow in the ethics of robotics at De Montfort University, has developed a campaign to ban sex robots, due to a belief that they will reinforce problems of sexism and misogyny within society; in 2015, she told the BBC that "We think that the creation of such robots will contribute to detrimental relationships between men and women, adults and children, men and men and women and women." Richardson has posited that sex robots encourage the idea that romantic relationships are only physical, and that the extreme stereotypical femininity seen in many sex robots reinforces sexist stereotypes
Similarly, in a 2017 New York Times op-ed, Everyday Feminism Project founder Laura Bates opined that sex robots could help further normalize rape. While Bates begins by debunking the controversial theory that sex robots could "deter" violent abusers by giving them a non-human "outlet" for their assaults, she goes on to theorize that sex robots could undermine the entire concept of female sexual consent: "it is ...illegal to have sex with an adult woman who does not consent, and consenting is not something these robots are capable of."
The issue of whether sex robots would decrease, increase, or have a neutral effect on sex crimes is a complex one — as the Foundation for Responsible Robotics' 2017 "Our Sexual Future With Robots" report notes,
When we look at the question of whether or not sex robots could help to prevent sex crimes, there is major disagreement. On one side there are those who believe that expressing disordered or criminal sexual desires with a sex robot would satiate them to the point where they would not have the desire to harm fellow humans. On the other side, many others believe that this would be an indulgence that could encourage and reinforce illicit sexual practices. This may work for a few but it is a very dangerous path to tread. It ...could have a pernicious effect on society and societal norms and create more danger for the vulnerable.
However, I personally doubt that this theoretical danger is why women aren't interested in sex robots —because sex with human beings is already dangerous for women. Over the course of researching this piece, I had numerous people quip to me that they knew why there were no sex robots for women: women can have sex whenever they want with a human partner. Never mind that this statement is absolutely untrue sexist bias; it also doesn't account for how dangerous seeking out sex can be for a woman. Almost half of all women who are killed are murdered by a partner, with nearly three women killed by an intimate partner every day in the U.S. Though recent alarmist articles have made much of the prospect that a sex robot could kill you if it was hacked, they seem to downplay the fact that human beings are far more of a threat.
This is a threat that many sexually active women live with; I know I have. More than once in my life, I've kissed a man I didn't know well while thinking: is this going to be the guy who finally does something bad to me? Is this going to be the night that ends with a smiling picture of me on the cover of the newspaper, and a headline that tries to make my death a cautionary tale for girls who try to have sex "like a man"?
A sex robot would never assault, abuse, or intimidate you — and the fact that this seemed to have occurred to few sex robot researchers made me wonder if most of the people talking and thinking about women and sex robots weren't talking to any actual women at all.
When I began researching this article, I knew that I was at the very least "open to" having sex with a robot. I assumed this would make me an outlier — and based on some formal research, like the Tufts study, that seems true. But the more I dug in, the more I saw that a lot of research and discussion was limited by the belief that women were inherently uninterested in sex robots ( like the previously noted University of Duisburg-Essen study).
As I pored through studies claiming that women were not into throbbing robo-genitals, I also discovered that women in my life were more than a little intrigued by the idea. Frankly, I couldn't throw a remote-controlled dildo without hitting a woman who was game to have sex with a robot.
I know that there's obviously self-selection at work in my "research" here — but I was still a little shocked. So could it be that plenty of women are down, but due to sexual stereotypes and limited research, most companies just hadn't caught up to their interest yet?
Bronwen Keller, one of the minds behind sex doll company Sinthetics, thinks so. She tells Bustle that her experiences with the company and female doll owners debunked a number of common misconceptions about female interest in sex dolls, including " a) Women are not as visual as men so they don’t need the whole doll; b) Women can get sex more easily than men so they don’t need a doll; c) Women don’t have the same sex drive and therefore wouldn’t want a doll."
"As it turns out," Keller notes, "none of those things are true."
Keller referenced a 2009 study that showed that, contrary to popular beliefs, women are turned on by a broader array of sexual stimuli than men — while the men in the study were only aroused by images that mirrored their specific sexual preferences (for male or female partners, etc.), women in the study were turned on by images of sexual pairings totally unrelated to their own sexual orientation.
"The assumption that women have a lower overall sex drive," says Keller — a belief that many use to shore up the belief that women just aren't horny enough to be interested in sex robots — "seems to be a Victorian myth that has persisted, probably because of the odd quirk that assumes women somehow become less acceptable as sexual beings after they become mothers." She also noted that many women who purchase her company's dolls are in couples and seek the doll as a third partner — an obvious use that few sex robotics surveys seem to weigh in on.
In her work at Sinthetics, Keller has seen that the barriers to female sex doll ownership aren't that women have lower sex drives, or are less visually stimulated — it's that many doll developers aren't creating products with female consumers in mind. The major issues, as Keller sees them, are that "there haven’t been male dolls that are actually realistic and attractive that women were aware of until now, and...because the existing male [doll]s were all created for use by men, so they’re all impractically large/heavy for women to use."
There's also the fact that mainstream sexual culture is often hostile to people interested in sex dolls or robots — and for women, the idea of adding yet another stigma to their sexual lives might sound far from appealing.
People utilize sex dolls because they're homebound or socially isolated, have physical limitations that make sex with a doll simpler than sex with a human, are grieving the loss of a relationship and aren't ready for a new human partner, want to experience a more controlled version of group sex with their partner, are emotionally attached to sex dolls, or countless other reasons. However, much sensationalistic coverage smears all doll owners as "creepy" or "pathetic."
For women who already have to fight multiple stigmas in their sex lives — that "good girls" don't want sex, that asking for clitoral stimulation is dirty, that women can have sex whenever they want to (and if they can't, they're "damaged") — taking on the additional stigma associated with sex doll/ robot use might be a tall order.
"I am sure there are also social stigmas at play," says Keller. But she doesn't think it's a hopeless situation: "The more these dolls get talked about and the more studios like ours refuse to allow media perpetuation of 'creepy doll people' myths, the more interest we are getting from women."
I had thought that, at the end of my research, I'd find some big sexual conspiracy that was keeping companies from making sex robots for women — like National Treasure but with dildos. But the reality was much more complicated — because cultural hang-ups seem to be keeping almost everyone, including women themselves, from understanding if women are actually interested in sex robots.
But Keller is optimistic. She believes that, within the next 10 years, as sex robots go from mostly theoretical to part of our greater sexual universe, we'll find that women are far more interested in sex robots than most surveys and think pieces would have you believe.
"I think," she says, "women are just as interested in new exciting ways to press their own buttons as men are."
Editor's note: This article has been updated from its original version.