Blog RSSBlog.

07/19/2017

The Constructed Sex Worker: Clinical Tool or Normalizer of Sexual Objectification

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

Sex robots are real and so are the campaigns to free them. In the 2016 HBO series Westworld, viewers are introduced to an old Wild West town which includes a saloon where one can buy a drink, listen to music, or procure the services of an android sex worker. In the real world, male and female robot companions are already on the market. One can choose the gender, race, eye and hair color, make up (for female versions), and even hair patterns for $9,995.  If that’s too much, you can rent a doll for a few hours. There was even a sex doll brothel operating in Barcelona for a short time similar to the robotic sex workers in the 2001 film, A.I. Artificial Intelligence. The United States alone has four companies producing robots for sex.

The Netherlands-based Foundation for Responsible Robotics is an organization of roboticists and ethicists that seeks “To promote the responsible design, development, implementation, and policy of robots embedded in our society.” The organization has released a report on the ethics of sex robots in society: Our Sexual Future with Robots. The report is a thorough discussion beginning with robots in mythology and science fiction as well as presenting research on whether people would have sex with robots (a substantial proportion of people would according to surveys). The report discusses the therapeutic benefits of such creations as well as the dangers that they pose in terms of objectification of women, withdrawal from human connection, sex crime rates, and the legality of such robots.

Such surrogates may actually have some therapeutic benefit. In the 2012 movie The Sessions, Cheryl Cohen Green is a sex therapist who helps Mark O’Brien, a middle-aged journalist and poet who is dependent on an iron lung, to have his first sexual experience. Instead of a person, however, O’Brien might have ordered a sex robot. These machines also hold promise for helping people who social alienation conditions like being on the autism spectrum where human touch can be painful or undesired. The robots could be helpful for those with handicaps, social phobias, and seniors. There may come a day where most young men’s first sexual experiences are with robots.

Could a relationship with a robot or other object take over or away from human-to-human interactions? According to futurologist Ian Pearson in his 2015 report, “Future of Sex,” we may actually prefer intimacy with robots than with humans. This aligns with other studies that show more and more people are choosing to live alone than with others. In the film, Surrogates, people live in isolation (even married couples never see each other) and only interact through robotic surrogates that interact in the world as a person’s vision of his/her perfect self. Rather than human-to-human intimacy, sex occurs between robots rather than with real flesh.

Sex robots also lead to a whole host of questions about our relationships with each other. In 1970, theologian-ethicist Paul Ramsey published The Fabricated Man where he expressed concern about how new genetic and reproductive technologies would fundamentally change the nature of human relationships and what it means to be human. One of his concerns was that artificial reproduction would take something away from intimacy and human procreation since God would be removed from the equation. The concerns Ramsey wrote about could be applied to sex robots. Does having sex with a mechanical device that mimics a human remove something essential from our humanity and our interactions with one another?

Kathleen Richardson is a research fellow in ethics and robotics at De Montfort University in the U.K. She is also the principle behind the Campaign Against Sex Robots. The campaign is concerned that such robots will “contribute to inequalities in society” by “sexually objectifying women and children,” dehumanizing human sex workers, reducing empathy, and reinforcing “power relationships of inequality and violence.” In other words, as in Westworld, users may find these non-human robots give them permission to act out their darkest ideas to exploit the robots for sex and feel free to act out violent tendencies since it’s “just a robot” and “no one is really hurt.” The big problem is that these acts against the robots can normalize such behaviors and feelings which may translate into the real world. Fantasies of rape and even murder that are played out in Westworld may fundamentally change what some finds acceptable in the real world. Objectification of a population is dangerous and is often pointed to as one of the reasons that genocide can occur (one thinks of the undesired group as less than human) or unequal treatment of others. After all, the very premise of The Stepford Wives (1975) was to create a wife who would never say “no.” Such fantasies may indeed make people think that violent and objectifying sex behaviors are acceptable. One may come to view all potential sex partners as nothing more than objects, or worse, toys for their own amusement.

If we think this could not happen because humans can distinguish between robots and real people, consider that the premise of Westworld is that the robots pass the Turing test—in a conversation with a machine, it is not possible to distinguish it from a human. Although she lacks a body, the artificial intelligence in the movie Her (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) not only is intelligent, but develops self-awareness and even evolves beyond her electronic cloud storage. The AI even hires a human surrogate in order for her to have a sexual encounter with her human love. In this twist, the AI is viewed as “real” and the human being is the “sex robot.” That scene plays out the fears Richardson raises.  Even more bizarre, a man actually built a humanoid robot of Scarlett Johansson.

The BBC America show Humans questions the moral and legal status of humanoid robots, a debate that is taking center stage much sooner than anyone could have predicted. Do human rights apply to robots? Can a self-aware robot vote in an election? Can robots marry humans? Is deactivating a robot murder? And is a sex robot a slave of the sex trade? The robot may be programmed to never say no to a sexual advance, or to say “no” but go along with the act when pressed (allowing one to act out of a violent fantasy).

We are just beginning to mine the questions that these new technologies raise. How will we relate to constructed persons is a murky area in ethics and law? What is of strong interest with those who have staked territory in this debate, is what effect how we act and relate to these constructions will affect our relations to one other. Will such robots perpetuate a patriarchy that objectifies women and children? Will such robots reduce sex crimes against humans since there will be “acceptable” substitutes for acting them out? Will these robots have equal ethical and legal rights? These are issues with which society must grapple. Given that these constructions are considered machines, there are no laws to prevent anyone from creating, selling and using such devices now, meaning that this conversation needs to happen quickly, stripped of our taboos about talking about sex, and in the public forum.

This entry was posted in Featured Posts, Informed Consent, Social Justice and tagged , . Posted by Craig Klugman. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.