Automatic lovers: should we be worried about sex robots?

Sunday 14 October, 17:3018:45, Frobisher Auditorium 1Sexual revolutions

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Science fiction has long explored the use of robots for sex, including The Stepford Wives, Blade Runner and the recent television adaptation of Westworld. But the application of new technologies has been pushing the boundaries of sexuality towards the mechanical in real life, too. Interaction with fully functioning robotic sexual partners could soon be a practical alternative to relations with human beings. Donna Haraway’s 1984 essay, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’, celebrated the breakdown of boundaries between human and machine in a feminist post-human embrace of the new utopia, where all ‘antagonistic dualisms’ would be surpassed.

Supporters of sex robots claim that many people could benefit, from men who struggle with intimacy to women trafficked into sex work. They argues that sex robots could offer sexual novelty or an escapade without the risk of the emotional messiness that can come with casual sex. They also say that sex robots could be the only acceptable replacement for a beloved spouse or allow lonely men to avoid rejection from women in general.

Critics claim that sex robots are, for the most part, a ‘pornified’ ideal of female sexuality and they are concerned about how these robotic partners will represent women. They warn us that if sex robots represent or express misogynistic attitudes, these attitudes will get reinforced in how users interact with real people. Users, we are told, will be inclined to sexual aggression and violence, be unwilling to compromise, and possibly become more withdrawn and misanthropic.

Sex robots would be programmed to be ever-consenting sexual partners, to perform while saying and doing all the right things, but have no consciousness. They would be unable to share experiences as we do as they could not listen, communicate or care, nor can they experience joy and exhilaration, rejection or disappointment.

Is there something representationally disturbing about robot lovers? Could the creation and use of such robots leave us at risk of moving through life without experiencing an intimate relationship with another living being? Alternatively, given that we have always used technology for the purposes of sexual stimulation and gratification, are sex robots a welcome development to continue to do so in the future?