We are in the midst of another sexual revolution, in which the new ideal woman will be a robot; lifelike dolls that feel real, communicate their “needs,” and can have robot orgasms.
The authors of a report from the Foundation for Responsible Robotics suggest that sex robots could provide help for people who find it hard to have intimate relationships: people in care homes, people with dementia, people with disabilities. This might be a noble idea were we to accept that everyone must be enabled to have sex as a human right; that this is all somehow therapeutic. The reality is more basic. Those in the business of manufacturing sex robots for “people” are actually making simulations of women to be bought by men.
Some of these critters can speak and be programmed from a tablet. Their orifices are made to feel as lifelike as possible. Some can be put in “frigid” mode if that is your thing and you want to force it. Isn’t this all hunky-dory?
There are lots of pluses to having sex with a robot. You can do what you like, indulge any fantasy you want and no one gets hurt. This is why they may stop rapists raping or be used in threesomes when bringing in another person is too much of a risk to the relationship. Cyborg sex opens up a world of possibility. In theory.
In practice, these are sophisticated masturbatory aids. What’s the big deal when there are already loads of such aids on the market? For the ultimate blowjob, a severed head-type thing can be bought; so why not attach it to a body? Why not give the body soft skin and perfectly moulded labia? Sex, after all, is largely in the head, isn’t it?
This thrilling version of the future is here. The dolls are available. In March, a brothel in Barcelona opened, offering LumiDolls that could be dressed in a certain way and that waited in the position the customer requested. They would be “properly disinfected with special antibacterial soaps before and after use”. Sexy! The place closed within a month but some argue that these robot dolls will help stop girls being trafficked into sex work. Others suggest that if the robots begin to have something approximating consciousness, the automated sex workers should have rights. All kinds of ethical discussions can be had, but what is striking is that sex robots are not being created in a neutral world but a gendered one.
Indeed, much of the excited discussion around automation and technology ignores gender completely. We often read that within 20 years between 40% and 50% of jobs will be automated. This is one of the arguments for a universal basic income. But whose jobs? Who will do the childcare? What happens when leisure is also fully automated? Does that just mean men can spend more time satisfying their robot sex workers?
To question all this is not to be anti-technology. Feminists such as Donna Haraway have long seen radical potential in the idea of cyborgs. She saw how their creation would make us rethink the very nature of identity and self. We are already so enmeshed with technology that having sex with machines is not much of a leap. South Korea aims for every house to have a robot by 2020. Japan markets sex dolls and all manner of popular culture in which intimacy is achieved via tech rather than human connection.
On sites such as Breitbart and Reddit, such objections about the objectification of women are laughed at by men who are already immersed in a world of porn and video games, and exhausted by actual women banging on about consent. They celebrate the dispensability of picky flesh-and-blood women as a message to feminists. There is a line, though, that even macho libertarians are loath to cross. No one seems comfortable with sex dolls that look like children. The argument that they can “help” paedophiles remains dubious, but to ban these things would require international cooperation. The owner of one child doll shipped from Japan has been charged with possessing child pornography in Canada.
This is the difficulty with the embodiment of fantasies. If it is not OK to masturbate into a replica of a child, why is it OK to do so with a replica of an adult female? For this is what is happening: an acceptance that catering to the sexual demands of men is lucrative and inevitable. This is part of a far bigger cultural question about the privileging of male desire. A technology driven by masturbatory fantasy is not a technology that enhances the lives of boringly unprogammable women. An actual revolution would be technology driven by a different set of “needs” altogether. Like love. Loyalty. And taking out the garbage.