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28 September 2017updated 05 Oct 2023 8:36am

The damage to Samantha the sex robot shows male aggression being normalised

These problematic dolls invite abusive treatment.

By Sian Norris

According to reports today, a sex doll called “Samantha” – on display at Linz’s Arts Electronica Festival – was so severely “molested” by a group of men, it was sent home in desperate need of repair and “badly soiled”. Despite the damage, the owner claimed the robot was designed to take a lot and would “pull through”.

The attack on Samantha is deeply disturbing. It’s a blatant example of the violence that can happen when we tell men they can do whatever they want to an object designed to resemble a woman’s body.

There will be some who argue that this “attack” proves the need for sex robots as an outlet for male aggression. However, rather than shrugging our shoulders and accepting that male sexual violence is inevitable, we must instead challenge the causes and try to end it.

The argument that sex robots reduce male sexual violence by giving men an outlet is deeply flawed. Firstly, it is not backed up in evidence – partly because the robots are too new to allow for proper research. But secondly, and perhaps most importantly, sex robots make male violence seem more normal, more acceptable and, indeed, inevitable. How? Because these robots are specifically designed to eroticise non-consent.

A sex robot cannot give consent — it can only take whatever its owner throws at it. As a result, it not only invites abusive treatment, it demands it. The brands behind the robots explicitly encourage the owners to act out sexual entitlement and aggression on these plastic bodies, allowing for men to associate the sexual pleasure of their orgasm with non-consent. Why else would True Companions dolls have a “frigid Farrah” setting that encourages the owner to simulate rape?

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Two main causes lie behind sexual violence – male entitlement and power. These are both re-enforced by sex robots, and instead desperately need to be challenged if we can ever hope to end male violence against women and girls.

Sex robots not only don’t challenge male entitlement to women’s bodies, they entrench it. Even the term “owner” for the buyer of the robot implies this. It sends a message that men can “own” a sex object which is designed for them to do whatever they like with. The owners are entitled to act out whatever fantasy they have on their doll. In the case of Samantha, this entitlement even gave the men a chance to break the robot’s fingers.

Similarly, sexual violence is not about attraction or sexual desire, it is about power. After all, men don’t rape women because they fancy their victim. The same applies to robots. The men didn’t attack Samantha because they were overwhelmed by sexual attraction for its plastic body. The men didn’t fancy Samantha. Consciously or not, the attack enabled them to enact a fantasy of male power and domination on a pliable “body”.

As a result, rather than providing an outlet for male sexual aggression, the attack on Samantha shows how sex robots merely serve to normalise and make the causes of that aggression acceptable. This attack replicates the power structures and notions of entitlement that feed sexual violence.

One of the proposed selling points of sex robots is the way they respond pliably and willingly to their owner. Retailers claim that their product “likes what you like, dislikes what you dislike”, and are “always ready to talk and play”.

The appeal, then, of sex robots, is that while they look like a pornified ideal of women, they are not like real human women in a very key way. They have no voice. They don’t say no, they don’t have their their own sexuality, they don’t have their own tastes and sexual proclivities. They’re never tired, they’re never not in the mood, they never demand certain sexual acts or express their own sexual desires. If the robot does say no, it’s a no that can be ignored and overruled. They will take whatever the man wants.

This sends a message to men that the ideal sexual partner is the one who only responds to what he wants and needs, rather than an autonomous being with her own wants and needs.

In this way, sex robots are clearly anti-human. They take away women’s humanity, and replace women’s bodies and sexualities with a set of plastic holes. The owner can even turn off the robot’s voice setting if they choose to. Chiefly, the owner doesn’t have to worry about what his robot wants. His desires, fantasies and potential violence are all that counts.

Read more: 14 thoughts on the death of a sex robot

The idealisation of the woman who never says no; the normalisation of sexual aggression; the eroticisation of non-consent – this is the reality of sex robots and this is what lies behind the attack on Samantha.

All of this begs the question: do we want to live in a world where men are given the opportunity to smash, molest and “rape” a model of a woman’s body? A world where we decide that we are so OK with male entitlement and violence being inevitable, that we provide men with models of women to inflict their violent acts?

Or do we want to live in a world that believes better of men, of all of us? One that challenges a culture of male entitlement and works to end male violence? One that doesn’t see male sexual aggression as a normal part of life that must be managed with Samanthas, but instead recognises the value of equality, consent and respect? A world that recognises and celebrates the humanity of women and men?

Samantha can be fixed by an engineer. But the world sex robots represent can only be fixed if we take action to end violence against women and girls.

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