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18 September 2015updated 24 Sep 2015 1:02pm

Should we ban sex robots?

A new campaign is pushing for a ban on the development of sex robots, arguing that they objectify women and perpetuate damaging sexual norms. Does it have a point? 

By Barbara Speed

Over the next few years, one question is going to crop up, again and again: what are our ethics when it comes to robots?

Should they be allowed to replace human workers? Should they deny us things we aren’t supposed to have? And the question facing us in the not-too distant future: what do we do when they start looking like humans, and people start having sex with them? 

TrueAdventure, a US company, has hit headlines this week with the launch of its sex robot prototype, Roxxxy. Roxxxy is modelled to look like a real-life woman, hair, nails, leopard-print knickers (NSFW) and all. Her creators claim she is the first sex doll on the market, and she is, they boast, “always turned on and ready to talk or play”. 

Disturbed? Kathleen Richardson, robot anthropologist, author of the research paper “The Asymmetrical ‘Relationship’: Parallels Between Prostitution and the Development of Sex Robots“, and founder of the Campaign Against Sex Robots, is too. On the campaign’s website, Richardson notes that the robots “contribute to inequalities in society” through their marketisation of disposable female bodies. After all, Roxxxy is “always turned on” – but you can also turn her off when you’re done with her.

TrueCompanion says male sex robots are in the works, too, but Richardson points out these seem to be aimed mostly at men. It’s fair to guess that this industry will follow a similar blueprint to prostitution or pornography, in which women are technically customers too, but the lion’s share of buyers are men, and the market is geared towards their tastes. 

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Creators of sex robots may argue in response that they’re just offering a mechanical aide to sex, much as sex toy manufactuers do. A TrueCompanion spokesperson told the BBC that the robots are not meant to replace real women:

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“We are not supplanting the wife or trying to replace a girlfriend. This is a solution for people who are between relationships or someone who has lost a spouse… People can find happiness and fulfilment other than via human interaction.”

However, he also says that the robot is not intended to be used just for sex: “The physical act of sex will only be a small part of the time you spend with a sex robot – the majority of time will be spent socialising and interacting.” There more human elements may actually make the robots more dangerous. If you’re used to a semi-sentient being doing your bidding and performing any acts you want, you may start expecting the same of fully sentient ones. 

Richardson and her campaign, meanwhile, maintain that the rise of these robots “further objectifies women and children”. The argument runs along similar lines to those against violent or sexist video games: practise certain behaviours in any context, the thinking goes, and you’ll start behaving that way in real life, with real humans. 

It’s hard to see how sex robots could create negative attitudes towards women in men who didn’t already possess them, which is why Richardson’s argument is strongest when it asks for the “development of ethical technologies that reflect human principles of dignity, mutuality and freedom”. I’m not totally sure that banning all robotic sex aides is the means to this end – but Richardson is right that, as a society, we need to think about the ethics behind humanoid robots before become more widespread.

This could means regulating the way sex robots act, or it could just mean we need to focus even more on improving sex education. Someone who knows, from an early age, that consent is vital and that their sexual partner has agency is not likely to forget this just by sleeping with a woman-shaped machine.