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Ex Machina

What is the real case for sex robots?

We must face up to technological advancements that throw up issues of intimacy, female objectification, abuse and general weirdness

Yes people, sex robots are here and there ain't nothing you can do about it. The sexual revolution of the New World will be hardwired.

I have been trying to figure out how I feel about sex robots for a while now, as strange as that might be. News that a café near London Paddington is thinking about opening the city’s first ‘erotic cyborg’ coffee destination got me thinking. Is this a terrible step for mankind, or is it in fact genius? Because who wouldn’t love to get their extra shot cappuccino with a side of electrically-charged sex?  

As a pro-sex feminist, who believes fetishes should flourish and the policing of taboos is the true crime, I have decided to embrace the idea. Like with any technological advancement, a whole host of issues are thrown up, such as isolation, female objectification, rape culture, and dystopian levels of intimacy, which admittedly have terrible consequences, but why try and stop something that is going to happen anyway? Let's welcome the weirdness with open arms (and legs) and make the best of it.

A report published yesterday by the Foundation for Responsible Robotics (FRR) heralded advancements in sexual robotics as potentially providing a valuable service to the elderly, disabled and those who find sex traumatic. In places like Amsterdam and Prague, where the sex industry is far more regulated and accessible than here in the UK, brothels specifically targeted to disabled people already exist. The British tendency to keep a stiff upper lip and sweep any awkwardness under the rug can have damaging effects on those suffering from illness and isolation. Although the concept of sex robots carries the same ‘slippery slope’ warning sticker as with contentious issues like euthanasia, there is genuine capacity for good.

There’s also the more general issue for the wider population – would you fuck a robot? This probably comes down to – and the report affirms this ­– whether it feels like the real experience, rather than some sexy rubbing of cogs and screws. Is it a tentative way to explore threesomes with a partner? A soon-to-be faction of every stag do? Practice for keeping it up, lasting longer, or smashing an orgasm?

However, authors of the study also warned that sex robots could increase the objectification of women, blur the lines of consent and offer desires that are illegal, such as pedophilia, a breeding ground. A no-brainer when you consider the habitually sadistic side of technological advancement. Dr. Aimee van Wynsberghe, assistant professor in ethics and technology at the Technical University of Delft and FRR co-founder, said: “There are absolutely some benefits to the technology but, like everything else, there is a balance. You have to strike a balance between lack of regulation – so we have all different uses and personifications of children and women as sexual objects – or you have overregulation and you stifle the technology.”

“I don’t believe a product should be boycotted because of our ability to fuck it up”

One of the most interesting parts of the report, for me, was the argument that it may be better to rape robots than people – a jarring thought that no one really wants to consider. And so too with the production of child robots, already seen in Japan, which are sold to pedophiles. Trottla, a company founded by Shin Takagi has been producing life-like child sex dolls (anatomically imitating children as young as five) for over a decade. This is where the waters get murky and I can’t quite disentangle the reality from hypothesis. In one sense, such horrific acts should never be given an avenue for exploration, but on the other, we need a more enlightened discussion about violence against women and children.

In no way am I condoning the use of say, child sex robots, but our approach to dealing with pedophilia seems archaic and quite frankly useless. Criminalising and punishing non-normative and ideologically repulsive sexuality and then throwing away the key doesn’t make the problem go away, far from it in fact. Since the revelations of Operation Yewtree, the problem is far more deeply-entrenched than any of us would like to believe. Rather than conclude that sex robots should be given to offenders, maybe the idea of this form of therapy can at least strike up a more nuanced interpretation of the issue. Louis Theroux’s polemic 2009 documentary, A Place for Paedophiles, also questioned the morally dubious line that separates crime from warped sexual identity. While Theroux visibly recoiled upon hearing the inmates’ crimes, he also appeared to reject the idea that lifelong punishment is the only answer.

And this is hardly the only potential risk factor with introducing sex robots. Design of the models are fetishised depictions of female sexuality that plays to male masturbatory fantasy; a reduction of woman’s subjectivity to a mere ‘type’. But, with all the inherent problems and controversies, I don’t believe a product should be boycotted because of our ability to fuck it up. In this radically-shifting, technologically-driven dystopia we’re currently living in, we, as humans, must learn to draw our own lines. Because let me tell you, things are going to get a lot scarier than this.