Drugs, Sex (dolls), and Rock’n’Roll

Artificial Intelligence is an industry where only 12% of the researchers are women. But this sad statistic becomes even more apparent when looking at the AI tools that exist and are still being developed. For example, a study found that machine learning algorithms have a higher error rate when recognizing women while an article in Reuters found that Amazon’s new recruiting engine was more likely to pick male candidates. It has been predicted that after the Fourth Industrial Revolution that most of the jobs will be run by AI. Should this prediction come true, what will the world look like for women? It is time to consider the effects of the gender gap in this field and take note of the misrepresentation of women.

Satisfying erotic and sexual desires is one of the most natural things known to humankind. Undoubtedly, this has caught the attention of AI researchers. Infected with the female stereotypes found in science fiction, we are seeing the rise of Sexbots. Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” was one of the earliest films to explore the idea of robots as love objects. Other examples of films with similar topics created by men include “Her” and “Ex-Machina”.

Male sexbots do exist but their demand is nowhere close to that of female sexbots. A Google search of the term “sexbots” reveals the prevalent male gaze this product is supposed to satisfy. The global sex toy industry alone is expected to reach USD 52.7 billion by 2026 while the total value of the sex industry (with the inclusion of pornography and sex work) is something that can be hardly quantified. The relationship between technology and sexuality has existed for many years, either in the form of medication or leisure. However, given the sexual taboos and the social boundaries, this link has not extensively been researched. Currently, 70 percent of sex tech companies are owned by men, and fusing these two male-dominated fields could have potentially detrimental consequences. The progressive change we have seen with regards to equality towards women could be endangered if we do not start noticing the small developments taking place in AI.

RealDoll and TrueCompanion are companies that have taken life-size sex dolls and added an AI as an extra feature. The dolls can be customizable from physical looks to personality traits. An individual is even able to assign different personalities according to the mood they are in using an app. For these sex dolls, the role of AI is to specifically gather information from sensory data and improve the experience for the user by simulating something that is as close to a real person as possible. The CEO of RealDoll, McMullen once said the aim is to “create that illusion that this [doll] actually cares about who you are”. We would like the emphasize the word illusion. This is all that is being created. The illusion of females as submissive sexual beings that can be customized to the needs of men. It is time to start evaluating the long-term consequences of allowing people to live out their sexual fantasies. Many questions need to be answered. Is it a real intimate act? What are the boundaries? Is it seen as cheating?

Firstly, let us consider the implications of competition between digital and real intimacy. Writer Naomi Wolf showed that 20% of British couples reported having less sex since the emergence of internet pornography. It is unreasonable to assume that having a programmable sexbot will remove the allure of real dating. Everyone knows that dating can be stressful and an anxiety-causing event. But why? Various psychologists have tried to figure this out. Like all stressful events, it boils down to a lack of control. In a regular dating scenario, you are putting yourself out there to be vulnerable. There is no guarantee that the other person will like you, or that you will even like them. Of course, sexbots make this a lot easier. You do not have to worry about whether they like you or not- they are programmed to like you. You do not have to worry about whether you like them or not – you can customize them. Given the convenience, it is not impossible to believe that dating real women will become a thing of the past. David Levy, the writer of Love and Sex with Robots, predicts that by 2050 marriage to robots will be legal in some states.

Secondly, a clear issue is that the design and creation of the sexbots exploit women. The origins of the word ‘robot’ come from the Slavic word, robota, which translates to “forced labor” or “servitude”. There is a strong underlying connotation that points to involuntary subjugation. When this definition is extended to sexbots, things can get rather disturbing. Elizabeth Nolan Brown, a Buzzfeed contributor, has not been afraid to highlight the misogynistic tone of this creation. As she explains, it is possible that with the rise of sexbots, women will be made irrelevant. At the societal level, a lot of work was accomplished to change the idea that women are supposed to be homemakers and serve their men. The adoption of sexbots will feed the fantasy that some men still having regarding gender stereotypes. In 2015,  Kathleen Richardson, a senior fellow in Ethics of Robotics, started a movement called Campaign Against Sex Robots. The campaign highlights the dangers of dehumanizing females and tries to raise awareness regarding relationships with machines. It is clear from her campaign that the idea of men being inferior and women being superior is being sold. A troubling dynamic is being reinforced here that can lead to women getting hurt. By dehumanizing women and not recognizing them as a subject one should feel empathy towards, some buyers may develop worrisome ideas. 

Thirdly, it is important to discuss the possible consequences of misogynistic thoughts outlined above being reinforced. This is best exemplified by a sexbot called Roxxxy. Built by TrueCompanion, one of its five personalities available is called ‘Frigid Farrah’. The personality type is specifically designed to simulate rape. As the New York Times puts it, “she’s yours to rape for just $US9995.”. Creators of these dolls are justifying their actions by stating that sexbots are used to prevent rape. Rape is not being properly treated as a crime of violence. By making such claims, they seem to encourage rapists by helping them to find a safe outlet. It is somewhat similar to saying that all murderers should be provided with dolls to take out all their squeamish murder fantasies. A study conducted in 2016 discovered that objectifying media such as pornography were correlated with supportive attitudes of violence towards women. In line with these statistics, Nicholas Sharkey, has stated in an interview with Business Insider that he believes the acceptance of sexbots in our society would encourage sex crimes and make assault more acceptable. We agree with him.

Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW), an online community, is an anti-feminist group that holds on to the idea that women are an inconvenience and relationships should be abandoned. Many of the RealDoll consumers are a part of the community, says Matt McMullen, CEO of the company. In a Netflix Series called “Follow This”, sexbot was a topic discussed in episode 3 of season 3. Interestingly, the narrator found a forum for sex doll owners for them to communicate. It was evident that the users who buy sexbots have misogynistic world views. Some example of comments posted are provided below:

“It’s funny that we all love women so much, but we can’t seem to live them

“I don’t have the patience for the needless drama and complication anymore”

This does not mean that all users of sex dolls have such opinions. Surely, some users could benefit from the existence of sexbots. Danielle Knafo, a clinical psychologist says that the dolls can be seen as a transitional tool helping men get comfortable with the female body. It can help overcome the fear that inhibits several men’s sexuality. Giving them a chance to build confidence can help them approach women in real life. A study found that companionship can also help the growing rates of loneliness, especially in the elderly. Levy proposes that sexbots can help reduce prostitution and sex trafficking. Nonetheless, as stated in Reuters, the veracity of these arguments still require some research.

Luckily for women, measurements are being created to prevent harmful effects. The city council of Houston banned sex robot brothels after various petitions were signed across the city. Some of the concerns included issues such as the objectification of women or the confusion of younger generations, along with religious reasons. Furthermore, Congress also passed a bill consisting of the CREEPER Act, otherwise known as the Curbing Realistic Exploitative Electronics Pedophilic Robots Act. It specifically banned the distribution, importation, and sale of child sex robots. Although, this is not specific to female sexbots, it is a step closer in the right direction. A Swedish feminist organization, Swedish Women’s Lobby is a national organization that has openly been protesting and demanding a state ban on sexbots for men. There is a lot more that must be achieved, a lot more that has to be considered. But every additional person or organization that speaks up for women’s empowerment will help in avoiding going back to living in a society where women are once again subordinates.

We are already seeing the mental health influence of a store-bought woman that is customizable and serves men. Sybil Stallone spent 380,000 dollars on plastic surgery to become a living sex robot. The consequences of beauty standards and social norms have been evident for a while and are well reflected in the statistics.  The unhealthy standards of physical attractiveness among adolescents were studied by a mental health institution in Britain. High body dissatisfaction has significantly been linked to eating disorders, depression, and anxiety. Sexbots could add another layer of danger to body dysmorphia.

As highlighted by Jeannie Suk Gersen from Columbia Law Review, most of the debate is highly dependent on how we will characterize sex with robots in the future. Will it be a (1) masturbatory act, something that is like the use of a vibratory, or as (2) an intimate act between two partners. In the latter, the role of consent will be important to consider. Is the act is seen as an intimate relationship between two consenting adults or is the act with an agent that is incapable of consent such as an animal or child.

Research conducted found that 50% of the men surveyed could purchase sexbots in the next 5 years. The creeping idea that humans will not need each other for intimacy is coming closer. Although a total ban on Sexbots might be difficult, regulation and realistic depictions may be the answer. Kathleen Richardson suggests a balanced ratio of women and men should participate in the fields of computer science and artificial intelligence. This could help eradicate the transferring of sexualized versions of women into the objects that are produced. A literature review indicated that there was no observational or experimental research currently existing with regards to sex robots, indicating a gap in the research field that needs to fill as soon as possible to make sure correct policies can be created.

Overall, it is safe to say that more research is needed. As the prevalence of AI is ever increasing, it is not surprising to see it be developed around topics such as relationships and sex. However, the effects of such new technologies, such as sexbots, are still poorly understood. As we’ve seen, its impact on society are both positive (helping people with extreme loneliness) and negative (reinforcing ideas of objectification of women). What is certain however, is that these technologies are causing a stir and disputing the traditional view on sexual relationships. Given the importance of such a subject, and the speed at which this technology is developing, it is of utmost importance that we, as a society, are able to gather empirical evidence with regards to the impact of these technologies, so as to be able to have an objective and constructive discussion surrounding the topic, and to be able to make the appropriate decisions when it comes to how we let technology influence our lives.

A lot more must be done to create clear boundaries between plastic and flesh. Follow our campaign and show support! Awareness can help eliminate the misrepresentation of women.

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