The Moral Case for Sex Robots

As a possible means for alleviating the acute social isolation affecting the world's elderly, exacerbated because of the coronavirus pandemic, some academics are suggesting a rather controversial idea: sex doll companionship

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A worker fitting a sex doll in China.
A worker fitting a sex doll in China.Credit: FRED DUFOUR / AFP
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked

The social isolation and the rigid lockdowns dictated by the COVID-19 pandemic have foisted a new and oppressive reality on humanity, with millions of people around the world finding themselves imprisoned between four walls. Most affected by the situation, perhaps, is the “at risk population”: elderly people, many of them with disabilities. Even before the virus struck, many in this group led a limited social life and barely ventured out. They now find themselves facing a new condition of social isolation.

Despite all of that, however, the solution proposed by Nancy Jecker may still sound a bit extreme. In an article published this month in the Journal of Medical Ethics, Jecker, a professor of bioethics and humanities at the University of Washington School of Medicine, in Seattle, proposes “a dignity-based argument for affording older people access to sex robots as part of reasonable efforts to support their central human capabilities at a floor level.” Jecker’s article is entitled, “Nothing to be Ashamed of: Sex Robots for Older Adults with Disabilities.”

Social robots, which are intended to provide sexual services and company, as Prof. Jecker emphasizes, are a particularly effective solution for a period such as this. Besides being easily sanitized, they offer new ways to create interaction and can help relieve the severe loneliness of elderly people. However, she sees them being useful not only during the pandemic, but also as an integral element in the future aging experience of millions of older adults with physical disabilities in every part of the world.

Jecker: “There is no doubt that in an epidemic like this, social robots can be the basis for a social relationship that will constitute a substitute for family and friends who are physically distant and are prohibited from visiting under the strict restrictions.” At the same time, she notes, the problem of the serious loneliness of the elderly population existed long before this crisis struck, and will continue after it passes. The phenomenon of “elder orphans,” as they have come to be known, refers to the increasing numbers of older adults who chose not to have children and who live alone, Jecker told Haaretz, in a recent phone interview.

“In Japan, for example,” she continues, “the proportion of elderly people living alone increased in recent years by about 7 percent, to 33 percent. It’s the same in Hong Kong and in many other countries. The ability to conduct relationships, to connect with others, to think, to play, to imagine, are the basic things that we appreciate and that we can should do and be as human beings. So the article is a call to the sex industry to provide those basic needs of this community.”

With an expertise is in bioethics, the professor is aware that people probably perceive the idea of relations with sex robots as tawdry, “but the reality is that for many older adults the only alternative is to be completely alone.” It’s well known that loneliness does not induce older people to try to forge new relationships with others, Jecker says, but the opposite: They become increasingly insular. “Social robots with advanced communication capabilities can help those people, and sex is only one aspect of that help, which as I see it is a far more effective and safe solution than the medications that are offered to the elderly.”

Jecker repeatedly invokes such concepts as justice and dignity. From her point of view, it’s important to emphasize that access of older adults, in their 70s and 80s, to various possibilities of sexual relations is a basic right that society has an obligation to make available to them. In a sense this is no different from the responsibility that devolves upon society to ensure that such individuals have access to food, medications and housing.

“I am talking about our minimal responsibility as a society to these older adults,” she explains. “I am talking about basic justice for them, about preserving sexual capabilities at the most basic level.” There are “false stereotypes” about how older people supposedly have no interest in sex, “but that is simply incorrect, and therefore society has the responsibility to support those basic needs irrespective of the abilities and disabilities of these people,” many of whom suffer from sexual dysfunction.

“In the same way that we do not ignore other problems in the functioning of that population, we should not ignore sexual disabilities, either,” Jecker adds.

Sex robots are no longer something new or a fantasy from science-fiction movies. The best-known breakthrough in integrating sex and artificial intelligence was that of a New Jersey-based firm called TrueCompanion. In 2010, the company launched Roxxxy, considered the world’s first sex robot. At 1.70 meters in height and weighing in at 54 kilos (5 feet 7 inches, 119 pounds), Roxxy came equipped with full lips, synthetic skin and other elements adaptable to the client’s personal taste. The robot’s base price was nearly $10,000 – though, depending on the user’s requirements, it could go as high as $75,000. For that outlay, boasted the company’s website, clients would receive a machine that “knows your likes and dislikes, carries on a discussion and expresses her love to you and [can] be your loving friend. She can talk to you, listen to you and feel your touch. She can even have an orgasm.” (It’s not clear, however, whether anyone actually took delivery of the robot.)

In a 2015 CNBC interview, the founder of TrueCompanion, Robert Hines, an AI expert, noted, “Roxxxy provides physical and sexual pleasure but also provides social interaction and engagement. It’s customizing technology to provide a perfect partner – she’s not meant to replace a real partner but is meant as a supplement.”

The Roxxxy sex robot. Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images/AFP

More companies along the same line have been established since then, mostly in the United States and the Far East. They’re working to create the next generation of inflatable sex dolls. Prof. Jecker is closely familiar with all the more recent versions of such mechanical sexual surrogates, but as she sees it they are not part of the solution but exactly the opposite. Her concern lies in the distorted way that society overall and the sex industry in particular ignore the needs of the elderly population – including the women among it.

Jecker: “When I say that the sex-robot industry is ageist, I am referring to the fact that the current industry is focused exclusively on young, able-bodied, male clientele. What kind of message does that implicitly send to older people, especially older women and people with disabilities?

Ageism matters. It literally makes us sick. When older people hold ageist attitudes about themselves, for example, this correlates with higher rates of all-cause mortality, poor functional health and slower recovery from illness. Ageism is also a strong predictor of poor mental health.”

Sex robots like Roxxxy – whose physical characteristics, to judge by the images published in the media, seem to have been inspired by a porn star – are manifestly not designed for men, and above all women, in their 70s and 80s, the age groups on which Jecker’s article focuses. But what about all the cheap and available accessories that can be found in every sex store or ordered via the internet easily and be kept in the bedside table drawer?

“Unlike other objects used to enhance sexual activity, sex robots simulate being with another human being and involve forming a human-robot relationship,” Jecker writes in her new article.

Asked what type of relationship she has in mind, she replies, “Robot-human relationships can fill a void and serve as an important alternative to human-human relationships.”

The professor explains that she “first started thinking about robots for older adults in my book ‘Ending Midlife Bias’ [published this past June], which includes a chapter on carebots – robotic caregivers who can help older adults with activities of daily living, such as getting out of bed, eating, dressing, bathing, and so forth. From there I went on to discuss friendbots. I argued [more recently] that during the COVID-19 pandemic, all of us, but older adults especially, are socially isolated and lonely, and this is a threat to our health.

“It’s natural to think next about even closer robot-human relationships, which provide not just social companionship but sexual intimacy. After all, friends interact with us physically: They hug, touch, pat, and hold hands with us. Future sex robots will be able to do even more.” 

Alternative interaction

Are you apprehensive that what may be a solution to the absence of a sex life may lead to alternative social interaction that will reduce the need to communicate with other human beings?

“No. The alternative for many older adults is not a rich, human social life, but loneliness and isolation. There is nothing about robot-human relationships that excludes the possibility of relationships with humans. They expand, rather than replace the repertoire of relationships open to people.” 

Jecker is also not concerned about old and lonely people developing emotions toward a robot. “Social robots are designed to foster this. The capability to express a range of human emotions is one of the central things that humans can do and be and that social robots can support.” 

Manifestly, Jecker is talking about robots that are far more substantial than an advanced version of inflatable sex dolls or colorful vibrators. Orgasms and caresses, sexual satisfaction and the dissipation of social isolation, mental distress while trying to preserve one’s dignity – all these notions are intertwined in her research as needs and distresses to which sex robots can respond.

“Just as society has the power to insult people’s dignity by shaming and stigmatizing their sexual desires and behavior, it has the power to support dignity and serve as a bulwark against shame,” she writes in her article. “Drawing on this insight, a capability argument for sex robots sets out the central kinds of things that humans can do and be and argues that supporting dignity requires supporting these central doings and beings at a minimum threshold.”

You argue that supporting an older person’s ability to be sexual is part of respecting their identity and dignity. But the exact opposite argument can also be made: The dignity of a person whose needs are satisfied with a robot instead of a human relationship is abased.

“It helps to say exactly what I mean when I refer to ‘dignity’ and ‘respecting dignity,’ because this is the central part of my argument. I use dignity to refer to the ability to do and be the central things that we can do and be as human beings. Societies respect dignity when they make reasonable efforts to support our central human capabilities at a minimal level.

“The kinds of ‘capabilities’ I have in mind include the ability to have a story or narrative in which one’s life is still unfolding; to be healthy, which includes being emotionally and mentally healthy; to have bodily integrity, affiliate with others, express a range of human emotions, and reflect on and choose our plans and goals. Sex relates to supporting what we can do and be as human beings, such as having relationships and expressing emotions.”

Nancy Jecker.Credit: Barry Aaronson

It bears noting that Nancy Jecker is not the first professional in recent years to urge the availability of sex robots as an integral part of the basket of services that society is duty-bound to provide to its elderly population. Last January, for example, Eduard Fosch-Villaronga, from the University of Leiden, and Adam Poulsen, from Charles Sturt University, in Australia, published an article titled “Sex Care Robots.” The two described at length the great advantages accruing to the use of robots for sex purposes among older people with physical disabilities.

“Although sexuality is a basic human need, awareness, and knowledge about it do not come straightforward for disabled populations,” they write in Paladyn, Journal of Behavioral Robotics. “Some researchers even highlight that people with intellectual disabilities are ‘purposefully misinformed about sexual health to reinforce fears as a means of inhibiting sexual activity.’”

Poulsen and Fosch-Villaronga dwell on the physical and mental health advantages of the use of sex robots. The preferred model, they argue, would be one that can “display realistic sex-related body movements, have sensors to react real-time to user interaction, and can include humanlike features such as voice to have a small talk with the user.” And as in real life, as they propose, just as no one needs to compromise on a human partner not to their liking, the same goes for robots. Sex robots thus need to “allow users to choose different traits and feelings appealing to them so that their experience is complete,” including “features that can be changed by the user, [such as] skin tone or hair color.”

Already today, they write, “sex robots could be a tool that helps provide a safe environment for older adults and persons with disabilities to explore sexuality.” And like Prof. Jecker, they, too, stress that it’s not just a matter of sexual relations. “Sex care robots could represent the merge of emotional support and sexual companionship that benefit users in aged and disabled care,” they write.

Legitimate therapy?

In another article, published in 2019 in PubMed Central, three scientists belonging to the medical faculty of Sigmund Freud University, in Vienna, examined the viewpoints of 72 physicians and therapists regarding the use of sex robots to treat problems of sexual functionality.

“Sex robots have triggered discussions in professional circles about robot design, social norms, and the status of human-robot sex in connection with human relationships as well as the possible benefits of sex robots,” the authors write, adding, “Although sex toys are used in sex therapy for the treatment of orgasm problems, there is no information about the opinion of sex therapists regarding sex robots as a tool in sex therapy.”

The conclusions of the article suggest that only a small minority of physicians and sex therapists completely rule out the use of prescribing robots for sexual purposes. Of the 72 subjects, only 11 percent replied that “the use of sex robots was not conceivable for them.” On the other hand, 65 percent “stated that they could imagine the use of sex robots for physically disabled people.”

When asked to specify for which sexual disorders robots could legitimately be used to aid therapy, 50 percent of the survey’s participants replied, “patients with social anxiety that prevents a sexual life.” The same percentage thought sex robots could be used “for patients who do not have a partner and still want to have a sex life without having to resort to prostitution or fleeting acquaintances.”

All told, almost half of the respondents, 45 percent, stated that they could imagine a situation in which they would recommend the use of sex robots within a therapeutic framework. In conclusion, the authors write that “scientists engaged in sexual research should be involved in the development of sex robots to design robots with positive effects on sexual education, sexual therapy, sexual counseling, and sexual well-being for interested groups.”

Robots and orgasms

Nor is it only sex therapists who envisage a reality in which robots and orgasms will go hand in hand. A 2017 survey conducted by the British polling and media analysis company YouGov, found that “49 percent of Americans agree… that having sex with robots will become common practice sometime within the next 50 years.” In addition, whereas only 9 percent of the female respondents stated that would consider having sexual relations with a robot, 24 percent of the men declared that they wouldn’t rule out the possibility.

On the other hand, when the same participants were asked to spell out how they see sexual interaction with robots, only 14 percent replied that an encounter of that sort meets the accepted definition of “sexual relations.” A third of the subjects in the survey categorized such relations as “masturbation,” and 27 percent claimed it was an act that didn’t fit into any existing category. And since this is a category unto itself, according to the survey, participants were also divided on the question of whether “having sex with a robot while in a relationship should be considered cheating”: 36 percent of the women interviewed said yes, but only 29 percent of the men.

Yet, while sex robots, at least of the sophisticated type envisaged by Nancy Jecker and others for the elderly population and those with sexual and other disabilities remain a distant vision – others are trying to analyze the robots’ possible impact from the standpoint of people who already own sex dolls. Still, it’s crucial to bear in mind that this is a completely different target audience from the one Jecker writes about in her paper.

A 2018 study conducted by Gillian Bentley and Mitchell Langcaster-James, from the anthropology department of Durham University in England, aimed to decipher the personality traits of individuals who own sex dolls. Their goals were to find how these individuals relate to the dolls, how they perceive the connection with them and the reasons that led them to forgo the attempt to forge a sexual relationship with a human partner.

“As sex-doll products become more sophisticated and begin to incorporate robotic technologies,” the researchers write, “some individuals forecast a shift away from human-to-human sexual activity, to relationships that involve not only virtual reality, but also highly interactive sex toys and responsive ‘sexbots.’”

One of the potential dangerous consequences of the use of these robots, the anthropologists note, is the possible transfer of the type of relationship formed with the robots to relations between humans, leading to “an increasing objectification of women and children.” Within this context, they raise they raise the concern that one-sided relationships in which people enjoy complete control over dolls would bring about “the possibility that violent and oppressive behavior towards sexbots might encourage similar behaviors toward real women.”

The study by Bentley and Langcaster-James used a questionnaire they provided to 83 doll owners whom they located, they explain, through “two international, online doll forums” on the internet. Not surprisingly, 90 percent of the participants in this research project were men; 88 percent of those who took part termed themselves heterosexuals, 45 percent said they were single and 13 percent said they were divorced.

In keeping with what Jecker says about the great advantages of sex robots beyond satisfying immediate sexual needs, and particularly as a solution for the severe social isolation from which untold numbers of elderly suffer – in the Durham University study only 14 percent of the participants said that sex was the exclusive “core element that featured in their relationship” with their sex dolls. In contrast, 44 percent used the term “lover” in reference to their doll, 43 percent referred to the doll as a “companion” and only 4 percent selected the term “prostitute” to describe the relationship.

Asked to compare relationships with dolls versus humans, one participant in wrote: “While I enjoy the company of women, I don’t feel like putting in the time and effort that is required to make a relationship work.” Another noted that the relationship with a sex doll affords him on the one hand ready sex and on the other frees him of the concerns about sexual diseases and children, and doesn’t take up his time or require an investment beyond the sexual relations themselves.

A third participant mentioned the advantages of not having to be concerned about maintaining a human relationship, particularly one of a sexual nature. “No divorce, and losing half your s--- every 10 years,” he wrote. And another: “She [the doll] is non-judgmental. She isn’t going to go nuts if the house is a mess/not perfect. If I fart she won’t freak out. She is never jealous. She is not mean. She would never make fun of me. She won’t tell me who I can’t have as a friend.”

‘No luck with women’

There were also some who admitted to the Durham researchers that the doll was a last resort for them, even if it was far from being socially acceptable. “No luck with women (I’m easy on the eyes, great personality, just seem to get caught up in the wrong type),” one man wrote. Another participant noted the advantage of a doll as “a partner that can be ignored for as long as wanted without feeling bad.” And others saw the doll as what the researchers call an “ideal partner solution.” He wrote: “You essentially get this ageless perfect girl who will love you unconditionally and never be too busy for you,” and, more concisely, “You can have the ‘girl’ of your dreams.”

Based on their analysis of the responses, the researchers concluded: “Our results support earlier but limited findings illustrating that companionship and alleviation of loneliness are often more important functions of these sex dolls, at least as reflected among users of online forums… Similarly, our results underscore the potential for strong emotional bonds being forged with robotic dolls in the future as they become increasingly sophisticated and personalized.”

The concern raised by the authors of the study at the possible sexual objectification of women through the transfer of relationships with robots into intimate relationships with other humans is one that is often voiced by opponents of the development of robots for sexual purposes. The leading proponent of this view is Kathleen Richardson, a professor of ethics and culture of robots and artificial intelligence at De Montfort University in Leicester, England.

Interviewed by Time magazine in 2017, Richardson observed that “sex is already thought of as instrumental, and women in particular are already treated like objects. There’s a long history of women and their bodies being literally traded and sold as property.” She added, “when you look at the trinity of prostitution, pornography, and child abuse, you see a culture where men relate to women not as people but as their breasts, their mouths… There’s a disturbing trend of dehumanizing women, especially through sex trafficking.”

In this context, Richardson notes that marketing executives want to persuade us that “objects are more than just objects. They can make us feel cool, make us feel good.” This, she avers, leads to a dangerous symbiosis: to a blurring of the differences and the creation of parallel worlds in which women and robots fulfill an identical product role whose whole purpose is to bring the client, in this case the man, to a state of sexual satisfaction.

“So when you bring sex dolls or sex robots into the picture, their use is just contributing to and elaborating on the idea that you can relate to an object like you can relate to another person, and, in turn, that you can treat a person like an object,” she writes.

“I think you can look at the imagery that populates movies, video games, virtual reality, porn – a construction of a woman that doesn’t really exist, that’s been physically enhanced – and the development of sex dolls is a similar echo chamber of male desire,” Richardson adds. “You cannot separate sex robots from the sexist nature of porn. They reinforce this idea that women are just sexual property.”

David Levy, a British chess champion, expert on AI and author of the book “Love and Sex with Robots,” is not impressed by Richardson’s approach, as he told Time in the same article.

“When we talk about hiring sex robots, people ask is that another form of prostitution? I don’t think so,” he asserts. “One has to consider sex with a robot from a moral point of view as similar to a female vibrator, for example. Clearly, there’s nothing wrong with using electronic devices to create sexual satisfaction, so why should there be moral problems with hiring or buying a sex robot?”

Levy, who has for some time been urging that we need to get used to the idea of sexual relations between humans and robots, added that “the really massive benefit is that there are millions of people in this world, who for one reason or another cannot make good relationships themselves with other human beings. And so they’re lonely and miserable. I think when they’ve got the option of having relationships with very sophisticated robots, that will for many of them fill a big void in their lives and make them much happier.”

Nancy Jecker makes it clear repeatedly in her interview with Haaretz that she is not referring to the use of sex robots by healthy young people, about which she did not want to express an opinion. At the same time, she too maintains that the use of robots for sex is preferable to other solutions, such as paying for sexual services. And, like Levy, she does not agree with those who liken relations between humans and robots to coercive sex.

“The concern of those who liken sex with robots to coercive sex without the consent of the other side, such as occurs in rape, stems from the false assumption that the robot is making a willful choice. In fact,” Prof. Jecker says, “the robot is automated and operates on the basis of an algorithm, not from personal will.” In contrast to prostitutes, “the great advantage of robots is that they can provide sexual services without violating the basic human dignity of other people.”

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