When I was in primary school Mum owned a light-blue Mitsubishi Galant. I remember two things about the car. One, the seats were covered in a black vinyl that—in the heat of a Melbourne summer—would result in a skin–upholstery fusion and a screaming skin–seat separation. Two, she called the vehicle Bess. ‘For God’s sake, Bess,’ would be a familiar refrain on cold winter mornings when the Galant exhibited no regard for school start times.
Bess, which I thought I’d forgotten about, was on my mind recently. I’d passed a car with headlights framed by fluttery black fringes. I’d googled a vague description and discovered ‘Carlashes’ and a whole world of ways to gussy-up vehicles with lipstick and tiara decals. At the discovery of rhinestone headrest charms I knew to step away from the browser.
Mum dubbing her car Bess didn’t make the Galant a woman. Gluing some false eyelashes onto the front of a hatchback doesn’t give a car the status of personhood. Sharing the commercial trappings of gender with non-humans—being inclined to call ships ‘she’ or countries ‘motherlands’—doesn’t grant any of them female humanity.
The news media recently reported on the opening of another robot brothel in Spain. Such establishments already trade in Paris, Italy and Britain. Most of the articles quoted feminists of the radical ilk who were virulently opposed. Sex robots were, apparently, yet another totem of the patriarchy and indistinguishable from the flesh-and-blood sex industry they’ve long viewed as abusive. Sexbots seemingly make the whole shebang extra sordid by giving men an outlet for the ‘worst’ of their sexual impulses—with no burden of obtaining consent—and maybe even helping them hone a taste for taking mistreatment offline.
Elsewhere I’ve chronicled my support for sex work and sex workers and argued against the radfem position. My own feminism dictates that women can and do freely engage in sex work. Certainly, sections of the industry are marred by trafficking, violence and exploitation, but the same blights exist in construction, agriculture, hospitality and academia, but we don’t hear radical feminists calling for their abolition. Such calls aren’t made because the opposition to sex work—be it from radfems, Christians or policymaking men attempting to control the bodies of women—lies in a puritanical, anti-sex position that succeeds only in shaming and oppressing. Opposition to robot brothels exposes a range of hypocrisies inherent in the radfem anti–sex work position and is much more about wishing away horniness than protecting anyone from hurt.
For me to prosecute this case, I need to step back a bit. To think about Mum’s blue Galant, about the Carlashes. About the consequences of adhering the aesthetics of femininity to machines. To probing what we mean by sex, by harm, by women.
The femininity red herring
The bib-and-brace stereotype of feminists comes from the radicals who—in the late 1960s and early 1970s—decried the labours of femininity. The hair removal and the heels were condemned as a waste of time, money and emotional energies. Such femininity props were deemed to perpetuate a narrow aesthetic of what constitutes ‘beautiful’ and to have created a system where those who comply are rewarded and those who resist are punished: rendered unattractive, unfuckable, unemployable and insufficiently heterosexual.
The claim here is that your value as a woman should in no way be connected to whether or not your wear Spanx or paint your nails, that such trappings keep women pretty and distracted, undermined and under thumb, and that we all need to revolt against this gender grind.
I find merits in these arguments and also, admittedly, some concerns. Such positions are, however, crucial in understanding some of the gaping holes in sexbot opposition. Somehow these much maligned accoutrements of femininity—so meaningless to real womanliness and real worth—are sufficiently potent to enable hunks of steel and silicone to be considered woman enough to warrant the matriarchy’s protection. A dress or a painted face apparently renders robots every bit as victimised by the patriarchy as the living, breathing sex workers who ‘need’ rescue. That radfems have chosen sexbots as a twenty-first-century incarnation of their decades-old anti-sex rhetoric is perplexing, and in no small part hypocritical.
For decades, many radical feminists have opposed male-to-female transgender persons, arguing that calling oneself a woman and donning the garb of femininity doesn’t suddenly give a person access to a sexual identity that women are born with and which connects them—through shared biology, through shared oppression—to her sisters. Of their suite of regularly offensive claims, I’ll quote Janice Raymond’s controversial screed The Transsexual Empire: ‘All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves.’ If being a woman is more than an artifice—more than long eyelashes, more than glossy lips—how then is a legs-akimbo robot in lingerie afforded greater empathy and protection than a living, breathing transwoman? The sisterhood, apparently, deems a machine worthy of greater respect than a thinking, feeling transwoman. That the transwoman was once a man is seemingly so much more damning than the inevitably man-made robot they’re curiously choosing to defend.
If radfems are protecting robots based, in part, on their hyper-feminine displays of womanhood—an aesthetic, incidentally, that they’ve vocally abhorred for more than half a century—why stop at the sexbots? What about other apparatuses that have pilfered from likenesses of women? Do those objects also get the opportunity to nestle under the radfem bosom? Fleshlights and pocket pussies offer up disembodied lady genitals for purposes of autoerotic entertainment. Delve deep enough into the sex curio market and you’ll discover a contraption involving fake rubber boobs with a vagina-like opening just under the cleavage. The Sexflesh Bodacious Bella Breast Stroker. You’ll get change from $100. Surely these objects—cheaply procured and undoubtedly in wider use than any brothel sexbot—should raise the same concerns for radfems. Does their trade need to be thwarted because they quite literally turn female anatomy into something that can be bought and fucked with wanton abandon? I’m unconvinced that the new-ish possibility of accessing a sexbot in a brothel is somehow more egregious than the human-like sex toys that have been available for home use for decades but garnered nary a rumble.
The radfem opposition to sexbots is admittedly much more complicated than a mere (albeit confused) kinship based on femaleness. In 1990, radical feminist Carol J. Adams wrote The Sexual Politics of Meat. Part of her argument is that animals as well as women are victims of the patriarchy, treated as consumable by a culture that wants mere bits of them—their breasts, their boobs, their thighs. This results in a hierarchy of those who eat and those who get eaten. It’s no stretch to imagine that radfems think about sexbots the way they do butchered animals: as victims of the unrelenting wants of hedonistic men. As a philosophical argument, I quite like it. I like it right up until the point when we remember that we’re talking about robots. The key point of difference here is sentience. Humans feel. Animals feel. Robots literally shut down when the rumpy pumpy’s done and get packed away in a box.
Sexbots and the sentience stumper
What it means to be alive, to be human, to feel, are the preoccupations of philosophers, stoners, and many a showrunner. ‘Answers’ to these questions have helped justify every-thing from voting rights, genocide and the production of excellent films such as Ex Machina.
As technology advances, robots can produce ever-better mimicries of personhood. Sexbots can display the gamut of emotions they’re programmed with—they can smile, cry, even do a good approximation of an orgasm face—and perform a pretty decent likeness of humanity. But these expressions are commodities. They’re painted or glued on or input via algorithms onto silicone faces manufactured in factories. If you prick them, of the spectrum of their possible responses, bleeding isn’t one of them.
Emotional labour is a component of most jobs, and yes, human sex workers have to feign affection for clients whom they wouldn’t normally elect to bonk. Akin to how almost every job requires us to smile more than we’d like and to suppress the inclination to poison certain colleagues. But robots aren’t performing emotional work. They don’t think, they don’t feel: they aren’t conscious and they can’t benefit from our ideological benevolence. They are animate exclusively because they’ve been programmed to be, just like your washing machine is programmed to take the soiling from your sheets; just like your GPS helps you find your way home.
When a machine performs the tasks ascribed to it, whether it does this in a French maid costume or a latex catsuit, it’s a machine doing what it was built for and is totally dissimilar in all salient ways to human workers doing their jobs—don’t let the wigs or winking fool you. Consent, safety, fair pay and working conditions are crucial issues for employees in the sex industry and every other workplace. These are, however, completely irrelevant issues for machines. A robot isn’t going through the motions of forcing itself to greet customers warmly or bite a tongue at a co-worker’s martyrdom. The performance of emotional labour requires cognisance that you are managing and controlling your behaviour. Robots don’t have feelings, nor are they regulating themselves to survive life in an open-plan office.
We could debate here a definition of ‘think’ and argue that, given that sexbots function because of computers and that these computers perform often complex calculations to respond to the needs of their fleshy overlords, it would be erroneous to deny their intelligence. Agreed. But this isn’t the same kind of thinking that humans participate in. Sexbots don’t daydream. They’re not pining or loving or eagerly anticipating. Yes, we’ve seen them play chess, write songs, produce ‘art’, but these aren’t autonomous, spontaneous or even particularly creative expressions: this is the output that comes from a programmer inputting a request and a robot executing commands. There’s no intentionality, it’s just a set of calculations. It’s an approximation of a human response, but it’s not one.
A recurring theme in radfem criticism of sexbot brothels is abuse. Mistreatment of robots is considered problematic on its own—it’s distinctly repugnant for the likeness of a woman to be deliberately damaged—but more worryingly, such abuse might exit the brothel and be inflicted on real people.
Violence or vandalism: Can you harm a robot?
I’ve never understood scenes in films where people smash plates when angry. Any anguish I’m suffering would only ever be magnified if I then had to clean up a zillion pieces of porcelain. But I do recognise the catharsis that can come from throwing, say, an objet de broken heart into a garbage chute. And I once got a mild thrill from snapping the screen off a cheap and nasty laptop that had blue-screened for the last time.
While I don’t mourn that laptop or anything else I’ve ever discarded, admittedly occasionally I do think about underutilised bottles of perfume or eyeshadow and rearrange my stash to give these items a chance to shine. I’m well aware, however, that my possessions don’t take on a Nutcracker secret life of animation or introspection when I’m out of the room; I know that I can’t really ‘neglect’ a make-up palette. Things can’t feel. A lipstick can’t be aggrieved by infrequent use and a robot can’t be hurt by its client.
I don’t doubt that some idiots will visit a robot brothel and go to Violent Town. Not unlike, say, people who trash hotel rooms or who paid to go into that crockery smashing pop-up store a few years ago. Destruction of property isn’t insignificant—someone, after all, has to pay for the damage—but it’s not a crime against a person just because that property bares a human likeness. We don’t consider the vandalisation of a billboard that depicts a woman as some kind of corporeal desecration; we don’t mourn or hold funerals for decommissioned mannequins or broken Barbie dolls. Sharing a likeness with a woman doesn’t afford an object the status of personhood. Further, just because the property is being used for erotic purposes doesn’t make damage against it additionally depraved, or place it in any heightened need of feminist intervention. Believing that harm to a resemblance of someone hurts a real person is magical thinking. It’s behaviour of the same ilk as burning effigies or stabbing pins into voodoo dolls. Fostering the perception that harming a sexbot harms women as an oppressed class is the kind of delusional posturing that renders radical feminism a movement based largely on wishful thinking and rhetoric.
The inescapable fact is that the radfem interest in bots lies in the sex. For them, that these machines are being used for activity that looks a whole lot like intercourse prods many of the tender spots that they have with heterosexuality, notably when it’s commercialised. Sexbot brothels are of interest in ways that piñatas or Greek weddings aren’t, because of the collision of genitals and money.
The anti-sex bias
One of the many radfem critiques of sex industry output—from paid sex to erotic dancing to pornography—is that such products come to shape how we think about women who aren’t affiliated with the industry. That in a world where the sex industry is legal and legitimate, a dollar value is put on the heads of all women; that every woman comes to be appraised on the extent to which she is deemed fuckable. Of all the slurs out there, being thought of as a ‘whore’ is, apparently, up there with the most heinous. And this makes a kind of sense: the class system is no better illustrated than in the different worth placed on women based on factors such as their hotness or how they pay their bills. But restricting women’s use of their bodies based on the scorn and judgement of others is a grotesque perversion of justice. Of course, radfems would contend that the justice issue here lies in sparing women from abuse. They’d argue that sexbots showcase, normalise and potentially even encourage men’s control over women. That the act of buying access to a woman is tantamount to treating her as a chattel; that whether the vagina is comprised of human tissue or plastic, the heinousness of the remunerated invasion remains the same.
Arguably one of the appeals for men in sexbot rental lies in not having to go through the motions of charm or civility: he can do whatever he wants and the robot remains permanently acquiescent. (Unless, of course, it’s programmed for an erotic stoush.) Since 1972 when Ira Levin shone a light on men’s fears of feminism run amok leading to a preference for robot partners, we’ve become versed in an idea—be it real or imagined—of men secretly longing for servile, unthinking, compliant, ever-smiling Stepford companions. Long before the inception of sexbot brothels, this idea had a life in porn with real women mimicking a kind of blow-up doll/sexbot appearance, allowing men to position and pose them and cavort with all their orifices, while the women remain totally motionless and unresponsive throughout. While my own belief is that daydreaming about a wife with your pipe and slippers waiting, or masturbating to doll roleplay porn centres primarily on imagination—and that our cultural propensity to pathologise such fantasy is anachronistic (and exhausting)—let’s pretend for a moment that it’s more than this. Let’s pretend that some men do genuinely want the slippers and the near-necrophilic sex.
Don’t sexbots provide an answer to this: be they in a brothel or purchased for use in the home? Wouldn’t we rather a man exert his phallic mastery over a sexbot than a woman? If we’re culturally aware of the existence of complicated sexual impulses, and if radfems have, to date, been completely unsuccessful in gelding men and sanitising their fantasy lives, surely the provision of outlets for our dirtiest yens makes social and economic sense. Levin’s novel predated the world of sexbot brothels. The desire for some men to control women—just as the desire for some men to abuse women—has existed since time immemorial and precedes every new technology that gets blamed for causing ‘bad’ behaviour. If a man is acting on his whims with a robot in lieu of other kinds of flesh-and-blood abuse, then so long as he’s billed accordingly I’d need much more than a defiled robot to truly care.
Too many times I’ve heard radfems lament that no woman should be put in a position of having to service men’s sexual wants. As though sexual desire is exclusively male and that women merely exist as exploited vessels. As though the wish for intimacy and intercourse is different to other hands-on-flesh personal services such as nursing, hairdressing or physiotherapy. The radfem position is that some things just shouldn’t be bought, shouldn’t be sold, and that putting a price tag on my vag isn’t a decision I should get to make. The existence of any type of brothel, therefore—even if it’s one staffed by robots—apparently will only lead to making other sex-for-money exchanges seem inconsequential. It’s a perfect illustration of the slippery slope, gateway-drug rhetoric favoured by those with a penchant for censoring, banning and burning.
If they’re expensive enough or if it’s dark enough, a sexbot might resemble the likeness of a person, a woman, but it’s not one. Mum’s Galant wasn’t one, nor is a vehicle festooned with false eyelashes. To me, putting one’s penis into a sexbot is an experience more akin to thrusting into the Bodacious Breast Stroker than any partnered intercourse. In which case, to me, this whole caper is much more like masturbation than any romp with a sex worker.
Fornication or fancy wanking?
Whether you subscribe to the idea of masturbation as merely self-stimulation or something more like self-sex, the hallmark is the absence of another person. So, regardless of whether you’re thrusting into your hand or a machine-made anal hollow, you’re on your own. It doesn’t matter how much silicone or steel is stacked around the orifice, as Billy Idol sings, you’re dancing by yourself.
The inclination to anthropomorphise things we’re intimate with—a car that cocoons us, a dog that lives with us, a machine that our genitals have contact with—makes sense. Most of us grew up projecting human qualities onto non-human objects, while knowing—particularly as we matured—that they aren’t human. As toys advanced—from Teddy Ruxpin to virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa—we’re aware that we’re interacting with something that bares similarity to humans—aesthetically or aurally—but that they’re not human. When that robot looks like a person—when it has familiar body parts—thinking of it as one makes emotional sense. It’s why we feel closer to animals with front-facing eyes: it’s harder to disconnect from their sentience when we can look into their eyes and feel that if souls exist, yeah, they probably have one.
Given the lingering stigma about masturbation and the connotations of solo desperation attached, undoubtedly sex with a robot that’s imagined as female makes the experience seem a little less solitary. Whichever ways individuals choose to make sense of their world is all well and good, but arbitrarily banning things because some folks have difficulty separating the real world from the pretend one allows the lunatics to run the asylum. We all might occasionally dabble in a little magical thinking but most of us have the good sense not to let it influence policymaking. ‘Feeling’ as though a robot is a person just because it looks like one or mimics human sexual responses is insufficient to give it the status of personhood.
Treating sexbots as human just to bolster the unnuanced argument that sex work is bad not only opens an unnecessary can of worms about what else we might want to consider as a person, but it narrowly frames sex with robots as only a facsimile of intercourse. By putting one’s penis into a robot, sure, the experience can be likened to penis-in-vagina sex, but this isn’t the only interpretation.
There’s a line in the film Chasing Amy that the only thing lesbians need to embrace their supposedly latent heterosexuality is a ‘deep dicking’. Lesbian-themed porn produced for male consumers often runs with a version of this idea with women using dildos as penis substitutes. A dildo or vibrator can, absolutely, stand in for a penis. Ditto a clenched fist, a piece of fruit, or a pocket pussy substituting for a vagina. But that’s not the only way to view it. Some people who have vaginas enjoy the sensation of them being filled. Some people with penises like the friction of moving in and out of something. A hairbrush handle can function as a penis, a warm apple pie as a vagina, but it’s also completely possible that these are just convenient masturbatory objects that are never envisaged as proxy genitals. Masturbation in our culture is continually framed as a poor substitute for the ‘real thing’. Such a narrow position thoroughly ignores the complexity of human sexuality.
A lot of us started our wankery before intercourse was anywhere near our agenda. We touched our own genitals purely because it felt good and provided the kind of pleasurable sensations that the rest of our sensory life wasn’t offering. Electing to have sexual contact with a robot can also be about discovering new sensations: new kinds of touch, pulsation, squeezing. Assuming the experience centres only on mimicking sex with a woman rather than the unique kink of fucking a robot, only makes sense if heterosexual intercourse is the only sexual activity you can imagine. My invisible radfem sparring partner would interject here to ask, ‘Well, why then does the robot have to look like a woman?’ To which I’ll offer two responses: One: Why does everyone’s alien abductor look exactly the same? Because of the collective delusion of ‘normal’, even in situations that aren’t quite. Two: Because the vast majority of sex-industry customers are men and thus offering them an experience that outwardly resembles heterosexuality serves to get them in the door and make the experience seem safe and familiar.
Sexbot brothels exist in the same world as human brothels and Tinder. And places where excess quantities of lubricating libations are served to horny humans. To elect to patronise a robot brothel says something about want, about desire, about expanding how we think about sexual expression. Radfems would suggest it centres on wanting to be rough, abusive, to eschew using condoms, to take liberties and to physically hate women with a volatile cock. Maybe. And maybe it has nothing to do with that at all. Maybe it’s about experiencing something new and different and distinctly non-human. Maybe—in a world where our lives are becoming ever more intertwined with technology—wanting to have sex with it doesn’t seem a stretch. Is it really so beyond our concepts of arousal that someone might desire such relations in a world where so little is deemed truly subversive any more?
For radfems to presume to know what’s going on between our ears while our genitals are festively engaged demonstrates some wild chutzpah. The sexbot might be wearing clothes we associate with women, but those same items can also function as fetish objects, and the orifice being penetrated envisaged as nothing more meaningful than the nearest tight hole. Radfems take far too many liberties in believing that they know what we’re thinking: I’d argue that the mental machinations of horniness are infinitely individual.
As supportive as I am of robot brothels, and as inclined as I am to encourage people to do whatever they want sexually so long as every human consents and nobody gets hurts more than they want, I admit that it creates some unique challenges that don’t have ready parallels with other kinds of legal industries.
Won’t someone please think of the children?
My default position when thinking about child-sized sexbots is to twitch a shoulder. If I’ve already spent four thousand words arguing that sexbots aren’t people, I can’t in good conscience say, oh, except if they’re three-foot tall and look like Chucky, or Vicki from Small Wonder. Of course I recognise the ick factor. Of course I understand the cultural imperative to be revolted. But I’m not suddenly able to conceive of child-sized robots as more human just because they resemble society’s most vulnerable. We’re still talking about steel, about silicone. We’re still talking about robots.
I’m not interested in having the depraved thoughts I’ve had while masturbating or fornicating scrutinised. And it’s this, in part, that shapes my approach to child-sized sexbots. Masturbate to whatever unholiness you like—go for your life, as my grandma would say (albeit it in a very different context)—and feel free to use whatever tools get the job done. So many aspects of our lives are so heavily policed, at the very least we should have the freedom of our filthy thoughts.
Thoughts are crucial here. It’s imagination, after all, that’s helping us give not only humanity but age to a robot. The child-sized bot is every bit the same non-human entity as its more obviously ‘adult’ counterpart; they probably came out of the same factory, maybe even on the same day and were adorned with very similar gender bunting. You’ve decided that your robot is a seven-year-old. Depraved, perhaps, but it’s every bit as possible that you’ve quietly cast your adult partner in a fantasy equally debauched. I’m not convinced that the sexual make-believe playing out here—regardless of the bot’s height or painted-on freckles—is more problematic or more in need of feminist policing than the fantasies had in the privacy of our own beds.
It’s not so simple though. Private sexual fantasy is a different beast to the commercial activity of sexbot brothels operating under sex industry legislation. While I don’t doubt that any brothel daring to stock child-sized models would meet a swift sanctioning, I nonetheless think this is an interesting example where emotion rather than evidence or logic drives policy. The inclination to be appalled is grounded less in proof of harm and more in our instinctive repulsion at behaviour that, if it played out with real children, would be morally and ethically repulsive. While it makes a kind of sense to be disgusted, intervention based on the subjective notion of bad taste seems substantially shonky.
So what might make me care?
On occasions when courts have dabbled in the possibility of censoring porn, contestation always centres on harm: can it be demonstrated that consumption produces harmful consequences? Harm in such cases is almost impossible to define let alone prove and such cases are routinely unsuccessful. Proof of harm, however, is what could motivate me to get impassioned about child-sized sexbots.
Does having sex—for want of a better word—with a child-sized robot do anything to a person? Does it increase appetites for the abuse of real children? If so, does it then transfer into physically acting on those impulses? Does the use of such bots have the capacity to increase paedophilic desires in someone who didn’t have them previously?
If there were evidence that sex with child-sized robots led to real-life child abuse, then I might agree that there are grounds to re-evaluate their lawfulness. But what would such evidence even look like? Is it the same kind that radfems present about porn ‘coaching’ men to abuse women? Because almost every scholar other than Bible thumpers and doctrinaire feminists considers such material significantly spurious.
The possibility of discovering that a high percentage of convicted paedophiles used child-sized sex robots does not, by any stretch of the imagination, constitute causality. Just as asking sex offenders about porn consumption in a world of ubiquitous porn use gives us almost no useful data on impact. Such bad research harkens back to nineteenth-century doctors asking patients about masturbation and ‘discovering’ that it causes everything from bronchitis to blindness. Of course someone with paedophilic inclinations would likely have sought out legal avenues to pursue their turn-ons. But such a data sample is self-selective and almost totally useless.
For me to get riled about sexbots, I need to think about the real-life sex workers who are likely to lose a little business. While I doubt it will slash their trade any more than Tinder or RedTube, nonetheless I do care that they might find themselves having to lower their prices to remain competitive. Such a concern, however, is an economics conversation best delegated to someone who passed year ten maths. My ethics dictate that feminists have an obligation to champion the scope of safe, sane and consensual sexual expressions, regardless of whether a price tag is attached and regardless of whether we personally find it all distasteful.
Robots might be programmed to say yes—or no, if that’s your kink—but that doesn’t give them free thought or personhood, no matter how artful their make-up application, no matter whether their wig is pulled into pigtails. •
Lauren Rosewarne is a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne. Her tenth book, Sex and Sexuality in Modern Screen Remakes, will be published later in 2019. She can be found at <www.laurenrosewarne.com>.