Sexbot Brothels: What Are the Pros and Cons of Robotic Sex Workers?
Android escorts could take over the sex industry.
Sex robots are coming. Just last month, Realbotix launched the beta version of its artificial intelligence app that will pair with its soon-to-be-released robotic heads—heads that will attach to the bodies of silicone sex dolls and eventually full-body sexbots. Many futurists think that by around 2050, such robots could be commonplace.
The imminence of their arrival raises the possibility of robot sex workers and even robot brothels. Last year there were rumours that European escort service Facegirl.ch was planning to open a cafe that served robot blowjobs and coffee in Geneva, Switzerland.
This so-called “fellatio cafe” has yet to materialize, and the existence of such technology today that would allow such robotic sex acts is dubious.
However, a few months ago sex doll agency LumiDolls opened Europe’s first sex doll brothel in Barcelona, Spain, joining the likes of Japan in offering synthetic escorts. These dolls are not robotic, but it’s one step closer towards a world of Gigolo Joes and Janes.
The idea of android prostitutes has generated polarized reactions from researchers and ethicists. Would paying robots for sex be a good thing? Is this the dawn of a brave new world, or of a dark, mechanical future?
Some experts are optimistic about the advent of sexbots. David Levy, author of Love and Sex with Robots, believes that mechanical lovers offer a solution for lonely singles who struggle to form romantic relationships. Robots, he claims, could in the future be friends, lovers, even spouses. Similarly, bioethicist Arthur Caplan argues that sex robots could have therapeutic benefits for people with social anxiety.
They could also help people with illnesses, sexual disorders, or mental and physical disabilities that make normal sexual relations difficult.
Other proponents focus on how sexbots could improve existing human relationships. Sexologist Michelle Mars, a researcher at Laureate International Universities, argues that by offering a safe space for experimentation and fantasies, robots will provide a sexual outlet that could keep the fire alive in long-term, monogamous relationships. Similarly, Trudy Barber, a lecturer in Media Studies at the University of Portsmouth, thinks that sex with robots will allow greater appreciation of the real thing.
Curb sexual exploitation
Mars and fellow researcher Ian Yeoman project that by 2050, robot sex workers will be mainstream. Waxing utopic, they imagine future brothels populated with synthetic “gods and goddesses of different ethnicities, body shapes, ages, languages and sexual features.”
Such humanoids, they argue, could significantly reduce dangers associated with the sex trade. Made from bacteria-resistant fibre, and flushed of fluids after use, their imagined robot sex workers are free from sexually transmitted infections. And they could even help stamp out human trafficking.
Human trafficking is a massive global problem. The International Labour Organization estimates that 21 million people in the world are victims of forced labor. 4.5 million of these are sexually exploited, many of them children.
Enter: android sex workers. Guaranteed to stimulate, and programmed to perform “every service and satisfy every desire,” androids will bring us closer and closer to what the researchers describe as “perfect sex”—lowering the demand for human prostitutes.
John Danaher, a Keele University law school professor, agrees that sexbots could put human traffickers out of business. In his paper “Sex Work, Technological Unemployment and the Basic Income Guarantee,” he examines the arguments both for and against the idea that sexbots will make human prostitutes obsolete. It depends, he argues, on how easily humans can project their sexual desires onto machines, and on what advantages androids might have in the bedroom.
These potential advantages are many. “Cyborgs,” he told Daily Star, “can cater for desire for sexual variety, freedom from constraint and complication and fear of lack of sexual success.”
His opinion echoes LumiDolls’ boast that its sex dolls allow customers to fulfill their fantasies “without any limits.”
Shortly after opening, the LumiDolls brothel was forced to move to a secret location, disclosed only to customers. This may be linked to the complaints of sex workers in the city, who objected to the idea of dolls as prostitutes.
Aprosex, a European association of sex professionals, protested strongly against the brothel, contending that the “sex-affection of a person cannot be provided by a doll.” In a related interview with the Express, Janet, a sex worker in Barcelona, argued that sex dolls present women as “objects without rights or soul.”
It’s an example that sums up many of the objections raised against the idea of robot prostitutes. One is the problem of obsolescence. Mars and Yeoman predict that robots will be so good at sex that humans will become redundant. According to them, the only social issue will be “resistance from human sex workers who say they can’t compete on price and quality, therefore forcing many of them to close their shop windows.”
How might sex workers view this prospect? And what unintended consequences might the threat of technological unemployment have in the sex industry? For example, if robots are willing to fulfill “every” fantasy, without legal or moral limits, what lines might human sex workers feel pressured to cross in order to compete?
Reinforce gender inequality
Another problem is the possibility that sex robots will actually exacerbate existing social inequalities. With this concern in mind, robot ethicists Kathleen Richardson and Erik Billing have launched the Campaign Against Sex Robots, which aims to highlight the potential pitfalls of developing humanoid sexbots. They argue that sexual relationships with robots—the majority of which have so far been made to appear female —will reinforce the idea that women are objects, with the unequal power relationship between man and robot spilling over into human interactions.
They worry also about the possibility of child sex robots. Already, child sex dolls that appear disturbingly lifelike have appeared on the market. Shin Takagi, the founder of a Japanese company that manufactures them, claims he is helping to prevent paedophiles from committing crimes against real people. But others warn the dolls could encourage and normalize unhealthy desires.
The researchers behind the Campaign Against Sex Robots aren’t alone in their fears. For some feminists, sex robots “epitomize patriarchy,” offering men a relationship without the inconvenience of a real person’s desires, thoughts, or needs. “Sex robots don’t offer men ‘companionship,’” Meghan Murphy writes at Feminist Current, “they offer men complete dominance.”
Don’t like your robot lover’s personality? You can just reprogram it. One day, this might also apply to robotic sex workers, who could be customized according to a customer’s personal sexual and psychological preferences.
In this way, sexbots could reinforce the notion that women’s bodies, and even their minds, exist for male use.
So what should we do? The arrival of sex robots seems inevitable. Should we prohibit them? Regulate them? Embrace them?
While the Campaign Against Sex Robots wants to ban sexbots outright, critics of the campaign claim that a completely prohibitive approach has little hope of beating consumer demand. This could be true: at least in recent decades, consumers, more than ethicists, have dictated advances in sex tech.
What does seem clear is that the sex work is changing rapidly in the digital age. Already, virtual prostitution, and teledildonic pornography, have blurred the boundaries around what constitutes prostitution. When actual talking, walking sexbots appear, we’ll have urgent questions to ask ourselves.