What the idea of “sex robots” tells us about prostitution

Detail from “Blue Hair” by Suzzan Blac

We talk with Dr Kathleen Richardson, Senior Research Fellow in the Ethics of Robotics at De Montford University, about what the idea of “sex robots” can tell us about prostitution.

The artwork is by Suzzan Blac, a survivor of child abuse, prostitution and sex trafficking, who through her art sheds light on the violence, objectification and dehumanisation that is intrinsic to the commercial sexual exploitation industry.

Q: I understand you had been researching the ethics of robots for a number of years when the idea of sex robots started to become popular and it was when you heard advocates saying that sex robots would soon replace prostitutes that you started to become critical of the sex industry. Can you tell me more about this?

A: I began researching robots while I was a PhD student at Cambridge, studying social anthropology. I originally wanted to study Amazonia because I was interested in cultures that anthropomorphise or animate the environment. I wanted to know more about why human cultures did this. But then by chance I went to see the film AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001) while waiting to find out if I’d got accepted onto the doctoral programme. The film is a story about a robot that is manufactured to look like a child. The child robot (David) is a new commercial product to help people who have lost a child of their own or cannot have children. I realised that if you design robots to look a certain way it could elicit reactions in people.

To my surprise I found there were robotics researchers in the US (at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) who were also trying to create robots that people could form ‘relationships’ with (at least that’s what they claimed). They called them ‘social robots’ and began making them, like one called Kismet. This was my introduction to contemporary human-like robots. This is where it all began.

There is a recurring theme in fiction of men making artificial females. In Genesis, God created Adam in ‘His’ own image and woman was created out of a mere rib of Adam. In Pygmalion, a sculptor (Pygmalion), who is what today we call a ‘sex-buyer,’ becomes dissatisfied with buying access to the bodies of prostituted females and sculpts a woman that is brought to life. Pygmalion was a tale in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (8 AD).

“Blue Hair” by Suzzan Blac

Then there is The Future Eve, (1886) by Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, where the term android (“having the form or likeness of man”) was popularised in its modern form. More recently there are films like The Stepford Wives (1972), written by Ira Levin, and Ex-Machina (2014), written and directed by Alex Garland.

In all these tales the women are subservient, dependent and controlled by men (their creators) to varying degrees.

We can situate “sex robots” as part of these narratives of controlling representations of women.

Imagine a woman who has no interiority, no thoughts, feelings, wants, or desires of her own, but is only what she is imagined to be, a blank canvass. She is not a human in her own right, but an outcome of what (some) men imagine her to be. This is what we mean when we say women are objectified.

There aren’t any sex robots at present – only realistic-looking dolls, mainly in the form of pornified women and girl children, although some people have tinkered in their home workshops with creating robots that can perform basic physical acts – like looking from side to side, or making a noise when a particular part of their body is pressed.

The claim that sex robots can reduce commercial prostitution and child sexual exploitation is nonsense because it depoliticises these acts. Every time a man uses his power to buy access to another human being for sex, he is engaging in a political act; he is using his power and privilege to dehumanise another human being. Every time an adult rapes a child, they are exerting their political power over others. They are saying ‘you’re not as human as I am, and I can and will treat you as subhuman.’ Robots can no more solve these problems than they can solve problems of inequality or racism, because these issues are political.

Q: But surely it would be a good thing if we could replace such an exploitative industry with inanimate objects?

A: As an abolitionist of the commercial trade in human beings, I would celebrate and support the arrival of sex robots if I thought for a second that they would help address any of these issues. The reason why men are allowed to pay to rape women and children in the commercial prostitution trade is a political problem, and one that can only be addressed by ending the commercialisation of human beings for sex.

Let’s look at it another way. If men simply want to rub something on their genitals to achieve pleasure, there are plenty of ways they can do that. And they don’t even need to buy commercial products (or ‘sex-toys’ as they are called); household foods and objects can do the job.

As my colleague Florence Gildea and I wrote recently, when a man puts his body (digits, tongue, penis) in or on an inanimate object, it’s masturbation. But when he puts his body (digits, tongue, penis) in or on a human being (a woman, man or child) but relates to them as if they are objects (including paying for access to their bodies) that is RAPE!

If men aren’t able to tell the difference between masturbation and the paid rape they engage in with a real human being in the commercial prostitution trade, how will giving them a doll to act as a proxy change any of their beliefs?

Q: So why are sex robots different from vibrators?

A: Ah, this old chestnut. If I could have a penny for everyone who has ever asked that…

Vibrators are objects you rub on your genitals. A penis does not vibrate. But if we want to extend this example to a dildo (which can often resemble a phallic shape) does this mean that dildos ‘objectify’ men?

I think it would be helpful to understand what we mean by objectification. It’s what happens to human beings when they are looked upon as though they are no different from artefacts or commodities. Adult men, despite what they might think, are not sexually objectified. There are no mass commercial markets in the buying and selling of their bodies for sex.

Moreover, shapes that resemble an exterior phallus or an interior vagina occur naturally. If just by association anything that looked phallic objectified men, then carrots, bananas and cucumbers would fall into this category. But there is a huge commercial market in the buying and selling of primarily female human bodies for sex, and the primary buyers are men – OVER 99% ARE MALE!

Therefore we can’t talk about male and female bodies in the same way.

And besides, the true equivalent of a vibrator, even from a logical point of view is a fleshlight, not a fully fledged humanoid figure.

Q: So what you are saying is that prostitution echoes and reproduces the master-slave relationship – a non-mutual relationship that characterises one party as human and the other as a tool?

A: We live in a society where the individualistic paradigm is the dominant form. Think of it as ‘I think, therefore I am’ (a famous quote by Rene Decartes).

“Red Hair” by Suzzan Blac

The emphasis in societies of slavery, colonialism and capitalism is on the importance of the ‘I.’ Only the ‘I’ matters.

But when we encounter other human beings we are not only an ‘I,’ we are also simultaneously a ‘you.’ This means that when we are interacting with another human we cannot ignore the fact that it’s a co-experience.

But what happens if we ignore this reality, and privilege the perspective of the ones with more power in society, such as white men? Those with more power can then get away with treating others, not as equals, but as subservient, as lesser than. When someone buys sexual access to a human being they are dehumanising them.

Men know full well that if they want to have sex with a female they have to take into account what she might be thinking, feeling and experiencing. And that’s why men go to prostituted persons, so they don’t have to recognise them as human beings. Otherwise there’d be no prostitution.

In one of the earliest definitions of a slave by Aristotle, he made no distinction between inanimate tools and living tools (slaves). He just thought they were tools of different kinds. Aristotle called the slave ‘a sort of living piece of property’ – he wrote this in Politics. In the same book he said slaves, women and children were the property of male citizens. I believe this symmetry between persons and things – as if they are equivalent to property – is the idea underlying the commercial prostitution trade. It is this view of the prostituted person as a tool (a living piece of property) that needs to be challenged.

Some people think that in sex robots, inanimate tools can become alive. But this is a fantasy, an illusion. Only in fiction can inanimate tools become equivalent to human beings.

Q: What do you think are the impacts of this for our society, our culture, our future?

A: When I began to question men’s power to use the bodies of human beings for sex, I was met with a barrage of counter arguments. There are those who are doing everything they can to protect the right of men to rape people, to look upon others as less than human, and to maintain the different rules for men in this world in how they relate to those with less power. It does feel like David fighting Goliath!

In my work I make a distinction between humans and tools. I say it is problematic to use humans as tools and relate to them as though they are tools, forms of property. But it is also problematic to say that tools can become like people. There are many debates in AI and robotics where philosophers speculate on giving rights to machines (believe it or not).

As my work is informed by the politics of anti-slavery, and abolitionist feminism, I don’t see people as property. In a society like ours, breaking down distinctions between humans and machines is beneficial to corporations, particularly those who want to abolish human rights. In order for humans to have protections, to be treated differently from objects, there must be a sense that what it means to be human is fundamentally different from a commodity.

Viewing people as though they are machines might be good for business and corporations, but it’s bad for the rest of us who don’t own or have a stake in them.

Viewing people as less than human might be good for men who pay to rape women and children in the prostitution trade, but it’s bad for humanity as a whole, because human beings are interpersonally connected and have different amounts of power.

When I was studying slavery in Ancient Greece, many people said, and I paraphrase, ‘nobody disputed slavery in Ancient Greece because it was naturalised.’ This means that people like Aristotle, who would be considered fascist, racist, colonialist, and sexist in our contemporary world, got a free pass. You’d be surprised how many philosophers of technology use the ideas developed by Aristotle to talk about human relationships.

My goal is to expose the flaws in Aristotle’s thinking and show that he is not fit to help us understand a world where there is a genuine commitment to equality of all human beings. Promoting Aristotle’s philosophy is inherently problematic.

Finally, it’s not true that everyone in Ancient Greece agreed with slavery and Aristotle makes one reference to this in his book, Politics:

“Others say that it is contrary to nature to rule as master over slave, because the distinction between slave and free is one of convention only, and in nature there is no difference, so that this form of rule is based on force and is therefore not just”

Fortunately resistance to inequality is as old as slavery itself.

Kathleen Richardson is a Professor of Ethics and Culture of Robots and AI at De Montfort University, Leicester, the author of An Anthropology of Robots and AI, and founder of the Campaign against Sex Robots.

Suzzan Blac is a surreal artist whose work includes powerful images based on her personal experiences of child abuse, prostitution and sex trafficking. Her artwork is used in social worker training, and to help abuse victims in group therapy.

4 thoughts on “What the idea of “sex robots” tells us about prostitution

  1. Of course prostitution wouldn’t end w sex robots, would racism end if white people could buy a robotic POC to mistreat privately? It would just make them more accustomed to racism in all likelyhood…

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