What’s the problem with sex dolls? A conversation with Kathleen Richardson

Detail from “Purple Hair” by Suzzan Blac

This is an edited transcript of the podcast with Professor Kathleen Richardson on our culture’s increasing obsession with sex dolls, and what this means for women, and human relationships.


NMN: Today I’ll be chatting with Kathleen Richardson, who’s a professor of Ethics and the Culture of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) at De Montfort University in the UK. In 2015 she, along with a colleague, launched the Campaign Against Sex Robots to draw attention to the problematic effects of new technologies on human relations, and their potential to create new layers of inequalities between men and women, and adults and children.

She advocates a compassionate and violence-free technology based on freedom ethics, and is critical of coercive and violent models of human-lived life that are transferred to the making of new technologies. She’s developing a theory of robotics inspired by anti-slavery abolitionist feminism. She has written three books on the subject of AI and robotics. Her forthcoming book is, Sex Robots: The End of Love.

Hello Kathleen. It’s really great to speak to you today, thanks for coming on the podcast. Today we’re going to talk about sex dolls, and sex doll brothels. First of all, what is a sex doll, and what is a sex doll brothel? Are we talking about inflatable sex dolls?

Kathleen: Yes, I think people’s idea of sex dolls is a rubber doll you buy from a joke shop, and you take on a hen night or something. Obviously, you can still buy blow up dolls for hen nights in joke shops. But in this context, they are fully fledged, hyper-real dolls. They weigh about 45 kilos, so they’re quite heavy and they have orifices which people can penetrate. So, they are mostly high-end dolls – made out of silicone, not rubber or plastic, and with a metal skeletal structure.

The people who buy them can specify what they want in its appearance. So, if you’re someone who prefers brunettes, you can have a brunette, or you can have a blonde. So they are customizable, and you can design them exactly as you want them.

When you go to the sites that sell these sex dolls, they say this can be your ideal woman, she can be everything you want her to be, you can create her – so, this egocentric idea is at the root of it.

They’re quite expensive, they’re currently about £2,000-5,000, and my understanding is that companies are selling around four hundred units a year. So, we’re not talking about mass interest in these products at all. Not yet anyway.

In 2015 I launched the Campaign Against Sex Robots, and it became a kind of big issue in the media. Even though I was talking about robots, sex doll companies started saying actually they are designing sex robots using doll body platforms. So, the dolls are the platform, that people want to introduce technology into. That is a sex doll.

What is a sex doll brothel? Well a brothel is a place where prostituted women are. It’s the place where punters (johns) can go and access the bodies of women. So, by saying there’s a sex doll brothel, you’re saying that this is a place where men, primarily, can go and interact with dolls that look like women.

NMN: And these have opened up in in the UK – we have sex doll brothels now?

Kathleen: I believe there’s one in London. You’ve got to remember that there are brothels in every area of this country, even in villages. There’s a marketplace in the male use of female bodies. And there’s also a marketplace in the commercial sex industry for men who are interested in animals or objects. There are all kinds of niche markets that are catered for in this global industry. So, sex doll brothels fit into a wider pattern, of commercializing fetishes.

Detail from “Purple Hair” by Suzzan Blac

NMN: Listeners may be thinking, and it is an argument I’ve heard made a lot, and it seems to be the thing that immediately occurs to people if you talk about sex dolls, and that is: What’s your problem? You’re a feminist, you want to end violence against women, so why is it so bad that men would be paying for dolls instead? Surely, it’s actually a good thing that human women are being replaced by inanimate objects, and that actually saves women and children from harm, if these men are acting out their fantasies on dolls rather than humans. Why do you have a problem with that?

Kathleen: Firstly, there’s no evidence at all that sex dolls have reduced any kind of prostitution or sexual exploitation of children.

But let’s just talk about prostitution. Anyone with a common sense approach might think: Oh well it seems reasonable, it could be good, it could reduce all this harm that’s done to women. But that’s why we need to have a feminist analysis of these things, and why we need to take a step back. Because on the one hand, we are actually harming women by allowing these places to exist. Not the direct harm to a particular woman but the cultural harm, because it’s reinforcing the idea that already exists, that women are things, women are objects.

It creates a culture in which you basically estrange sex from intimacy. You take it out of an intimate encounter and you’re normalizing it as a fetish. I think ultimately fetishes can have very detrimental effects on our wider culture.

NMN: How’s that?

Kathleen: The feminist approach to sex and relationships is that you are a human being and your thoughts and feelings should be recognized by your partner – and that you’re not an object to them; that you’re not a piece of meat.

Normally people have to negotiate with each other about what kind of sex they want, when they want it, and what kind of relationship they want to have, in order to have the sex. This approach is how we organise our civil relationships.

What the commercial sex market does, is it says: Right, we are going to create this sphere outside of civil society, where primarily men can access the bodies of women, or anything else they like for that matter.

People think this is harmless, because you have on the one hand men engaging in civil relationships, and then going out and accessing people in a commercial way. But what that does, if you normalize that, and it is normalized through pornography and prostitution, is you create an asymmetrical relationship. You create this experience where men can interact with a real human being but treat her as though she’s commercial goods.

Basically, now whatever your fetish is, you can go to a brothel and you can find it. Whether it’s defecating on someone, whether it’s dressing up as a baby, whether it’s being with a sex doll.

These objects don’t interrupt the underlying problem. The underlying problem is the commercial exchange of women, that’s what needs to be abolished. You don’t want to take the underlying problem and transfer it into a new niche fetish, and I think that’s what’s gone on.

So rather than undermine prostitution, all it would do is just create new niche markets, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen in terms of sex dolls. Introducing sex dolls into any region of the world hasn’t reduced prostitution. What it’s done is opened up a new market, in which men can engage with these new dehumanized sexual practices.

NMN: I think a lot of people would say: Aren’t fetishes just part of sex, aren’t they just part of our sexuality, everyone has fetishes and that’s what our sexuality is made of?

Kathleen: People can be aroused by different kind of things, shoes, smells, behaviours, etc. In and of themselves, that doesn’t make it a fetish. A fetish is when there’s only sexual arousal from certain kinds of practices or objects. So, the sexual arousal comes from an extreme, disembodied form of sex. Exhibitionism for example is a fetish, because it excites you having other people observe you having sex. But that’s very egocentric, isn’t it? Because the people around you don’t want to observe you having sex, but you’re only sexually aroused when you’re forcing this on other people. It’s the same with shoes. The literature about sexual fetishes is very interesting.

What if women were fully embraced as human beings in our culture, and we didn’t have pornography and prostitution? If someone told their partner they were really interested in them wearing shoes, six-inch high heels, and the partner could say: I’m not sure I want to do that, that doesn’t feel good to me; no, let’s figure out something together that we’re both going to like. Your sexuality would develop with the other.

However, in our society fetishes are commercialized. What happens is something that should die out naturally – an interest in wearing nappies as an adult, sex dolls, all those things – they actually develop into industries, so they keep being reinforced. If the man seeking that fetishistic sex can’t get it from a person in his life, he can turn to the industry, and the more he does that, the more he becomes estranged from intimacy and himself, and the more that he becomes a danger to human interaction.

NMN: The fact that men are interested in paying for a humanoid replica of the female form – in dull form, an object – does reveal the nature of paying for sex, which is a dehumanized transaction, it’s an asymmetrical relationship where one person is human and the other person isn’t, basically.

Kathleen: It always surprises me how much you have to actually dehumanize another person to pay for sex. Pornography for example is popular, but when people watch pornography the sex act has happened somewhere else, so the abuse is happening somewhere else and you’re not observing it, you’re just observing the filmed aspect of the abuse. But, to actually go into a situation where you know the woman is not there because they’re interested in you at all, but because you’re paying for it, you have to be an extreme kind of psychopath to participate in that behaviour.

NMN: Yeah.

Kathleen: It’s pathological.

NMN: Yeah.

Kathleen: I would say there’s lots of evidence out there, looking at men who visit women in prostitution and what they say about the practice. We’ve amassed enough evidence now to show that it is dehumanizing.

Another aspect of this is the people who try to promote the idea of sex robots – because my field is really about robots and AI, and data technology – when they started to think about people having sex dolls in their lives, sex robots, they started to make analogies with prostitution anyway.

In fact, David Levy, who wrote a book called Love and Sex with Robots, said that he got the idea that sex with dolls is like sex with prostitutes, because you don’t love the prostituted woman, you don’t care for her, and she looks at you in terms of your wallet. He says, that even if sex robots can’t feel love it doesn’t matter, because men are engaging in those practices with women in prostitution every day, and it doesn’t matter to them how the women feel.

“Purple Hair” by Suzzan Blac

NMN: I’m interested to know, what do the pro-sex trade lobbyists make of sex dolls and sex robots being used in the sex industry? Are they for this idea, or are they against it?

Kathleen: That’s interesting. Because they see prostitution as work and sex as a commodity that you can sell, they see the introduction of technology in this area as an attack on their skills. So, they say things like: But a robot will never be as good as a real woman.

You can get entangled in all these debates. But do you want to support prostitution in order to prove that human beings are better than machines? Because that’s the irrationality of the whole debate. We know that we can introduce machines to displace human work, we can mechanize it, we can automate skills and practices. So if you say ‘sex work is work,’ the logic is that when you develop sex robots, they’ll take away the work, and therefore they’re a problem.

NMN: So, they’re against sex robots too. But for a different reason, not necessarily a feminist reason.

Kathleen: Yes. Not because they care about women, or our aspiration, or because they don’t believe we’re objects.

NMN: Yes, they want real women to continue being harmed in the sex industry. There definitely seems to be a promotion of more and more fetishized forms of sexuality, becoming more mainstream. Like BDSM and that kind of stuff used to be peripheral. People considered it kind of creepy, and it was an underground scene that only weirdos really engaged in. Whereas now you definitely see more mainstreaming of these kinds of things, just in popular culture and music videos.

I don’t know if you’ve heard of the online marketplace called ‘Wish.’ It’s a bit like eBay. But there’s Wish adverts on my Facebook feed, and they have some weird things on there. There was an advert for adult nappies on my Facebook feed the other day. I mean it’s just incredible that even dares to show its face in the light of day.

Kathleen: I think you’re absolutely right and Sheila Jeffreys writes brilliantly on this topic. Let’s put things in context: from the perspective of women it’s never been good, it’s never been a good culture for women. I think the first time that things start becoming good for women, it would mean women are participants; it would mean they’re engaging with sex as a co-partner, not as an object, not as someone to be penetrated.

I’m not saying that there haven’t been pockets of intimacy between men and women for thousands of years. But I’m saying in general the practice of sex for women has been something that has not been about her pleasure. It’s not been about the man taking an interest in her thoughts and feelings and responsiveness.

In the 1960s, well from the end of the 19th century but certainly in the 60s, this amazing thing happened: feminism became more mainstream. Feminists started to raise these questions that their sexual pleasure shouldn’t be commodified, it shouldn’t be objectified, and they began to criticize these cultural practices around sex.

Now at that point where you have women saying “Yes I’m going to be in charge of my own pleasure,” we should have seen the abolition of pornography and prostitution. But rather than seize abolition we saw prostitution rise; what we saw is the normalization of commercial sex practices that aren’t about intimacy, they aren’t about reciprocity, they aren’t about mutuality.

All the things these early feminists were saying: That’s what we need as women, we need these kinds of sexual practices. Instead, what became increasingly normalized was this new form of commercialism in sexuality, and I would say what that does is it undermines people’s attachment response to sex. So, when you’re with someone and having sex with them, you’re responding to the person, you’re sensing their smell and taste and everything, and through mutual interaction you figure out what you like and don’t like. That’s how it should work.

But what happens in our culture, so much is generated in this commercial sphere, this objectified sphere, and just like you said, it’s filtering into every pore of our existence. You cannot get away from it, you cannot watch a TV drama on Netflix aimed at teens nowadays without someone being choked – without pornographic sex acts being displayed. These are practices that involve harming other human beings.

Taking pleasure from harm is an extreme cultural practice. Sexuality today is so alienated from its roots, from intimacy, that the more it becomes abstracted and alienated from it, the more these deviant practices start to acquire more of an ascendancy.

For me how I look at the problem is that we know that if we have a wider culture of misogyny in which women are objectified and seen as objects, where we normalize men’s violence towards women – and we do this in a variety of different ways, through pornography, through images, through music, exactly like you just said – it reinforces the idea that male violence against women is normal, that woman aren’t fully human, that they don’t have full subjectivity.

Then these objects come along; and here they are, they’re another iteration of that culture. That’s what they’re telling us. They’re not telling us anything else, except we live in a culture that hates women. That’s what we’re being told through these objects.

NMN: Wouldn’t people just say to you that: You’re policing what people do behind closed doors in their private lives, and if people want to buy a sex doll, and if they want to do that who are you to stop them, who are you to criticize what they do behind closed doors? Surely, we live in a free society, and people if they have the money should be allowed to buy these things and do what they want with them?

They would argue: They’re not harming any human beings, so what’s the issue?

Kathleen: I get accused of being a kink-shamer. I don’t know who invented this term kink-shame, but these objects exist because of the wider culture of misogyny. If women were really equal, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation at all, because people would be creating something else. They’d probably be creating a kind of meta-political system, or environmentally friendly bricks. Their energies would be put into stuff that would help humanity. But the very fact that we’re having this conversation and people trying to normalize it, it becomes part of a wider culture and how women are viewed in our society.

If someone were to build a robot that looked like a black person, and then create some slave association with them, there’d be uproar because people would know immediately: Ah! I can see you created that artifact, you crafted it in this particular kind of way, and you put it in society with these imaginings around it. I can see that’s really terrible.

When it comes to women, because women haven’t fully come into their consciousness – we have to fight for feminist consciousness in our culture – we have to continually tell people what’s going on is a problem.

If you think about human beings, human beings are primarily interested in each other. They’re interested in seeking out social interaction. They seek out attachment. Through physical sex you can have all kinds of benefits, like someone touches your skin so you get a kind of essential experience. All those things keep driving people together – the underlying attachment capacity of human beings.

The reality is there aren’t going to be masses of men who are sexually aroused by an object, just like there aren’t masses of men sexually aroused by shoes, I mean who can only get sexual pleasure from that object. However, it’s not that men can’t be sexually aroused by dolls, it’s because men are not sexually aroused by intimacy with women anymore.

If they’re not sexually aroused by intimacy and reciprocity and mutuality, I think we’re going to see more and more men basically masturbating to pornography when they go and visit women in prostitution; it will be that kind of hostility to intimacy.

So, I think from that point of view we’re going to see people socially isolated, viewing pornography or extreme material online and engaging in more extreme practices, and I think the sex doll culture is going to be one of them.

NMN: I mean it’s something you only ever hear feminists say. No one ever really makes this argument about pornography. But it’s an obvious aspect of pornography, that it actually shapes your sexual desires, and it shapes your sexuality over time. People like to argue that it’s just pictures of people having sex, or that it’s almost just like an art form, or some mode of creative expression or sexual expression, and it’s just images of people having sex – really: that there’s no other cultural product. But it actually rewires your brain, doesn’t it? It changes the shape of your brain, the reward centres and stuff. It’s addictive. There’s a chemical aspect to it, in that dopamine is released when you masturbate to pornography, and it has a very potent effect on your psyche.

You wonder whether, with these sex dolls, you’re going to be conditioning men’s sexuality to a hyper-stimulus and these sort of cartoon caricatures of the female form that are totally unrealistic. Just through porn consumption, never mind these dolls, it’s definitely impeding men’s ability to have sex with a natural, real women, because she’s not comparable to the hyper-real images in pornography, all the extreme violence that’s acted out in pornography. Or even fake breasts and cosmetic surgery, is already changing the standard of what men want.

Kathleen: If we look at places like in Japan for instance, male levels of pornography are very extreme. It’s mixed up with manga and a lot of cartoonish child abuse imagery. It’s like patriarchy on steroids in a way. They’re seeing huge problems with men there, they just can’t participate in relationships with women, they don’t know about the basics of give and take.

I would say pornography undermines human attachment, that’s how severe it is. Because, you can’t look at something that should only be developed inside intimate relations, develop it outside through these screens and through these commercial avenues, and then try to take that back into your personal experience as if somehow it’s going to help you. It’s not. It’s undermining intimate relations. Sex is an intimate act between two people, and actually you can’t get sex from observing it on a screen. It’s just not possible.

NMN: I think really the majority of men, especially from the younger generation, can’t conceive of sex without this fetishized element to it, this pornified element. Without this dominance and submission dynamic running through it all the time, and they’ve got that from pornography and don’t think they even realize that they’ve been moulded like that, and that it’s not actually the way things have to be.

Kathleen: Yes. I see it like this: let’s say commercial sex no longer existed, we saw it as a form of slavery, an abhorrent practice, we abolished it, and so outside of that people’s intimacy developed in line with other people, what we would see is a flourishing of sexuality.

It’s there beneath the surface, but this flourishing of sexuality would be tied interpersonally between people, so that it would be based internally on their relationships with other people. As it happens, the majority of people in our society [have their sexuality] externally generated, which means what’s going on between people is very robotic, it’s not real intimacy taking place at all.

NMN: What’s interesting about sex dolls and sex robots, is that it reveals really clearly what patriarchy thinks of women and what men want from women. They’re creating a female in their image, you know their ideal woman who is an object: it can’t respond, it can’t have any thoughts of her own, it’s just a body, hyper-sexualized, probably unrealistic, cartoonish body.

They probably don’t really want AI in sex robots. I can’t imagine they’re that invested in their sex object being particularly intelligent, or even as a robot having much will of its own. They’ll just program it to say dumb things like “I’m stupid, do what you want.”

Kathleen: You know, that is so true. I think the reality is, we need a feminist understanding of all these areas. We cannot let those types of ideas become the orthodoxy in our culture. They are so dehumanizing and problematic, and rest on this assumption that the social order has a kind of natural spontaneous structure about it, and all they’re doing is observing it and recording it and making sense of it.

Whereas in fact, what we do through feminist consciousness is we look at what’s underlying this culture, what is shaping it, how is it shaped. We have to take that step back continually, so not only do we have to deconstruct the culture which we’re in, we have to then develop our perspectives according to that new analysis, and that’s harder.

NMN: That’s really radical. But most people would take all these things for granted, that it’s just natural, and it’s the inherent order of things, and they don’t realize that they’ve been so culturally moulded, and that sexuality is being moulded and sold to them. We’ve got to empower, especially younger women for them to at least be able to see what’s going on.

Kathleen: I think we’ve got to give young women first and foremost a different kind of language of sex that they don’t have at present, that the feminists have developed like our ancestors have developed, but is just not widely known, and we’ve got to bring these ideas into the open so that women can make these choices. The focus for me, is about how we get young women to basically take charge of their subjectivity outside of this objectification. What would that look like for women?

So, we need as many feminists looking into robots and artificial intelligence as possible, as many radical feminist perspectives. It’s something that urgently needs to be done, and the question that we must always ask ourselves as feminists is: will this harm or will this improve the condition of women? Will this phenomenon improve the condition of women?

NMN: Yeah. That’s the litmus test.

Kathleen: Yes, that’s what you do with every single issue. If it doesn’t improve the condition of women, it’s not feminist, and we need to develop a feminist alternative.

On that note, let’s do it together!

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.


Petition Against Sex Robots

Please consider adding your name to the petition that Kathleen has organised against sex robots.

Many thanks to Risto Juola for transcribing the podcast.

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