By Kathleen Richardson, Professor of Ethics and Culture of Robots & AI, De Montfort University
I am the organiser and one of the signatories of an open letter against the normalisation of prostitution in UK universities. Today, International Women’s Day 2022, we have launched this letter and emailed it to all UK university vice chancellors.
I am now taking the opportunity to explain why I organised this open letter with reference to my expertise in ethics and the culture of technologies.
I came to an abolitionist feminist perspective regarding prostitution through my academic research in the anthropology of robots and Artificial Intelligence (AI) combined with my personal political journey that began in my teens as an advocate of the prostitution / pornography trade but subsequently changed due to my witnessing of its corrosive effects on relationships. Now I consider myself a revolutionary abolitionist feminist – the politics of ending the merging of women and property.
Let’s start with the academic journey. There is a saying that all research carries within it the existential problems of the researcher. This is not narcissistic transference because most of the time this process is completely out of consciousness.
Take the robot. It was created as a character in Karel Čapek’s play Rossum’s Universal Robots (R.U.R) in the 1920s. The robot was a political object fusing people and commodities together. In the play this politics becomes totalising, and it starts to encompass the world and all those that live in it until human life comes to an end. It is one of the few fictions, other than the Bible, to feature human annihilation.
Čapek’s robots captured the zeitgeist of the age – and soon robots entered the everyday lexicon. Lefties used robots as a means to capture the drudgery and dehumanisation of work for the working classes, while artists focused on their aesthetic appeal, and corporations wanted to reconfigure them.
Whereas Čapek’s robots were revolutionary – by the 1940s corporate America had begun domesticating the robot for housewives – promising to transform the revolutionary into the servant.
There are so many themes in Čapek’s tale that appeal to me – particularly how it illuminates that some humans are treated like servants and things for the benefit of others.
When we think of robots, at least until recently, we tended to think of their alienating qualities in relation to people. As a social anthropologist I’ve noticed a cultural shift whereby the political warnings in Čapek’s play are being ignored by academics. Rather than rejecting the fusion of people and property – many academics are now embracing it – even passing it off as utopian.
This brings me to prostitution and its twin, pornography, because fusion also underpins them – a merging of kinds.
My research as a social anthropologist concerns relationships: what one can or cannot have a relationship with, and whether objects can be placeholders for people or even the direct-object of one.
I’ve studied a fair few robots and AI technologies that proclaim to offer relationship to humans. Some of these come in the form of companion robots which are marketed to older communities suffering social alienation and isolation. Sometimes they appear in the form of therapeutic robots marketed to nation states as solutions to their desperate healthcare budgets and at other times as sex robots to function in the role of women in heterosexual sex (as if that were possible). Commodities are now passed off as relational others.
How did we get to a state whereby this is now the direction of travel?
The answer to this, I believe, lies in the treatment of women and children in our world as sexualised commodities and the failings of a humanistic politics to push back against this dehumanisation. The existence of the prostitution trade tells us we are living in a world where women and commodities are fused together, with women (legally) and children (illegally) being proffered for sale.
In normalising prostitution, we are in fact advocating for humans to be turned into robots (property). At the same time in robotics and AI they are creating objects that mimic humans and arguing that they should be considered persons.
So in railing against prostitution and its normalisation in universities I want to make a case for a humanistic outlook that rejects the treatment of women as property by calling on the meaning of relationship. This again is where the conceptual traffic to and from prostitution to robotics occurs.
Objects, irrespective of what they appear to mimic cannot be ‘relational’ because this requires the presence of the parties encountering each-other. All humans meet each other and in this space between I and you create relationship.
One side of this cannot be substituted with a robotic or AI or cartoonish object because humans are not fungible (capable of being changed with something of the same kind), and humans are not property – manmade. Only markets such as prostitution that flatten out differences between women and property can be the underlying inspiration for ‘relational’ robotics.
So this brings us back full circle – sex (porn) robots are considered harmless and utopian while universities support women into prostitution.
On a personal note, as I reflect back on my youthful days as a young woman, those who claimed to represent human freedom were often the most ardent supporters of prostitution and pornography. In order to be switched onto them you need to switch off your emotions. You need to be able to push feelings aside and tolerate extremes of distress and perform acts of magic by turning violence into love and love into violence. Hence the robot is also a metaphor for how we must function in a world with pornography and prostitution – in order to survive, dissociation from real feelings, thoughts, beliefs and experiences is the only coping mechanism on offer.
The politics of fusion needs to be pushed back – and new values need to spring again that come from our deepest sentiments of love – that is the only place where property relations cannot reach.