How Women Really Feel About Sex Robots
A recent survey found that women and men had drastically different opinions on the appropriateness of sex robots in a variety of real-life situations. We asked a sex researcher: Why?
According to a recent survey conducted by researchers at Tufts University, women just aren't into the idea of fucking a robot. About two-thirds of women polled by the university said they wouldn't shag with a droid; in comparison, two-thirds of men said they would.
Conducted by researchers Matthias Scheutz and Thomas Arnold, the modest, 103-person poll is the first to capture how men and women see sex robots. Perhaps because the controversy over erotic automatons is so murky and theoretical, the researchers sought to understand their usage in specific hypothetical scenarios. Subjects were asked whether sex robots would be "appropriate" or "socially useful" for those who were disabled, lonely, on a spaceship, into minotaurs, or bereaved. Men were generally more chill about all of these scenarios than women were, but there were some points of agreement: Both women and men agreed that sex robots shouldn't be made in the likeness of children and that they were appropriate to use instead of prostitutes.
Still, it was weird to me that women weren't more into robot sex than men because a) Jude Law's character, Gigolo Joe, in A.I. is objectively hot, and b) so many women already use vibrators. For answers, I got in touch with Shelly Ronen, a PhD candidate at New York University who studies sex, intimacy, and technology. We talked about the many ways in which robots can be disturbing—but also why they might not end up being a big deal at all.
BROADLY: Let's talk about the recent survey that found women were less comfortable with the idea of a sex robot than men. Assuming that conclusion holds true in a larger, more comprehensive survey, do you have any theories as to why that could be?
Shelly Ronen: There could be a few reasons. Assuming this survey is really able to capture respondents' desires, then the first possibility is that women hold a more emotional notion of meaningful sex, one that values connection with another person more highly than men do. Certainly this is in line with the traditional gendered double standard that holds women to a different standard in pursuing sexual behavior. Men are not just free to engage in meaningless sex, they are also encouraged to do so in a way that is not the case for women; women are more likely to suffer reputation consequences for doing the same.
So perhaps women are responding to that social pressure, knowing that sex with an object, which is a form of meaningless sex, would be more harshly perceived. Perhaps they have internalized the double standard and actually experience desire for more "meaningful" sex—sex that involves an emotional connection with another person. Another related option is that men, more than women, see the sexual appeal of dominating their sexual partner. Maybe they are more aroused by the idea of sex with a literally objectified sexual partner. This would be in line with the feminist critiques of heterosexual desire as rigidly locking men and women into gendered roles of patriarchal oppressor and subjugated sex victim. But I doubt that all heterosexual desire is really that simple. And the fact that some women (albeit fewer than the proportion of men) do say they would have sex with sex robots means that there is more overlap between desire among the "opposite" genders than we might have once thought.
Additionally, men are encouraged to evaluate their masculinity in terms of sexual voraciousness while women are not. So might it be that men are enacting a kind of identity work (basically, doing the socially desirable thing) by saying "yes" to sex. Meanwhile, women are performing their own kind of gender-congruent behavior by erring on the side of "no" to sex.
When people hear the words "sex robot," what do they think? How do they exist in our collective conscience?
No research has really looked at this question. But judging by the popular media representations of sex robots, we have a whole host of anxieties about them. Most obviously, sex robots are often portrayed as here to destroy us: take our jobs, do them better than us, make us redundant and impotent. We appear to be also really concerned about whether they'll learn to do more than what we have designed them to do. Will they learn to love other people, not just us, their owners? Will they trick us into believing they are humans?
Some surveys try to get at the question of interest in sex with robots, and it appears that men are more interested in that than women, which is surprising when you consider that more women than men use sex technologies in the form of vibrators. There is something about a fully humanized sex commodity that triggers a different kind of reaction for people. People that don't think vibrators are immoral do consider sex robots immoral. And women, who might be more likely to use a vibrator, are less likely to indicate interest in sex with a robot intended for sexual uses.
In an episode of the podcast Flash Forward, you discussed how it will be a relatively long time before we even see life-sized sex robots, and that by the time they do come to market, we will be used to having sex with our partners through our devices. How do you think technology will change the way we view intimacy, connection, and sensuality before sex robots become available?
It's likely that in the future we will get more sexually creative, on the way towards creating sex robots. We've already undergone lots of transformations that are not entirely driven by technologies: the rise of romantic love, the deinstitutionalization of marriage, the uncoupling of sex from marriage, the rise of the "hookup," and the increasing acceptance of LGBTQ or alternative sexualities. There are definitely technologies that are implicated in these social changes, like the invention of birth control, which was huge, and the wide dissemination of automobiles, which gave teenagers unprecedented access to private space to fool around in. It's likely that technologies will continue to play a part in the broader transformations of love, sex, and intimacy.
In the short term, there are a bunch of long-distance sex tools that are much more feasible. Some are already on the market, and they allow you to have sex with your partner through sex toys networked via the Internet. I think the use of VR and hardware in conjunction with the much more advanced visual technology in the pornography industry is very likely imminent.
But then there are going to be transformations in intimacy that have less to do with the invention of toys or tech. The rise of the asexuality movement, despite accounting for the experiences of a minority of people, is also pressing an important conversation for us as a society: What [is] the connection between intimacy and sexual behavior? Is it causal, sufficient, even necessary? That's just one way in which intimacy will continue to be reimagined, regardless of the invention of sex robots.
The survey also found that both genders were uncomfortable with the idea of a sex robot made in the likeness of a child. Do you think that view could change as well? That society could end up comfortable with the idea of robots being used to treat pedophiles?
I don't know if the view will "change" in the sense of: if you surveyed these same people in five years, and then again in ten and 15 years, then a larger and larger portion of them would say it's alright. It's possible. I think the scenario in which this is most likely the case (that people increasingly endorse child sex robots as acceptable) would involve some medical trials that show that the use of these kinds of "therapeutic" sex tools reduce the incidence of future offense among convicted pedophiles. We are a sufficiently punitive society that I conjecture this would be a powerful sway on popular opinion.
More likely, however, is that people are going to continue saying child sex robots are unacceptable even as the industry producing them and the market purchasing them increases significantly. I mean, look at pornography. There is a widespread moral objection to child pornography. There are laws to make sure that underage performers aren't involved in the production of porn. But even just in the realm of legal porn (set aside child pornography that involves children as performers), the ideal of youth is widely valorized. Sex with women dressed as schoolgirls is clearly a popular fantasy. So I think the relation between sexual fantasy and public opinion is less direct than we might think.
Do you think relationships between humans and sex robots will eventually be viewed as equally valid as relationships between humans?
There's really no way of knowing. If we get to that point, it won't be without a significant amount of social upheaval.