Debra Soh is a Toronto-based sex writer with a PhD in sexual neuroscience from York University.
Depictions of sex with robots are everywhere, from TV shows such as Westworld to films such as Ex Machina. With the corresponding rise in their popularity and availability in the real world, the Foundation for Responsible Robotics released a report last week summarizing the ethical considerations of this burgeoning trend and the changes we may expect to see within our society in the next five to 10 years.
Along with feelings of intense fascination, many of us are understandably terrified of what this new technology may bring and how it will affect our sex lives and romantic relationships.
Similar to what we've seen in science fiction, sex robots currently for sale are predominantly female. This has evoked concerns that their acceptance into mainstream culture will further promote the commodification of women's bodies and encourage negative attitudes, violence and aggression toward women.
It's not accurate, however, to paint the effects of sex robots with a broad brush. What has been missing from this discussion is an acknowledgement of the underlying factors that influence these kinds of behaviours, such as anti-sociality and negative beliefs about women. Access to a sexualized object won't have the capacity to affect a pro-social, empathic person in this way.
In a similar vein, the continuing trial of a Newfoundland man who ordered a child sex doll online has brought to the fore questions about whether such dolls should be permitted, with fears that doing so will increase rates of sexual offending against children.
The most current research has shown that sexual interest in children is a biological phenomenon as opposed to one that is learned. As such, it is immutable. For most people, the idea of child sex robots conjures up strong reactions of disgust and repulsion, but we can't discount their potential to mitigate harm. Since the dolls themselves are inanimate objects, there are no real-life victims being abused. Offering access to these dolls by way of a mental-health professional may help prevent child sexual abuse, particularly for pedophiles who are committed to never acting upon their desires.
The same could be said for sexual interests that involve non-consent or inducing suffering in an adult partner. A 2015 study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that 22 per cent of men and about 11 per cent of women in the general population have sexual fantasies of forcing someone to have sex against their will. Sex robots would serve as an outlet for these desires without resulting in harm against another human being.
We also can't neglect the potential these robots have for improving quality of life for the average person. Non-robotic silicone dolls are already a surprisingly common choice for some, as they can help alleviate loneliness by acting as a non-judgmental companion. It's not uncommon for individuals to report falling in love with their dolls.
The rise of their robotic counterparts will allow this intimacy to be taken to the next level; for example, Samantha, a robotic doll released by Spanish company Synthea Amatus, requires romantic interest in her mate before agreeing to coitus.
Perhaps the most pressing question: Will sex robots eventually replace our desire to have sex with a real-life partner? For those of us who are emotionally healthy, the answer is no. Even when the day comes that sex robots are so technologically advanced that they are indistinguishable from our fellow human beings, we, as humans, will always know whether our partner is of flesh or a machine – whether they are capable of or lacking a genuine capacity for intimacy and connection.
There is a wealth of information that will need to be mined as this new era emerges. It will require fact-based discussion to inform decision-making and policy – and pushing aside our fears of the unknown to determine the answers.