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What Is a Sex Robot, and How Will It Affect Our Relationships?

By Maressa Brown ; Updated June 13, 2018

Before smartphones, the idea that we would one day find ourselves reading deeply into emojis or using an app like Snapchat to get intimate with a partner was impossible to imagine. Similarly, today, imagining that regular people could own and even be in a relationship with a sex robot that’s programmed with artificial intelligence (AI) feels downright alien.

Sure, that was basically the plot of the 2013 romantic sci-fi film “Her,” in which Joaquin Phoenix’s character falls in love with the equivalent of Siri, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. There is also HBO’s hit show “Westworld” about a futuristic park hosted by robots. But those are fictional, right?

Not necessarily, thanks to the invention of sex robots like RealBotix’s RealDoll, which Engadget recently called a “frighteningly life-like full-body sex toy.”

What Is a Sex Robot?

RealBotix’s parent company Abyss has been creating realistic sex dolls for more than two decades. The company’s clientele has included men like “Tom,” featured in an article on CNET.com, who bought a robot after he lost his wife of 36 years to cancer and was stricken with grief and loneliness. As Tom explained to the website, he “sees his doll less as a sex object than an object of his affection — a companion, even.”

The latest, high-tech iteration of the RealDoll, Harmony, uses an Android app to hold limited two-way conversations and simulate orgasms. Customers “build” the sex robot from the ground up and customize her personality, face and body. In an article called The Truth About Sex Robots, Christopher Trout writes about meeting Harmony for the first time: “She was crafted with such care, such attention to detail that, at a glimpse, she was indiscernible from a human being. As she lifted her eyelids and opened her mouth to speak, I found myself slack-jawed, at a loss for words.”

Katie Couric also featured Harmony on her National Geographic series “America Inside Out.” While touring the RealBotix facility, she saw a jaw-dropping number of customizable parts for the doll (including different textures and colors for her nipples and lips), learned about the AI technology and spoke to a male RealDoll customer who owns several models.

Couric even checked out the first male RealDoll named Henry, which won’t be available until early 2019. (Fun fact: Harmony costs about $20,000. But Henry, according to the Daily Mail, will range from $11,000 to $15,000 when he becomes available.)

Matt McMullen, CEO of Realbotix, told the Daily Mail that there’s a real need for these robots for men as well as women. And the need they’ll fulfill is emotional as well as physical. “People call them sex dolls, but mostly it’s about companionship. In this world of computers, people are missing out on human interaction,” he said.

Sex Robots Could Actually Be Good for Women

This begs the question: If we’re missing out on interaction because of technology, is the solution really to then turn to a high-tech human-like computer? Can a robot offer a viable alternative to human sexual connection, and, if so, will that threaten our human relationships?

Shannon Chavez, Psy.D., a psychologist and sex therapist in Los Angeles, believes that experimenting with an AI robot could be a safe and empowering way for women to explore their own sexuality and preferences and build sexual confidence.

“It can help women who are dealing with pain and discomfort during sex to experiment with different positions before incorporating into partnered sex,” she explains. “People that have dealt with sexual trauma and abuse may be able to use the AI robots as a therapeutic tool to regain sexual response and work through sexual blocks and mental barriers.”

According to Dr. Chavez, a sex robot could be something that a couple may want to incorporate into a sexual relationship. “I can see couples bringing in a sex robot for a threesome and enjoying the experience without negative feelings, such as jealousy,” she explains.

Madison Young, a sex educator and feminist pornographer in New York City, agrees that sex robots could be a valuable source of pleasure, particularly for women. “A sex robot is a toy, and there is nothing wrong with consenting adult play with toys,” she says.

However, it does have limits: “In a similar way that the hot tub jets or a massage chair are ‘things’ that provide a pleasurable physical experience, it is energetically different from a massage from a lover or massage therapist,” Young notes. Which is why both Dr. Chavez and Young are adamant that a sex robot shouldn’t be a replacement for human connection, but rather a toy to enhance a real sexual relationship.

“Connection with real humans is an integration of mind, body, heart and spirit,” Dr. Chavez says. “A robot is not alive, and there are limits to satisfaction.”

And there may be other concerns with respect to AI technology being treated like a substitute for a human partner.

The Fantasy Factor

One potentially psychologically damaging effect of using a sex robot is, of course, its extreme, fantasy-based aesthetic. Dr. Chavez says the fact that the dolls can be built with idealized features — from specifically textured nipples to custom-colored eyes — “reinforces beauty ideals that are not fully representative of women’s bodies. There needs to be diversity in body shape and skin color, weight, height, etc.”

Yet, it’s that unrealistic beauty standard that also goes hand-in-hand with the psychological appeal of the robots.

“It is very fantasy-driven for both men and women,” Dr. Chavez notes. “A big part of our sexuality is curiosity and novelty. It’s something different, and the fantasy can fulfill the desire for dominance and enjoying the robot in complete submission. There is no negotiating, compromise and communication that is part of healthy sexual experiences with a human partner.”

And that is why so many experts are skeptical of claims by sex-tech companies that sex robots can be used as therapy to curb bad sexual behaviors — for example, abuse or pedophilia. A recent report published in the British Medical Journal came to damning conclusions about sex robots’ potential for promoting safe sex or reducing sexual abuse of children or sex crimes.

“We found a number of health claims were being made, which we analyzed,” study co-author Chantal Cox-George, an academic foundation doctor at St. George’s University Hospitals with the NHS Foundation Trust in London, told HealthDay. “We were unable to find any empirical evidence in the medical literature to support or refute any of these.”

The report noted: “While many sexbots users may distinguish between fact and fantasy, some buyers may not, leading to concern about potentially exacerbating the risk of sexual assault and rape of actual children and adults.” Researchers concluded that they would “strongly caution” against medical professionals prescribing the robots as a form of treatment.

The Feminist POV

The #MeToo era has seen women standing up to age-old expectations that they be acquiescent, obedient, passive and anything but autonomous. Could the availability of completely compliant sex robots threaten this progress?

According to Amber Jamilla Musser, Ph.D., associate professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, it’s difficult to predict how this technology will influence societal perceptions of women and feminist progress. “I think what I find fascinating is that people imagine it as providing something different from what already exists,” she says. “Sex dolls and other sex aids haven’t necessarily changed much about people’s perception of women.”

And that may be because we’ve seen them as inanimate objects. No matter how advanced their AI technology may be, these latest sex robots are just that. “A danger of the robots is imagining that they will totally supplant humanity and human interactions and the need to take women seriously as subjects with agency who are not mere objects,” Dr. Musser says. “We need to start seeing the ways that they are separate and that much of relating, even in sexual relationships, is not about reducing anyone to just a sexual object.”

One way to do this, Dr. Musser argues, is to program the robots to have a conversation about consent. “Technology has the ability to teach people how to navigate another person so that when sex arises women and men might know more about what pleases them and how to ask for it,” she explains.

In other words, rather than diminishing any progress women have made, there may be an opportunity for sex technology to further this progress “by emphasizing and articulating a distinction between women and these robots,” Dr. Musser says.

The Future of Sex Robots

Ultimately, no matter how much “at a loss for words” Engadget writer Trout found himself when he first saw Harmony, he was all too quickly brought back to reality.

“Her lip sync is far from perfect, and you can hear the motors whirring inside her head. Her smile is subtle, as are other small facial expressions, but her head moves with the staccato of a sprinkler. As with its mainstream counterparts like Siri and Google Assistant, Harmony’s AI often gets hung up on natural speech. Harmony is inanimate from the neck down. Her skin is cold to the touch. Her artificial intelligence, while impressive, is still limited. She requires an Android app to communicate, and her battery lasts just two hours. Once she runs out of juice, she’s tethered to an outlet.”

Trout’s conclusion? “She isn’t the fantasy that we’ve been taught to expect.” His reaction underlines why most experts can’t foresee a future in which sex robots will truly be a threat to women or human relationships.

“Part of the joy — and frustration — of sex with other humans is that you do not know what is going to happen,” Dr. Musser notes. “Part of being human is wanting uncertainty, and we prize connections that have been earned in some way rather than those that have been purchased.”

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