Warning: some links in this article lead to explicit content. Robots have come a long way since Playskool's 1983 release of Alphie II.
They are now so technologically advanced that people want to have sex with them.
As a socially-traditional Catholic woman who fulfills nearly every stereotype of that identifier, it usually takes me some time and creative thinking to understand the latest sexual fads. Sex robots, unsurprisingly, are no exception.
To start, there is the basic annoyance that female sex robots reflect the most extreme male-defined standards of feminine appearance and behavior designed to most appeal to their purchasers: curvy, but not too curvy, adjustable in height from not-too-short to not-too-tall, blonde-to-brunette, flawless perpetual make-up, and ageless youth. Even more disconcerting is the programmable array of personalities that allow a user to vary the volume (including silence) and tone of his robot to any degree desirable.
[F]emale sex robots reflect the most extreme male-defined standards of feminine appearance and behavior designed to most appeal to their purchasers
You can buy your own base-model sex robot - sometimes called a "sexbot," "sex doll," or "love doll" - if you have an extra $5,000 laying around, or you can share one with any number of strangers by visiting a robot brothel. Several exist around the world and, recently, we almost had our very own "try-before-you-buy sex robot showroom" right here in Houston, Texas.
Houston promotes itself as a business-friendly, intentionally-unzoned city. It shrugs at strip clubs being across the street from elementary schools and sadly boasts record high sex trafficking crime, so developers of the nation's first robot brothel probably assumed they would fit right in.
Remarkably, our somewhat liberal city council definitively shut it down, quoting family value concerns like a conservative political machine. And then, when robot brothel developers pushed back, the city launched a bureaucratic permit attack in the form of rarely-enforced building codes and previously-nonexistent ordinances (e.g. Patrons are banned from having sex at a business with a device resembling a human.).
Mayor Sylvester Turner stated, "[I’m] certainly trying to encourage businesses, but this is not the sort of business I’m seeking to attract."
Council Member Brenda Stardig echoed, “We don’t want to be known worldwide for these things. We don’t want these things happening here.”
“We don’t want to be known worldwide for these things. We don’t want these things happening here.” - Houston City Council Member Brenda Stardig
Why would a city council that unanimously passed the highly-controversial Houston Equal Rights Ordinance ("the bathroom bill") three years earlier also stand unanimously against a robot brothel? Wouldn't the consistent position be that anything goes, and we should let people make their own sexual decisions? Maybe, unless the consistent activist position is fear for potential victims.
On the outset, sex robots are just fancy tools for masturbation. Why regulate that? Of course, self-serving sex, or masturbation, is not permissible by Catholic teaching. At the same time, the United States is not a nation governed by Catholic sexual ethics (nor would the vast majority of our voting bloc - conservatives and liberals alike - want it to be).
Furthermore, my worldview allows for moral gradualism, recognizing that steps toward the good deserve some merit, even if they're not good in and of themselves. Given that, perhaps some might suggest that sex robots could move our culture toward improvement from where we are today.
Would sexually-transmitted infections [STI] decrease with an increased use of sex robots?
Would a pedophile be less likely to hurt a child if they had access to a sex robot?
Would someone with violent sexual tendencies be less likely to hurt others if they acted out with a sex robot instead?
Would fewer girls be trafficked if prostitution became the realm of sex robots?
Since the robots are not unconsenting minors, and since the business nature of capitalism says to let profits be made where profits can be made without government over-regulation, it might seem logical to just legalize robot brothels with a "live and let live" shrug.
If, however, there is a link between sex robots and the victimization of human persons, our decisions must be informed by what will cause the least harm. By "cause the least harm," I don't refer to a vague, icky, subjective moral harm to the sensitivities of polite society, but to definitive harms caused to definitive, vulnerable groups of people.
If, however, there is a link between sex robots and the victimization of human persons, our decisions must be informed by what will cause the least harm.
On the STI front, the creators of sex robots warn that they cannot be completely sanitized. Dr. Travis Stork, featured on The Doctors, explains, "[I]t’s almost virtually impossible, short of taking this doll and dipping it in a vat of disinfectant after every use, that you could properly disinfect these dolls." They are intended solely for use by one person, not to be rented or shared, as would occur with brothel use.
In my sex robot research (surely I have better things to do with my time), I found it ironic that even sex robots are intended for and function safest in a monogamous setting.
I found it ironic that even sex robots are intended for and function safest in a monogamous setting.
Could sex robots cause a dent in Houston's child trafficking crimes? According to some concerned researchers, the opposite would occur. Rather than "treat" pedophilia, child sex robots could normalize it, making the sexualization of children even more common.
In a video depicting a sex robot design studio, a salesperson defends the practice of child-size sex robots, suggesting some men just prefer smaller women. A journalist in the video wipes away tears as he sees the child-size model.
If pedophilia loses its social stigma, an increase of active perpetrators will result. With the price point for sex robots well in the realm of "luxury item," many will choose to abuse children instead.
In the same vein, encouraging men to act out abusive sex against female robots instead of women re-frames this as socially-acceptable behavior, which undoubtedly leads to increased violence against real women. This effect of a simulated experience leading to an increased harmful reality is already observed in the correlation between violent pornography use and violence against women, including several criminal cases of copycat brutality.
[E]ncouraging men to act out abusive sex against female robots instead of women re-frames this as socially-acceptable behavior
Interestingly, the strongest arguments I read against robot brothels came from current sex workers. Regardless of the larger moral implications of prostitution, it is important to understand the differences among women in this largely-underground industry. Sex workers differ from sex trafficking victims in that they are not forced into the trade, they are self-determinate in their clients, and they financially profit from their involvement.
According to Roxanne Price, a sex worker at a legal brothel in Nevada, sex robots remove the emotional connection that naturally occurs with a physical connection like sex: "The idea that women should be like dolls – unresponsive and lethargic during sex – is downright dangerous."
Similarly, Pope St. John Paul II warns in Love and Responsibility that "[t]he sexual relationship presents more opportunities than most other activities for treating a person — sometimes even without realizing it — as an object of use."
It is unusual for a mostly-traditional Catholic woman to find common ground with a sex worker, but on the issue of holistic sex and robots, we agree that sex should be both unitive and pleasurable. We also share apprehension for the consequences of sex outside of these natural parameters.
Proponents of sex robots cite the introduction of artificial birth control as the ethical launchpad of modern-day sex robots. It may seem nonsensical, but as a woman who wholly embraces Catholic sexual ethics, I agree with their assessment: the popularization of artificial birth control is a logical starting point for futuristic sex robots. Whereas defenders of sex robots see this parallel as legitimization for the trade, I see it as representing a progressive impersonalization of our sexual experiences.
[T]he popularization of artificial birth control is a logical starting point for futuristic sex robots [which represent] a progressive impersonalization of our sexual experiences.
St. Pope Paul VI offers similar predictions for the social consequences of dissecting out any of the innate values of unity, procreativity, or pleasure from sex:
"[A man] may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner." (Humanae Vitae 17)
How fascinating that the same concerns voiced by the Houston City Council, contemporary sex workers, and secular ethicists - that sex robots lead to objectification of and violence against others - comprise the root of Catholic sexual teachings.
The underlying question is whether it is ethical to pursue unaccountable pleasure, pleasure at any expense without regard to harm caused.
"The fixation on pleasure for its own sake, as the exclusive end of the association and cohabitation of man and woman, is necessarily egoistic… This does not at all mean that we must see pleasure itself as evil — pleasure in itself is a specific good — but only points to the moral evil involved in fixing the will on pleasure alone." - St. John Paul II, Love and Responsibility
It is no surprise that Catholics and sex robots are incompatible. Catholics, especially those concerned with social justice and the safety of women and children, need to remain a pivotal part of this conversation.
We can wring our hands about how modern-day America is uninterested in Catholic sex education or clutch our pearls at the yuckiness of the world. More effectively, however, we can ally with other victim advocates outside our Catholic spheres to spread the word on how sex robots unavoidably objectify women, create imbalanced relationship models, and bring an increased likelihood of harm to innocent victims by normalizing sexual abuse.