Humans create technology to benefit themselves. Donna Haraway states:
We’re inside of what we make, and it’s inside of us. We’re living in a world of connections – and it matters which ones get made and unmade. (Heath, 2016 p. 73)
Haraway is best known for A Cyborg Manifesto (1985) as it opened the dialogue for seeing humans as cyborgs. Cyborgs differ to robots as they offer hybridity between technology and humanity (Haraway, 2013). This futuristic perspective contributes to the post-modern idea that technology is becoming a part of us or morphing into us (Haraway, 2013). Robots are created by humans but lack real-life qualities (unlike a cyborg). Arguably, robots have the potential to achieve “emotional attachment” and sexual affection (Nyholm & Frank, 2019). Nevertheless, there is a limit which exists as technology cannot fully replace humans.
Morality and Motivation: the ethical implications of sex robots. Haraway describes her work as “question-driven” as research always begins with a question (Paulson, 2019).
Matt McMullen developed the sex robot “Harmony” in 2017, hoping to prove technology is capable of expressing genuine human emotion (Nyholm & Frank, 2019). Robots exist for a sole purpose, to be a companion for humans. A companion may be a caretaker, a colleague and potentially a sexual partner…
Blay Whitby (2011) dissects three main aspects of a robot. Firstly the physical appearance, its performance and most notably, the ethics of a robot and its user (Whitby, 2011 p. 235).
The latter centres this discussion as technologies continue to advance, with no rulebook set in place.The demand for sex robots is based on the simple human need for sex. According to psychologist Andrew J. Elliot (2012), there are four types of motivation for sexual behaviour. The most obvious motivator for sex is to enrich physical and emotional pleasure (Elliot, 2012 p. 617), which is necessary for driving its market. It becomes problematic to see if sex robots can fill the role of a sexual partner. Particularly, there are no ethical guidelines dedicated to their use. This calls for a questionnaire to explain how society translates the use of technology in a sexual way.
The ethical conversation focuses on sex, categorically – masturbation, consent and fetishisation which differs according to society, culture and/or religion. Despite the advancements of technology that continue to develop, ethical boundaries have not been considered. Perhaps, the use of sex robots is an extreme version of masturbation. As Danaher & MacArthur (2017) ask,
What exactly is sex with robots given that it is neither masturbation nor regular sex? Can we form intimate and meaningful relationships with them?…How harmful and beneficial would their existence be to society? (p. 639).
A robot isn’t a person. Therefore, it is a technology like a vibrator or sex toy. Its purpose is to enhance sex, not to clone the true act of it. The definition of sex changes with the addition of technology. Masturbation symbolises sex as it doesn’t include intercourse. It is pleasure-driven, rather than used for biological means of reproduction. As a subgenre of sex, masturbation frequently includes technology as an aid in achieving satisfaction.
In 2014, a nation-wide survey of 20,000 participants showed 75.3% of women and 83.8% of men used a sex toy over the course of one year (Scott, 2020; Richters, 2014). To build on the study of Ritchers (2014), a more recent survey assessing a cross-section of society may be employed. A series of questions based around sex, technology and masturbation may be asked.
Now to add to the discussion of sex: consent. It is a moral requirement of sex without exception of lawfulness (Frank & Nyholm, 2017). Positive ethical values need to be endorsed to promote moral behaviour. Technology acts as an enhancement of humanity, so it cannot be the reason behind its demise. A report was conducted by the European parliament suggesting the extension of legal grounds for robots (Hern, 2017). A variety of robots were named (from care robots to drones) to be “electronic persons” however, sex robots were not mentioned. This regulation introduces an “…ethical framework for the design, production and use of robots” (Delvaux, 2016). To extend the ‘ethical framework’, sex robots would require elements of consent as a legal obligation within a post-modern context. Will the presence of sex robots in our culture compromise our social morality?
Heath (2016) mentions two versions of a female robot, being “the passive fembot” and the “evil seductress” (p. 72). There are potential dangers that come with the use of both versions of said sex robots. She argues a level of fetishisation as a moral concern. The concern isn’t on the increase in the production of human-like machines. Rather, in terms of feminist thinking, “doll-girls” or “fembots” (respectively) should steer away from the stereotypes of passive female roles. For example, the programming of maid-like or nurturing tendencies. The anthropomorphising of sex robots associates a level of humanness to something that isn’t human (Heath, 2016 p. 71). Although, the act of sex is as human as it gets. As technology advances, the distinction between robot innovation and traditional human sex may become blurred. Do we include elements of dehumanism in this technology? Or can we accept affection from technology and believe that it is real?
Feel free to watch the clip below and let me know what you think!
Danaher, J & MacArthur, N 2017, ‘Bioethics’, review of Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications by Raja Halwani, 2018, Wiley, 639-640.
Delvaux, M 2016, Draft Report, Committee on Legal Affairs, European Parliament (2014-2019) pp. 3-22.
Elliot, AJ. 2013, ‘Handbook of Approach and Avoidance Motivation’, Psychology Press, p. 617.
Richters, J, de Visser, R, Badcock, P, Smith, A, Rissel, C, Simpson, J & Grulich, A 2014, ‘Masturbation, paying for sex, and other sexual activities’, The Second Australian Study of Health and Relationships. Sexual Health. no. 11. pp. 461-71.
Frank, L & Nyholm, S 2019, ‘It Loves Me, It Loves Me Not: Is it Morally Problematic to Design Sex Robots that Appear to Love Their Owners?’ in Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology, 23, no.3, pp. 402-424.
Frank, L & Nyholm, S 2017, ‘Robot sex and consent: Is consent to sex between a robot and a human conceivable, possible, and desirable?’ in Artif Intell Law, Springer, 24, no. 305, pp. 305-323.
Haraway, D J. 2013, ‘Chapter 1.3: A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s’, in Taylor & Francis (ed.), The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader, Routledge, pp. 50-57.
Heath, H 2016, ‘Using/Abusing Fembots: The ethics of sex with robots [Online]’ in Overland, no. 225, Summer 2016, 70-76.
Hern, A 2017, ‘Give robots ‘personhood’ status, EU committee argues’, The Guardian, 13 January, viewed 10 April 2020, <https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jan/12/give-robots-personhood-status-eu-committee-argues>
Paulson, S 2019, ‘Making Kin: An Interview with Donna Haraway’, Los Angeles Review of Books, 6 December, viewed 12 April 2020, <https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/making-kin-an-interview-with-donna-haraway/>
Scott, K 2020, ‘What women told us about masturbation’, ABC Life, 3 February, viewed 12 April 2020, <https://www.abc.net.au/life/women-share-their-relationship-with-masturbation/10182094>
Whitby, B 2011, ’15: Do You Want a Robot Lover? The Ethics of Caring Technologies’, in Lin, Patrick, et al (ed.), Robot Ethics: The Ethical and Social Implications of Robotics, MIT Press, pp. 234-248.