Imagine a brothel where anything goes, no safe word—or consent—required. It’s a no holds barred, unrestrained kind of place. Here, sex workers are owned by the brothel and expected to fulfill their clients’ wildest fantasies without limitation; they aren’t women so much as objects, their only mission being to please the customer. These women are denied food or water, and no one gives a damn about their feelings—as long as their three orifices are clean, clients will keep paying. They are slaves whose lives are under the complete control of the cathouse owner.
No one’s complaining, of course, because these women are sex robots.
Lumi Dolls bills itself as “the first sex dolls agency in Europe,” offering five different models with packages that range from thirty minutes to two hours—including services for couples and home visits. A few of the models even offer warming features. It’s safer than ordering an escort, as consumers don’t have to worry about STDs, plus for many having sex with a nonsentient being doesn’t feel like cheating.
Most men typically don’t want—or can’t handle—constructive feedback during sex, says New York-based sex therapist Stephen Snyder MD, they just want to hear how great they are. A sex doll will never be let down by her partner, and can be approached without shame or fear of disappointment.
“Sex has never been about being realistic; sex is narcissistic,” says Dr. Snyder. “When you’re aroused, you may feel intensely connected to your partner but you probably don’t want to hear all about their day. You just want them to make you feel good. So it’s natural for us to want erotic partners who are extensions of ourselves.”
Nearly forty percent of the men surveyed in a 2016 study by the University if Duisburg-Essen in Germany said they could see themselves purchasing a sex robot within the next five years, and over two-thirds of the men could imagine using one.
Engaging in sexual behavior with an artificial toy instead of another human being isn’t inherently bad or good—it’s a matter of choice. Former adult star turned social worker Katja Kassin believes that many still face judgments when it comes to masturbation and self-pleasure. And solo sex, she says, can be an effective way to reduce sexual tension. “A robot is not a living creature and if someone is using a machine for sexual pleasure, there’s nothing wrong with that,” says Kassin. “People already use vibrators and electric masturbation aides, and a robot sex doll isn’t much different.”
Hiring a human sex worker means treating them like more than just a toy, navigating boundaries and communicating consent. Certain preferences during a session with a sex worker could bring the activity to a screeching halt, creating a situation where the sex worker feels violated and the client rejected. With a sex robot this won’t happen—and therein lies the appeal for some. That said, interacting with a robot means little to no personal responsibility, which in the end might be a bigger problem.
Unbounded female sexual objectification and degradation raises concerns for how these dolls might impact male-female relationships—never mind that the love-bond between human and robot is a one-way street. Will increased use of these dolls have a negative impact?
“Our human limitations serve to keep each other’s natural narcissism in check. We can’t have everything we want, and that’s ok,” says Dr. Snyder. “Our shortcomings keep us humble. They teach us patience and forgiveness. I can’t imagine someone learning those things from a doll. I guess I worry we’d lose an important piece of our education in being human.”
In Japan, where the lack of sex has led to a steep population decline, love dolls—or Dutch wives, as they call them, a throwback to the belief that Dutch sailors created the first sex dolls in the 17th century—have become incredibly popular. Thousands of these life-like female sex dolls, which run around $6,000 apiece, are sold each year in Japan, and there is even a sex doll magazine, i-doloid.
The rising popularity of sex dolls prompted Dr. Kathleen Richardson, a leading “robot ethicist,” to go as far as launching a campaign calling for a ban on sex robots in late 2015, arguing that “the creation of such robots will contribute to detrimental relationships between men and women, adults and children, men and men and women and women.”
Known for its Real Dolls, one of which was famously featured as Ryan Gosling’s companion in the 2007 feature film Lars and the Real Girl, Abyss Creations, which ships out around 600 sex dolls a year, is diligently working to create a thinking, moving sex robot. Founder Matt McMullen seems to believe that the best way to do this is to start with the head, telling Engadget: “Creating a full body robot as a first step would be foolish… doing the head first makes sense. Humans spend more time looking at each other from the neck up than we do any other place on the body and I don’t care what you look like.”
Thinking, feeling, acting—these are the central components of human nature. If a machine that looks like a person is programmed to respond with emotion, to hold on to memories, to empathize, and to “think” like us, should it be treated any differently? Exploring the limitations of human-robot interaction offers fascinating complexities regarding ethics and boundaries, and ultimately says more about us than the robots who must endure it. HBO’s Westworld taps into our cultural fears and fascinations, humanizing its robotic characters in such a way that treating them unethically feels wrong.
A real-life Westworld is still a long way off, however. Today’s sex robots, though impressive, won’t care about your feelings—or theirs—anytime soon.