Share this blog

Balancing Values and Desires

Article type
Balancing Values and Desires
Justifying the Design Process of Sex Robots

This blog highlights the concerns that female-shaped sex robots may perpetuate harmful stereotypes and promote non-empathetic and sexually violent interactions with women. We argue for a value-sensitive design approach, emphasizing the importance of diverse stakeholder perspectives and enabling technology that respects women.

For decades, humans have been designing female-shaped dolls in an attempt to replace sex and human intimacy. With the development of sex robots — anthropomorphic robotic sex dolls with human-like behaviours and some level of artificial intelligence — these replicas of humans, predominantly women, have reached a new level of realism.[1]

Simon Dube, a psychologist working on erobotics — studying human-machine erotic interaction — explains why people want sex with robots. These motivations align closely with empirical findings from Matthias Scheutz and Thomas Arnold. Sex robots may provide a judgment-free environment, reduce anxiety, and help with sexual performance issues. More sophisticated sex robots can become a solution for those struggling to find human partners, helping combat loneliness and inequities in intimacy and sexuality. 

"Sex robots may provide a judgment-free environment, reduce anxiety, and help with sexual performance issues"

However, other than excitement, the development of sex tech has sparked much controversy and opposition. Philosophers, lawyers, feminist activists, and others have expressed concern that female-shaped sex robots will promote the idea that women's bodies are commodities[2]. Such an idea may lead to non-empathetic or sexually violent interactions with women[3]. Scholars, activists, and other researchers worry that the life-like appearance will cause moral confusion in sex-robot users, as it can lead to undesirable behaviour towards women, as they resemble passive sex robots. This debate reached its climax in 2015 when Professor Kathleen Richardson and Professor Erik Billing started the "campaign against porn robots" The campaign aims to challenge the normalization of current female-shaped sex robots and eventually abolish their existence. 

Where does this conflict between opponents and proponents of sex robots stem from, and how can we address it? One way to understand this dispute is to look at the technology from the perspective of value-sensitive design (VSD). This approach emphasizes that designers and design processes are partly responsible for the value-shaping outcomes of their technology. VSD allows the inclusion of the values and attitudes of different groups of people with an interest or concern in technological outcomes, calling those people stakeholders. In the case of female-shaped sex robots, there are several stakeholder groups. 

"Sex robots will promote the idea that women’s bodies are commodities"

For one thing, we can identify a broad group of end users, mostly men interested in sex with robots. However, the reasons why they value sexual interaction with robots may differ within this group of users. Some men might use sex robots because they aim to create a connection they cannot form with a woman and won't be able to create by using sex toys without personalities.

Yet, some men might use sex robots because they desire to dominate a woman (or female-shaped entity) without considering her preferences. While some users would perhaps describe this sex with sex robots as simply "better sex," this sexual interaction is one-sided since sex robots are passive partners. As Catilin Roper clarifies, such sex is predicated on men's absolute domination and usage of women without limitations[4]. Hence, the prevailing design of sex robots reinforces a depiction of sexual encounters as an act of taking from a partner, effectively objectifying them. This raises concerns about the potential normalization of women's objectification through such technology. Consequently, the current design of sex robots promotes values contrary to consent, connection, and human dignity in sexual interactions.

Another group comprises female scholars, activists, and other researchers concerned that their robotic counterparts will negatively impact their humanity and disrupt human connections. Yet this diverse critical group of stakeholders seems to be unrecognized by sex robot designers. These people value (their) humanity, safety, and relationships with real people but find sex robots as devaluing their humanity and capacities as beings with preferences and free will. [5] 

Thus, the current production of sex robots creates a value clash between some male users and (female) researchers and activists who oppose their existence. How can we compromise, assuming that sex robots will not disappear but progressively resemble humans more? Responsible development and a more just design process are necessary to reach such a compromise in this complex, value-laden dispute. A design process perceived as more just towards women's dignity and safety could partly resolve the injustice people experience due to the existence and design of sex robots while retaining the connecting qualities. 

"A design process perceived as more just towards women’s dignity and safety"

One of the ways to establish a more just design process for sex robots is to include relevant stakeholder groups who are underrepresented or not heard. For example, suppose more female designers and researchers participate in the development process. In that case, they can promote a solution that aligns with their values of humanity and mutuality[6]. The design process could also include women more likely to experience sexual abuse or a group of women who represent different strata of women in society[7]. This would allow for an alternative technological vision where women and girls are valued rather than objectified. In addition, the participation of men with disabilities who seek robots to combat loneliness could promote the value of connection, as it is their primary purpose to use such technology.

Including these groups would affect the design of sex robot functionalities and affordances — how the designer team allows possible users to interact with the technology. While this decision ultimately lies with an inclusive group of stakeholders, we see potential in the function of consent as one option for a more just design. "Saying no" will undermine domination and sexual usage and will help to foster a more humanized view of women in general and increase the mutuality level. Indeed, consent given before sex ensures some mutuality. While the details of this more just design process are now unclear, it is crucial to remain committed to harnessing technology to enhance our humanity and promote respect and empathy rather than devalue any individual or gender, especially in robot-human relationships. 


Notes

[1] And with different famous sex-robot models such as Roxxxy, Samantha and Harmony, the options are quite varied. More recently, the creators of harmony have introduced the first generation of male sex robots. Nonetheless, female-shaped sex robots currently dominate the sexbot market. 

[2] See e.g., https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-19734-6_2#citeas (p.27) and https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-031-19381-1_1. (p. 12).

[3] We focus on female-shaped sex robots because they dominate the market, and their features are currently most developed and human-like. Therefore, some female researchers and activists strongly feel these robots could harm their safety and humanity. 

[4] That is, in the case of female-shaped robots. 

[5] It is highly likely that women who are unaware of the debate on sex robots share these values. 

[6] One potential solution might involve the design of sex robots with a feature that requires users to seek their consent before engaging in sexual activity or creating sex robots that remind users that human relationships work differently. 

[7] Think of a variety of women with different ethnicities, ages, or from different branches of occupation. 

References

Meet Henry, the World’s First Generation of Male Sex Robot.” Fight the New Drug. Accessed November 2, 2023. 

Dubé, Simon. “Sex Robots: They’re about More than Sex, and about More than Robots.” Concordia University, January 28, 2022. 

Scheutz, Matthias, and Thomas Arnold. “Intimacy, Bonding, and Sex Robots: Examining Empirical Results and Exploring Ethical Ramifications.” Robot Sex, 2017. https://doi.org/10.7551/mitpress/9780262036689.003.0013. 

Fischer, Martin H., Yuefang Zhou, and Viktor Kewenig. “Intentionality but Not Consciousness: Reconsidering Robot Love.” Essay. In Ai Love You: Developments in Human-Robot Intimate Relationships, 21–39. Cham: Springer, n.d. 

“For the Humanity of Women and Girls.” CAMPAIGN AGAINST SEX ROBOTS. Accessed November 2, 2023. https://campaignagainstsexrobots.org/. 

“About VSD.” VSD Lab, October 5, 2020. https://vsdesign.org/vsd/. 

Roper, Caitlin. “Pleasure Machines: What Sex Robots Tell Us about Men and Sex.” ABC Religion & Ethics, February 25, 2019. 

The growing trade in sex dolls and robots and the harm to women and girls. Cailtin Roper. YouTube, 2023. 

About the author

Robin Hillenbrink is a PhD-candidate at the University of Twente. Her PhD research is focused on conceptual disruption, socially disruptive technologies, and how these technologies challenge and change our moral concepts. Her main interests are ethics of technology (humanoid robots, biohybrid robotics), bioethics, and the ethics of life-extension and death.  

Mariia Maksimova is PhD candidate at the Department of Bioethics and Health Humanities, UMC Utrecht. Her research project delves into ethical aspects of platform technology for individualized therapy development within the TAILORED PSIDER consortium. Her interests include value and emotion-based approaches in the ethics of (brain)organoids, gene therapies and medical AI. 

 

Share this blog