Sex Robots: No Reason to Panic

People are going to be having sex with robots within five years – Henrik Christensen (2006)

Robots have always provoked fascination and fear. Adding sex creates a synergistic effect. From the classic tale of Pygmalion and Galatea, to the current television series Westworld, the very idea of creating machines to act as our lovers continues to provoke us on many levels. But as the quote above demonstrates, there is desire and imagination, and there’s reality. So before we ask what the social and ethical ramifications of having sex robots might be, we still need to ask about both the technological feasibility and economic accessibility of such devices.

Just around the corner?

Reading various news articles, I’ve observed several entrepreneurs claiming to be able to get a working sex robot available within a certain number of years – and none of them have reached that goal. Perhaps the one company that has come closest is Abyss Creations, founded by Matt McMullen and manufacturer of the RealDoll silicone sex dolls. Yet McMullen acknowledges that there are many hurdles to overcome, from animation to vocal interactions. Even a simple breakdown of the technology involved – and the costs behind them – shows how daunting the challenge is behind this project:

  • Realistic appearance – McMullen’s dolls have come closest to resembling actual humans, both visually and tactilely. They are also quite expensive, starting at $5,500 and with more customized models going over seven thousand. While other companies provide similar models under two thousand, that’s still quite a dent in one’s bank account.
  • Animated limbs – Medical prosthetics have come a long way, now using microchips and advanced materials. The cost of a full limb can reach, or in some cases, exceed $10,000. Even so, there are still significant limits in terms of the mobility of smaller and more complex joints in the hands and feet, not to mention combining all of that with a realistic appearance.
  • Facial animation – Yes, some robots are able to move eyes and lips, even appear to make simple expressions. McMullen’s Abyss Creations has been working on such a project as a steppingstone towards a full sex robot, with its projected cost at $15,000 each. But even these prototypes are rather primitive compared to the desired goal, so expect both the timeline and the final price tag to be many times that of current expectations.
  • Passing the Turing test – McMullen has said that the biggest challenge to his project is having a robotic lover that is capable of realistic behavior and interaction. Add to that keeping the hardware and software responsible within the confines of a realistic animated human figure, and one appreciates the difficulty. McMullen is working on an app, where users would be able to “create” an artificial personality with which to interact. Still, he admits it’s much tougher than he expected.

All of this technical complexity means that folks like McMullen are still a long ways off from achieving their goal. Even when that goal is achieved, the first models are likely to be priced in the six or seven figure range.

Crossing the uncanny valley

Robotic roustabouts, gardeners, firefighters and the like need not resemble humans too closely to fulfill their tasks. Indeed, the most commercially successful robot looks like an oversized hockey puck. For a robotic lover, however, appearance and behavior are absolutely crucial. With an automated vacuum cleaner, you program it to clean a certain area of floor in a certain time period, and you’re done. But sex isn’t just about completing some task – it involves interaction with another, in a manner that will (hopefully) provoke positive emotional and physiological reactions. That requires a blending of complex abilities with aesthetic presentation and the ability to perceive and respond to one’s partner.

This brings up the concept of the uncanny valley – the idea that human simulacra appearing not quite like real people will elicit discomfort or even revulsion in many who see or interact with them. The concept has been accounted for by animators, video game designers, and even some media critics. When applied to dolls and robots created for sex, it pushes the production standards practically to a state of perfection, especially regarding the movement and behavioral responses of the latter. Imagine having a romantic partner who provided no emotional cues, from facial expression to vocal tone to body language, or who reacted in ways that seemed inappropriate or “out of sync” to you. Preventing that in a robotic partner is perhaps the greatest technological gap; add the other challenges involved, and one realizes why previous attempts at sex robots – such as Roxxxy, introduced in 2010 – have never taken off.

Unpacking the panic

So, if fully functional and economically accessible sex robots are that far off, why are people like Kathleen Richardson – founder of the Campaign Against Sex Robots – so determined to preemptively ban them? Richardson is no Luddite (she supports the use of robots in providing therapy to children with autism), yet she’s convinced that the very idea of robot sexual partners will somehow promote greater gender inequality and exploitation. Her logic appears to be that, since robots are objects, sex robots would promote sexual objectification of women and children (apparently, she doesn’t realize that women could have sex with male robots).

But she believes without hesitation that sex robots are bad despite the fact that there are no sex robots around with which to test her thesis. Apparently, because another person wrote that he saw a parallel between sex robots and sex work, and because she opposes prostitution as inherently exploitative, that means that using sex robots would promote exploitation. By this logic, because some people think consuming cow’s milk is unhealthy, then substitutes like almond milk and soy cheese ought to be banned.

Keep in mind, I’ve yet to take a position here on whether sex robots are good or bad. I tend to think that, unless you’re able to prove that a given technology will unavoidably cause harm while providing no demonstrable benefit, I’m not ready to defend its prohibition. Explosives, for example, have been used to cause enormous harm, but careful and knowledgeable application of them also yields great benefits. So, it may be possible for people to utilize sex robots for therapeutic ends, such as becoming more comfortable with nudity, or learning basic interaction skills. Robots could also be programmed with safeguards and instructive dialogue, thus providing negative reinforcement against potentially harmful actions.

So if positive applications may be found for robots designed as surrogate sex partners, then why prohibit this based solely on ideological conjecture? Indeed, if Richardson is so concerned about men having sex with robots, why isn’t she crusading against the high-end lifelike sex dolls that are already out there, and have been on the market for more than two decades? Why not do an impartial study to see if the use of sex dolls has actually changed the attitudes of their owners towards women, and in what way? Did any of them manage to find flesh-and-blood sex partners, and did they find having the doll beneficial towards that end? Granted, there is still speculation involved in going from a study of people who have sex dolls to the possible consequences of having sex robots, but at least such a study would provide a more empirical grounding.

Technology is rarely “good” or “bad” in itself. It is how people choose to use them with which we need to be concerned. Given how far off in the future the likelihood of this technology appears to be, I’d say we have plenty of time to think about how it might be put to good use. Of course, some would argue that sex robots will never replace real people as erotic partners, whether romantic or professional. In that case, there is not only no harm in speculating on positive applications of sex robots, but that such thought experiments could encourage improvements in the interactions between sex workers, their clients, and the rest of society.

The Need for a Skeptical Feminism

Recently, an acquaintance of mine from college recognized me via social media, and we began some online chats about the issues surrounding sex work, the anti-trafficking movement, and feminism. Having embraced the more radical form of feminism in her youth, my former classmate had gone on to obtain a law degree, then to focus her legal practice on civil cases that advanced women’s rights, most notably in the area of sexual harassment.

What eventually disillusioned her from the ideas of Dworkin, Mackinnon and other radical feminists was when she was invited to talk about her work at a feminist conference. By this time, she had handled a total of seventy-seven cases involving sexual harassment. Reviewing the files, she broke them down as follows:

  • 68 of the 77 involved a man harassing a woman; four involved a woman harassing a man, three involved a man harassing another man, and two involved a woman harassing another woman.
  • Fourteen cases involved a man making a single inappropriate comment, then apologizing and not engaging in any harassing behavior, and no long-term negative impact on the woman’s career; in all of these cases, the attorney advised the plaintiff that the case had insufficient merit to pursue.
  • One case involved a woman making a false accusation which the attorney found was motivated by malice against the defendant; another case involved a woman who was found to have serious mental health issues resulting in confabulation.

Based on this, my acquaintance presented a conclusion that should have been uncontroversial for this conference: that sexual harassment was still predominantly an issue of men using their power over women. After all, two-thirds of cases were bona-fide incidents fitting that narrative. But as soon as she presented her figures showing that individual men could be victims, individual women could be perpetrators, and that a minority of claims were either overblown (18%) or false (2.6%), she saw herself being attacked and denounced by the more strident participants at the conference, and she was never invited back. Fortunately, she found support among the oft-despised liberal and libertarian feminists, whom she said “had no problem seeing the facts as they were, and discussing them thoughtfully”.

In her mind, the “radical feminists” have become authoritarian ideologues, for whom even the slightest disagreement was considered unforgiveable heresy and treason. She has since embraced the label of a “skeptical feminist” – based on the book by British philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards – and, in her own words, “always takes a step back before taking sides”. This is certainly the case with her view of the anti-prostitution and anti-trafficking movements, having seen “outrageous” and “absolutist” claims with scant evidence, and leading her to consider full decriminalization as “a more workable approach” (again, her words).

Our discussions brought us back to a basic concept in the philosophy of ideas – the distinction between open and closed systems of thought. Open systems, while embracing certain core values or principles, are receptive of new evidence and ideas, and thus relatively flexible to change. Closed systems, by contrast, present a comprehensive set of doctrines to explain how the world works, and either explains away any conflicting evidence or rejects it outright.

It is no surprise that the prohibitionist camp sees sex work in overly simplistic and absolutist terms. This is, after all, the methodology of its parent ideologies – religious fundamentalism, and radical feminism. Some of the unchallenged presumptions of this system include:

  1. Sexual perfectionism – Sex must be confined to vanilla activities within either marriage or “committed relationships”; any expression outside of this is presumed to be “harmful” and/or “exploitative”.
  2. Gender essentialism – Men view sex a certain way, women view sex another way; this leads to the reduction of prostitution as “men buying women”, thus neglecting or ignoring the reality of male and genderqueer sex workers, and female and genderqueer sex work clients, as well as the complex reasons why people either enter sex work or seek the services of a sex worker.
  3. Punitive/corrective approaches – The way to address commercial sex is to “end demand” by either punishment (fines, jail, public shaming) or so-called therapeutic approaches (e.g., “johns schools”).
  4. Intolerance to opposition – This is exhibited by such methods as:
    • Ignoring questions and/or criticisms, often refusing to answer them.
    • Dismissive labels applied to other side (“not representative”, “pimp lobby”, etc.).
    • Controlling discourse to minimize or eliminate dissent and/or opposition.

This is not to say that the sex worker rights movement does not have its own faults, or that certain elements within it are more closed than others. But there is a greater tendency to base their beliefs upon evidence than ideology, and a greater diversity of viewpoints and approaches than seen within the contemporary prohibitionist movement. This raises the question of which approach is more compatible with the core values of human rights and democratic polity generally, and the feminist principles of achieving greater gender equality and personal autonomy. Is it any wonder that my former classmate and I, and many other “skeptical feminists”, have decided to support this movement?

Woozle Effects and Heffalump Atrributions

[With thanks to Cris Sardina]

In the stories of Winnie the Pooh, he becomes concerned that certain creatures will try to steal his honey – namely, Heffalumps and Woozles. At one point, he and Piglet go on a Woozle hunt, walking about a clump of trees until they find some tracks and follow them, growing more worried as the number of footprints grows and grows. Then Christopher Robin comes along, and points out that the two have been walking in circles, and the tracks they are following are their own. Later on, Pooh is out on a search when he falls into a pit on top of Piglet. He remembers that he would dig such pits as a trap for Heffalumps, and now wonders if the Heffalumps dug this pit to catch him. It’s later suggested that this is one of Pooh’s own pit-traps.

woozlehunt
Oh, bother.

At any rate, the first story has given rise to the concept of the Woozle Effect, whereby a study of dubious veracity is cited over and over, and as a result of such repetition is assumed by more and more people to be true, without ever checking the original source. The anti-prostitution camp is particularly prone to the Woozle Effect, with examples such as:

  • The average age of entry into prostitution is thirteen – This “statistic” was actually manufactured by drawing from and misrepresenting two separate sources: a 2001 study of young people under 18 years old, and a 30 year-old survey of 200 sex workers who were asked what age they first had sexual intercourse. Despite being repeatedly discredited, many prohibitionists keep repeating this claim, often never citing the source.
  • The Super Bowl and other major sporting events are magnets for sex traffickers and sex buyers – Again and again, so-called “anti-trafficking” groups keep raising this alarm (and raking in donations as a result). Police in the locales where these events are held rush in to “rescue the victims”, often estimated to be in the tens of thousands. The reality? According to this study by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women: “There is a very wide discrepancy between claims that are made prior to large sporting events and the actual number of cases found. There is no evidence that large sporting events cause an increase in trafficking for prostitution.”
  • Most prostitutes suffer from PTSD and low self-esteem – The only source for the PTSD claim was a study done by Melissa Farley, which was roundly criticized for both its evaluative and sampling methodologies. As for the self-esteem question, this seems to be more an assumption based on cultural prejudice, whereas actual research indicates that “97% of the call girls [surveyed] reported an increase in self-esteem after they began working in prostitution”.
  • The vast majority of prostitutes are controlled/coerced by pimps – I’ve heard this from people I meet several times, and I always respond with two questions: “How many is this ‘vast majority’?” and “Where are you getting your information?” In response to the first, every single individual who has provided a percentage has given me a different one, ranging from 65 to 97 percent. As to the second, not one person has been able to cite an actual study, with most saying that they heard or read it “somewhere”.

heffalump
This leads to what I call the Heffalump Attribution, where people reductively assign cause for a behavior or social phenomenon to the deliberate actions of some outside agent. At the least, this is a sloppy misuse of Occam’s Razor; at worst, it’s scapegoating. Either way, attributing prostitution to some person or organized group isn’t just prevalent with contemporary prohibitionists, it’s a foundational article of faith. Since they believe that no woman would choose to sell sex, they must have been coerced in some way by one or more people. And who are they?

  • Pimps and traffickers – The most obvious choice, with pimps being stereotypically portrayed as abusive overseers. Problem is that there’s no evidence to support for such a claim, even when studying underage sex workers.
  • The Pimp Lobby, a.k.a. Pro-Prostitution Mafia – Prohibitionists not only believe that pimps control all “prostituted women” (or, “prostituted people” on the rare occasions when they acknowledge that men and transfolk also sell sex); they insist that pimps, traffickers and other evildoers are part of some vast conspiracy to push to make their business legal. Now, who are the principal group of folks advocating for commercial sex to be decriminalized? Sex workers. And how do prohibitionists respond? By accusing those very same sex workers of “actually being pimps” or “coerced by pimps” or just plain “not representative”. It’s ironic that the sex worker rights movement is the only labor movement in history which is routinely accused of being a front for their supposed bosses.
  • Sex work clients, a.k.a. “johns”, “punters” and/or “sex buyers” – Demonized as pathetic losers or sick deviants, the only disagreement among prohibitionists appears to be whether they should be rehabilitated through so-called “johns schools” or just plain locked up. I’m sure that clients have also been accused of being part of the mythical Pimp Lobby, despite the fact that client activism for sex worker rights has only very recently gotten off the ground.
  • Backpage, preceded by Craigslist, preceded by alternative weekly papers – The legal pressure to close any and all venues by which sex workers may advertise their services and communicate with potential clients is based on the belief that the folks running such venues aren’t just businesspeople trying to make money, but part of the grand conspiracy to “sell women and girls”. Forget that the best evidence shows the overwhelming percentage of advertisers to be the sex workers themselves. Forget that Backpage did more than any other site like it to identify and report suspected trafficking of minors. Forget that closing such sites increased the dangers to the most marginalized and vulnerable sex workers. They must be blamed, shamed and punished at all costs! And now that they have shut down their adult section, just how much trafficking has been stopped? None.
  • Amnesty International – I could go on a rant about this, but I think the satirical video below captures it splendidly:

Dorothy Allison noted that “Things come apart so easily when they have been held together with lies.” Whether the Woozles and Heffalumps of the prohibitionists are the result of rationalization or deliberate deceit, the best way to hunt and trap them is by simply asking – even demanding – to know the source for such assertions, and to keep questioning in the press for proof. No one who is genuinely confident of the truth of their claims should object to such scrutiny – and no one is obliged to believe anyone who tries to avoid it.

The Sling-Chair Curve: Skewing Results to Hide Inconvenient Findings

There are seven people I know who have worked in coffee shops. One hated it, and his former boss. Two loved it, with one still working as a barista. The remaining four would describe their experiences with various words ranging from “okay” to “tedious”, but would not describe it as terrible; it was a way to earn money and employment experience, and each has indicated that they’ve taken something positive or constructive from the experience.

Seven is hardly a representative sample, but the range of attitudes summarized here follows the usual distribution for any given occupation or activity – a few detest it, a few delight in it, and most take a mixed or ambiguous view. Even jobs that most would consider “ideal” follow this curve; not everyone is cut out to be a movie star, for example, and some who think they’d love it are likely to be disappointed once they discover the reality from the inside.

I bring this up because those opposed to commercial sex seem to feel that such realities simply could not apply to sex workers. In their minds, only an extremely small percentage like their jobs, and the rest all hate it and are being compelled to do so. So instead of the classic “bell curve”, a graph measuring attitudes of sex workers towards their work would be asymmetrical and inverted, like a sling chair – the positive end turning slightly up, the negative end going almost straight up into oblivion, and near-zero in between. Such uneven and polarized distribution is virtually unheard of in social science, and is a sign of flawed methodology based on confirmation bias.

So-called anti-prostitution researchers like Melissa Farley tend to avoid sharing many of the details of their data-sampling methods; indeed, Farley tends to self-publish her studies, often under the auspices of the organization she runs, thus avoiding the accountability of peer review. Still, the effects of their bias show through in their work. In his paper “The Mythology of Prostitution”, sociologist Ronald Weitzer discusses how such practitioners of “advocacy research” attempt to explain away “inconvenient findings” so as to fit their ideological stance. For example, when Farley’s interviews with women who work in Nevada’s legal brothels revealed lower rates of childhood sexual abuse than she had predicted, she attempted to explain this as being due to “numbing, avoidance and dissociation” on the part of interviewees – in short, Farley claims to know the reality of these women’s lives better than they do.

Such a pattern would explain how a bell curve could become warped into that of a sling chair – simply shove any sex worker with ambiguous or mixed attitudes towards their occupation into the “extreme negative” category, explain the ambiguity as being the result of “defense mechanisms” or some other reason, and voila! But this is ideological skewing, not sound research. I’m not holding my breath for Farley and her ilk to conduct a thoroughly vetted double-blind study, with both sex worker and control cohorts. If someone is doing such a study, I’m sure there are plenty like myself who would love to see the results.