Sex Robots And The Making Of A Moral Panic


The mass hysteria surrounding sexual pleasure and the hypothetical consent of non-living machines.

Moral panics are always manufactured and cynical, but it’s unusual to be able to pinpoint exactly when most start, let alone be able to comment on them immediately. Not so with the latest, which is over the idea of sex robots and which was kicked off five days ago by The Foundation for Responsible Robotics – a very official-sounding organisation that in fact is a group co-founded Professor Noel Sharkey, whose idea of ‘responsible robotics’ includes being a judge on Robot Wars.

The report Our Sexual Future With Robots which you can read in full here – is a detailed look at the mostly hypothetical subject, which claims some positives for sex robots, but also posits various, more clickbait-friendly nightmare scenarios for an android-driven future. Some, like the use of child sex robots, seem legitimate areas of concern, even if a few therapists have advocated their use in the treatment of paedophiles. Others, like the idea of robots being used to carry out rape fantasies, seem a bigger stretch, especially as there is no evidence that anyone intends to use robots (and let’s just point out here that sex robots remain, for the most part, a non-existent fantasy at the moment). This latter idea seems to stem from the idea that robots will be built to be ‘non-consenting’, which in itself seems fairly unlikely, and the idea that such robots will therefore encourage rape in real life. Yet surely anyone who buys one of these mythical ‘rape dolls’ would, by default, already be inclined towards rape. At worst, the doll would make no difference; at best, it might offer a non-human outlet for the person to act out their dangerous fantasies on.

Then there is the fear that sex robots will increase social isolation. Some might suggest that the main target audience for a sex robot will be people who are already socially isolated, and the robots will offer them some form of a surrogate partner in place of the one they don’t have – but no. Apparently, lonely, elderly, isolated people should stay alone because other people find the idea of sex robots unseemly.


And if there is one good thing that this latest moral panic reveals, it’s that the people who complain about sex work in general are not really concerned with protecting sex workers from abuse and exploitation, as they claim – they are simply prudes who don’t approve of sex. Indeed, Dr Kathleen Richardson, a ‘robot ethicist’ at De Montfort University (nice work if you can get it), told the BBC “The real problem here is not the dolls but the commercial sex trade. Sex robots are just another type of pornography,” and complained that the report featured a woman on the cover, saying “it is perpetrating the idea that this is gender-neutral, but the truth is that there are not many women buying such dolls, it is largely driven by men and male ideas of sexuality.” Of course, the female market for things that don’t yet exist is unquestionably small, though there is evidence that at least one company has had success with male dolls. But equally, women are already widely catered for with a whole slew of sex toys, be they dildos, vibrators or increasingly sophisticated variations on the themes. To suggest that the sex toy market is somehow skewed towards men and male sexuality seems either hopelessly naive or completely disingenuous. I suspect Richardson is no fan of pornography, though, and her statements should be filtered through that bias.

Of course, the press has immediately leapt onto the story. “SEX ROBOT WARNING as robot watchdog says UK must restrict or BAN imports” shouted the Express (and note how Sharkey’s organisation is now a ‘watchdog’) in a fairly typical headline. Suzanne Moore in The Guardian acknowledged that sex robots could potentially have their uses, but, of course,  has feminist concerns: “this is part of a far bigger cultural question about the privileging of male desire. A technology-driven by masturbatory fantasy is not a technology that enhances the lives of boringly unprogammable women.” Like Richardson, Moore seems either unaware of, or uninterested in, the technology-driven sex toys for women that have dominated the market for decades.


But things became really ludicrous when the Salvation Army waded in. Unlike Suzanne Moore, they don’t see sex robots as a solution against humans being forced into sex work. Quite the opposite.  “The Salvation Army is concerned that by offering another option for purchasing sex though “a sexbot” (sex robot) it could fuel demand for sex with people and lead to traffickers exploiting more vulnerable individuals to meet this demand” said their representative Kathryn Taylor. Now, you and I might think that there is already a fair demand for sex with people, and wonder how an anatomically correct, compliant doll that costs several thousand dollars would create that desire in an otherwise uninterested person – but of course, this is an evangelical organisation, not noted for its sexually liberal attitudes, exploiting a fear of sex trafficking to make a wider moral judgement. This is, after all, an organisation that still bans gay members – indeed, they have actively lobbied against gay rights (or even the rights of gay people to exist). They are not exactly sex positive. So I suspect the Sally Army would much rather people died alone and sexless than have any ungodly outlet for their feelings.

But the remarkable thing about all this is how a single report, with a few possible – by no means certain – downsides discussed, has changed the reporting about sex robots in the British media. Previously, articles about sex robots were sniggering, novelty stories that might have portrayed the people who bought Real Dolls and the like as eccentric, sad but rarely dangerous – the stuff of light-hearted documentaries or magazine stories. This week, all that changed. Now, sex robots are talked about as being the domain of paedophiles, rapists and the wreckers of decent, Christian society by people who like to manipulate fear of the new and unfamiliar. This isn’t the fault of the report authors – they are just the catalyst. Those of us used to such manufactured panics will recognise all this only too well – after all, gory horror films on video, internet porn and other recent ’causes for concern’ also moved from being talked about positively to being seen as the greatest threat to society of our time, sometimes within weeks. Sex robots are unusual only because the panic has started before they even start to exist outside of limited prototypes and manufacturer hype.


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