ROBOSEXUALITY: BETWEEN SCIENCE FICTION AND REALITY

[This is a sort of preview of the talks I’m supposed to give on 2nd October at the conference of the International Robotics Association and on 24th November at CatCon II. Same topic, different languages.]

My good friend Prof. Carme Torras has kindly invited me to be part of a forum connecting the Humanities and robotics, to be staged within IROS 2018. I’m not 100% sure how come I have ended up choosing the topic of robosexuality but, after all, I’m a Gender Studies specialist. So that must be it.

Part of my summer reading was Teresa López-Pellisa and Lola Robles’ edited collection Poshumanas: Antología de escritoras españolas de ciencia ficción. One of the pieces, Nieves Delgado’s award-winning story ‘Casas rojas’ (2015) had stayed with me, buzzing at the back of my head. This story supposes that there exists a large network of brothels (the ‘red houses’ of the title), staffed with CorpIA’s advanced sexbots, to tell a tale of anti-patriarchal retaliation, as some of the dolls have been attacking clients (and particular owners). This inspired me to take the chance offered by Prof. Torras to take a peek at the current state of the debate on sexuality and robotics. The issue is much more urgent than I could have assumed, and certainly worrying. ‘Casas rojas’ might soon be a reality.

When I started preparing my presentation, I didn’t know the word ‘robosexuality’. I came across it in relation to a young French woman, called Lily (not sure about the surname) who is building a ‘male’ robot for her pleasure. She, among others, are vindicating the label ‘robosexual’ as a valid preference or identity. You might think that it’s too early to speak of robosexuality in that sense but, at least, the foundations are already set.

Apart from Lily and her InMoovator (no idea what the name means), the anglophone press has been showing a strange penchant for Catalan engineer Sergi Santos and his sexbot Samantha. Santos owns, together with his wife, a small company that sells Samantha look-alikes, already more than a sex doll but still much less than a.i. animated robot. Let me clarify concepts: the Chinese, above all, are selling ultra-realistic sex dolls and these (or similar ones, produced elsewhere) are being used as the bodily basis for the application of a.i. technology and robotic mechanisms. Dr. Santos claims to be at the forefront of advances, explaining that Samantha is, in ‘her’ current programmatic version, capable of orgasms but also of rejecting the advances of his owner. I hardly believe this is the case but, then, I can’t tell for sure. The RealDolls now being commercialized (at about 15,000$ for a basic model) by RealBotix are also supposed to be robots but, again, I doubt they have gone too far down that road. RealDolls, by the way, also has plans to sell a ‘male’ sexbot called Henry, apart from Harmony and ‘her’ friends.

As you may imagine, the sexbots look hardly like ordinary women, taking, as they do, their anatomical referents from current porn. This has sparked a furious feminist reaction headed, among others, by Kathleen Richardson, Professor of Ethics and Culture of Robots and AI at De Montfort University in the UK (https://campaignagainstsexrobots.org/). Another valuable contribution to the debate, less militant but equally serious is the Dutch initiative, Foundation for Responsible Robotics. You might want to peruse their recent report “Our Sexual Future with Robots” (2017) to understand at which stage we are.

The summary is simple: sooner or later there will be fully functional sexbots, which individuals will buy as they purchase cars or similar products. This will inevitably create complicated legal and emotional tangles (Dr. Santos claims that Samantha has saved his marriage but warns that he will divorce his wife if she has sex with a ‘male’ robot). There will also be, no doubt about it, a surge in misogyny, due to the presentation of women as passive sex objects through the sexbots, but also increased androphobia–as women like Lily will choose to (literally) embrace synthetic men made as they prefer rather than actual men. To my surprise, incidentally, the debate is narrowly focused on heterosexuality, which is reductive. To begin with, I’m sure that RealBotix will soon have gay clients for Henry–though I simply don’t know whether Harmony appeals to lesbians. There is no reason, of course, why sexbots must have conventional sets of genitalia or bodies, which means that there could be a market for intersex robots. Whatever fantasy dictates.

The line is drawn, though, and this very clear, at child sexbots. Some Chinese manufacturers are offering ultra-realistic child sex dolls, which, for instance in Britain, you may own but not import (I can imagine the black market thus generated). A lonely young man was recently judged for having imported one of these dolls and he claimed in his defence that he hadn’t realized the ‘female’ doll was so small (only four feet) because ‘she’ had breasts. One needn’t be too clever to detect the ambiguity of both the body and the purchasing operation. On the other hand, there is a Japanese manufacturer, who openly presents himself as a paedophile, arguing that his products (non-robotic child sex dolls) can be not only of therapeutic value but also a guarantee that prospective young victims are safe from the attentions of molesters and abusers. The specialists in these revolting areas of human sexuality–mostly male, let’s be honest–are claiming that this is by no means true. As happens with the adult dolls, the child dolls invite users to display unrestrained sexual behaviour against real individuals, whom they come too see as doll-like, depersonalized objects.

I find it interesting that my search for science fiction about the child sexbots has failed, and led me instead to a story, ‘BoyBot™’, included in the collection by Irish writer June Caldwell, Room Little Darker (2017). Caldwell, reviewer Frankie Gaffney explains, shocks readers ‘with a proud and wanton abandon’ in her story about the use by a paedophile of Conor, a ‘child-robot replacement therapy, assigned to him by the state, and designed to keep him away from human victims’. I haven’t read Caldwell’s grim tale yet, but Gaffney claims that ‘The reader is made to dwell on the idea of how, in reality, such crimes are sentiently experienced by victims’, turning the sick story into a valid cautionary tale. I shiver at how we have passed from Brian Aldiss’ presentation of the child robot as a surrogate son (in ‘Supertoys Last All Summer Long’, 1969, filmed by Spielberg as A.I., 2001) to this brutal, callous use of plastic replacements as sexual toys and victims.

Science fiction offers abundant examples of sexual relationships between humans and artificial persons, with variations that range from the purely robotic (Westworld) to the organic (Blade Runner) and even the virtual (Blade Runner 2049). There are, I think, two constants in this abundance: there is no middle ground between ‘love’ and (often violent) exploitation; and women users approach robots from a more romantic stance. If, so to speak, the protagonist manages to overcome the uncanny valley that makes us feel such evident discomfort before a humaniform robot, what follows can well be ‘love’ (if one can love a machine as we love a human person). In other cases, the sex/robot is the object of a sadistic violence intended for the human beings it replaces. You may see women disgusted with their male robots but not truly hating them, though I agree that often men have obsessive attachments to their artificial companions in many stories.

Since my talk cannot be encyclopaedic, I’m focusing it on the above-mentioned story ‘Casas rojas’ for a presentation of the feminist arguments but also on texts in which the robot user is a woman. There is a double standard at work: whereas the use by men of ‘female’ sexbots is presented both in sf and in real-life mostly as a despicable exercise in misogyny even when it appears to be romantic, women’s use of ‘male’ sexbots is presented as liberating (though also emotionally problematic). You might think that this is the situation mainly in feminist sf like Marge Piercy’s novel Body of Glass (1991) but, no–to my surprise Isaac Asimov’s The Robots of Dawn (1983) goes much further in analyzing the implications of a sexual relationship between a woman and her robot than many feminist readers and critics can imagine.

When I see the photos of Dr. Santos and Samantha I feel, as a woman, dismayed that (patriarchal) men are going that way. I refuse to get angry because I find the whole idea quite ridiculous. I actually wonder what type of client uses the LumiDoll surrogates available from at least one classy brothel In Barcelona (LumiDoll opened a separate establishment but soon closed). Yet, when I consider my own (hetero)sexual perspective I come to the conclusion that, as Asimov narrates, there could be a place in society for ‘male’ robots capable of keeping women company apart from offering sex.

Actually, I even think that in the case of women sex is of secondary importance–in the film Marjorie Prime (2017, based on Jordan Harrison’s play of 2015), the titular character enjoys the company of a holographic reconstruction of her dead husband, Walter (she is in her 80s, he looks 40). This is not uncomplicated: in Black Mirror’s ‘Be Right Back’ (2013), Martha, a young wife who loses her husband Ash to an accident, finds it easier to connect with him as a disembodied a.i. than as an embodied robotic reconstruction. I don’t see much hesitation, in contrast, in the sexual use of ‘female’ robots in films such as Ex-machina (2013) no matter how harshly this is condemned.

The Robots of Dawn strikes, I should think, quite a good balance: Gladia Delmarre, a widow, is exiled far from her native planet and a kindly neighbour, Dr. Falstoffe, lends her his extremely advanced humaniform robot R Jander Parnell for company. One thing leads to another and Gladia discovers with Jander orgasmic pleasure she has never known with men–until someone ‘kills’ Jander. Gladia is never confused about her attachment to Jander, whom she regards as her husband, and she is very rational both about the beginning and the end of the relationship. She refuses to feel shame but also reaches the conclusion that she needs to re-learn sexuality with a human male to reach personal stability. This is not patriarchal, believe me.

I do know because, in contrast, Catalan author Montserrat Segura presents in her recent novella El contracte Wong (2017) a very confused protagonist, unable to accept, unlike Gladia, that sex with her ‘male’ robot works well because he is programmed to please. Gladia knows that robots cannot reciprocate feelings, which is why she can overcome her grief at losing Jander; Amèlia is, in contrast, too hurt by K-Dick’s inability to truly desire her that she ends their relationship catastrophically. She is trapped by a hetero-normative romantic scenario in ways that Gladia never is.

There is an unwittingly gay passage in The Robots of Dawn which explains very well what the main problem is in any emotional fantasy of binding/bonding with a robot. The human man Bailey is happy to meet again his partner (in crime detection!): ‘And then, little by little, he collected his thoughts and knew that he was hugging not Daneel but R. Daneel–Robot Daneel Olivaw. He was hugging a robot and the robot was holding him lightly, allowing himself to be hugged, judging that the action gave pleasure to a human being and enduring that action because the positronic potentials of his brain made it impossible to repel the embrace and so cause disappointment and embarrassment to the human being’. Programming rejection in robots, as ‘Casas rojas’ defends and Dr. Santos claims he has done, makes as little sense as giving your Nespresso the choice to make you coffee… A robot is, after all, a machine, as R. Daneel understands better than Baley.

Since, however, we seem unable to control our feelings for humaniform robots perhaps the solution is not to make them. Jander’s maker, Dr. Falstoffe, explains disingenuously that he gave his robot a set of genitals because he was inspired by the ‘abstract problem of building a totally humaniform robot’. Current robotics engineers stress that a bodily shape that imitates humans makes sense if robots are to solve everyday situations connected with human life. Yet, both reality and fantasy suggest that ‘humaniform’ needn’t mean a perfect copy. Nobody would be lured into having sex with Star Wars’ C3P0, no matter how nice he is, much less with R2D2. And that is, ideally, the way to go for everyone human.

As we know though, if there is a will, there is a way. Or, rather, if business opportunities loom, someone will provide the corresponding product. Who knows? Perhaps the household of the future will be composed of individuals and a harem of sexbots, which will double-up as servants. That is a picture I don’t personally like (it reminds me too uncomfortably of Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives) but, if it ever comes, I hope it excludes child robots. I’m sure you’ll understand why.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.