INTERVIEW: Kathleen Richardson makes the case against sex robots

“Harmony,” a humanoid created by Matt McMullen, CEO of Abyss Creations and RealDoll.

What’s the matter with so-called “sex robots” anyway? Surely they are nothing more than a harmless toy and a comfort to lonely men, right? Wrong. Kathleen Richardson, the director of the Campaign Against Sex Robots, sees sex robots as part of a larger culture of exploitation and objectification that reinforces rape culture and normalizes the sex trade.

In light of a recent report in The Guardian exploring “The race to build the world’s first sex robot,” the I spoke with her over the phone about the campaign and the reasons why “sex robots” are such a troubling idea.

MEGHAN: What’s the story behind sex robots?

KATHLEEN: I think the idea of having a robotic girlfriend or wife has been a feature of fiction for a very long time, hasn’t it? There’s a book called The Future Eve, which has a fictional Thomas Edison, who creates an artificial woman for his friend. So there’s always been a theme of artificial women that can be created by man. But actually, this idea that you can have relationships with machines didn’t first develop around sex robots, but in another area: robots for the elderly.

I began my research into robots around 2001. In 2003, I went to labs in MIT to do field work, because I’m an anthropologist. And there I found they were creating humanoids — not the kind you would imagine from the domestic work in the 1950s, these robots were called “social robots.” And the aim of these social robots was to be companions with human beings, to be their friends or their social others. And that’s been going on now for about the last 15 years — this idea that robots could play this role in the lives of the elderly. It’s now taken off in these other areas. So sex robots are being promoted now as an area in which robots could be beneficial. The argument there is that if there are lonely men in society, they can have a robot companion if they can’t meet a real human being.

M: What’s the status of the sex robot industry today? Are sex robots available for purchase? What are the sex robots they are working on like? What do they do? What is their function?

K: I think the sex industry and the sex toy market is pretty varied. Sex dolls have been around for a number of years. In the 1970s, there were plastic dolls, and they’ve come a long way since then. Now you can buy silicon dolls that look very lifelike and realistic. But in terms of adding hardware and software to machines, this is a recent development.

Sex robots aren’t really available for purchase at this point. One company in the United States, RealDoll, is saying they’re going to produce this $17,000 robot with artificial intelligence that people can buy. The artificial intelligence is kind of a voice program. It’s like interacting with the speech device on your mobile phone — it would have Siri-like capabilities. But that’s really as far as it goes. Some people have made prototypes like home hobby dolls, and put mechanical parts inside them, so they can move their head from side to side, etc., but there isn’t really a sex robot industry. What there really is is a discussion about whether this is a direction that investors want to go in. Do they want to put their money into this industry? That’s really the level of it at the moment.

M: You were interviewed for a report in The Guardian, “The race to build the world’s first sex robot,”  recently. Matt McMullen, the CEO of Abyss Creations — the company behind RealDoll — has created a sex robot that he is hoping to sell at some point. What I found interesting (and disturbing) about the robot he created was not only that it was simultaneously intended to be as lifelike as possible and also extremely pornified, but also that it was intended to be as subservient as possible. The purpose of its existence was to boost the ego of its owner and cater solely to his needs. To be clear, that robot’s not yet available for sale, is that correct?

K: No. I mean, there’s a lot of publicity around this particular doll — we were told that 2016 would be the year of the sex robot, and that McMullen’s sex robot would be released last year. Now we’re told it’s due to be released this year. But the thing is that making robots is actually incredibly difficult. If you want to make a robot that has one specific kind of function, for factory use, for example, robots are very good at doing that. But if you want to create a machine in the image of a human being, that’s incredibly complex. So, the reason why this prototype is still at this level is because it’s really difficult to create robots. I think what will happen to these “sex robots” is that they will become museum pieces. They will be bought by organizations who want them as novelty objects. They won’t really be useful, working sex robots that individuals have in their homes.

But you are right, the sex robot McMullen invented is entirely the outcome of a representation of a woman that is derived from the commercial prostitution trade.

M: What many people will say in defence of the idea of sex robots is that they aren’t real people, so they can’t be harmed. So what’s the problem? What’s wrong with the idea of creating and selling sex robots?

K: That is absolutely right. It’s a machine; it can’t be harmed. If you stick your penis in it, you might be harmed and get an electric shock. But you can’t harm the machine. The real concern is that we’re living in an era that wants to tell us there is no difference between a human and a machine. That you can have a machine in your life and can have a relationship with that machine, just like it’s another human being — like a friend or a girlfriend. So we’re not just having a conversation here about objects that people rub on their genitals. This is not what this is about.

Because I’m in the field of robotics and AI, I’m really concerned about the way these commercial objects are being put into our society and that a narrative is being created about them that they can be our significant others. Because of this narrative, we have to question where this idea comes from — it comes from this very instrumentalized view of relationships. That’s why McMullen’s doll — “Harmony” — looks this way, because the vision of the sex and relationships that it is derived from is a very instrumentalized, commercial view of a human woman in society. It is piggybacking off on those real lived experiences of real human women being dehumanized by the commercial sex trade.

So for me, that’s the issue: This is a commercial product that’s being peddled as a woman, that people can have as their girlfriends and future wives.

M: I recently wrote an article that was critical of the idea of sex robots…

K: Yeah, that was great.

M: Thanks. It was much more controversial than I would have anticipated. Both men and women (though primarily men) responded saying this is great — sex robots will prevent rape and abuse, because, the story goes, men will rape and abuse sex robots instead of human women. They also argued that sex robots could replace prostitution, thereby alleviating prostituted women from that form of male abuse. What do you think about those arguments?

K: I consider myself an abolitionist, and if I believed for one second that sex dolls and sex robots could abolish the commercial sex trade, I would absolutely support them. There would be no doubt about it. But those arguments are based on a fallacy about how the commercialization of human bodies and human relationships works in our society. So you can’t really get to a stage where people are imagining relationships with dolls, unless you’ve already created the space for dehumanization to occur. These dolls are created on the backs of women who already exist and an idea about women that already exists. You couldn’t buy into the idea of a doll being your girlfriend or future wife unless there was already an idea in wider society about women as objects. And that is a real, real problem.

In terms of whether will they reduce prostitution, well, first of all, there’s no evidence for this — it’s highly speculative philosophy. The reality is that it will just become a new niche market within the pornography industry and within the prostitution trade. If people buy into the idea that you can have these dolls as part of your sexual fetish, it will become another burden that actual living human beings will have to undergo in the commercial sex trade. Forty years ago, what prostituted people might have done sexually included primarily blowjobs or vaginal intercourse. But then when pornography came along and normalized anal sex, the demand for anal sex from prostituted women rocketed. It became more of a standard norm.

So now you have a new fetish object that you can enroll into an existing practice. You don’t eliminate the practice — these robots will just become enrolled in what already exists, and it will become even more disturbing and more dehumanizing for the living human beings whose bodies are traded and rented in the commercial prostitution trade. It’s actually already happening. I was speaking to someone recently, and they said they know a prostituted woman who was now being paid to engage with dolls as a sexual performance — that was one of her new activities as a prostituted person.

M: As you said, at this point, “sex robots” are really just a conversation. This is one reason why the extremely angry reaction to my article surprised me — because I was just speaking critically about sex robots. I am not literally taking sex robots away from men — they don’t even have sex robots that could be taken away from them in the first place, so I wasn’t exactly sure what they were so terrified about… I argued that I thought sex robots would further normalize misogyny and the objectification of women and the subservient status of women — the notion that the ideal woman is subservient. And I got thousands of tweets and thousands of comments every single day for about a week until I eventually just turned off the comments on the article. It was insane. What most of them were saying was that sex robots were the same as any other sex toy. They said, “If you’re going to take away sex robots, you also have to take away dildos and vibrators.” In other words, these men were claiming to not see a difference between sex robots and any other sex toy. I wonder if you’ve come across this argument?

K: I have come across the argument. And whoever says it always thinks they’re the first person who has ever thought of it. So I’ve been asked that question now hundreds of times, I’ve written an article about it, and I’ve tried to explain the difference, but keep getting asked the same question, so here we go: First of all, the vibrator was developed because physicians in the 19th century used to basically sexually assault women because they said the women suffered from hysteria. So they used to stimulate the vagina in order to bring them to orgasm, because orgasm was said to be a way for women to overcome their “hysteria” and their “neuroses.” But what would happen is the physicians’ fingers would get tired, and that’s where the vibrator came from. So its origin was as a medical implement used by these doctors for this dodgy idea about hysteria. But afterwards, it became marketed as a product and it was used in people’s private sexual experiences — they were no longer attached to the kinds of medical ideas as when it was first developed.

But in terms of the argument that vibrators objectify men, first of all men’s penises don’t vibrate. So you do have a physical shape that may or may not look similar to a penis, but that does something extra that a man’s penis doesn’t do. The other thing is that, just because an object mirrors or mimics the form of a human body, isn’t necessarily objectification. We have statues of naked men around us all the time, yet we don’t talk about objectification of the male penis.

Objects that stimulate genitalia are nothing new. It’s just that, now, an industry has come along and said, “Well, we’re going to sell you these objects that can vibrate and they can stimulate your genitalia in another way.” I don’t think that’s particularly extraordinary.

Even if there weren’t vibrators, people have been making use of objects in their homes, or fruits and vegetables, as masturbatory tools. What’s different about a sex doll and a sex robot is the idea that you can enter into a relationship with an inanimate object. Once we start to say that a human relationship is comparable to a doll or a machine, then we start to enter problems in terms of our understanding of what it means to be human. So, I’m not talking about things that you rub on your genitalia.

When this was left at the level of sex dolls — you know, sex dolls have been around for a number of years — it was tasteless. You looked at them and they were tasteless. But now they’ve become part of this wider narrative about how you as a human being don’t need to have another human being in your life. You can have an object instead — an actual physical object. And that object would do exactly what a human being used to do. That is not only a problem, but it’s not true. It’s a commercial idea — an instrumental vision of relationships and human bodies. And I would say it’s now the dominant way we are starting to view human relationships. And that is worrying.

M: Why do you think men get so worked up about this issue?

K: I think they get worked up about anything to do with sex, to be honest. All you have to do is question the right of a man to watch pornography and they will assault you with words. There are a number of narratives men use to diminish those who criticize pornography: you’re frigid, you’re a lesbian, it’s totally progressive, people in pornography want to do it, etc. We’ve got to understand that these industries are very well sourced. The people who use pornography can sometimes be academics and business people themselves, and they become part of producing the narratives about it, and those narratives then become more widespread in society.

Also, men have this idea that they’re entitled to whatever they want. So, they get concerned about anything that interrupts that narrative for them.

M: Totally. And finally, I wonder if you can tell me about the Campaign Against Sex Robots. What are the goals of the campaign and how can people support it or get involved?

K: I launched the campaign in order to have a different conversation in society about how far we’ve come in instrumentalizing sex and women’s bodies, and also to question the idea that sex means whatever a man thinks it is. I want to radically disconnect the idea of sex from rape. For me, sex is a co-experience that you have with another human being and rape is an act of violence against another human being. For the small minority who get sexual enjoyment out of the prostitution trade and pornography, I wouldn’t say that’s rape. But for the vast majority of women in the industry, I would say they’re experiencing paid rape. But because our ideas of sex are so bound up with rape, we have to start disentangling them, and say, “Hang on a minute, women are human beings.”

So I wrote a paper that argues that if you objectify a woman and use her like an instrument — like a sexual tool — then you dehumanize her. The first thing I wanted to do through the campaign was to say: This is not on. We are not objects to dehumanize.

People think I want to ban sex robots, but if I actually campaigned to ban sex robots, I don’t think it would make a blind bit of difference to the objectification of women. So I have a different tactic in my campaign, because I don’t see technology as existing outside culture — I don’t see technology as neutral. I see technology as driven by cultural forces; and the cultural forces driving this technology are the commercial prostitution trade. So my campaign is an abolitionist campaign. What I campaign for is to abolish the commercial sex trade. And if we can do that as a culture, it will have a number of effects. One of the effects will be that people will be less interested in masturbating with dolls. Another effect will be that men and women can enter into a different kind of relationship with each other that isn’t instrumental.

What I’d like to see for humanity is to build that co-existence together. And to abolish the practices where people are treated like tools and objects and instruments, when they are human beings.

This is a very male-dominated field. Did you get more comments from men than you normally do when you talked about sex robots?

M: Yeah, I got exponentially more comments [from men]. I’ve been writing about feminism for years now, and every once in a while, one particular post will attract a whole bunch of men who’ve never been to this site before, and are angry. They all leave the same comment over and over again, and they all think that they’ve said something original and that they’re blowing whatever argument it is to pieces. And in this case the comment I got over and over again was the dildo comment. They had clearly never engaged with the kinds of arguments that feminists make around sexual objectification, and didn’t even try to familiarize themselves with our analysis. So over and over, they said, ”Oh, I guess you’ll have to get rid of your closet full of dildos!” *laughs*

K: Yeah, even at a superficial level, looking at a disembodied shape versus a full-fledged humanoid figure — there’s something radically different, right? Even in the appearance of these objects. As I said, for me, this is not about what you rub your genitalia with. It’s a bigger question about objectification and where society is moving in terms of commercializing our relationships. We live in a culture where we’re using technology, but even if we’re not in the presence of another human being, we expect another human being to be at the end of the line. But what’s happening is, in a small area of Silicon Valley, they’re saying, “What if we could get rid of the person at the end of the line and replace them with a robot or an AI bot”? Even though it seems incidental and not very mainstream at the moment, I think within the next five years this could become a feature of our existence. And I think that is a real problem.

M: Yeah, it’s scary! Thank you so much for all your work on this issue. It’s super interesting and important, and I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me today.

K: Great!

Kathleen Richardson is a Senior Research Fellow in Ethics of Robotics at De Montfort University, Leicester, the author of An Anthropology of Robots and AI: Annihilation Anxiety and Machines, and the director of the Campaign Against Sex Robots. I spoke with her over the phone last month

This interview was transcribed by Priyanka Mehta and has been edited for clarity and readability.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.