We are still far from any future where Roxxxy and her kind are “commonplace,” as Boyd predicted—but if their inanimate ancestors, the sex dolls, are any indication, we can assume that almost all of them will be female, and they will be used mostly by straight men.
This is Richardson’s primary objection to the concept of sexbots: that any relationship with one is inherently asymmetrical, and that the asymmetrical relationship is a particularly gendered one, with male users as subjects and female-shaped robots as objects.
When I ask Richardson how she thinks sex robots will affect existing gender relations, she says, “It will reflect and propagate. Reflect and propagate. Reflect and propagate.”
At the macro level, when the people who desire to have sex with human-shaped objects are almost entirely straight men going for inanimate women, it’s a reflection of troubling ideas that men hold about real women. (I’ve written about this before, in the context of sex dolls.) People build technologies to address demand that they see. While there is a male Roxxxy (named Rocky), and there are male sex dolls, these are afterthoughts to the plethora of female-shaped options.
But the bots’ mere existence does not mean everyone buys wholesale into the ideology they reflect. They’re certainly not doing anything to fix sexism or violence against women, true, but they seem to be more of a symptom than a virus. To worry about the niche market of men who want to have sex with robots is to place a possible icky thing of the future above the deep-set problems of the present that might make such a future possible.
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“I must say I didn't call for a ban,” Richardson says. “If you look at my website, there’s nothing on it that says we want to ban sex robots. We're against sex robots because of this model that is the core inspiration for it, which is an asymmetrical relationship.”
The “core inspiration” that Richardson refers to is the sex trade. She drew a connection between sex work and sexbots after reading David Levy’s book Love and Sex With Robots, in which he writes, “It seems inevitable that just as humans desirous of sex but lacking sufficient opportunity will pay a professional for it, so there will come a time—and that time is almost with us—when people will be paying for sex with robots.”
One of the mission statements outlined on the campaign website reads:
The vision for sex robots is underscored by reference to prostitute-john exchange which relies on recognizing only the needs and wants of the buyers of sex, the sellers of sex are not attributed subjectivity and reduced to a thing (just like the robot).
The development of sex robots and the ideas to support their production show the immense horrors still present in the world of prostitution which is built on the “perceived” inferiority of women and children and therefore justifies their uses as sex objects.
This doesn’t make a lot of sense. The argument seems to come down to objectification, and the fact that in both situations—sex work and sex robots—the buyer, who is likely male, has the power. But the objectification of a robot is literally the objectification of an object, and isn’t comparable to the objectification of a person. And Richardson herself admitted to me that the connection she sees between sex work and sex robots is not “immediately obvious.”