Technological and social developments have drastically altered sexual landscapes by improving reproductive technology, changing social scripts to become more accepting of the LGBTQ+ community, and developing high-tech sex toys, including the ever controversial sex robots. Although the current animatronic and artificial intelligence (AI) enhanced bots are relatively new, the concept is actually quite old; in fact, sex dolls were advertised for sale in Paris in 1908 (Brenner, 2017). Pop culture has also addressed this topic in films such as Lars and the Real Girl (2007), which explores the relationship between a shy man and a life-size sex doll. Let’s clarify the terms: “sex doll” refers to a sex toy with features resembling a human partner that is unable to interact or communicate (there are no mechanics or artificial intelligence inside), whereas “humanoid robot” (“sex robot” or “sex bot”) defines a device that appears human and can interact and communicate with humans, if they are programmed to do so (Knox et al., 2017). Sex dolls/robots have become a popular topic in news reports and academic journals as their impact on interpersonal relationships, paraphilias, and the global sex trade is being discussed and researched. In fact, a recent Podcast by Hidden Brain explores the topic of “Love, Sex, And Robots”. It discusses the morals and ethics around sex robots having artificial intelligence and whether or not to include characteristics like empathy and intelligence when programming them (to listen to the podcast click here).
As sex robots are a newer and fairly niche product, there is some stigma around their use due to the fact that they are not a societal norm (Knox et al., 2017). A study by Lehmiller found that 14.3% of participants had fantasized about having sex with a robot; the sex/gender identifications of participants for this fantasy were 10.7% females, 17% males, and 22.8% non-binary (Lehmiller, 2018). So, we can see that some people fantasize about using sex robots, but what do we know about people who actually use them? Collecting data on users of sex dolls/robots proves to be challenging due to the fact that many users will not report owning a doll because of the current stigma. Valverde (2012) collected data using a survey from an “online doll-owner community forum” and found that 37% of users reported that they felt shame, guilt, or embarrassment as a result of their actions (Knox et al., 2017). One potential reason people may find the concept of sex robots foreign is that most people value the emotional side of sexual relationships that encompass love, desire, and companionship as much, if not more, than the physical aspect of relationships.
There are many supporters of this new technology that praise the potential benefits that sex dolls/robots can bring to society and individuals. The CEO of the company RealDoll, Matt McMullen, acknowledges that although the dolls are not for everyone, he can see the difference they make in peoples’ lives, especially in those who are unable to connect with other people (Morris, 2018). There is currently an observable gender bias in the product produced by companies like RealDoll in the sense that they cater mostly to the hetero-man. The bulk of the available designs are female with a male sex robot only being released within the last year. A more in-depth analysis of doll users would hopefully help explain this gender bias and may help encourage more diversity in the dolls that are produced (to learn more about RealDoll visit their website). If you’re worried about being labelled with a disorder of some sort if you have used a sex robot, there is no need to worry: As long as a sex robot is being used safely and not leading to distress, it is considered a paraphilia, which is defined as a sexual interest other than genital stimulation with typically normal, mature, consenting partners (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). People with a fetish for sex robots do not need to be concerned unless the paraphilia becomes dangerous, distressing, or interferes with how they live their lives (and in this case, it would be considered a paraphilic disorder) (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
McMullen also stated that some people feel more comfortable using the dolls because they are not as “deceptive” as a person can be: “They are what they are. If the AI is programmed to love you, at least you know that it's programmed to do that, it's not going to deviate from that goal” (Morris, 2018). The aspect of feeling secure with the dolls may also contribute to the benefits of using them in sexual therapies when needed (e.g., due to lack of a partner). If dolls and robots begin to play a role in the treatment of erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, and sexual anxiety, it would be interesting to see the difference in success rates between this method and the ones currently being used. Finally, the use of sex dolls/robots may be beneficial for couples with mismatched sex drives or individuals who struggle with conventional sexual relationships. If they are being used properly and the users are content, there may be virtually no difference between one of these advanced dolls and conventional sex toys.
Although there are undoubtedly supporters for these robots, they still spark a great deal of concern among most individuals. The first issue to be addressed is the impact sex robots may have on interpersonal issues by enabling individuals, particularly shy men, to avoid confronting their social issues; and there is also the concern that these robots may contributing to the objectification of women. In some cases, sex dolls could become more appealing than human partners due to the lack of social interaction, which may fuel paraphilic disorders in some people and cause them to withdraw from social aspects of their life (Brenner, 2017).
Sex robots may also have implications on the sex industry, which currently produces around $186 billion worldwide every year (Richardson, 2015). Studies have found that the introduction of these new technologies contributes to the expansion of the sex industry, because the robots are viewed as objects that do not need to be treated with the same respect as human beings. A parallel view is currently held for many sex trade workers, and one fear is that people who use sex dolls may transition into the world of the sex industry, which could then increase the incidence of violence and human trafficking commonly associated with sex trade work (Richardson, 2015). Contributions to the sex industry are already being observed through the establishment of sex robot brothels that have recently opened in Japan, Toronto, Italy, Spain, and Russia (Hicks, 2019). These businesses are becoming increasingly popular so it will be important over the coming years to monitor their growth and contributions to the sex industry as well as the economy.
The most controversial use of sex robots is in the case where sex dolls are used as treatment for sexual offenders, and child dolls are used as treatments for pedophiles. Some experts believe that allowing individuals with violent or pedophiliac sexual tendencies an outlet in the form of an inanimate robot will help control their urges, whereas others believe it is only fueling their desires (Cox, 2018). Psychologist Patrice Renaud voiced his concerns that, “Some individuals would have the self-control to stick to robots, but for others the experience may push them further to seek out real children” (Cox, 2018). Supporters of the use of sex dolls to treat these disorders ground their arguments in the fact that the dolls are not living entities so the actions do not cause harm. The overwhelming consensus, however, is that prescribing sex robots as a “treatment” could actually increase the occurrence of these crimes, as well as further the objectification of women and children.
Further complicating the issues described above, the newer models of some of these robots have adjustable personality settings, such as “Frigid Farah,” which causes the doll to reject advances; options such as these may reinforce a power dynamic and encourage the behaviour of rapists (Torjesen, 2017).
There will likely be a lively debate surrounding this new sexual technology over the coming years. As the CEOs of some sex doll companies have stated, they consistently see peoples’ lives improve when they buy a doll which is an undeniable benefit. Some people may struggle with intimate relationships due to social reasons or have specific paraphilic tendencies that can benefit from the use of a sex doll/robot. The idea to implement sex dolls/robots in the treatment of sexual dysfunctions also offers a new avenue for research that may help a lot of people. Regulations, warnings, and research are needed surrounding the sale of sex dolls/robots to ensure the dolls are not being abused, contributing to the sex industry, or fueling the desires of dangerous sex offenders. Users of sex dolls/robots should also be aware of their changing behaviours in case they need to seek professional help if the use of a sex doll/robot develops into a paraphilic disorder, interferes with their personal life, or causes them danger or distress.
And of course, it is always important to be vigilant around this new technology in the event that the robots rebel and attempt to take over the world...
Ali Somers, Economics and Psychology, Queen’s University
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Paraphilic Disorders. In Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).
Brenner, G. H. (2017, July 28). Are Sexbots Here to Stay? Retrieved March 20, 2019, from Psychology Today website: https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/experimentations/201707/are-sexbots-here-stay
Cox, D. (2018, January 4). Would child sex robots stop pedophilia — or promote it? Retrieved March 20, 2019, from NBC website: https://www.nbcnews.com/mach/science/ wouldchild-sex-robots-stop-pedophilia-or-promote-it-ncna834576
Hicks, A. (2019, April 27). Sex robot brothel opens in Japan amid surge of men wanting bisexual hreesomes. Retrieved June 3, 2019, from Mirror website: https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/ weird-news/sex-robot-brothel-opens-japan-14792161
Knox, D., Huff, S., & Chang, J. (2017). Sex Dolls - Creepy or Healthy?: Attitudes of Undergraduates. Journal of Positive Sexuality, 3(2), 32-37.
Lehmiller, J. (2018, November 28). How Many People Want To Have Sex With A Robot? Retrieved March 20, 2019, from Sex and Psychology website: https://www.lehmiller.com/blog/2018/11/28/ how-many-people-want-to-have-sex-with-a-robot?rq=robot
Morris, A. (2018, September 25). Prediction: Sex Robots Are The Most Disruptive Technology We Didn't See Coming. Retrieved March 20, 2019, from Forbes website: https://www.forbes.com/sites/ andreamorris/2018/09/25/prediction-sex-robots-are-the-mostdisruptive-technology-we-didnt-see-coming/ #9a35d9e6a56f
Richardson, K. (2015). The Asymmetrical 'Relationship': Parallels Between Prostitution and the Development of Sex Robots. Computers and Society, 45(3).
Torjesen, I. (2017). Society must consider risks of sex robots, report warns. British Medical Journal.