“Once you’ve had a lover robot, you’ll never want a real man again.” That’s a line from Gigolo Joe, the sexbot played by Jude Law in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, the 2001 Steven Spielberg film. What makes Gigolo Joe special—aside from his dewy skin, gnocchi-plump lips, and shiny-suit razzmatazz—is that he represents a very rare filmic depiction of a male sexbot .
Think about it. The sexbots you know and love are almost exclusively female bots servicing human men. They’re the Stepford Wives’ gynoids and Austin Powers’ s fembots; they’re Ava and Kyoko of Ex Machina and Pris of Blade Runner. Chick sexbots populate television, too. Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s April and the Buffybot were lovingly crafted with the express purpose of fucking. Humans’ bellicose Niska is a sexbot, as, arguably, is Battlestar Gallactica’s Six. Dark Matter’s Wendy is an “entertainment android,” whose abilities include sex. While Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Data is “fully functional,” his functionality is more a feature than his purpose—being able to have sex does not a sexbot make. Intentionality is key.
These media representations have set up both our expectations of what sexbots should look like (undeniably hot, recognizably human, and typically female) as well as what our reactions should be (an erotic frisson of fear and curiosity). Think of Pris’s manipulative shy-girl act in Blade Runner, Kyoko’s placid, mute unbuttoning of her blouse in Ex Machina, or the bright red dress of Six and her wet, hot, world-destroying kiss. Movies and television depict sexbots as women who are simultaneously objectified and untrustworthy; sexbots personify a metaphor for a walking, talking, seducing monster. Given this model, it’s especially important that the sexbots you see are female and their consumers are male.
Fictional sexbots matter because every month drags sexbots closer to becoming a reality. Last September , Kathleen Richardson, a robot ethicist at England’s Montfort University, launched her Campaign Against Sex Robots with Erik Billing of Sweden’s University of Skövde. Steeped in anti–sex worker rhetoric, the campaign’s manifesto states, “We take issue with those arguments that propose that sex robots could help reduce sexual exploitation and violence towards prostituted persons, pointing to all the evidence that shows how technology and the sex trade coexist and reinforce each other creating more demand for human bodies.” It’s a dystopian vision.
The Campaign Against Sex Robots is a prophylactic organization, since no sexbots really exist. A company called TrueCompanion claims to make “the world’s first and highest quality sex robot doll,” but their female model, a $7,000 machine dubbed Roxxxy, is essentially a stationary rubber-clad computer equipped with touch sensors and a vibrating vagina. But Richardson is right that there are a lot of would-be sexbot creators who see her sci-fi nightmare as a shiny future full of possibilities.
One of these people is Matt McMullen, creator of the RealDoll, who is currently developing an animatronic sex doll with artificial intelligence. “The hope is to create something that will actually arouse someone on an emotional and intellectual level,” McMullen avers in a slickNew York Times video segment that’s lit with an Instagram-like romantic haze. The video profiles McMullen’s quest to make “the world’s first sex ro-obot,” as Denise, the computer animation, says with a telling diphthong. His company’s RealDolls are touted as the Rolls Royce of sex dolls, but even a Rolls Royce Wraith looks pretty antiquated to people who lust after a MacLaren P1. Hence the need to create something that walks and talks—or at least writhes and whispers—like a living human woman.
Though McMullen and Richardson are diametrically opposed, they assume three very crucial points about sexbots, and none of them are necessarily true. First, that the primary consumers of sexbots will be heterosexual men. Second, that these consumers need their sexbots to look recognizably human. And third, that consumers require an emotional attachment to their bot.
So here’s my radical thought: What if we throw those assumptions aside? Fuck men and their need for bots that fall into the uncanny valley. What if we choose, instead, to market sexbots to women? How does that one simple change rewrite the entire sexbot script?
Watch: Behind the scenes at a VR porn shoot
It wouldn’t take tech as advanced as Gigolo Joe to pique women’s interest in sexbots. For one thing, women already use sex toys. While some, albeit limited, studies suggest sex toy purchasers are split roughly evenly between women and men, there’s no denying that the sex toys made for women are more common, better functioning, and more interesting. Moreover, women don’t really care whether the toy they’re using to orgasm even faintly resembles the anatomy of a human man. The closest cousin to a Hitachi magic wand is a handheld blender, but no one cares that this iconic vibrator looks nothing like a dick. While toys for men, whether Fleshlights or RealDolls, conjure the appearance of an actual woman, women’s toys don’t. They can look like woodland creatures, alien genitals, lipstick cases, or militarized hassocks. Women can—and will—get off on just about anything as long as it works for them.
Women’s flexibility even extends from toys into porn. Women’s porn viewing habits, which range from Kim Kardashian to gang-bangs to gay male porn, tend to be more varied than those of men. All of these points together suggest that there’s a strong argument to be made that we women—way more than men—are polymorphously perverse, being sexually aroused by far more configurations of bodies than men. It’s a fluidity of sexuality that matches the limitless anatomical potential of a male sexbot.
Let’s take as given that women already buy and use sex toys and that, whether because of nature or nurture, we have more flexible sexualities. Now let’s add the facts that women’s male partners die earlier, that women are critiqued more harshly for casual sex, that women can get pregnant, that women experience higher rates of rape and domestic assault, and that lots of women have a hard time having an orgasm from penis-in-vagina sex. Hold all this in our heads, and we get a glimpse of why women would be the consumers of sexbots.
Now let’s imagine what a male sexbot could do. For one thing, it wouldn’t have to look like or sound like Denise, the “world’s first sex ro-obot.” We can begin by tossing out McMullen’s male versions of RealDolls—a scruffy metrosexual reading How to Make Love Like a Porn Star, a bro in gym shorts and tube socks casually leafing through a magazine, and a mohawked drummer lounging in leather—all three show a tragic lack of imagination.
A drawing of a sexbot done by one forward-thinking individual interviewed by Joel Golby
Given that women are inured to sex toys that resemble a sonic screwdriver designed by a Teletubby, a sexbot for women could be vaguely torso-shaped, equipped with vibrating pads and oscillating nubs, and furnished with outlets that would allow for multiple snap-on tools. You could refashion the bot to play to your pleasure de jour—a single guy for a day; a safe, sane, consensual gang-bang for a night. Maybe make it’s voice-activated so that you could rotate between modes without the tiresome pressing of a button. Give it rechargeable batteries, cover it in silicone skin (blue is nice, or maybe a cheery fuchsia), and it’s easy to clean and ready to go whenever you are.
No fuss. No muss. No singularity. And no uncanny valley. Perhaps most important of all, this vaguely man-shaped sexbot would be to a Hitachi as a chick’s Roomba is to her vacuum cleaner: an improvement on an existing technology, and one that’s entirely possible to create today. Orchid colored and vaguely man-shaped, this bot could also sidestep the major controversy of sexbots: that of emotional connection. Richardson sees emotional attachment as an ethical problem, calling it the human-sexbot connection an “asymmetrical relationship,” while McMullen is counting on it to help sell his toys. Our bot avoids all this drama.
The fact is that we don’t yet know what kind of relationship humans will have with their robots, sexual devices or not. Robot ethicist Dr. Kate Darling, a research specialist at the MIT Media Lab and a fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center, who studies the way robots affect human empathy, told me that human feelings for robots will be “a different type of thing… I don’t think that it’s ever going to rival human relationships, because we’re so complex and we’re so far away from building that type of AI.”
There isn’t a lot of research yet that documents what humans feel for robots, but Darling suggested that humans may come to think of sexbots in the same ways that we feel for cats. “Cats may not give a shit about you,” she said, “but you can love them anyway and care for them. You get something out of that.” In short, we humans will always anthropomorphize our tech and imbue it positively or negatively. Ultimately, however, the ways we see our tech say more about us than the tech itself.
“A sex robot seems like an enhancement of sex toys,” Darling said, adding, “maybe sexbots for women wouldn’t even look like men, although I think the intimacy aspect would lead them to be designed like male bodies.” (Although perhaps not. A while back, VICE UK’s Joel Golby invited a bunch of people to draw their visions of an ideal sexbot and his respondents came up with an array of models.) The design is limited only by our tech, our imaginations, and consumer drive—and there’s consumer evidence to suggest that women could be induced to buy a better, bigger, smarter, and more expensive sex toy.
However logical the idea of a sexbot designed and made for women, it’s the representations of Ex Machina, Blade Runner, and Humans that prevail, at least for now. I’ve looked around, and if companies are designing sexbots for women, they’re playing it very close to the vest. Still, I suspect that the ideal consumers of sexbots will be women, and both robot ethicists and sexbot designers should take us into account. Still, these designers can let film be their guide. “We are the guiltless pleasures of the lonely human being,” says Gigolo Joe. “We work under you, we work on you, and we work for you. Man made us better at what we do than was ever humanly possible.”
Sit back, and imagine the possibilities.