Thinking about Marginalized Sexual Practices

Society doesn’t need to freak out about sex robots or virtual reality sex, according to University of Manitoba philosophy Prof. Neil McArthur.

While he acknowledges legitimate concerns about their impact on attitudes to women, “sexbots will be a good thing, on balance,” McArthur predicted during an Oct. 3, 2018, talk at Robson Hall.

He outlined some of the potential downsides of sex robots, which don’t really exist yet:

  • Will they be “pornified fembots” that reinforce unhealthy beliefs that women ought to be perpetually compliant?
  • Will tidy sexbots make it harder for their users to navigate the complicated realities of sexual relationships with real people?
  • How will the technology be secured so that data collected on users cannot be hacked?
  • Will manufacturers make sexbots that look like famous people who have not granted permission? Will individuals use CD printers to create their own sexbots? “People are going to be making them to look like their ex or their neighbours,” McArthur speculated.
  • If people use sexbots to act out their fantasies of rape or sex with children, will they become more or less like to subsequently harm people? McArthur said there’s no consistent evidence either way, although it might depend on whether the users are actively trying to control their criminal urges.

On the upside, McArthur said sexbots might be fun, as well as therapeutic for people who need a safe partner because of previous trauma. They might help relationships where one partner wants more sex or a different kind of sex than the other partner. “A gay man and a straight woman who really like each other and want to raise children together may be able to form a perfectly good long-term relationship and just rely on technology.”

McArthur also raised the idea of a right to sex as a basic need. He said access to sexual intimacy is unequally distributed according to people’s looks or wealth, the local gender ratio or geographical isolation. Sexual technology might help meet some people’s needs.

He hopes society has learned enough from stigmatizing other minority sexual preferences that we can avoid stigmatizing those who will develop a preference for sex with robots.

Law Prof. Karen Busby also led a discussion on laws related to kinky sex. See her slides.

Questions:

What impact will sexbots have on human sex workers?

Some researchers say the market for sex never seems abate regardless of what else happens in society. However, McArthur thinks it’s plausible that the lower-paid end of the sex industry – survival sex workers – might be partially replaced by robots. He compared it to the automotive industry, where menial jobs are being lost to robots but the remaining jobs are specialized and well paid.

What rules should apply to sexbots that look like children?

Prof. Busby said different rules are likely to apply, as is the case with child pornography. While adult pornography may be harmful, criminal regulation doesn’t really work and such porn may not be sufficiently dangerous to require the heavy hand of the law, she said. However, legislators are less willing to take risks when children are involved – even images of children.

Listen to podcasts from seminars in this series.

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