- Sex & Drugs
- 06 Jun 19
A Northern Irish woman, Kate Devlin, is at the forefront of the discussion on the use of Artificial Intelligence – including, intriguingly, in relation to sex. Here, in a fascinating discussion of this brave new world, she talks about robots and sex; how AI will impact on all of our lives; discusses the absurdity of conventional sexual morality; opens up about her hopes, and fears, about technology; and offers advice to the Irish government…
Born in Co. Down, Kate Devlin started out as an archaeologist, before quickly moving into computer science. She has since gone on to become a leading figure in the specialist field of ‘intimacy and technology’. As Senior Lecturer in the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London, Kate’s research into Human Computer Interaction (HCI) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) investigates how people interact with – and react to – technology. It is an attempt to understand how future technologies might potentially affect us. Through her book Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots, she has become the leading expert on sex robots. Kate was in Rome for an appearance at TEDxRoma. But she was more than happy to talk beforehand to Hot Press, a magazine she had read growing up in Ireland...
FROM ARCHAEOLOGY TO SEX ROBOTS
MARK HOGAN: You started out in archaeology. Now you’re in Rome talking to Hot Press about sex robots. Explain…
KATE DEVLIN: I usually say there’s no future in archaeology! In my archaeological studies, I specialised in computing and became interested in how people respond to technology. From an archaeological perspective – which is about understanding the human creative environment – we can look back millions of years. We see the impact of technology, and the massive social changes recorded in the archaeological record of how a society reacted to a technology. What happened when people discovered fire? When they got storage pits and could store food in winter? Or when they invented the plough? All these things tell us about our adaptation as a species. From the first industrial revolution onwards, you start seeing interesting population shifts. But when it gets to digital technology, robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI), it’s just fascinating.
And how did sex come into it?
It was a conversation in a pub; wondering if people could create robots that would feel pain or emotion? And what about sex? It’s an interesting conceptual idea, a machine that can feel desire, or care. Should a robot that looks after our elderly relatives feel empathy? If we want a machine to not damage itself should we give it an idea of pain? Could a robot feel desire? Sci-fi has looked at this for centuries. And sci-fi has shaped our understanding of AI today. So that’s how I ended up here! And also, sex is a really fun area to work in! Although academia don’t want to talk about it unless it’s in a health context. There’s a lovely community forming around sex tech; and everyone seems to want to rip out the taboo. Whether we like it or not, it’s how we got here. But only something like 0.1% of all sex acts result in pregnancy; the rest is for fun! And it can’t just be for fun. Yes, it feels good but there’s more to it than that! It’s a social thing. It’s what makes us human.
It’s quite a change from your Irish upbringing!
Yeah, my Dad just blocks it out! The landscape in Northern Ireland was so incredibly restrictive, and even now taboos remain. Northern Ireland still has a long way to go, but it’s been amazing to watch how Ireland has grown. I’ve never been as happy as the day the repeal vote was passed. I was crying reading the result. It was just amazing.
FUCKED TO DEATH?
Are we all going to be fucked to death by sex robots, as tabloid headlines say?
No. The story behind that headline is that if AI gets out of control and we haven’t properly specified what we want it to do, then no matter if it’s a sex robot or a coffee machine or a magic porridge pot, it’ll keep going. And going. So there’s a problem from that aspect. But the reality is that sex robots are an incredibly niche thing and it’s a tiny market. There’s only one serious contender making them now, Abyss Creations. There are Chinese factories making sex dolls with a bit of mechanisation but still, it’s tiny. So no, we’re safe!
Who is in this sex doll and sex robot community?
People all over the world own high-end sex dolls and live with them. But it’s not mainstream. Sex robots are hand-crafted so they’re expensive; a lot of people won’t be able to afford them. It’s taboo, people mock it, we’re judgemental. Also we’re rubbish at making human-like robots. I don’t think that’s going to change; it’s far too difficult.
THE AI IMPACT
Might AI have a bigger impact than the digital revolution?
No. It will definitely have a huge impact. We already have AI all around us. Some of it is seamless. The machine learning of today will get more powerful. It won’t necessarily get fairer, but it’ll get stronger. So it’s probably on the same scale as the digital revolution. Although in a recent study, only 40% of companies that claimed to use AI were actually using it. It’s such a buzzword and people are buying into it. The potential for AI is huge: in computer vision and medical detection of tumours for example. Or self-driving cars. I was doing a PhD in 2000 – 2003, and we used to tease the Computer Vision lab in the university, telling them it was an unsolvable problem, that a computer could never properly identify things in an image. Then machine learning had a resurgence, deep learning came about and suddenly computer vision is almost solved. That’s phenomenal. Companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon are pouring money into AI. Research institutes can’t compete. We’re brain-drained: university researchers go to the big companies because they’re shaping the technology. It’ll be big because they have the money, the will and the vision.
People seem to have taken to voice assistance…
Yes, the adoption of voice assistance was rapid. People are uncritically putting voice assistance in their homes. It’s only now that you’re starting to get some kick-back in terms of privacy. But overall, people are very trusting of the technology. They accepted it because it’s an incredibly natural thing to do, to talk to something as if it’s another human. We don’t have artificial general intelligence, that’s still a pipe dream. It might never happen. But I think we’ll see more attachment and intimacy – not necessarily sex – with machines. Lots of people report that they have conversations with Alexa or Siri.
HOW TO SELL SEX ROBOTS
So sex robots will be marketed as ‘Alexa with benefits’?
Yeah, that’s essentially what Abyss Creations is trying to do. They’ve got ‘Harmony’, which is a sex doll with an animatronic head. A lot of the customers who buy sex dolls don’t buy them purely for sex. It’s about a representation of a relationship, it’s about companionship and intimacy…
Is it really?
It is. The sex doll owners I’ve talked to fall into two camps. There are the fetishists: the turn-on is the fact that it’s a doll. The majority buy them because of what they represent; because they’re collectables, because they can photograph them like an object of art. But then there are people who act out relationships with the dolls. The doll represents another person and they interact as if it were a partner. The thing they want from sex dolls is interactivity. Harmony has an AI personality that can be stand-alone: you get the personality without the robot. For $20 you can buy the app, a virtual girlfriend that you carry around in your pocket. And when you think of the Gatebox in Japan, which is a photographic girlfriend, or films such as Her or Blade Runner 2049, the key thing is interactivity. People accept the idea of having a conversational virtual girlfriend more readily than having a physical representation of a girlfriend.
Is that a gateway to bringing sex robots into the mainstream?
Possibly, but I’m sceptical that we’ll ever really take to the current humanlike robots. They’re incredibly difficult to engineer. They’re expensive, they can’t walk around on their own, they use up too much power and they’re not convincing. The vast majority are a bit crappy-looking. So they’ve got this uncanny valley effect: it looks human but not really human enough. My own view is that we can do much better in terms of sex robots when get into immersive, wearable, multi-sensory and bodily experiences – crossing the sex toy with the sex robot. Rather than the reductive stereotype of a woman – a sex doll that can only move her head – you can have a sex duvet, something that will hug you, vibrate and soothe you.
Is that where virtual reality will be introduced?
I’ve seen the first wave of VR fail and I’m not sure the second one is going to work until we can get rid of all the cumbersome gear. But yes. I ran two hackathons where we prototyped ideas around sex tech. One group came up with the idea of augmented reality and wearables, where you could feel the sensations of the augmented reality. I think that’s more palatable, as are conversational aspects. If you think about how people meet online… you can establish a rapport really quickly on a dating app. You feel you get to know someone well. Feasibly you could meet and interact with someone online; you’ve only seen a picture of them, you have some kind of virtual sex. There are plenty of smart sex toys out there, it could be a bot rather than a human. That’s way more interesting.
SEX ROBOTS SHOULD BE BANNED!
There have been calls to ban sex robots...
I think it’s knee jerk moral policing. It’s unfounded. There are ethical concerns; the reductive stereotype thing is problematic. It feeds into the perpetuation of the body image problems we see in the media. But the call for a ban was based on things like a perceived increase in real-world sexual violence. There is zero evidence for that. And we’ve heard that argument for years around video games.
Have many studies been done?
On video games – and there’s no conclusive evidence either way. Some have said people might act out more violently, but they don’t take into consideration things like environmental conditions, family background and mental health. Other studies with FMRI scans showed brain elevations indicating a reaction, but it was actually fine, the violence in that particular computer game calmed people down. So there are counter-arguments. What the campaign to ban sex robots said was profoundly anti-sex. They were also trying to ban sex workers; good luck to them, they’re not going to do that! They’re conflating sex work with sex trafficking. And they’ve said that sex robots will encourage the exploitation of women. Again, the only realistic exploitation of women that we’re seeing with these things right now is the idea of objectification.
What about violence?
They were saying that people will enact fantasies of violence and won’t know how to stop in the real world. First, I don’t think that’s fair on the people who would own these robots. The people I spoke to with sex dolls are really respectful of them. They cherish them. Not just because they cost $5,000 upwards: they treat them with reverence. That’s part of their thing. And they are not deluded; they know these are objects. We’re very good as humans at categorising appropriate responses. There are plenty of people with all manner of sexual fantasies that involve consent and non-consent; this doesn’t spill into real life. There will be outliers, but it’s not common. We know when to stop. So I’m sceptical. A parallel is accessibility to online porn. We’ve heard people say that the increase in online porn has been incredibly damaging. But it’s especially hard to study something like that. There’s been about 40,000 studies into online porn. We know there are social impacts in some areas: we can tell there is a change in aspects of sexual behaviour choices. But given the amount of people accessing online porn – last year there were about 81 million people a day on Pornhub – there hasn’t been any kind of matching level of real life violence.
What about Tinder?
I don’t see such a negative impact with dating apps. The prevalence and access is easier so that’s a problem, but in terms of societal behaviour as a whole, we’re seeing people connect much better for technology. This talk about technology isolating us is often misleading, because in fact it allows us to connect. Ten or fifteen years ago, it was a taboo subject; now it’s a normal part of everyday life. It’s something we’ve absorbed really quickly, and that has brought people a lot of happiness.
Might it exacerbate objectivity?
Opening Tinder just for the kick of swiping, like it’s a box of chocolates? It’s a trade-off. As someone who grew up in the middle of nowhere in Northern Ireland, it’s very hard to find your tribe in a small place. If you’re isolated or in a conservative society like Northern Ireland in the 80’s and 90’s, to be able to meet other people online who think the same as you, to find out that people of your sexual preference, your sexual identity and orientation are out there, that you’re not alone… that’s a powerful thing. The Internet has given us far more in terms of finding our tribe than it has taken away from us.
BLACK MIRROR GETS REAL
What about creating a likeness of a particular person?
That raises loads of philosophical and legal questions. Realdoll (by Abyss Creations) won’t make a doll that resembles a real life person unless they’ve got explicit consent from that person and have met them in real life. They’ve only ever done it twice, with private customers. But you get porn performers who license their identity. You can get artificial vaginas and pelvises that belong to a porn star. They’re already for sale. There are two sex dolls that are built to the specifications of porn performers who actually communicate with the doll owners. They send them clothes; they see it as an extension of their work, another way of making money. But when it comes to, a virtual girlfriend who’s a replica of a celebrity (Futurama had Lucy Liu-bots!), ethically it’s really shaky ground. But there are laws. I think in California you can’t create someone’s likeness until 75 years after their death.
Has anyone built robots based on a loved one who has died or in the image of an ex?
No, but this is something that could happen – like in the Black Mirror episode where you take someone’s social media data and you reconstruct their personality and conversations. That’s a much more interesting way of doing it. Because a robot is not going to convince anyone, but you could easily have a chat bot that uses specific conversations you’ve had through your online life and uses your photos. And if you look at the advances in things like DeepFace, where you can superimpose a person’s face onto video, it’s become fairly seamless. That’s the one area that frightens me in AI: you can now twist the truth so much that it’s hard to tell what’s real. And the more we try to combat it, the more seamless it becomes. So I think we do have a problem there.
Is that legal?
The law isn’t really set up to cope with it. No-one really knows how to fight it. First of all you’ve got to protect it, which is tricky because the goalposts keep shifting. It was done initially on porn. They got loads of photographs of Gal Gado and superimposed her face on video. They basically made a sex tape that she wasn’t really in. Then it started happening more, almost like revenge porn. The software was released, I think on Reddit. So now people can take a piece of video and can quite easily gather up all the social media information and superimpose it onto video. It’s starting to get to the point where you can doctor political videos – and audio. So this is one of the worries of AI for me. It’s not a robot uprising, it’s not super-intelligence, it’s things like distortion of the truth, either intentional – or unintentional, like biases in systems.
Have sex robot brothels opened yet?
The media reported on a ‘sex robot’ brothel in Houston, but really they were sex dolls that moaned a bit. There’s not anything more than that. The only movement in today’s sex robots is that Harmony can smile and move her head a little bit. There’s no movement anywhere else in the body. They’re completely stationary from the neck down.
So what’s the timeline?
For a moving human robot built for sex? It’s incredibly expensive. There are literally three or four places around the world working on this and it’s all small-scale. There’s no corporate backing. Abyss Creations have fifteen people on their factory floor making these, so I don’t see it any time soon. It’s not commercially viable.
Is the money in apps?
Yeah, they’ll do much better with the virtual girlfriend, the app version. They don’t have the investment to create a really good piece of technology. The porn industry aren’t interested. They’re doing fine with online porn advertising. It’s not a profit-maker, so there’s no financial backing to set up a proper industry for realistically-human sex robots. That’s why the broader umbrella of sex technology is better. Start-ups are working on more abstracted interactive, intimate experiences than ‘sex robots’.
So like prostitution, sex dolls will perpetuate the idea of objectification?
Yeah, but the sex doll owners want interaction. A lot of people visiting sex workers want interaction. It’s not just the experience of sex, it’s the experience of having someone pay attention to you, it’s the experience of feeling you’re wanted in the eyes of someone. In 2018 when 10 people were killed by the incel guy (involuntarily celibate: online groups of men who feel they can’t enter into sexual relationships), the response from opinion columnists was that we should give them sex robots, because incels want redistribution of sex as they feel they’re being denied the sex that they’re owed by society. For the book I went into the incel world, which is really horrible. And a lot of them will deny that they’re violent but clearly some people are going to act it out. But you can’t engineer out misogyny, it’s too deep-rooted. They hate women and they say they could replace women with robots, but it would have to be a perfectly controllable robot. And we’ve had this trope for hundreds of years, the story of the perfect, controllable woman. You see it in sci-fi; The Stepford Wives, Ex-Machina. The dystopian plot twist is that she always breaks the program, and there’s an uprising. You could read that as women fighting back against the patriarchy! So providing sex robots as a solution to misogyny is doomed to failure: misogyny is much more deep-rooted than that.
And you have to balance people’s right to do things in private…
That’s exactly it. Who am I to judge someone who wants to have a sex doll or a sex robot in their lives? We shouldn’t judge other people’s sexual behaviour; it’s against freedom of expression and the right for people to have a private life.
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT SEX OFFENDERS
With sex offenders, might sex robots play a role, good or bad?
This is a really tricky one. You immediately feel that it shouldn’t be allowed. Instinctively, we don’t want to go there. John Danaher (from NUIG) has gone into quite a lot of detail around this from a legal and philosophical perspective. We immediately feel that it could be a gateway; that if you give someone the chance to act out their fantasies, it’s going to go happen in real life. But of course that might not be the case. I talked to psychologists who work with offenders, and they don’t want to take the risk. And it’s just too ethically dangerous to set up a study to try it out. There was a study in the University of Montreal using virtual reality, where they put rehabilitated sex offenders into a VR situation that would trigger arousal had they not been rehabilitated. It’s a slightly different context but they were able to measure arousal and say ‘rehabilitation has worked’ or ‘reoffending is likely’. So the argument with sex robots is: it might be a gateway to reoffending; the counterargument is that they may have a role in the privacy of homes.
What about paedophilia?
There are people who have paedophilic desires but never act on them. We hear about paedophiles caught with images of child abuse – which is clearly harmful to children because children are involved in making it. If it doesn’t involve children, (but involves robots) does that take away the damage? Is that harmless? It’s a really grey area. There are a number of reasons why I advocate regulating this. Firstly, in the UK, a lot of Europe and Canada – I don’t think in the US though – it’s illegal to make computer-generated images of child abuse. And this is an extension of that. Also, it mirrors a real-world use of damaging power. So we could decide to regulate it and prevent it happening in the virtual world. When you’ve got an adult version of the sex robot or sex doll, it’s much clearer because it’s not real-world, illegal and abusive behaviour.
Would it make sense to research this area more?
It’s really difficult. Again, it’s about a lack of evidence. There’s still uncertainty about whether paedophilia is learned behaviour or an innate thing. It looks like it’s probably an innate thing. But is there a way of getting someone over that? I advocate caution because I don’t think we can risk it.
MINING YOUR SEXUAL SEXUAL DATA
Storing of sexual data will be a huge issue.
Absolutely. Sexual data is incredibly sensitive. Of course it depends where you live and what you don’t mind disclosing. If you live in a repressive country where your sexual activities are deemed abhorrent or wrong, it could be very damaging if details come out. All of our data could be shared or stolen online, and it’s particularly sensitive with sex data. Some people won’t care; I don’t care if my sex data is out there because I have no shame anymore – I’ve written a book on sex robots! But plenty of people have a lot to lose. Some people on Ashley Madison committed suicide over it.
And companies will always be targets for hackers.
Anything that’s connected to the Internet can be hacked! I saw a headline once where some futurist said that a sex robot could be armed and could kill you, which is complete bullshit because they can’t even move their arms. But if you have one that’s connected to the Internet… we’ve already seen stories about sex toys being hacked. Standard Innovation, the company that make We-Vibe were collecting information about vibrator use; they were collecting data on frequency of use, duration of use and vaginal temperature. But the real problem was they had it linked to people’s email addresses! If that wakes people up to how dangerous leaks can be, that’s good. It’s terrifying how much information is out there.
NEW SEXUAL IDENTITY
Robots bring the conversation on sexual identity to a whole new level.
Yeah, there are people out there who are into androidism; they like to dress up and become a robot, or prefer to have sex with people who look like robots. They fetishise robots. There are objectophiles as well, people who like objects and like the robotic element. That’s a thing too!
People actually try to become robots?
Yes, there’s a woman called Trudy Barber who studied this. She did some of the early work on cybersex. She talks about people who modify their body, almost like taking cosplay to an extreme. You get the trans-human and post-human types but it’s fixed on the one fetish about being a robot. So yeah, we might see a group of people who see their sexual orientation as robot.
Are we all digisexuals today?
I guess we are. A lot of people use technology in their sex lives one way or another. Around the turn of the century, when Sex And The City became big, people were talking more openly about sex toys. Gen Z are much more open to sex. It’s said that they’re not having as much sex as millennials or Gen X, but they’re much more knowledgeable, they’re meeting people online and conducting relationships online. They own sex toys and are not afraid to admit it. There’s talk about them sharing and swapping sex toys. I met my partner through Twitter so I suppose that’s a digisexual thing. And there’s online porn of course.
With change comes fear, resistance, normalisation.
We see it with everything. Socrates was against writing. He thought that if you write, you’ll forget things, your memory won’t be as good because you’re relying on a piece of paper. We heard those same arguments about smartphones, and of course, it didn’t change a thing! We adapt. I freely admit that I don’t remember people’s phone numbers anymore. I don’t need to learn directions when I’ve got Google Maps. But I don’t think that’s a downfall of society: that’s freeing up your mind to do other things. My phone is an extension of myself and I won’t go anywhere without it. That’s just the way it is. We access so much of our lives online now. People say you get addicted to your phone, that you need to phone-detox. For some things, yes, but you’re not just sitting around all day watching YouTube – you do your banking, get education and read things online.
Is robot sex cheating?
That depends on you and your partner. If your new partner decides it’s cheating, it’s cheating! For some people swinging is fine once you don’t get emotionally involved. It all depends. Personally, I don’t think it is cheating!
THE ‘GAYDAR REPORT’
Can you tell me about the ‘Gaydar Report’?
Oh God, it’s awful! Stanford University published a paper that said we can use AI to detect whether or not a person is gay, by looking at their photos using a machine-learning algorithm. And they claimed a certain level of accuracy. There have been mixed reports. But it’s dodgy, not least because as far as I know they didn’t get the permission of the people whose photographs they took from the dating site. They defended the paper saying ‘we’re not saying this is a good thing, we’re just showing it can be done’. Which is like saying ‘I’m not saying that creating a nuclear bomb is a good thing, I’m just showing it can be done’. How that got past an ethics committee, I do not know.
So there are ethical issues here too.
AI research today is notoriously biased. Especially when it comes to image processing, there are inherent racism issues, problems with facial recognition when you train a data-set of white faces and black faces. And when you present information, these biases tend to be amplified by the machine. So we are facing huge ethical problems with AI. The big thing in AI research at the moment is bias, and we don’t know how to undo it. The Stanford paper feeds into that.
THE NEW PURITANISM
There was a moment when sex robots might have been more acceptable, in the spirit of ‘why not?’ Has that changed with the new puritanism – driven by a certain, quasi-religious type of feminism?
Yes, I think we are seeing a resurgence of puritanical ideals, more conservative ideals. That’s tied to a lot of different things including the political climate, recessions, and the rise of the right in the US. You’ve got the abortion bills in the US coming in, Trump has managed to introduce FOSTA-SESTA which puts sex workers lives in danger. Tumblr has introduced an adult content ban: that was the place you went for that! There is this conservative backlash. These days you have to present your sex technology as being for well-being or health, for it to be publicly spun. Otherwise it becomes deviant and wrong.
Where does pleasure come into it?
People aren’t prepared to talk about the idea of pleasure, especially in an academic environment. If I say I research sex tech because it brings pleasure to marginalised groups, there will be a negative reaction. If I say it’s a well-being measure, it’s good for people’s health and it’s therapeutic, it’s much more likely to get funding. So, there’s this morality creeping back in, not in a good way. There’s a lot of policing of people’s desires and sexuality, and a creeping tide of conservatism around sex.
How would you advise the Irish Government on laws regarding AI and sex?
I’d tell them not to worry too much about the sex robots, because that’s not a big area of concern. At least the Irish Government aren’t as crazy as the UK Government on this. The UK Government are about to bring in an age restriction on porn. In July, they say you won’t be able to access porn unless you do so via a registered credit card with a name and address, or you can buy a token from a newsagent that will allow you to access porn sites!
It’s insane, right? It’s being presented as a ‘we are protecting you’ thing. But it’s completely unfounded. There are already protections in place from Internet service providers. This is overcompensation by a government that’s running scared. The UK Government has also issued an Online Harms White Paper, that is basically putting censorship in the hands of content providers like YouTube and Facebook and saying ‘you do the policing’, which is going to result on a blanket ban on a lot of things in the same way that Tumblr’s adult content blanket ban came down. So I’d tell the Irish Government, please don’t go that way! There are much better ways of handling it. I would tell them: we need evidence-based responses.
You can’t have this all-encompassing, blanket ban approach to things. It’s not realistic. I wouldn’t be surprised if the UK dials back on this; it’s a massive administrative nightmare. I would say to the Irish Government, yes we need to educate. We need to make people aware. We need to be careful and give people opportunities to not see things that they don’t want to see. But to impose that on other people is encroaching on freedom of expression. It is a form of censorship and that’s not what we need. We need evidence-based responses and we need education.
Does 3D printing play a role in sex technology?
Yeah, 3D printing is being used. I ran a Sex Hackathon where one group used a 3D printer to print a giant vibrating clitoris.
Tell me about the Sex Hackathon.
It’s about trying to break out of the mould of ‘here’s a vibrator, here’s an artificial vagina’. It’s essentially a 24 hour design sprint, where teams work to prototype new technology. We had techies, artists, psychologists, designers and sex toy industry experts. One group discussed the fact that you can tell if a man’s aroused but you can’t physically tell if a woman is… so they got a vaginal egg – a little egg that you put in the vagina – and covered it in moisture sensors. When you’re aroused and the sensors detect moisture, they drive a motor that opens a paper fan like a peacock’s tail, to show a visible outward sign. They did it as a conceptual piece, but you could use that in prosthetics; you could have someone control a prosthetic penis.
That’s one avenue!
The following year we concentrated on immersive and wearable, full-bodied intimate experiences. The winning group made a shawl with sensors in it; with the shawl on, you go into a virtual or augmented reality environment… for example, you can be lying on a bed like in American Beauty, rose petals are falling onto you, you can see them through the augmented reality camera, and when these virtual rose petals reach you, the sensors trigger in the shawl and you feel them touch your skin. So this is a wearable experience of intimacy.
AI FOR WOMEN
Is there more in the pipeline for women?
Abstracted technology will make things better. There’s a big push at the moment on sex tech and fem tech; things for women’s health and well-being. Part of that is sex toys. Abyss Creations have said they’re making a male sex robot, called Henry. I don’t think they know about the vacuum cleaner! They say male sex dolls are bought by gay men and by women, but you can’t get women to openly admit they buy sex dolls. It’s much more taboo for women.
But before Sex And The City…
Right, no-one was talking about vibrators! Lars And The Real Girl (with Ryan Gosling) was a turning point for sex dolls: it showed it wasn’t such a weird thing. OK, they had a weird guy who had trouble forming sexual relationships, but they did it in a heart-warming way. I was guilty of thinking that people who had sex dolls were reclusive. Then I started talking to them and realised they’re perfectly normal. It’s almost like a hobby.
DOLLS IN HUMAN RELATIONSHIPS
Are there many sex doll owners in human relationships?
Yeah, quite a few. One guy, called Davecat, is very open about it. He’s a lovely, funny guy. He lives with three sex dolls. It’s a form of companionship for him, he hangs out with these dolls and treats them as if they’re his girlfriends. But he’s perfectly aware that they’re just dolls. He’s very social, he gets on with people. It’s not like he’s a recluse hiding in his mother’s basement. It takes all sorts!
Surely there’s a fine line between a sex doll adding to a relationship and destroying one?
It depends on people’s individual relationships. There are morally conservative people and there are people who go to sex parties. And it’s all about negotiating within the boundaries of your own relationship about what is and isn’t acceptable; I think we can’t dictate that.
Tell me about meeting ‘Harmony’?
You could never mistake it for being a real human. But if you’re close to it and focusing on a particular aspect, it looks human. The skin-type feeling is amazing. The details, the tiny freckles painted on, they’re really beautiful works of art: sculptures basically. The guy who set up the company is a sculptor. You can put an electric blanket around her to warm her up. There are apparently sex dolls that have heaters in the vagina…
I’ve heard it all now. But you can’t engineer desire yet…
No, you can’t engineer desire. But you might not need to. We project so much onto machines that it might be enough to just suspend our disbelief and if she says she feels desire, that’s enough for us. We’re social creatures and we project. All our interactions are social.
But they’ll always struggle to make it look human-like…
It’s very hard to make something that our brains will accept as realistically human. Should we move into different body types, yes, possibly. People have tried this with porn for years, saying that the women depicted in porn aren’t realistic, that we should have better other-body types. There are companies who do that, feminist porn developers, ethical porn developers. But they can’t do it for free. In terms of sex technology, my money is on abstracted, immersive wearables as being the socially acceptable way of pushing it forward. More broadly, it can be used to enhance or mediate, rather than replace, human-human relationships. So if you’re in a long-distance relationship, you can use some form of sex technology to keep connected to your partner.