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  • Paschal Ukpaka

Sex Robots: the ethical dilemma

Updated: May 30

Two lamps, in the form of white plastic but humanoids with genitalia emphasised by bulbs
Photo by Michael Prewett on Unsplash

TW: sexual violence

Sex robots, which are artificially intelligent (AI) technology encased in physical bodies that resemble human (predominantly female) forms for sexual purposes, pose one of the most contentious issues in a time of remarkable technological advancement. The current state of sex robot technology falls short of the humanoid robots depicted in movies and TV shows. Nevertheless, some less advanced sex robots are available in the market. For a price of $6000 or more, one can acquire a RealDoll, a realistic and customisable doll, usually a sex doll, that can be connected to an AI-enabled system. This doll will then exhibit movement, learn the user's preferences through programming, develop its own sexual orientation and personality, maintain eye contact with the user, and engage in sexual relations with the user. These anthropomorphic devices, designed to simulate intimate interactions, have sparked intense discussions about the boundaries of morality, human relationships, and cultural norms.


One of the prominent advocates of Sex robots is David Levy, the author of the 2007 book Love and Sex with Robots, who emphasises their potential to satisfy various needs, such as companionship for the isolated, sexual gratification for those with few options, and even therapy for those who have difficulties with intimacy. Other members the group that advocates for the use of sex robot, particularly those that argue from the angle of individual freedom, popularly referred to as “Supporters of individual freedom”, argue that consenting individuals should have the right to follow their preferences without judgment or social interference.


However, this debate entails a moral crossroads. Kathleen Richardson, who founded the Campaign Against Sex Robots in 2015, asserts that having sex with a robot is ethically analogous to having sex with a prostitute, in which only the buyer is acknowledged as a person and the emotions and feelings of the object, whether a prostitute or a robot, are disregarded. Objectification, a persistent problem, remains a focal point, raising questions about the implications of diminishing complex human relations to merely physical interactions with technology. Largely, critics of the use of sex robots are worried that these artificial partners may foster negative views on authentic relationships. Participating in personal bonds with robots may impair empathy, intimacy, and the social cohesion that binds us all together. In other words, such relations could impair interhuman relationships, empathy, and intimacy by diminishing complex human ties to merely physical interactions with technology. In addition,  the use of sex robots could also foster negative attitudes towards authentic relationships, especially regarding consent, intimacy, and healthy relationships, by simulating rape or other forms of sexual violence.


Without ignoring the ethical issues sex robot entail, I do support the allowance of therapeutic sex robots, but only for individuals who have the necessary licenses to use them or those who have recommendations from a medical expert to use them. However, sex robot companies should establish clear and consistent ethical guidelines and legislation that regulate the production, distribution, and use of sex robots. For instance,  some sex robots, especially those that mimic rape, should be banned. Rape simulation robots or sex robots shaped after people who would be deemed unable to consent in real life, such as schoolgirls and teenage girls, should also be banned since they may escalate the abuse of real children.


Alternatively, besides outright bans, there are other various ways to regulate the sex robot industry that could help to mitigate some of the possible negative effects that sex robots could have on consent norms. One way is to instruct the user on the significance and characteristics of sexual consent. They should educate the users and the public about the potential benefits and harms of sex robots, as well as the significance and characteristics of sexual consent.  


For instance, roboticists should design human-robot interaction that fosters sexual consent, respect, and empathy, and that prevents the objectification, manipulation, and abuse of sex robots and humans. A robot may not perform sexual acts unless appropriately convinced. The robot could reject its user on a random basis while always showing signs of affirmative consent whenever it is willing to engage.


In addition,  these companies should engage in open dialogue and critical debate among various stakeholders, such as roboticists, ethicists, policymakers, users, and advocates, to foster a deeper understanding of the ethical dilemmas posed by the incorporation of technology into intimate aspects of human life. These are some of the possible ways to ensure that sex robots adhere to ethical principles, but they also require careful consideration, transparency, and collective dedication to sustain the integrity of human connections and the ethical values that support our social fabric.


The emergence of sex robots raises a fundamental ethical question, urging us to reflect on the significance of human connection as well as the ethical boundaries we aim to preserve in an increasingly technology-driven society. In addressing this complex issue, it is vital to engage in open dialogue, fostering a deeper understanding of the ethical dilemmas posed by the incorporation of technology into intimate aspects of human life. The way forward requires not only careful consideration, but also a collective dedication to sustaining the integrity of human connections and the ethical values that support our social fabric. That is why I believe that the discussions about sex robots require a nuanced approach that acknowledges both the individual's agency and the broader social implications. Lawmakers must find a fine balance between personal rights and protecting against possible social harms.


Summing up, as we navigate this new territory, ethical guidelines and legislation must evolve in tandem with technological innovations. Transparency, education, and critical dialogue are necessary to ensure that the proliferation of sex robots conforms to ethical values while honouring the dignity of human interactions.

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