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We Will Soon Have Sentient Sex Robots. Will They Be Able To Consent?

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Dec 12, 2020

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Image Credit: Hitesh Sonar For The Swaddle/CBS News

This is the second article in a two-part series about how humanoid robots may change how human society understands sex and sexuality.

The world is only now beginning to grapple with the many nuances of sexual consent on a large scale due to feminist movements like #MeToo. But, with futurists predicting meaningful relationships with sentient robots within a matter of decades, we might have to quickly progress to even more nuanced discussions around consent.

The $30 billion sex industry, obviously for-profit, is geared to creating more hyper-realistic, intelligent robot companions for their top audience — cis-straight men — in the years to come. . As robots get more sophisticated AI, they will gain independent decision-making skills that will give them a specific legal status as electronic persons, according to a 2016 draft resolution put forth by the European Union Parliament. The draft said, “The more autonomous robots are, the less they can be considered simple tools in the hands of other actors … As a consequence, it becomes more and more urgent to address the fundamental question of whether robots should possess a legal status.” When included as citizens and part of a civil society — like Sophia the robot, who received citizenship from Saudi Arabia in 2017 — such electronic persons or robots cannot be used for non-consensual sex without raising ethical, moral, and legal questions.


Related on The Swaddle:

Consent Is More Than Just a Yes to Sex, It’s an Enthusiastic Yes


In Artificial Intelligence and Law, ethicists Lily Frank and Sven Nyholm write, “The legal community should make it very clear that any member of the legal community who enjoys the status of personhood needs to give his, her, their, or its consent before any sexual acts are performed on them. It cannot be that the legal community does anything that can be construed as condoning what is sometimes called ‘rape-culture,’ i.e., a mindset by which non-consensual sex is normalized or otherwise implicitly or explicitly approved of largely as a result sexist attitudes, institutions, and patterns of behavior.”

Sex robots that can give and withdraw consent already exist, but the models of consent utilized are a work-in-progress. This is mainly because, as of now, sex robots can only simulate consent, rather than actively give consent.  It is imperative to note that meaningful consent is possible only if robots achieve independent decision-making skills — a possibility many policymakers and researchers believe is only a few decades away. A California-based cult group UNICULT started a fundraiser for a sex robot brothel that allows customers to only have intercourse with robots after they’d used a relevant app to converse with them enough. The robots would always consent to sex after the points were earned, so the consent model in question only put forth an illusion of choice. Another sex-robot creator named Sergi Santos made Samantha, a sex-robot who can say “no” and activate “dummy mode,” becoming lifeless if she is touched aggressively, bored, or tired. The problem here is that this doesn’t stop the person who owns the robot from raping the robot. 

This is why philosopher Robert Sparrow argues against designing robots with the ability to consent, as it allows the fulfilment of a rape fantasy if consent is denied.  In the International Journal of Social RoboticsSparrow writes, “Even when the intention is not to facilitate rape, the design of robots that can explicitly refuse consent is problematic due to the likelihood that some users will experiment with raping them.” He explains, “[I]t will not be possible to rape robots unless the designers of robots make certain design choices.”

But the matter is not as simplistic as that, as Sparrow notes, “If, on the other hand, sex with such robots is never a representation of rape—and especially if that’s because the robots have been designed so as always to consent to sex—then the design of sex robots may well be unethical for what it expresses about the sexuality of women.” And this is the main reason the question of consent is an important one to consider going forward.


Related on The Swaddle:

It’s Time We Start Negotiating Non‑Sexual Consent, As Well


Almost all sex robots are currently modeled on a human woman’s mannerisms and behaviors. This creates wider implications — mainly that non-consensual sex with robots might also lead to the dehumanization of human women. This is similar to feminist critique of attitudes towards pornography and sex workers. Anthropology and robotics expert Kathleen Richardson bring up the unequal power dynamic and lack of respect that customers show sex workers to predict the future of sex robots. “Technology is not neutral,” Richardson tells the Washington Post. “It’s informed by class, race and gender.” Richardson uses the frequent associations between sex robots and prostitution to show that sex robots will be utilized as receptacles, which, in a vicious circle, will inform attitudes towards women. 

A more contemporary example of how Richardson’s theory plays out is the conversation about the redistribution of sex. A theory first espoused by Robin Hanson and later championed by violent involuntary celibate (incel) fringe forums, the redistribution of sex involves the state controlling women’s bodies and the men they have access to, in order to make sure everyone has access to consensual sex. If some women don’t consent, sex workers and sex robots will take their place. A 2018 New York Times column declared that sex robots’ contribution to sexual redistribution (ensuring everyone has access to fulfilling their sexual needs) is inevitable. One of the main reasons for this is the assumption that there is no complexity of consent involved with sex robots. 

Only, it isn’t that simple. It is necessary to start viewing sex robots for the potential they hold — both independently and as a reflection of how society will continue to treat women. As Frank and Nyholm write, “If we legally incorporate sex robots into the legal community, but we don’t require that consent—or something similar to consent—be required in the context of human–robot sex… It means that the legal community does not take a strong stance against non-consensual sex with human-like members of the legal community. We think that this is an unacceptable implication.”

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Written By Aditi Murti

Aditi Murti is the senior culture writer at The Swaddle.  Write to her using aditi@theswaddle.com, or find her on social media @aditimurti.

  1. Alex

    Forget the sex angle. More about the “electronic personhood,” aspect. It’s a machine. I don’t care how fast it’s processor works. We’re talking about a machine.

    Elephants, dolphins, great apes, arguably even corvids have a level of human-like emotions. They have protections of course but not personhood.

    This is talking about machines, made by people. This is so absurd.

  2. Fudumbass Journalist

    Give me a fucking break. Next we will need consent from a mother fucking toaster. Do you people actually think? Ever. Fucking moronic jack holes making up shit to ‘write’ about.

  3. JakkiK

    I am hoping my toaster and coffee pot consents to use. I really need my toast and coffee in the morning.

  4. Furdanan Burfull

    A robot designed and manufactured strictly for sex IE: sex robot is by definition a consent

  5. Matt

    This whole thing’s abt women being terrified of losing monopoly power over str8 men, whom they often extort riuthlessly for money, etc., by w/holding sex. These so-called concerns over “rape” of what is basically a masturbation aid are utter BS and a smoke-screen for the REAL issue: women losing monopoly power over men and sex. Seriously, the article brings up the concern that *gasp* sex bots might allow evrryone to get their sexual needs met! Can’t have that! Or can we? Yes.

    Regardless, there’ll be ways to shut off the so-called “consent” reqt of these sex bots. They are, after all, only machines.

  6. Cathode Raymond

    No serious person says that “we will have sentient… robots soon” and then fails to even BROACH the philosophical problems of consciousness. Come on.

    “No, we won’t” is the appropriate response to the headline.

  7. Lee Jenkins

    Hey boss, I can’t come in to work today. My car decided that since it’s raining it doesn’t want to venture out so it won’t give consent. I’d work from home but my computer decided to get its keyboard manicured so I guess I’m out today.

    There are actually people in this world who agree with this pap? There are actually people who thought this up? IT IS A MACHINE, A FREAKING MACHINE!! “Gort, Nikto, Reneblat!”

  8. evewoman

    I am often reminded of the movie AI. Robots were depicted as sentient and oppressed.
    I particularly think of the gigolo AI played by Jude Law. Who lived to fulfill women’s fantasies.
    Robots who are expressly designed for one purpose, that being the sexual gratification of humans, are in and of themselves, not purposed for consent.
    We cannot imagine that a robot is like us. That it understands the intricacies of human sexuality, the power dynamic, etc.
    It may not view forced sex the same way, or be capable of the emotions surrounding that. It may not even view the wants of a human and the satisfying of those wants as forced anything.
    This is our failing, that we assume something with some intelligence “feels” what we feel.
    Just because something looks like us in it’s physical structure, does not mean it can experience the human condition.
    All the talk of potentially giving a robot citizenship, status, and legal protections assumes that it experiences existence as we do.
    Even if robots evolved or were developed to the point of intelligently interacting with humans to the point where we assumed they were autonomous beings, that doesn’t mean they share our emotional state.
    This is our huge blind spot. Humans see everything through the lens of humanity.

  9. Beachhawk

    This is silly. Using this logic, buying and bringing home a sex robot would be considered kidnapping, slavery and sex trafficking.

  10. Peter Pango

    Why would you buy a robot that had human right protections? Writer seems to envision a world where people would unwittingly purchase a being that could object to being bought and sold, therefore the premise lacks foundation.

  11. scott sanger

    mechanical devices work 24/7 365 with NO UNION REPRESENTATION…… why? Because they arent ALIVE

  12. phincter

    if we wind up with the robot version of radical feminism, it’ll be the biggest defective product class action lawsuit in history.

    Make sure you install a factory reset button!

  13. ROGER

    Let’s see if dildos ‘owned’ by women will insist on giving consent before allowing themselves to be ‘used’.

  14. Yancy Fancy

    I don’t want to think about this.
    The ideas make me uncomfortable.
    I think I’ll move to the woods.
    I’ll have to practice shooting drones.

  15. ragu4u

    Just what I need. To be turned down by the very machine I paid good money to be my “sure thing”!

  16. Gerry

    One, Anyone that needs a sex robot should be institutionalized until cured.
    Two, Just the thought makes me sick.
    Three, It’s in no way normal.
    Four, It’s a machine not a human, I’m not going to ask permission to open the fridge, or my coffee maker to do things.
    This whole AI thing is dangerous. Quote from the Jurassic Part: Ian Malcolm: Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.

  17. Tammi Moore

    My husband has a lot of fetishes, including pantyhose, heels, lingerie, cuckolding, talking dirty, thongs, you name it. I am pretty much plain vanilla. We have already talked and it’s OK with me, if he wants a nylon clad “trashier” version of me to have sex with. (I won’t be participating.) He has saved and set aside $10,000, and he earned the money, and we do quite well so….here we go! He says he will name it after me, Tammi, and talk to it like it’s me, my “evil twin” lol

  18. Plan

    This is embarrassingly ill-informed, akin to worrying about whether centaurs or manticores can consent to sex.

    Let’s get one thing straight, because the author didn’t bother to figure this out for herself: There is no such thing as a conscious machine, and no one is sure such a thing is even possible, let alone is on a path to develop one.

    Anyone who says machine substrate consciousness is “decades” away is either profoundly ignorant or lying for the sake of hype.

    We cannot even define consciousness and we do not know what it is, let alone have the ability to begin creating one.

    In other words, this is an entirely theoretical life form. A life form so beyond our current understanding and ability that any and all discussion about it is speculation.

    As such, any “consent” by a machine is a meaningless simulation, a yes/no programmed by human hands using RNG or an “if, then” system that does nothing besides give the end user the illusion that the machine is conscious and consenting.

    There is no thought behind that yes or no. There cannot be.

    You really ought to endeavor to understand an issue like this before you publish an entire article of nonsense based on profound ignorance.

  19. Rask Of Treve

    Is there no end to the insanity spouted by feminist fools? Tell me, are feminists demanding consent from vibrators??

  20. MARK SCOTT-HORNE

    What my understanding here is that even before dolls and bots have sentience laws are to be put in place ahead of time.

    So i’ll legally be charged with rape and sentenced to the same degree for using a sexdoll or sexrobot.

    We know today they are making child-like dolls illegal (with very long prison sentences in Australia) on much the same basis.
    It’s the assumption and criminalization of thoughts/intent.
    The child-doll laws are very much a thought crime in that the decision to jail someone can be made even in the absence of evidence the person has sexual interest in children…it’s simply assumed by the purchase itself.

    Similarly they are trying to then say with the adult dolls that rape is assumed to be the intentions/thoughts simply by the purchase.

    This is what happens when you create thought crimes it just leads to other laws on peoples private activity.
    This was the agenda all along when they started on the child like dolls they knew nobody would object…that got their foot in the door for the adult dolls so they want to move in on those and by proxy any future tech.

  21. jimmy rustled

    will this also apply to cars and when they want to be driven? Planes in mid flight change destination because they are tired? fuck what a clown world..all because women were given a voice

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