I have been reading A Perspective on Disgust (Rozin & Fallon, 1987). The focus is on food generally, but includes anything that may touch and potentially contaminate the body – such as semen. For example, something that has been produced/possessed/touched by another person:
The two essential aspects of personal contamination are the nature of the person contacting the food (his or her unsavoriness and relation to the subject) and the nature of the contact. People can be sources of positive or negative contamination. When the relation between the parties involves love or certain types of respect and good will, contact can enhance the value of food.
Talking about blood, saliva, chewed food, etc.:
One’s own body products have a peculiar status with regard to the self. … As soon as they leave the body, however, they become disgusting. … With respect to disgust, the borders of the self can extend beyond the bodily self, depending on the context. … Normally disgusting substances or objects that are associated with admired or beloved persons cease to be disgusting and may become pleasant. Body substances including saliva and vaginal secretions or semen can achieve positive value among lovers … the source of the object can be considered an extension of the biological self.
I have been thinking about sexbots on and off for the past couple of years. Like many of the things that intrigue me (vampires, superheros, etc.) they don’t fit with orthodox concepts of humanity. Where vampires exist in the space between humanity and supernatural evil, and superheros confront the ethics of power, robots question the border between life and non-life. When does a machine truly achieve self-awareness and consciousness? With sexbots, this goes a step further, because a conscious machine is capable of giving and withholding consent.
A sexbot is not merely a sex-robot. There are many kinds of machines designed for sexual service, from trusty vibrators to fucking machines with actual moving parts, robots that will whirl and twist and pound for hours if desired. No doubt there are people who object to these things, on whatever grounds, but how many objectors secretly wish they had one to, you know, just try?
A sexbot is more than that. It’s a sex-robot that looks human. And while we humans, speaking generally, have mixed feelings about sentient robots and sex-robots, sexbots provoke outrage and disgust. But why?
- The sexbot is the ultimate objectification of women. It is a thing that looks like a woman and its entire purpose is to have sex with men. The ready availability of sexbots makes women replaceable and devalues them. Of course, this makes a number of assumptions:
- That men only want sex from women, not intimacy, companionship, etc. While no doubt there are men like that, why would women want to be with such men?
- That women will need to compete sexually with sexbots. After all, if a sexbot is willing to do whatever a man wants, what hope is there for real women to attract men? (Just like the ready availability of hard-core internet porn creates unrealistic expectations about real life sex.) But it doesn’t need to be competitive: “You want a blowjob, honey? Well, you know where you can get that!”)
- They look creepy. Well, there is that. Things and even people that look not-quite-human trigger a fear response. This is known as the uncanny valley. Sexbots will need to be designed in ways that avoid this instinctive fear. Either they need to be made sufficiently human (which is really what I’m interested in here), or deliberately non-human (and thus edging back into the territory of sex-robots rather than sexbots).
- That sexbots are (built to mimic) women and only men use them. Really? What about a man using a ‘male’ sexbot, or even a woman using a ‘female’ sexbot? Or what about a ‘female’ sexbot that always wears a strap-on for ‘her’ owner’s pleasure?
- What does it say about us? Are we, as humans, able to take something that looks like a human, and acts (more or less) like a human, and treat it like a disposable object? Sadly, we don’t need sexbots to answer that question, but they do slap us in the face with the answer.
(And of course there are other arguments.)
I started this post with that article on disgust. Many of the arguments against sexbots clearly derive from the ‘female’ sexbot being an embodiment of our patriarchal dystopia, but I think it runs deeper than that to primitive, animal instincts. Our fear of contamination. Body products – STIs. Research has shown that cleaning a thermoplastic dildo is not very effective against STIs, and those are easy to clean. But what about a sexbot that has been used by a man? Just how clean is it?
How would you feel about interacting (in whatever way) with a brand new (untouched by human hands) sexbot? How about a used sexbot? Or one that has been officially sterilised? Let me finish with one last quote from that article:
We demonstrated contagion in the laboratory by dropping a dead, sterilized cockroach into a glass of palatable juice and then removing it. Not surprisingly, subjects found this juice much less desirable than a different type of juice, which contacted an innocuous object for the same period of time.