Let's Talk About Sex (Robots)

Guest written by: Lauryn Vander Molen

If you have been online in the past few months you may have seen the latest media craze; sex robots. Sex robots have proliferated in visibility, from the 2010 documentary “My Sex Robot” that has now been released on Netflix, to the recent articles published on the CBC, the New York Times, and many other news (and “alternative news”) websites. While many of these articles have attempted to explore both sides of the debate (shout out to the CBC for consulting with actual researchers), others have taken a different approach, disregarding science and instead focusing on condemning the “pervs” and “sex-crazed sickos” who are interested in sex robots.

Whatever your opinion on the matter, sex robots are a fascinating, polarizing, and lucrative market, and they are likely here to stay. In fact, sex robots are set to become a multi-million dollar industry, with robots on RealDoll.com currently going for upwards of $15, 000 USD. Given their meteoric rise to public prominence, pundits on both sides of the debate have much to say. For some, sex robots are the latest aberrant act “sickos” can engage in before committing acts of sexual violence against humans. In contrast, others see the possibility of enhancing sex-offender treatment, prevention, or the opportunity for sexual contact with those who would otherwise be unable to achieve it (e.g., elderly individuals who are confined to their homes, individuals who struggle with social interaction but desire sexual relationships).

The implications for such robots may be far-reaching. Take the recent case in Newfoundland where a man is on trial for possessing child pornography, mailing obscene material, and smuggling and possession of prohibited goods because he ordered a “childlike” sex doll from China[1]. Whether the use of this sex doll will result in future sexual offenses is debatable, this landmark case pits the rights of the individual to act on their sexual desires without harming a human against public fears of potential child abusers, and leads us to pose the questions: should sex robots become mainstream and easily accessible? Will individuals choosing to engage in sexual acts with such robots face similar charges in the future? Are sex robots really harmful, or might they be beneficial? And why are people so obsessed with what others do in the bedroom?

To answer these questions we must look to the research, which, unfortunately, is sorely lacking. However, when considering paraphilias (i.e., intense sexual arousal, interest, urges, or fantasies toward atypical or unusual targets, such as pedophilia or fetishism) more broadly, it isdifficult to say if individuals who engage in these sexual acts are causing harm to themselves, and research is conflicting. For example, sadism and masochism, when practiced between consenting adults, have actually been linked with higher education, income, wellbeing, and healthier sexual functioning[2]. On the other hand, some paraphilias have been linked with both sexual and general violence[3]. It is important to note here that there are distinct but related categories of paraphilias: paraphilic interests occur when there are intense urges or fantasies, when the individual acts on their urges or fantasies they are said to be engaging in a paraphilic behaviour, and when a paraphilia harms others or causes distress or harm to the individual with the interest, the individual is classified as having a paraphilic disorder[4]. From research to date, we cannot definitively say that those with paraphilic interests, those who engage in paraphilic behaviours and, by extension, those who are interested in using sex robots, are going to be adversely affected by acting on their interest, or are going to be more or less likely to engage in sexual violence with real people.

Until more research is conducted it seems irresponsible to stigmatize, ostracize, and persecute those with atypical sexual interests. In fact, research has shown that the stigma faced by those with atypical sexual interests can be extremely harmful, leading to persecution, feelings of shame, attempts to hide their sexual interests, and mental health problems including elevated stress and poorer emotional functioning [5]. Furthermore, it has been suggested that those with the most stigmatized interests, such as pedophilia, are more likely to offend and fail to seek treatment if they are ostracized from society, in part because of the intense shame they may feel and the lack of access to important social or therapeutic supports.[6]

Atypical sexual interests are the rule, not the exception, with some research finding rates of some atypical sexual interests prevalent in as many as 84% of the general population.[7] So, the next time you are outraged by so-called “pervs” who are going to commit acts of sexual violence, think twice; chances are you or someone you know has an atypical interest. Sex robots may be a fascinating (or disturbing) and mind-boggling sexual preference for some, but for others it is simply a variation of the weird and diverse world of human sexuality. Let’s wait and see what the research has to say before jumping to pre-emptive, emotionally- and morally-driven conclusions.

[1] Payette, 2017

[2] Pascoal, Cardoso, & Henriques, 2015; Sandnabba, Santtila, Alison, & Nordling, 2002; Wismeijer & van Assen, 2013

[3] Baur et al., 2016; Bradford & Ahmed, 2014; Chan, Beauregard, & Myers, 2015; Lodi-Smith, Shepard, & Wagner, 2014

[4] American Psychiatric Association, 2014

[5] First, 2014; Jahnke, Imhoff, & Hoyer, 2015; Jahnke, Schmidt, Geradt, & Hoyer, 2015; Wakefield, 2011; Wright, 2010, 2014

[6] Jahnke, Imhoff, & Hoyer, 2015

[7] Joyal et al., 2015

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