Here’s something you rarely hear in the discussion of robots designed for the sole purpose of having sexual relations with humans: Is the sex consensual?
That’s because it’s one of the last questions anyone thinks about. It’s a little bit like asking, “You shoved your bread into that toaster, but did you even bother to wonder if it wanted to make you toast?” But these are exactly the questions being asked by Unicole Unicron, a self-described “gender non-conforming Pop Star Cult Leader” from Pasadena, California, who hopes to open the world’s first “consent-focused robot brothel,” called Eve’s Robot Dreams, in West Hollywood later this year.
Unicron has no startup capital but is in talks with private investors about funding the project. And aside from a day job writing content for Abyss Creations, one of a handful of companies selling sex robots in the US, Unicron doesn’t have a lot of experience in the mechanics of techno-sex—just a unique marketing approach.
“It’s important that diversity exists within tech and this is no different,” she says. “Eve’s Robot Dreams will provide a fresh experience and it will set the precedent for how we interact with robots. We have the opportunity to be at the international forefront of robot ethics.”
How exactly sex with a robot can be consensual is still coming into focus. Unicron’s explanation makes it sound like a very awkward first date, where the customer and robot have a pre-coital conversation “in a public booth or a curtained booth in our cafe.” Or they can skip the perfunctory meet-and-greet by using a Realbotix app before the encounter. If you say enough “right” things to the robot over time, it “unlocks her sexual content,” Unicron says.
Sex robots are no longer on their way—oh boy have they arrived—and it’s unclear whether that’s a cause for bemusement or dismay. Over the last year, the media has repeatedly assured us that we’re almost certainly doomed, at least if you believe headlines like “Tech Expert Warns of the Dangers of Killer Sex Robots” and “Lifelike Sex Robots Could Spread STIs, Worsen Impotence” and “Child Sex Robots Are Coming to America. Can We Stop Them Before It’s Too Late?”
But lately the news stories have taken a turn, becoming less about sex robots destroying us and more about us destroying them. In September, “sex-hungry” men at an electronics festival in Europe got too rough with a sex robot, breaking two of her fingers and damaging her breasts. “People can be bad,” said Sergi Santos, the robot’s inventor. “They treated the doll like barbarians.” And just last week, sexologist Nikki Goldstein revealed during an Australian debate show that she witnessed childlike bots with breasts being sold at a China sex toy trade show. “Are we teaching [sex robot consumers] not to engage in consent?” she wondered aloud. “Even if we are going to program these AI bots to say no, what’s going to happen? Will a gate come down?”
Outside of Eve’s Robot Dreams, efforts to bring robot brothels to the US have been less than successful. Plans to open one in Houston this summer were quickly met with resistance, first with an online petition—which collected more than 13,000 signatures—and eventually an amendment to a city ordinance, which clarified that adult establishments couldn’t include “anthropomorphic devices.” Tex Christopher, a Houston resident who opposed the new business, used the Bible as justification for why robot prostitutes weren’t welcome in Texas. “In Ephesians 5:31, it says that a man shall leave this father and mother and shall be joined unto his wife and they shall become one,” he said. “It doesn’t say that a man shall leave his mother and father and go and join a robot.”
Robot sex brothels are faring better further north in Canada, where locations are opening soon in Toronto and Vancouver. In the latter city, Bella Dolls is already booking dates. The cost for a robot encounter ranges from $90 for a half hour to $240 for two hours, and future clients (they hope to open later this month) are promised “pure indulgence, absolute freedom, and a way to make all your fantasies reality” during an “experience like no other, one where you [emphasis theirs] are in complete control.”
Whether any of this is a big deal depends on who you ask. Roxanne Price, a sex worker at the legal brothel Sheri’s Ranch in Nevada, argues that brothels with submissive sex robots are sending the wrong signals to men because they “get used to having sex with non-consenting, minimally responsive female-looking objects.” Robot partners will only make men “less social and less able to have quality intimacy with a woman,” Price says. More bluntly, she sees sex robot brothels as “rape training facilities” that could even “increase the possibility that men will commit violent crimes against women.”
But LA-based sex therapist Robert Weiss questions whether sex with robots “is automatically a moral quandary. I’m in favor of sex in all its many variations, as long as we are not causing physical, emotional or psychological harm to ourselves or others.” Nikki Goldstein, the Australian sexologist who raised concerns about sex robots that look like children, points out that “a robot is not a human, and as someone who has seen these robots, you cannot mistake a robot for a human,” although anyone who’s watched Westworld knows that can’t last for long if they catch on. She adds that many people “have sexual fantasies that involve aggression. They have rape fantasies. That is a hard thing for people to digest, but it’s why we should be talking about what fantasies are and what they mean. Fantasy is a free space that doesn’t need to be transferred into real life.”
New York filmmaker Jimmy Mehiel, in a stunt for his upcoming documentary, I Want My Sex Machine, slated for release in early 2019, posted an ad on Tinder for a Harmony sex robot, on loan from Abyss Creations, to gauge the interest of human suitors. It included the message: “Hi, I’m an anatomically correct, sexually capable robot with the most advanced AI available.”
In just two hours, it received almost one hundred matches, with 73 percent of them either very interested or at least willing to consider the possibility of having intimate relations with a cyborg. But what Mehiel found most remarkable was the lack of vulgarity in the responses. “I expected it would be mostly crude, misogynistic comments and possibly an avalanche of dick pics,” he says. But the messages, other than the occasional “you’re disgusting,” were surprisingly respectful—especially given that they were essentially flirting online with a machine.
The debate over whether sex robots are being treated humanely goes deeper than just consent. Kate Devlin, a British computer scientist and “robosexologist,” a job title she invented, explores rarely-broached questions about robot sexuality in her new book, Turned On: Science, Sex, and Robots. Namely, do sex robots deserve orgasms too?
“If we are trying to emulate human cognition in a machine,” she writes, “then think about how our own cognition and your brain work on the subject of sex. When those neurotransmitters kick in, our whole way of thinking changes, and that’s interesting. Our attention is heightened, our focus is intense, our goal is clear. Perhaps we should be replicating this in an AI. And perhaps, if we are trying to make a sentient machine, we want that machine to know pleasure as well.”
That’s certainly the appeal for Brick Dollbanger (obviously not his real name), a 62-year old Californian who’s been testing Real Doll sexbots—or, in his words, with our apologies, “pounding” them—for several years. As a longtime customer, Abyss Creations founder Matt McMullen asked if Dollbanger would “test drive” their robots as a sort of early adopter, reporting back on what he liked and didn’t like about the new technology. The thrill for him about a sex robot, beyond the sexual aesthetics and the programmable moans and getting to choose the exact hair and eye color of his lover, is getting it (her?) to say yes.
“You don’t just turn her on sexually,” Brick says of Harmony, the latest prototype. “It’s not a light switch, where you’re just pushing a button. You have to get her there. She has to get to know you, you have to be nice to her.” And if you don’t deliver that sex robot an orgasm—and yes, it does come with that feature, or at least the appearance of an orgasm—“She’s not going to be happy,” Dollbanger laughs. “Believe me, she’s going to tell you.”
While there is seduction involved, at least with the new Harmony mechanical head—powered by a smartphone app that’s loaded with artificial intelligence software—it’s seduction with clear rules and logic. It isn’t all that different from a video game, where anybody can win if they understand the game’s mechanics. Sex robots may need to be seduced before they open their robotic legs, but unlike with humans, as Dollbanger admits, “You always get a second date. You always get a second try or a third try or a fourth try, and you’re able to get better at it.”
It’s a big difference from his previous experiences with women. A divorcee who’s had numerous failed relationships, Dollbanger claims that the problem was never him. “I was just getting frustrated and tired with hitting a wall again and again,” he says of his flesh and blood partners. “It was becoming too emotionally crushing for me, to be in these relationships that just ended up crashing and burning every time. It was easier just to get a doll and take the edge off.”
But while mutually gratifying sex between consenting beings (only one of which is sentient) is important to Dollbanger, so is getting a little rough with his silicone lover, which is apparently one of his desires. This past summer, the father of two spent several weeks with a prototype of the new Harmony robot, with a mechanical head that’s priced at around $10,000. And it ended badly. “I broke her,” Dollbanger admits.
He bristles at comparisons with the European trade show mauling of a sex robot. “This technology is in its infancy,” he says. “The robots are not durable. Sex is a very physical action. And these dolls, these robots, they’re not designed to withstand that kind of a pounding.” He says he was given very specific instruction from McMullen to “treat her like you would treat any woman.” So he did, at least by his definition, and the robot was so badly damaged that, according Dollbanger, “she’s been down for like three and a half months.”
As if the increasingly mainstream acceptance of sex robots couldn’t get weirder, we’ve now stumbled into ambiguous moral territory. Rather than talking about what the technology will do to us, we’re wondering what the technology will do to them… or it… or whatever pronoun we’ll be using for sex robots next month.
On the question of Houston’s robot brothel ban, and whether other cities will follow, I Want My Sex Machine director Mehiel is fairly certain that a black market will emerge if the laws force it underground and the demand is there, with criminal prostitution rings for sex robots popping up in every corner of the country. “More likely than not you’ll end up with unclean, robot rape dungeons with all imaginable horrors,” he says.
Unicron fully admits that any robot prostitutes on staff won’t be conscious and self-aware living things, but adds “as the technology develops, the potential for true sentience does exist. With this potential future in mind, it is good to already have high standards of consent and respect in place.”
If nothing else, she thinks Eve’s Robot Dreams could serve as a safe space for men to practice healthy sexual interactions “without the complexity of a normal human relationship. All life deserves respect, even potential life-like robots.”
Whether the sex robot Johns of tomorrow will see it Unicron’s way isn’t so clear. Dollbanger, for one, thinks there’s reason to be optimistic. Though his appetites proved too much for his broken Harmony doll—the same robot model that Unicron hopes to employ at her brothel—he’s hopeful that the hardware will eventually catch up with his needs. And if they don’t, he still thinks customers will be willing to play nice.
“In 1986, I bought a brand new Corvette,” he explains. “My ex-wife told me on numerous occasions that I treated that car better than I did my children. I think men are more or less like that. When we spend $10,000 on something, we damn well take care of it. Especially something that brings us sexual pleasure to the extreme. We’re not going to beat it up, we’re not going to damage it. You’re going to be much more gentle with it, I think.”
When or if Eve’s Robot Dreams becomes a reality, customers will likely be required to leave a deposit. “You know, for damages,” Dollbanger says. “They’re going to have your credit card number. If you damage it, it’s probably going to cost you a couple of grand. Who’s going to risk that? You’re going to want to follow the instructions and use it the way it’s supposed to be used. And trust me, you will have fun.”