Sex with Robots: An Update

The media has been doing a lot on sexbots in the past week. It started with this Campaign against Sex Robots. Is it for real? Apparently so. I mean, not just anyone can start a WordPress site, right? I confess I don’t entirely understand the argument in the paper posted by the campaign’s founders. But it seems to be something like: if we have sexbots, people will see the robots as mere sex objects, and this will (somehow) encourage them to see women as sex objects rather than agents; also, people will start to see the sexbots as agents rather than mere sex objects, which is also bad.

I was interviewed by both the Huffington Post and CBC’s The National about the campaign.

I missed this feature article in Reason Magazine from last April, which is worth a read if you’re interested in this stuff.

Sexbots apparently feature prominently in Margaret Atwood’s new novel, which is out today. I think they might even look like Oprah.

The Guardian has a piece on a super cute new Japanese robot – but don’t get any ideas, because you’re not allowed to have sex with it.

I would like this site to be your clearing house for all sexbot-related news, so don’t hesitate to drop me a line if you find something of relevance.

Image: Concept art for a sexbot for the movie Elysium, not used in the film

Two New Posts, Elsewhere

I’ve done some writing for other sites lately. I have a piece on sex and evolutionary psychology for the terrific British magazine Aeon:

And the fascinating on-line journal Psychology Tomorrow did an issue on “Sexuality Tomorrow”. I wrote a piece for them about the ethics of desire discrepancy.

Check out the whole issue, which was co-edited by the wonderful film director Nica Noelle. It’s no accident they have great visuals to go with all of their pieces. The photo above is the one that accompanies my piece, though I can’t find the credit for it.

Sex with Robots: A Digest


Sex with robots seems to be a hot topic right now. At least, I’ve been talking a lot about it lately. You can find my paper on the topic here.

You can hear me talk about the issue on the Sexpodden podcast. Other than my interview it’s in Swedish. I start at the 5:30 point.

I also talked with Dahlia Kurtz of CJOB Winnipeg. You can hear that interview here.

I get a shout-out from Pando Daily in their robot sex piece. That piece features an interview with John Danaher, whose work on the topic you can read here and here.

There has been lots of coverage of robot sex in the media lately. For instance:

And for an alternative perspective:

And of course you can follow me on Twitter for breaking robot-sex news.

Image: Jude Law as the sexbot Gigolo Joe in “A.I. Artificial Intelligence”, directed by Steven Spielberg

How Do We Teach and Cite Moral Monsters? (The Arthur Koestler Problem)

The wonderful Eric Schliesser asked me to write a guest post on his blog, Digressions and Impressions. The question I address is: how do we cite and teach the work of scholars who we know to have committed unconscionable acts, given that in doing so we create the celebrity that allows them to victimise others?

Are Women Programmed to Avoid Casual Sex?


In the late seventies and eighties, psychologists did a series of tests to see how receptive undergraduates are to casual sex. They hired people (whom the studies refer to as “requestors”) to stand in the middle of different college campuses, and to walk up to total strangers of the opposite sex. The requestor would say to his or her chosen subject: “I have been noticing you around campus. I find you to be very attractive.” He or she would then ask one of three questions: “Would you go out with me tonight?” “Would you come over to my apartment tonight?” or “Would you go to bed with me tonight?” The results were striking. About half of the subjects, both men and women, agreed to go on a date. (Nice work, requestors!) Between seventy and seventy-five percent of the men agreed either to go back to the requestor’s apartment, or to have sex with her. (The ones who refused were generally somewhat apologetic, and provided some excuse, like “I have a girlfriend.”) Zero percent of the women in both studies agreed to either of these requests. Zero. In all of the studies combined. That’s a big difference.

According to a widely-held assumption about how men and women are, this makes perfect sense. Here’s a headline from a British newspaper that captures this assumption perfectly: “Sex: Why it makes women fall in love – but just makes men want MORE!” On this view, women have to be careful whom they have sex with because they are much more emotional about it. If a woman has a casual fling with some guy, she’s liable to wake up in the morning really into him, but he’ll just take off, and that will give her the sads. And evolutionary theorists can offer a scientific explanation of why this is the case. According to “sexual strategies theory”, men want to spread their genetic material as widely as possible, while women are trying to find mates who will help them raise their off-spring. Women are thus essentially programmed to be interested in relationships rather than in casual encounters. 

I don’t buy this. I’d like to offer another explanation instead. I suspect a lot of women aren’t afraid the guy will ditch them. Quite the opposite: they worry that he will be hard to get rid of, and even become dangerous if they try. Stalking is a depressing fact of life for women, and one that is virtually unknown to men. Hollywood seems to believe that almost all stalkers are women.  But real life is very different. Close to ten percent of women have been stalked, mostly by someone they were involved with in some capacity (compared to around two percent of men). A much higher number of women have had to deal with unwanted attention and various other forms of creepy behaviour, often from guys they did nothing more than be nice to (or just friend on Facebook), and every woman has heard enough scary stories from friends that it’s always in the back of their minds. It’s no surprise that women tend to be a little wary of getting involved with total strangers.

There is at least some data to support my explanation for women’s lower receptiveness to casual sex. Psychologist Terri Conley has found that when women are put in scenarios where they can be confident that the encounter will be a safe one, they become about as willing as men to have a casual fling. (She thinks another factor is expectation of orgasm. Women suspect that, if they go to bed with a stranger, the guy won’t really do much for them and so they won’t really enjoy it. I’m sure that’s true.) Incidentally, it’s always worth remembering that if someone approaches you on campus and asks you to do something weird, like come home with them or electrocute a total stranger, they may not be crazy – they may just be a psychologist!

UPDATE: I meant to discuss the phenomenon of Tinder, but, well, I forgot. Ann Friedman has a great analysis of the Tinder phenomenon here. I think its success provides further evidence of my thesis. Tinder is a dating app that uses pictures from your Facebook profile, then gives you a feed of photos and allows you to swipe to say who you’re interested in. If they are interested to, you get to make contact. All you get is the photo, and a list of any friends you have in common. But this is enough. By requiring a Facebook profile, it provides some (albeit not perfect) guarantee you’re the person you say you are, and if you do have common friends, gives at least some sort of character reference. And even though it works mostly as a hook up app, women are using it in very high numbers.

Illustration: Esmeralda and Djali from Alfred Barbou, Victor Hugo and His Time (1882), artist unknown. In Hugo’s novel Notre-Dame de Paris, Esmeralda is the target of the obsessive affections of Claude Frollo, a powerful arch-deacon.

Forget-Me-Nows for Everyone! The Ethics of Anti-Love Drugs

If you like love, drugs, and/or philosophy, you may have heard of the work by a group of ethicists at Oxford – Brian Earp, Anders Sandberg, and Julian Savulescu (and yes that is an Oxford comma by the way) – on what they call “the neuro-enhancement of human relationships”. If you haven’t, you should read some of it. It’s fascinating. The authors believe that in the near future, drugs will be available that allow us to bond more closely to people we feel we should love, and to easily lose affection for people we are in love with despite our better judgement. They want us to consider whether such drugs are good things. They believe they are.

I gave my initial thoughts on the issue here. More recently, the authors generously asked me to write a response to their article on anti-love drugs for The Journal of Biomedical Ethics. My full response is here. But I want to give readers the essence of it.

Many people start with the intuition that there must be something wrong with drugs that manipulate our emotions. They seem like a kind of mind control. But sometimes such interventions make us more, rather than less, free. The authors ask us to consider the example of a battered woman. She knows she shouldn’t stay with her partner – she may indeed be risking her life to do so. But she does anyway. Clearly, she is not making fully autonomous decisions. If a drug could sever her attachment to her abusive lover, she not only protects her safety, but she gains greater control over her life. It would be cruel to deny the woman such help if it is available.

I don’t deny that there are cases where anti-love drugs (let’s call them ALDs for short) could help people in desperate need – not just battered women, but also those who are suicidal or paralysed by depression after a failed relationship, for instance. I therefore would not want to see such drugs banned outright. But I would urge people to be extremely cautious in using them. First of all, the pain that follows a break-up, as awful as it is, is nevertheless essential to the healing process. It’s not like the pain that comes from cutting your foot or breaking your arm. The pain is what motivates us to examine ourselves and our lives, in order to understand what happened. Without it, we would be much less likely to actually learn and mature. People could find themselves trapped in the same endless, destructive cycles throughout their various relationships. Also, with ALDs readily available, we may become prey to an easy-exit bias in our relationships. Many people, fearing the pain or shunning the hard work required to repair damaged relationships, will use ALDs to escape them quickly, to their own long-term detriment. Think about cases where someone has been unfaithful. The process of healing and forgiveness is a long and difficult one. But often, it’s successful. Inevitably, as ALDs become available, many people will abandon relationships that have the potential for long-term happiness but that require difficult periods of reconciliation and healing. They will be less happy in the long term, and other people, such as their children, may suffer as well.

Finally, I want us to consider the impact of ALDs for our artistic culture. Yeats suffered much of his life from the unrequited pursuit of Maud Gonne – and later, her daughter. If he had had access to an ALD, he would surely have taken it. Modern literature would be poorer as a result. That is just one example of great art produced by heartsickness. There are countless others.

Of course, right now this is all highly speculative, and much of the ethical debate will have to wait till the drugs actually exist, and we know what they can and can’t do. But I think it’s worthwhile getting the discussion started anyway. By thinking about such drugs, we can ask some really deep and interesting questions about autonomy and about the nature of human relationships. And we may find that the science progresses more quickly than we expect. It very often does.

Image: GOB Bluth with a Forget-Me-Now, from the Arrested Development episode “Flight of the Phoenix”

Should We Make Sex Normal?


Professor Debby Herbenick of Indiana University, one of our foremost experts on all things sexual and a tireless proponent of “sex positivity”, has started a campaign to, as she puts it, “make sex normal”. Herbenick told Salon that she hopes to promote discussion and education about sex in order to make sex “almost mundane”, to encourage people to, as she and her colleagues do, “talk about it like it’s no big deal.”

I respect Professor Herbenick a lot, and I think her campaign is an inspired one. We live in a political climate where practically every day some politician makes some astonishingly ignorant statement about sexuality, and schools are, under the guise of “abstinence only education”, perpetuating truly dangerous myths about the subject. We need to make sure that people, especially young people, have access to good, accurate information, and we need to promote tolerant, inclusive attitudes towards everyone regardless of their sexual preferences or orientation.

Reading some of the media coverage of her campaign, however, I worry that people who fall into the “sex positive” camp (let’s call them Positives) don’t really understand the views of the people who oppose them. Many Positives think that the opponents of sex positivity are people who really just don’t like sex, or who hold conservative religious or political views that teach them outdated attitudes. And there are certainly lots of people like this. But there are also people who genuinely believe that sex is wonderful and important precisely because it is a “big deal”, that it is unlike eating nice meals or going on roller coasters or any of the other things we do for pure enjoyment. I call these people Significants. Significants don’t want sex to become mundane. They oppose casual sex, and casual attitudes towards sex, because they think that viewing sex as just a bodily process, on par with eating, degrades one of the most wondrous aspects of human life, one that has to be viewed with a kind of reverence. They see it as intimately and inextricably linked with love, something we should preserve as a special part of committed relationships, and they believe that if we lose that link and that specialness, those relationships will suffer.

Pretend somebody decided that they were worried about the way in which Catholics viewed their churches: as special, divinely-inspired places that provide them with a space to get closer to God. This person starts a campaign to “make churches normal”. She insists that churches are just buildings like any others, made of brick and mortar, and we should just get past all this hocus-pocus about them being some kind of sacred space. Why, she asks, should we treat a church any differently than we would treat a school or a mall? Even an atheist would see, I think, that the members of the church would have reasons for feeling misunderstood.

For Significants, the specialness of sex is something fragile, that we should actively try to preserve and protect. Yes, it CAN very easily be viewed as just another bodily process, in the same way that a church can be viewed as just another building. But for them, that’s precisely the problem. In our society there is already constant pressure to take the significance out of sex. To Significants, Professor Herbenick’s campaign can look like another step in promoting society’s pervasive casualness about all things sexual.

I’m not a Significant. And as I say, I think the objectives of Professor Herbenick’s campaign are laudable ones. Significance does not have to go hand in hand with ignorance, and the significance view of sex should never be an excuse to shut down debate about sexual issues, condone prejudice, or promote misinformation. But I think we need to understand why people are Significants. They are not merely ignorant or hung-up. They genuinely see sex differently than Positives do. And we are not going to change their minds till we understand them.

(This is the first in a series of posts on “Sex and Significance”, which will explore the debate between what I have here called Significants and Positives.)

Image: Nineteenth century newspaper advertisement, source needed.

Against Sexual Solutionism


I have just started reading the fascinating new book by Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here. The book is a critique specifically of internet utopianism – the belief that technology alone is going to create a perfect world – but he interprets it as a symptom of a broader mindset, which he calls solutionism. Solutionism sees the world as a set of puzzles to which there must be a solution, rather than a set of problems we have to wrestle with, debate, and try to resolve in whatever imperfect and temporary way we can.

I read a lot of writing about sex: by advice columnists, psychologists, and self-proclaimed social commentators. And a lot of this writing is very good. But much of it also reveals that we have become a society of sexual solutionists.

Unlike Morozov’s internet solutionists, sexual solutionists don’t use technology to solve the puzzles they face. Instead, they use a few basic axioms, which they are confident are sufficient on their own, if adequately understood, to pretty much solve whatever tricky dilemma you face in your life. So they look impressive, let’s call them The Solutionist Axioms. They go something like this:

Be yourself. Be honest and open with people all the time, especially your partner. (Communication is SO important!) Respect other people, and treat them with respect. And don’t judge yourself or others for anything if what you’re doing doesn’t immediately harm another person.

Find an advice column at random, and find a question dealing with some sexual problem. (Don’t worry, every advice column, even if it isn’t specifically devoted to sex advice, has at least one sex-related question.) And I guarantee you the discussion will be of the following form:

Q: I have this problem and it seems really complicated and I don’t know what to do.
A: Cheer up, it’s not that complicated! [Insert one of the Solutionist Axioms here.]

Sexual solutionists believe that once you strip away all of our hang-ups and misunderstandings, and get past all the people with bad intentions, our sexual problems can be solved pretty easily.

They’re wrong.

I know they’re wrong because people are unhappy. Not everyone is, obviously, but lots of people are, and lots of this unhappiness is directly linked to sex. If the Solutionist Axioms really were the answer, people’s unhappiness must come from the fact that they don’t actually know the Axioms. But everybody knows them! It’s not that they’re wrong. They’re right, as far as they go. But, at least on their own, they are not actually solutions to much of anything.

Sexual solutionism has the effect of making people feel like their problems SHOULD be simple, and that if they are still struggling with them, it must be their fault. It isn’t. I started this blog partly because I wanted people to see how complex many of the problems we face really are, and to show that they can’t really get solved – they can just get pondered, wrestled with, and debated, in more or less interesting and productive ways.

I suspect my anti-solutionism guarantees that I will never get a lucrative job writing an advice column. That’s okay. Philosophy has its own rewards.

Image: An early computer, the WITCH (Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computing from Harwell), Britain’s oldest computer, at work, circa 1951.

Hey Nica Noelle, Just Call It Feminist Porn Already!


The Good for Her Feminist Porn Awards are this weekend.  The fabulous Nica Noelle, who is nominated for a million of them and whose films you should start watching immediately, has a post on the Huffington Post explaining why she is not actually, as she is often taken to be, a feminist pornographer.  Now in general artists should be free to decide how they should be described and what genre they belong to, and it is not really anyone’s place to tell them their wrong.

But I don’t care. I’m going to tell Ms Noelle she’s wrong. She’s a feminist pornographer whether she likes it or not.

In essence, Ms Noelle’s argument is this: feminism is a term describing a female-centred political movement devoted to certain specific ideals, promoting a certain conception of women’s identity and their position in society. But “feminist porn” doesn’t actually make any kind of political statement, the people who make it may not believe in all of those ideals, and its audience is not predominantly or even primarily women. Therefore the term is a misnomer.

If we take the term literally, that may be true. But should we? The term feminist porn has become an easy shorthand. It may be a little hard to define what it is. Tristan Taormino defines it as porn that’s produced a certain way. But the average viewer doesn’t know anything about how a particular film is made, and anyway a porn film could be degrading in its content and still treat the performers well and have great snacks. I would suggest that for most people, the term means something like “porn that features real sex and doesn’t degrade women”. And if most people who hear the term know what it refers to, more or less, then it is a helpful term of classification, quite apart from what a literal analysis of the words themselves might suggest.

I see it as sort of like “alternative rock”. When I was a kid, that term meant something distinct — music that was too hard, too rough to get played on the radio, and which it was assumed no one besides a few pothead punks like me and my friends would listen to. Now it basically means any music that isn’t churned out by the soulless corporate hit machine. I have satellite radio and there are two hundred channels. The programmers need an easy way of telling me what station to listen to. Bands always complain about being classified — I’ve read a million interviews where some band will complain how much they hate being categorised. But in a world of a zillion albums there needs to be a quick way of saying: “If you like this music, you will probably also like this…” So the music I like gets called “alternative”, even though, in a world of rap, dance, folk, etc, it isn’t really an alternative to anything.

The term feminism is also one I, like a lot of people, attach positive connotations to. Not everyone does – an issue that is too complicated to get into here. (I think most of the things people think they hate about feminists are just things that the anti-feminists have managed to associate feminism with. But never mind.) The point is, the people who don’t like the term are probably going to mostly be the people who will hate feminist pornography. So the term is annoying exactly the right people. And given the term’s mostly-positive connotations, “feminist porn” is sort of like Corinthian leather. There isn’t any actual leather made in Corinth – it’s made in Newark – but Chrysler invented the term to make people want to buy the cars that used it.

In short, it’s a brand. But it’s a good brand, that Ms Noelle would have had to pay a marketing firm a lot of money to create and associate with her work. So my advice (which she didn’t ask for) is: embrace it. And of course good luck at the awards. She will probably clean up.

Image: A still from His Mother’s Lover (2012), a film by Nica Noelle

Legal phrase of the year

Amid all the hype about gay marriage, people may not have noticed McDonald v Moose, which came down March 12, in which the Fourth Circuit ruled that Virginia’s anti-sodomy provision “facially violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Well okay then.