Are Sexbots Here to Stay?

Researchers map out attitudes about the use of sex dolls and robots.

Posted Jul 28, 2017

     "Tell me now, I know that it just won't stop / You will find your flow when you go robot / I want to thank you and spank you upon your silver skin / Robots don't care where I've been" —Red Hot Chili Peppers


An avid science-fiction reader from a young age, I remember reading Tanith Lee's classic The Silver Metal Lover when it was first published in 1981. Going beyond sex, Lee explores the relationship between humans and artificial intelligence, telling the story of a lonely young girl who, in spite of herself, falls in love with a robot minstrel. The robot, in turn, becomes seemingly more human through her love of him — though the question of whether the robot is truly alive, or if consciousness is merely an illusion, is never resolved. This highlights an important question about the modern-day evolution of sexbots: How far can the attachment to an inanimate, more and more human-like machine go? Will we relinquish relationships with other human beings for the convenience of an unreal partner, and is reality in the eye of the beholder?

In "Sex Dolls — Creepy or Healthy?" Knox, Huff and Chang examine undergraduates' attitudes toward the use of inanimate sexual surrogates, as we move toward commercially available robotic sexual partners, or "sexbots." Sexbots are increasingly appearing in science-fiction movies and television shows, and have had a place in science-fiction literature for many years.

The authors note that sex dolls, or love dolls, go back as far as the 17th century, as depicted in paintings from India. They note that sex dolls were advertised in Paris catalogues as early as 1908, and in U.S. pornographic magazines, starting in 1968. They discuss the advancing technology of sex dolls, with the advent of more realistic dolls than the inflatable plastic dolls of the 20th century — imbued with more realistic features and capable of sexual activities rivaling (and in some cases surpassing) human capabilities.

Key concerns are that the availability of sex dolls may exacerbate interpersonal problems, especially for shy young men, by enabling them to avoid confronting social issues, and that the use of sex dolls may reinforce objectification and exploitation of women — much along the lines of concern about some forms of pornography. Is the growing interest in sex dolls a canary-in-the-coal-mine for a deterioration in human relationships that could seriously threaten our capacity for intimacy and attachment? Sex dolls, for some, may indeed be more appealing than relationships with other human beings, because of the one-sided nature of the interaction.

The feeling of intimacy with a sex doll would presumably be 100 percent projection, and relationships with sex dolls and virtual reality (VR) partners could foreclose on taking the emotional risks inherent in relationships with other human beings, providing a too-easy answer for loneliness. Witness the growing market for VR sex games, in which one can build an ideal partner to one's exact specifications and treat it as abusively (or lovingly) as desired, seemingly without repercussions, but possibly taking a toll on the players.

To look at contemporary attitudes toward sex dolls, researchers recruited 345 undergraduates from a self-selected sample via an email Internet link. Interestingly, about 80 percent of the respondents were women, from mixed ethnicities, with a 70 percent white majority; 90 percent were heterosexual. They completed a 34-item survey asking their attitudes about using sex dolls (inanimate, nonresponsive) or humanoid robots (more human-like, responsive) for sex.

Survey items were aimed at clarifying multiple areas of interest. How much did respondents understand people using sex dolls, and how open they were to utilizing sex dolls for personal use? Did they think it was possible to fall in love with a robot? Was being able to have sex at any time without any barriers appealing (robots never get a "headache")? Was it OK for a person to marry a robot? And was it a good idea to have robots available to meet sexual needs? The researchers addressed whether respondents attached stigma to sex with robots, and whether they thought one could develop feelings of intimacy with a humanoid robot.

Overall, most respondents (68 percent) did not understand how people could use a sex doll, and less than 20 percent could understand how anyone could choose having sex with a doll or robot over a human being. Fifteen percent were neutral on this question. Regarding stigma, about one-third attached stigma to using a sex doll or robot, 40 percent were neutral, and 28 percent reported disagreeing there was stigma. Most (76 percent) thought having sex with a doll or robot was a bad idea; only 11 percent thought it was a good idea.

Men were significantly more likely than women to express openness about having a sex doll for personal use, and significantly more accepting of the idea of developing feelings of intimacy for a humanoid robot.

The more religious respondents reported being, the less accepting they were of sex with dolls or humanoid robots. Those who saw sexual intercourse before marriage as wrong were also significantly less likely to be open to or understanding of the use of sex dolls or humanoid robots, versus those who believed that sex before marriage was OK for people who are in love, or for those who believed that sex for pleasure was OK.

While the majority of respondents were not accepting of the idea of using sex dolls or of forming relationships with humanoid robots, a substantial minority were open to sex and intimacy with sex dolls and humanoid robots. Perhaps not surprisingly, more of those who were open to the idea were men, were less religious, and held more expansive attitudes toward sex. Given increasing difficulties with intimacy in our culture, as reflected in higher divorce rates and increasing difficulty people report having in developing and sustaining satisfying relationships, the use of inanimate sexual surrogates is here to stay. With advances in robotics and artificial intelligence, physical, virtual and augmented-reality sexual and emotional intimacy partners are here to stay — and will only become more common.

As with other new areas changing the landscape of human relationships — social media, online dating, pornography, increasing acceptance of new kinds of relationship arrangements — it is important to keep track not only of changing attitudes, but also of how the choices we are making are having positive and negative effects. Considering how best to use new technologies to benefit us (therapeutically, for example), and preventing ways they may harm us (undermining intimacy and relationships) is of ever-increasing relevance. Ongoing research and cultural debate will be more and more important in helping us understand how we are changing ourselves, and how that may impact us.

Perhaps in the future, it will be commonplace for people to have intimate relationships with both human beings as well as humanoid robots, for those who wish to do so. However, given the majority of people who are not on board with the idea, we can expect a clash as these technologies become ubiquitous and regulated, mirroring the tension between progressive and conservative factions surrounding other controversial subjects.


Knox, D., Huff, S., Chang, I. J. (2017). Sex Dolls - Creepy or Healthy?: Attitudes of Undergraduates. Journal of Positive Sexuality 2017 3(2).