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Sex

How Sex Robots Might Change Our Love Lives

We can be attracted to them, but they can't be attracted to us.

Key points

  • Sex toys are mainly used by women, while sex dolls and sex robots are mostly used by men.
  • About 25% of American singles would have had sex with a robot at least once.
  • Some people may find robots sexually attractive, but robots cannot feel sexual desire or other emotions.
  • For some people, robots may be helpful in the romantic realm and may subvert some traditional assumptions about love and monogamy.

"I'd rather have a Paper Doll to call my own than have a fickle-minded real live girl."—The Mills Brothers

The existence of robots is no longer a new phenomenon in our society. The new issue is, to what degree can they replace our human romantic partners? Can they be even more satisfying lovers than their human counterparts? Answering these questions requires clarifying the nature of emotions and romantic love.

Sex toys, sex dolls, and sex robots

"There are a number of mechanical devices which increase sexual arousal, particularly in women. Chief among these is the Mercedes-Benz 380SL convertible."—P. J. O'Rourke

Gadgets that enhance sexual desire are nothing new. Nicola Döring, from Ilmenau University of Technology in Germany, distinguishes three such major sexual devices: toys, dolls, and robots. The simplest instruments are sex toys, which are intended to be used on specific parts of the body. Sex dolls are more complex; human-like, they replicate the whole human body. Sex robots are human-like, full-body robots that come with all the attributes and functionalities of sex dolls and can display comprehensible conversation skills and emotional behavior through their pre- programmed personalities. Additionally, they can perform partially autonomous behavior such as sexual movements.

Döring argues that a particular attraction of sex robots is that their appearance and behavior can be adapted to the user’s wishes. Hence, greater satisfaction is possible for all people, while “neither consent nor reciprocity is necessary for users to interact with them sexually” (Döring, 2021; Döring et al., 2020).

Can robots be emotional?

When God measures a man he puts the tape around the heart, not the head.” Howard G. Hendricks

In my view, emotions have four basic components: cognition, evaluation, motivation and feeling. The cognitive component consists of information about the given circumstances; the evaluative component assesses the personal significance of this information; the motivational component addresses our desires, or readiness to act; and the feeling component is a mode of consciousness expressing our own states of mind. Each component is necessary but not sufficient for the emergence of emotions (Ben-Ze’ev, 2000).

Sophisticated robots may possess the first three components: They detect information from the environment that they can evaluate and act on accordingly. Robots, which are made up of metal and plastic, cannot have feelings, no matter how much sophisticated information they have; hence, they cannot experience emotions. Robots can detect feelings and behave as if they have emotions, but they do not actually experience them. This lack of feeling means the lack of pain, pleasure, suffering, happiness, and disappointments. Accordingly, there is no sense in speaking about the need to behave morally toward robots.

Can robots have emotional intelligence?

I guess my heart has a mind of its own.”—Connie Francis

A common view is that if we want robots to be genuinely intelligent, then they need to have emotional intelligence, which is crucial for optimal decision-making. Although I claim that robots cannot have emotions, I believe that they can behave in an emotionally intelligent manner. Emotional intelligence consists of recognizing and regulating our own emotions and those of others in an optimal manner.

The singer Connie Francis is right in claiming that her heart has a logic of its own, but it does not follow that this logic cannot be simulated by a computer. Emotional reasoning is based more on intuitive reasoning than a deliberative one. However, neither type of logic violates the rules of formal logic, such as the rules of contradiction and identity, but they do follow different principles from regarding their content.

In this regard, I suggest to speak about “intuitive reasoning,” which combines emotional intuition with deliberative reasoning. Expert decision-making leverages such intuitive reasoning (Ben-Ze’ev, 2019; Ben-Ze’ev & Kerbs, 2015). Using each type of logic does not require having feelings and can be used by a nonemotional system. Each logic may be more suitable for different circumstances. Thus, when the French actress Brigitte Bardot said, “I don't think when I make love”, it does not imply that she is not thinking in other circumstances.

Can robots be valuable sexual partners?

Last time I tried to make love to my wife nothing was happening, so I said to her, ‘What’s the matter, you can’t think of anybody either?’”— Rodney Dangerfield

The sexual attraction of robots is on the rise, and about 25% of American singles would have sex with a robot at least once. Some people predict that in thirty years, sexual interaction with robots will be as common as sexual interaction with humans. Various people indicate the value of sexual interaction with robots for old and disabled people, who already benefit from services where robots take care of them in other realms of life. The same goes for insecure, inexperienced, and shy people.

These uses of sex robots do not imply that they experience sexual desire; they do not since they cannot experience emotions. However, people may still desire to have sex with robots.

Sexual pleasure heavily depends on counterfactual imagination, in which the content is false and known to be so. Sexual imagination offers an effective way of coping with personal limitations, normative boundaries, and external constraints. One is free to fantasize outrageous encounters, done in exactly the way one desires. Given the effectiveness of imagination, many women say they can achieve orgasm through fantasy alone, with no physical stimulation at all. In one study on lovers, about 70% said that they fantasize while making love (Fisher, 2005; Ben-Ze’ev & Goussinsky, 2008).

The significant role of counterfactual imagination in sexual interaction indicates that sexual arousal can be present with little weight given to the actual nature of the sexual object. This clears the way for the great impact—at least for some people—of sex robots on people’s sexual arousal.

Can robots be profound lovers?

Love doesn't just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.” Ursula K. Le Guin

The highest function of love is that it makes the loved one a unique and irreplaceable being.”—Tom Robbins

In the same manner that robots cannot experience sexual desire, they cannot experience romantic love. However, can robots enhance romantic relationships in the way they enhance sexual encounters?

Romantic relationships are made up of more than sexual desire. A most important feature is enduring meaningful friendly reciprocity, which makes you unique and irreplaceable. In light of the brief and superficial nature of various sexual encounters, the identity of the partner is not significant and can be illusory. Hence, the move to a partner who is a doll or a robot may not negatively impact sexual satisfaction. Enduring romantic profundity may also involve positive illusions but is incompatible with substantial illusions, such as considering metal and plastic as a unique, meaningful, and irreplaceable being.

Sex toys are mainly used by women, while sex dolls and sex robots are mostly used by men (Döring 2021). This seems compatible with Sharon Stone’s claim that “women might be able to fake orgasms. But men can fake whole relationships.” In fulfilling their sexual satisfaction, many women merely need a simple toy. However, in faking an entire relationship, men need more than a toy—they need a complete imitation of a human experience. Women, who tend to give greater value to enduring profound relationships, know that a fake romantic robot cannot be an enduring partner.

In the short-term, the relationship with a sex doll or robot can be meaningful. Indeed, doll owners report cherishing their dolls because they give their life purpose and peace (Döring, 2021). However, this significant illusion will be of little value in the long run.

Concluding remarks

"In the short term technology, such as sex robots, would add a surface layer of novelty. But that novelty will inevitably wear off in the long run.”—David Shen

"I know nothing about sex because I was always married."—Zsa Zsa Gabor

Unlike Zsa Zsa Gabor, robots know a lot about sex, but like Gabor and many married couples, robots do not experience pleasure during sex. Unlike with robots, which lack the experience of sexual pleasure, pleasure in a marital bed can be worked on. And in doing so, some of them may need the help of robots.

Robots may be developed in the future to the degree that their behavior is indistinguishable from actual human emotional behavior, but they will never experience emotions. Nevertheless, for some people robots may be helpful in the romantic realm and may subvert some traditional assumptions about love and monogamy.

Facebook image: Fossiant/Shutterstock

References

Ben-Ze'ev, A. (2000). The subtlety of emotions. MIT Press.

Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The arc of love: How our romantic love changes over time. University of Chicago Press.

Ben-Ze'ev, A., & Goussinsky, R. (2008). In the name of love: Romantic Ideology and its victims. Oxford University Press.

Ben-Ze’ev, A., & Krebs, A. (2015). Do only dead fish swim with the stream? In M. W. Fröse, S. Kaudela-Baum, & E. P. F. Dievernich (eds.), Emotionen und Intuitionen in Führung und Management. Springer Gabler, 43-64.

Döring, N. (2021). Sex dolls and sex robots. In A. Lykins (ed.), Encyclopedia of sexuality and gender. Springer.

Döring, N., Mohseni, M. R., & Walter, R. (2020). Design, use, and effects of sex dolls and sex robots: Scoping review. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 22, e18551.

Fisher, H. (2005). Why we love. Holt

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