How sex robots could help with relationships
Sex robots do not currently exist. While some early proto-sexbots have been developed, there is as yet no technology that offers a plausibly realistic approximation of sex with a human being. However, sexbots are coming – in the near future, we will be able to have sex with robot partners that can speak and move, and that look very much like real people. Many people are concerned that their impact may be detrimental. Their concerns are not all unwarranted, but there are also arguments in favour of this technology that have not been adequately articulated. Sexbots may even have the potential to enhance human relationships.
We currently ask a lot of our relationships. We want emotionally compatible companions. We want someone to share household duties and finances. We want someone who will be a good co-parent to our children. And on top of all of this, we want someone who will excite us sexually and meet our sexual needs – forever. The model is not working. As the author Dan Savage says: “Relationship graveyards around the world are crowded with tombstones that read: ‘Everything was great … other than the sex.’”
Could sexbots help? There are reasons to think they might. They have the potential to address one of the main sources of dissatisfaction in relationships: the simple need for variety. In a Ted talk, psychotherapist Esther Perel has arguedthat a major challenge to “mating in captivity”, as she calls long-term relationships, is that of finding a way to meet our need both for security and for surprise. Faced with this intractable dilemma, many people find themselves drawn to infidelity. To avoid this, some couples experiment with non-monogamy – but even its proponents admit this solution is “complicated” and “not for everyone”.
Sexbots may offer a solution that is simpler and less painful than either of these. They can provide people with novelty and variety without threatening the relationship itself. They can also address the problem of discrepancies in the desire for sex, which relationship therapists say is the most common sexual problem among couples seeking therapy. When one person persistently wants more sex than their partner, a robot could bridge the gap.
Commentators have speculated that the users of sexbots will be mostly men. But there is reason to wonder whether this will prove true. The problem of maintaining desire in a long-term relationship is one that disproportionately affects women. Studies indicate that women’s libido drops off over time not because women are less sexual than men, but because many simply find the prospect of sex with the same person for an entire lifetime to be less than arousing. This is compounded by the fact that men are not especially good at doing the things women want in bed.
Women already dominate the market for sex toys. If we remove the stigma surrounding sex robots, it is not unreasonable to think the same might be true of the sexbot market. Not only can sex robots be programmed to do exactly what women want, they can be made with physical features that can enhance women’s pleasure in ways a human partner cannot.
While many women want variety, they also, understandably, want to feel safe around their partners – as do men. This is particularly true of survivors of sexual violence. Commentators worry that sexbots will have personalities that are passive and obedient. The concern is that this will accustom their male users to expect the same from their human partners. But for a survivor of sexual trauma, a partner who is entirely unthreatening and who always follows your lead may not seem like such a horrible prospect. Sexbots may prove to be an important therapeutic tool in helping trauma survivors heal, and to transition back into relationships with human partners.
Variety is not the only source of tension in relationships. Many partners have different sexual preferences. One person may be into BDSM or other kinks that do not appeal to her partner, for instance. Sexbots might allow each member of the couple to pursue these kinks, when they want it, without destroying the relationship.
In extreme cases, having a sexbot may allow people to give up on sex altogether and live in a companionate marriage. They may do so for their children’s sake, or just because they enjoy the other person’s company too much to trade in the relationship for one that might have more sex but that is less emotionally satisfying. Is this so bad? Many people do it already. Sexbots offer such people a chance to avoid a life from which sexual satisfaction has been removed entirely.
We should by no means imagine that everyone will see a sexbot as an alternative to a partner. A sexbot might actually be something a couple shares, the same way that many sex toys are used as part of sex with one’s partner.
Sex robots will not be for everyone, obviously, and their use within relationships will require discussion and negotiation. They will certainly not solve anyone’s problems by magic. But used with due care, and with the consent of everyone involved, they have the potential to make our relationships stronger and more interesting. There is no need to call in the blade runners just yet.