It may sound absurd at first blush, but prostitution and other sex work was allowed to thrive in 13th century France by city officials and even some prominent religious leaders. But if you think they decided that sex work was just another legitimate way to make a living, allow me to dispel this notion for you right away. The reasons for keeping brothels running were money and the argument that sex work was a necessary evil, a moral cost of keeping society functioning smoothly.
You see, in the minds of medieval leaders, women were evil temptresses, men were hapless dupes at the whims of their libidos, and sex work was an exercise in directing lonely, frustrated men to an outlet for their urges and a source of sexual education until they could find someone acceptable to marry. Frequently, women working in these brothels were either social outcasts or survivors of gang rape and other sexual violence, rendered religiously impure and unable to wed. Their work was effectively conscripted to “protect the purity” of other women, presenting them to men who had difficulty finding partners as teachers and acceptable-ish sources of sexual pleasure otherwise forbidden by the church.
Likewise, according to a fair bit of scholarship on the subject, in vastly unequal societies with large numbers of single, poor young men, violence tends to soar, and 13th century Europe was far from an exception, meaning that medieval sex workers also provided a sort of crude, sexist safety valve in regards to violent crime. But it appears that the problem of lonely, violent men who now often call themselves involuntary celibates, or incels, hasn’t gone away. And while modern society no longer thinks it’s appropriate to tap social outcasts to “take one or a few hundred for the team” as a way to make a living, a solution favored by a number of futurists and at least one professional contrarian, very much echoes this thought process.
What if instead of just letting these men fend for themselves or recruiting sex workers to battle a phenomenon Russians call спермотоксикоз (which roughly translates to “poisoning by sperm”), we used sex bots? Imagine a machine designed for fun and pleasure taking the full brunt of any fantasy, with a user-friendly AI which could be programmed to teach men about relationships and intimacy. According to the idea’s proponents, this would sharply reduce transmission of disease, crater human trafficking, and sidestep the complicated issue of whether prostitution should be legal because we’re no longer talking about humans. Maybe, with robots to vent to and practice on, some of these toxic incels would settle down instead of turning violent and permeating the web with frustration and hate?
Of course, the biggest question is whether this will work. After all, we can’t assume that a simple solution of plying enough nerds with pizza and beer to make anatomically correct robots able to talk back will fix a problem we’ve been unable to figure out for thousands of years. So before we embrace sex bots as the cure for the incel epidemic, we should consider whether these ideas are even remotely plausible, and we’ll start with the most obvious place: the technology itself.
Believe it or not, anatomically correct robots designed for sex and basic interaction with humans do exist and they’re rapidly getting more and more sophisticated. Culture writer Allison Davis even went on a date with a prototype to report on the rapid progress. Fundamentally, there’s not much that still needs to be invented to make sci-fi style sex bots a reality. Giving them motors to walk and support their own weight is fairly straightforward. Making them move, grab objects, and interact with humans is getting simpler with growing libraries of AI algorithms that will allow the robots to quickly learn what their owners want and need.
In fact, the only setback is that the best trained AI networks like Siri, Echo, and Cortana aren’t available to sex bot makers thanks to PR concerns, and they have to train their own AIs instead of just piggybacking on these juggernauts. But even that problem is being overcome. Certainly, there will be many technical details to iron out but they’re just that, technical details. By far the biggest obstacle to having a working sex bot in your house in the next five to ten years will be price. The first versions of these machines start at $7,000 per model and will require software updates and hardware maintenance, which is also bound to get fairly expensive.
There isn’t much that can be done to bring the price down either, other than massive economies of scale, but that would require a large industry easily and quickly able to manufacture and service the robots, an industry that will depend on demand that’s fairly limited and would most likely remain limited for the foreseeable future. This is why a robot brothel would be extremely expensive to operate and maintain on top of the fact that most humans are unlikely to prefer robotic company, and would probably treat it as something more of a weird novelty, a more immersive sex toy, but ultimately just a toy.
And this is really an important factor to consider. Sex dolls, which are now being modified into robots, are a small niche for a reason. Humans evolved to want contact with other humans and few are happy with a substitute. Despite predictions of futurists and movies like Her, the odds of humans falling in love with robots are rather small. That said, there is a community of men who call themselves iDollators but even they are a community who say themselves that their attachment to their dolls is a result of having never found a relationship with a human rather than a primary choice. This is why Clio Kitt, one of the full-service sex workers interviewed for this piece doesn’t feel threatened by potential competition from machines.
“I’m sure a well manufactured futuristic sex robot would make for an exciting experience, more so than a Fleshlight or one of those rubber torsos, but it can’t be the same as a real person,” she says. “You can only program a personality to be so unique while still human-like.”
In response to whether she feels that eventually a machine could take her place, her response is that a high-quality sex bot is far in the future and would probably be rented at rates higher than she charges. Sex workers in Spain did not share her opinion in apparent protest of what was billed as a robot brothel in Barcelona, even though it was actually just a glorified showroom for sex dolls, but agreed on her general observation that clients wanted more than just sex. They also often wanted companionship and conversation, and there’s only so much a machine could do in that regard.
In fact, using robots as surrogates for human relationships could be a problem according to Seattle based sex therapist Katrina Sanford. When I asked her whether wanting one’s partner to be a machine instead of a human could be seen as a pathology by future therapists, she agreed with the notion, noting that “our society already has issues with isolating ourselves from other people, particularly because of social media” and adding that she believes a lifestyle with the bare minimum of human contact can lead to pathological behavior.
“We lose our humanity in some ways when we don’t engage with other humans who have differing personalities, thoughts, and feelings than ourselves. A robot won’t let you know when you have crossed the line because they don’t have the same boundaries that we do. In my experience in therapy, most people struggle with setting, maintaining, and respecting boundaries. Having a robot partner can lead to further boundary violations with others and difficulties engaging well with other humans.”
And this brings us to the question of what exactly is it that incels and other sexually frustrated men actually want. Is it enough to merely give them a more elaborate sex toy? Or do their issues run deeper than that and the proposed fix doesn’t address the problem at all? To answer that, we need to consider the history of the incel, both the term and the community. You see, the incel community didn’t begin with angry men demanding society provide them with sex and attention on the internet. It wasn’t even started by men. Instead, it was the brainchild of a queer Canadian woman who wanted to talk to others who seemed like they couldn’t get their love lives off the ground and provide a place to share tips about how to meet people and go on successful dates.
That’s right, the original incels were members of a support group learning how to have healthy relationships. They would learn how to find a partner and the unwritten rules of dating, then return with tips and more questions. But at some point, the successful incels left the groups to focus on their new lives while the loneliest and most frustrated were left to stew in their rage. When new members joined to vent their frustrations and get help they were now told to give up and loathe the “Chads” and “Beckies” and “Stacies” because the world is awful and cruel so they might as well be awful and cruel right back to the world.
To borrow Saint Bernard of Clairvaux’s famous observation, what began with good intentions became a hell populated by ever more furious wraiths. After years of escalating anger and ever more elaborate detachment and spiraling in misogynistic and misanthropic nihilism, as well as flirting with right-wing extremism, would a session with a sex bot that costs as much as a used car and can only mimic empathy really help them? Dr. Sanford doesn’t seem to think this is even an advisable avenue. Instead, she advises to figure out why these men are so angry and feel so entitled to sexual gratification. And to be fair, some incels became that way thanks to traumatic experiences and were looking for support before being sucked into misogyny.
“In my opinion, there is almost always another emotion underlying their anger,” elaborates Dr. Sanford. ”Most men are not permitted to express emotions outside of anger based on gender stereotypes of what a ‘real man’ should be. Because of that, they aren’t taught how to deal with all emotions properly, including learning coping skills to regulate their emotions.”
Katt agrees that just letting aggressive, angry incels use sex bots for catharsis is hardly a solution, noting that some men are just looking for victims and won’t be satisfied, adding “I think their main prerogative is to take advantage and be abusive, and they can’t do that with an inanimate object.” Her concern was echoed by several other sex workers who declined to be named for this article, and seems to reflect a general concern that robots built for sex will do very little, if anything, to combat human trafficking or provide risky, potentially abusive clients with a viable outlet, sparing them from their outbursts.
A notable part of their concern goes back to the relatively unchanged view of sex workers in society since the 13th-century French brothels with which we started. “Full-service sex workers are generally already marginalized people,” Kitt elaborates, “trans women, gay men, people of color, and folks with disabilities, not only physical but mental illnesses as well. Sex workers are often people with limited options, although it can also be a great job for someone in one or more of those groups. Personally, I have this career because it’s the best out of the few options I have. That being said, I love my job.”
And this poses another challenge if there’s a genuine effort to automate sex work, a societal dehumanization of sex workers. One of the biggest potential problems Dr. Sanford sees is the inability of robots to give true consent, meaning those who use sex bots regularly wouldn’t learn that asking for consent and caring about their partners’ pleasure are important simply because it doesn’t come up as an issue for them like it would with flesh and blood humans.
If humans are doing what’s seen as a mechanical job, the thought goes, why would one need to ask them for consent or care about their wellbeing? Clients may assume that being an obedient source of satisfaction is just in the job description. Conversely, they may assume that robots are safe for experimentation while humans are still off limits and develop the pathologies outlined by Dr. Sanford, creating a new subculture of incels in the process. Far from solving the problems cited by sex bot proponents, it looks like robots may even exacerbate them.
Just a cursory dive into how we would create robot brothels and the likely results have us a) striking out on cost, making them unaffordable to many of those we’d want to reach, b) not addressing the actual causes for their beliefs and behaviors, meaning we’d fail to change them and may even make them worse in some cases, c) doing nothing to address the economics and incentives of human trafficking or the psychology of abusive partners, and d) dehumanizing existing sex workers, all while claiming we found a simple solution to a problem that ailed society since time immemorial.
This is why the sex bot solution seems like history not exactly repeating itself, but very much rhyming, to borrow another famous phrase. Instead of trying to figure out why there are so many angry, disaffected men and tailor solutions based on their problems rather than painting with a broad brush, tech pundits are suggesting creating a permanent robotic underclass designated to be victims, educators, and therapists all in one, then assuming this should work without doing any of the requisite research or talking to those who would be affected by the most likely implementations of these ideas.
But to an extent, this is understandable. When faced with a complex problem with many facets, it’s tempting to reach for what seems like the simplest solution that sounds and feels right, regardless of whether it would actually be effective.