There is a scene in the Marvel film Guardians of the Galaxy 2 where Yondu, a space pirate with blue skin, stands at a window and zips his fly while pitching an anxious stare into the distance. It’s snowing outside. Behind him, several robot courtesans (aka Love Bots *employed* at the Iron Lotus brothel on the red-light planet Contraxia) wander past. One is sitting on a bed twirling her hair. She looks sad. Yondu turns to watch with vague disgust as she manipulates the panel on the side of her head and switches herself off, seemingly for a post-coital rest.
The Love Bots of Contraxia are styled like femme rockstars, albeit somewhat depressed rockstars with yellowy skin—clearly dressed to entertain the parade of uber-masc space Ravagers who come to Contraxia for ‘time out’. The Love Bots are all leather corsets, shiny neck collars, thigh high boots, green lipstick and thick mascara. They each hold the same absent expression.
It strikes me that the Love Bots of Contraxia epitomise contemporary images of sex robots. In recent years the media has regularly baited us with headlines inferring the imminent possibility that human-like androids created for sex and driven by artificial intelligence will soon be commonplace. The UK Mirror recently ran with the headline “Lifelike sex robots that ‘have a heartbeat’ and ‘breathe’ could go on sale this year” (Best, 2020). Sex robots, sometimes referred to as sex bots, erotic bots or erbots, sit on a bizarrely fine line between science fiction, reality, and voyeurism that is both fascinating and ethically disturbing. Perhaps most disturbing is that common media depictions of sex bots draw on the darkest imagery of sex work—the bots are essentially positioned as sex slaves (or at best, a pimped-up Stepford Wife). Like the Love Bots of Contraxia, the sex bots we are currently being promised are almost always styled to engage the stereotype of cisgender, heterosexual male desire—white skinned Barbie dolls with large breasts and passive, wide-eyed stares. Always available for sex.
Bots in Servitude
Robots, like all machinery, are created to service humanity. In servitude, bots will (or already do) land in places where humans serve other humans—domestic ‘help’, harsh work in heavy industry, repetitive factory tasks, and in sexual services. When created for sex, bots have potential to be the ultimate sexual partner. They can be programmed to do anything, be anything, and fulfil fantasies that are beyond the capacity or desire of humans. Sex bots might also play a role in love and nurture—providing companionship to otherwise lonely humans or people who can’t, or don’t want to, seek intimacy in human company.
Sex bots could take any form, but reality bites in gender and cash. In a world where sex is sold for profit, most sex bots, like latex sex dolls before them, are designed in a way that is highly gendered (an interesting queer presupposition in itself given the gender of a bot has no biological basis) presumably to ensure their marketability. Sex bots have been prescribed with the image that many mainstream commercial sex services tend to favour—passive women, women in service of men, women whose bodies exist only for the pleasures of men and profit. Moral and ethical concerns with the representation of women via sex bots have led to calls for them to be banned. It is feared that such representations will further entrench sexual exploitation of women and fuel sexual violence. Calls for a ban often focus on the murky ethical ground of the representation of sexual assault against women via ‘female’ sex bots programmed to resist sex and enact rape scenes (Danaher et al, forthcoming, Sparrow 2017).
Misogynist representation of women is undoubtedly a reason to cast a critical lens on the question of what sex bots mean for women, humanity and ethical sex. However, a blanket rejection of sex bots based on the assumption that they can or will only ever be objects that represent the sexual denigration of women, risks falling into a highly sex negative paradigm—a stance aligned with calls for an outright ban on pornography, a position that shuts down any space for feminist or queer porn and disavows women’s desire for porn (Kubes, 2019). It also shuts down the possibility that bots could come to represent different forms of gender and sexual expression.
Theoretically, bots could be integrated into creative, democratic, feminist, queer positive and sex positive cultures in the way that other objects designed for sex, such as the dildo, have been. Dildos are arguably a symbol of queer-ness, although this is by no means their origin. Dildos are an ancient technology that, in different forms, has been part of many different cultures across the world. Their use has been prescribed to treat female pain, hysteria, trauma, sexual dissatisfaction and loneliness. Female pleasure is one small part of their history. Dildos are a product of heterosexist culture, reflecting the centrality of the phallus and penis/vagina intercourse in expectations of heterosexual sex. They marginalise other forms of sexual expression and ignore the clitoris as the main locus of pleasure for many women (Das, 2014). However, culturally, dildos are also objects of fetish and perversion. Strap-on dildos are a symbol of resistance to female passivity—objects that queer gendered bodies, challenge traditional sexual scripts, and acknowledge penetration as a source of pleasure for heterosexual men (Das 2014). The form of the dildo is both central and immaterial to its cultural status—its basic form has not changed substantially for centuries. But in a weird paradoxical twist in its narrative, appropriation of the dildo into queer culture and queer representation means that it is concurrently a symbol of female oppression and a symbol of queer liberation.
Sex bots of course differ from dildos in that they overtly reflect human form and mannerisms. Potentially (perhaps in the near future) a sex bot will be a machine that looks like us, talks to us, laughs, cries, and responds to our touch. A dildo can be ‘queered’ by the cultural context in which it is located and the person/s to whom it is attached. Can we say the same for a human-like sex bot? Can a human-like sex bot be ‘queered’? If we went to the designers and manufacturers of sex bots with a list of requests for our queer sex bot, what would that be like?
How to Design a Queer Sex Bot
Perhaps a queer sex bot would be a bot, or series of bots, that reflect more diverse representations of humanity. Bots with different body types? Different coloured skin? Different abilities? Different accents? Bots with cool hair? Bots wearing chaps? Or perhaps it would be bots with changeable forms. A bot with modular genitals? (See Figure 1). A bot whose gender appearance shifts across a spectrum of bodily capacities and gendered representations? A bot whose form ranges from human to non-human—goblin, daemon, angel, vampire slayer What would the image of a queer bot even be?
I can see marketing potential in the ultimate queer bot whose body can take any form. A body that presents in its own unique way, with infinite possibilities. The separation of the physical body from identity. The extraction of biology from gender. The ultimate queer body.
But of course, queer is not just about the physical form. Being queer is a stance in the world. It is about the ways we make sense of gender and sexuality. The way we resist, reshape or transgress cultural expectations.
Queerness in a bot would have to exist in its programming—or its deprogramming. Imagine a bot that has no idea about the rules of gender because it has not been programmed with gendered scripts or expectations. What if a bot is never taught to be passive in a feminised way, or has no idea what it means to ‘be a man’? Perhaps a queer bot is one that has no idea about heterosexual ‘rules’ of engagement. This lack of script might make for the ultimate queer bot.
However, a truly queer bot might also need programming to understand where it sits in the world. Queer consciousness is shaped by the experience of being queer in a world where cisgender, heterosexual and able bodies dominate most of the space. This is an experience of belonging and of not belonging, of understanding how to hack normative scripts. Of knowing both the liberation and oppression that comes with this. Of alienation and creative resistance. Of rejection and joy. Do we need to program an experience of marginalisation into our bot for it to be truly queer? Does the bot need to hold some fire of radical resistance to the everyday messages that queer is wrong or bad or deficient? What does this then mean for our bots? Are they just about sex? Or does our queer bot also, by definition, bring a measure of intimacy and emotional connection for a human based on recognition of some shared experience?
Even raising these questions begins to infer the possibility that for our queer bot to be possible it must hold a level of consciousness. This risks taking us deep into the tunnels of artificial intelligence, something I do not wish to do here. However, I do want to talk about agency (in a queer context). Ultimately, a bot is programmed by a human. Capacity for artificial learning aside, a bot has no capacity to make decisions outside of the limited range of options and behaviours written for it by its programmer. In this sense, it is an object of control. It can be manipulated to behave in the ways its human makers tell it to behave. Can a bot be queer if it has no consciousness and no capacity to independently understand its place in the world? Can it be queer if it cannot consciously choose to conform or resist cultural norms? Can it be queer if it has no capacity to seek pleasure on its own terms? Surely this lack of agency is the antithesis of queer experience and queer identity.
Is a Queer Sex Bot Even Possible?
Agency is generally understood as the capacity to consciously make choices and take action. It evokes free will. By definition, a programmed bot has no agency as it has no capacity for free will. We can, of course, argue that no-one makes choices entirely on their own terms. We are all bound by our material existence and cultural location. However, without consciousness our bot has no capacity to understand its actions or to pursue pleasure on its own terms. Without this, how can it be queer?
Perhaps a way forward is to rethink where choice and agency sit in the relationship between humans and machines. Bruno Latour and other writers in the Science and Technology Studies tradition encourage us to imagine humans and machines as collaborators—operating intra-dependently to produce action, reaction, choice, and outcome (Brey, 2005). Latour (2009) uses the gun to explain this concept. He critiques the familiar argument of the US National Rifle Association that ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people’. The gun is an object that can have no effect without human action. However, the form of the gun enables the transformation of someone with a desire to inflict harm into someone with capacity to kill. It does this in a way that another object, such as a knife, cannot achieve on the same scale. The form and function of the gun is central to the way a human engages with it and the way they feel when they hold it. The human and the gun work together. While the gun does not create the human and does not create that human’s desire to inflict harm, it could inspire it simply by the knowledge of its existence. Latour writes:
Which of them, then, the gun or the citizen, is the actor in this situation? … You are a different person with the gun in your hand. Essence is existence and existence is action. If I define you by what you have (the gun), and by the series of associations that you enter into when you use what you have (when you fire the gun), then you are modified by the gun … (page 189)
Moving from guns to sex, Robin Bauer (2018) draws on a similar concept in their work on les-bi-trans-queer BDSM practitioners, exploring the relationship between transmasculine people and strap-on dildos. Retelling the story of one participant, Bauer writes:
Strapping on a dildo provided his immaterial dick with a material form. He could sense it like a consolidated part of his body, an extension of the boundaries of his body, a transformation of the shape. Scout was not seeking out a substitute for a penis made of flesh and blood; his butch trans masculinity did not create a desire for that. There is no intentionality behind this phenomenon; rather matter displays its queer qualities by stretching out to incorporate other material objects to create unexpected forms of embodiment. (page 72).
Bauer’s point is that the strapped-on dildo does not just hold cultural significance as an object or artefact separate from the human body. Rather it becomes integrated with the body so that it is part of an embodied and emotive experience. In this way the dildo is not an ‘unnatural object’ held up in opposition to the ‘natural body’ or the ‘natural penis’. Rather, it is a unique augmentation of the body that is part of the ‘wearer’s’ sense of themselves—an object that shapes how they experience their body which in turn shapes sexual experiences for both them and their partner/s.
So what of sex bots? Imagine a simple form of programming in which a bot is given capacity to choose between a set of options when faced with a situation or request. Even if the bot’s ‘choice’ is based on random allocation of potential responses rather than consciousness or artificial intelligence, their ‘selections’ effect the response, actions and options of humans in their sphere. The bot plays a role in producing human experience and action by limiting certain choices and responses and expanding others. The human therefore does not bring all the agency to that interaction. Indeed, the form, function and capacity of the bot influences who the human is in their entanglement with the bot. As Karan Barad (2003) writes:
Agency is a matter of intra‐acting; it is an enactment, not something that someone or something has. Agency cannot be designated as an attribute of ‘subjects’ or ‘objects’ (as they do not preexist as such). Agency is not an attribute whatsoever—it is ‘doing’/ ‘being’ in its intra‐activity. (page 826-827)
Queerness is similarly produced through our engagement with the social world—through where we stand in relation to others, our response to our location, our response to others, and through our actions and choices. We collectively produce queerness. Throwing radical queer sex bots into that mix, with their wildly malleable and indefinable bodies, might transform our experience of being human and being queer in ways we can’t imagine right now. Bots have potential to be more than just objects that symbolise queer culture, but active players in shaping queer culture. In this regard, a queer sex bot—or indeed a Queer Love Bot (which would make Contraxia a vastly more interesting planet to visit)—is a definite possibility.
The Ethics of Queer Bots
A Queer Love Bot might be a naïve or ‘Pollyanna-ish’ vision for the future of sex bots. However, it is a vision that aims to take us beyond the imagery of the enslaved ‘female’ sex bot—an image that is disturbingly easier to grasp than that of an empowered, complex queer sex bot. It seems sad to accept that machines designed primarily to facilitate human pleasure and intimacy do not have democratic potential. And radical, sex positive potential. An understanding of bots as more than just passive objects of human desire might facilitate this thinking.
This does not, however, overcome ethical concerns. Manufacturers may never see potential profit in a queer bot. Even if they do, the manufacture of queer bots will not change the misogynist nature of the mainstream sex industry. Sex bots may still take forms that represent violent and morally indefensible sexual and gendered relations. However, this may not be the only destiny for sex bots. Bots do have potential to hack existing sexual and gender scripts through entwining subversive programming and non-normative (and changeable) bodily form with human action. Ethical responsibility for the trajectory of human/bot relations sits at all points of their creation and engagement with humans: it lies in the imagining of the social life of sex bots, it sits with manufacturers and salespeople, it develops with programmers and anti-programmers (the hackers and the radical tech outfits), and it continues with the human ‘users’. It is a complicated equation that requires a broad vision for the potential life of these technologies, both the frightening and the liberating.
My Queer Sex Bot
What would your queer sex bot be like?
My queer sex bot might come into my world with her de-gendered de-programming and manufactured tendency toward radical dissent. I will appreciate his refusal to conform and she will introduce me to new ideas and experiences while I struggle to explain why humanity makes sense. Her changeable self will lead me, and my sexual partners, down pathways I never previously considered. In fact, my own programming will be somewhat disrupted by my queer sex bot’s bewildered amusement about the things I see as impossible.
Bauer, R. (2018). Cybercocks and Holodicks: Renegotiating the Boundaries of Material Embodiment in Les-bi-trans-queer BDSM Practices. Graduate Journal of Social Science, 14(2), 58-82.
Barad, K. (2003). Posthumanist performativity: Toward an understanding of how matter comes to matter. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 28(3), 801-831.
Best, S (2020). Lifelike sex robots that ‘have a heartbeat’ and ‘breathe’ could go on sale this year, The Mirror, 11th May, https://www.mirror.co.uk/tech/lifelike-sex-robots-have-heartbeat-22009064
Brey, P. (2005). Artifacts as social agents. Harbers, H (ed) Inside the politics of technology: Agency and normativity in the co-production of technology and society. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press 61-84.
Danaher, J., Earp, B. D., & Sandberg, A. (forthcoming). Should we campaign against sex robots? In J. Danaher & N. McArthur (Eds.) Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications [working title]. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Draft available online ahead of print at: https://www.academia.edu/25063138/Should_we_campaign_against_sex_robots.
Das, A. (2014). The dildo as a transformative political tool: Feminist and queer perspectives. Sexuality & Culture, 18(3), 688-703.
Kubes, T. (2019). New Materialist Perspectives on Sex Robots. A Feminist Dystopia/Utopia? Social Sciences, 8(8), 224.
Latour, B. (2009). A collective of humans and nonhumans: Following Daedalus’s labyrinth, in Kaplan, D (ed) Readings in the Philosophy of Technology. Maryland; Rowman & Littlefield.
Sparrow, R. (2017). Robots, rape, and representation. International Journal of Social Robotics, 9(4), 465-477.
Jennifer Power is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University. Her research is focused on HIV, sexual and reproductive health and fertility, LGBTI health and wellbeing, and the impact of new technologies on sex and intimacy.