Simon Dubé is a PhD candidate in Psychology specializing in human sexuality, sextech, and Erobotics – the study of human-machine erotic interaction and co-evolution. His work also explores Space Sexology, and how we can integrate sex research into space programs. He completed his bachelor’s degree in Psychology at the Université de Montréal in 2016. He is a Student Representative of the "International Academy of Sex Research" and a General Co-Chair of the "International Congress on Love & Sex with Robots". His doctoral research is funded by the "Fonds de Recherche du Québec – Santé".
Sex Robots: They’re About More than Sex, and About More than Robots
A lot has been said about sex robots, even though this technology remains in its infancy. Media, scholars, and activists have speculated about the dangers and benefits of new, AI-powered humanlike machines that can act as intimate or sexual partners. This has polarized debates regarding the impacts of these robots on our lives and eroticism.
Some argue that sex robots promote the objectification of women, toxic patriarchal norms, and compulsive use. They propose that these machines could manipulate us, impair interhuman relationships, or increase risks pertaining to data privacy. Others argue that sex robots could provide widespread access to sex and intimate relationships, and be used in therapy, research, and education. Yet, most of these claims lack empirical evidence and are based on assumptions about why people want these robots, or what they do with them.
As a psychologist specializing in human sexuality and erobotics—the study of human-machine erotic interaction and co-evolution—I want to know why some people want sex robots. In one of our studies, we asked participants about the reasons why they would buy a robot with sexual capacities. We also asked them to describe how such a robot could help, if they had indicated that one of these reasons was they lived with a physical, mental, or sexual difficulty.
The answers were eye-opening.
We found that there were, in fact, a multitude of good reasons for people to want sex robots, and these reasons tell us a lot about ourselves and our eroticism. Here is a glimpse of what people revealed in our research, so that you understand that sex robots are about more than sex, and about more than robots.
They are about pleasure. They are about love, companionship, and connection. They are about justice, equity, diversity, inclusivity, and the complexity of human sexuality. They are a mirror of our needs and desires, our strengths and shortcomings, and everything in-between.
Why do people—actually—want sex robots?
The main reasons are sexual pleasure and curiosity. Beyond that, people also reported that they would buy a sex robot to explore their sexuality, to safely enact fantasies, to expand their erotic possibilities, or to help them achieve arousal and orgasm. Some also reported that they wanted more companionship and a partner who listens to their needs and emotions, while others simply wanted sexual gratification: no talking, no strings attached. Moreover, some reported that they have fetishes/kinks about sci-fi or fantasy creatures—which robots could theoretically embody—or that their ideal partner had always been artificial.
Among those who reported a physical, mental, or sexual difficulty, several indicated that they would buy a sex robot because they had back, leg, arm, or genital pain, which impaired their ability to masturbate or engage in partnered sex. They further suggested that robots could help with positions, support, self-stimulation, and their partners’ pleasure.
Some participants also reported that they would feel less judged by a robot regarding their body, preferences, or sexual performance, while others proposed that these machines could help reduce their performance anxiety, practice sexual activities, or remedy issues pertaining to premature ejaculation. Notably, following a gender-affirming surgery, one person reported that a robot could help them explore their body and sexuality alone before engaging with a human partner.
In addition, some people hoped that sex robots could allow them to concentrate on their own pleasure without feeling pressure to engage in certain sexual activities—such as oral or penetrative sex—which are sometimes highly desired by one partner but unwanted by or painful for the other. People in relationships also answered that sex robots could help bridge the gaps in libido and preferences that they had with their partners. They proposed that these machines could provide a controlled outlet when one of them didn’t feel like it or didn’t want to engage in certain erotic activities—whether they be risky or otherwise unpreferred or undesired.
Others—women, especially—reported that robots would be safer than humans. They could reduce the risks of sexually transmitted or blood-borne infections or sexual assaults and harassment; thus, making them less risky than picking up a random person at a bar or meeting strangers on dating apps.
Finally, some people reported that they have difficulty finding romantic or sexual partners because of their physical appearance, mental health issues, or social skills. These individuals wrote that they were ugly, fat, old, short, awkward, unable to talk to another person, etc. The list goes on and is heartbreaking to read. More to the point, this situation causes them extreme loneliness and distress. It also reminds us that intimacy and sexuality are not distributed equitably.
Sex robots won’t solve all these problems or replace humans. We must continue to educate our populations about the complexity of human sexuality, provide accessible health services, and find ways to become better intimate partners for one another. But one does not prevent the other. We can aim to provide more options to people and let them decide what works for their own health and well-being. We can also design sex robots that help with said education, health services, or even teach us how to become better partners.
Where do we go from here?
There are many social and ethical challenges with sex robots. But humans are not bystanders in their technological development. We can influence their design and create machines that adequately meet the intimate needs and desires of everyone—from singles and couples to those who experience physical or mental health issues, and anyone who has difficulty finding partners or would prefer an artificial companion.
To do so, however, we must move past anticipated risks and benefits, and instead find ways to mitigate the former, and enhance the latter. We must also stop assuming what people want and start asking them instead. This will help avoid fears and claims rooted in prejudices or privileges. It will also help us to see that, in the end, we are more similar than we think, when it comes to the diversity and complexity of our intimacy and sexuality.