The Coming Moral Panic About Sex Robots

Last week, The Salvation Army released a statement expressing concern that sex robots could increase demand for sex work and sex trafficking. This particular moral panic seems a little premature; according to Nature, “just four companies, all located in the United States, currently produce [extremely basic] sex robots.” But this hasn’t stopped some social conservatives and feminists uniting in opposition to the potential spread of this emerging technology.

Unsurprisingly, rigorous academic studies into the effects of sex robots are extremely hard to come by. But the battle lines have already been drawn—anyone familiar with other debates relating to the sex industry (e.g. sex work and pornography) knows that this research area is plagued by motivated reasoning, blind speculation, and emotive anecdotes. Sadly, I do not think that the coming debate on sex robots will be any different.

British opposition to sex robots is led by the Campaign Against Sex Robots, spearheaded by robotics researcher Dr. Kathleen Richardson. In the position paper that launched the campaign, Dr. Richardson wrote that:

“The arguments that sex robots will provide artificial sexual substitutes and reduce the purchase of sex by buyers is not borne out by evidence. There are numerous sexual artificial substitutes already available, RealDolls, vibrators, blow-up dolls etc., If an artificial substitute reduced the need to buy sex, there would be a reduction in prostitution but no such correlation is found.”

But if there is no correlation between the availability of artificial sex substitutes and the amount of sex purchased, then this also rules out the possibility that sex robots will increase demand for the purchase of sex! For the moment, the arguments on both sides are speculative. Richardson states that “new technology supports and contributes to the expansion of the sex industry,” citing the growth of the sex industry spurred by the expansion of internet. To me, this seems like a very weak argument; there is an obvious, meaningful difference between the internet’s effects on human sexual commerce and sex robots’ potential effects on human sexual commerce.

My prediction is that, like sexual violence and pornography, the substitution effect will dominate. I also predict that this substitution effect will be larger for sex buyers who aren’t as interested in the mutuality aspect of commercial sex: arguably a more problematic group of sex buyers.

Let’s say I’m wrong, and that sex robots turn out to be a complement to buying sex. Would an increase in demand for sex work brought about by sex robots necessarily be a net harm to society? The whole ‘End Demand’ approach to sex work is fundamentally flawed, and any potential harms must also be weighed against potential benefits such as using sex robots to alleviate loneliness and assist in sexual therapy.

It’s also worth noting that whilst men are almost certainly going to be the primary market for sex robots, they aren’t the only group involved. Dr. Richardson briefly highlights this in her position paper:

“But the development of sex robots is not confined to adult females, adult males are also a potential market for homosexual males.”

Women of all sexualities are also likely to comprise a non-trivial proportion of sex robot owners. In the few surveys conducted into attitudes towards sex robots, women “answered positively about half as often” as men. The idea that some women may purchase sex robots as they become more widely available is not that farfetched.

In the coming years, the debate over the legal and societal approaches we should take towards sex robots will become more prominent. That conversation must include voices that emphasize their potential positive impacts and call out evidence-free scaremongering.