Intended for healthcare professionals


Sixty seconds on . . . sex with robots

BMJ 2017; 358 doi: (Published 11 July 2017) Cite this as: BMJ 2017;358:j3353

Sex robots and their lies: the irreplaceable value of humanity

As we are reminded by Ingrid Torjesen [1,2], as well as by other authors [3], there is reason to believe that the use of artificially intelligent sex robots may become widespread in the near future. Some of these robots are able to offer different personalities, including “Frigid Farrah”, which has been programmed to resist sexual advances [2]. In other words, this robot allows simulation of “sex without consent”, which is indeed rape [3]—in this regard, one may ask the reasons why a woman (although robot) who refuses sex has been given such a degrading name.

In order to justify the design of these products, it has been stated that robots may help prevent sexual violence—not only against adults, but also against children, to the point of producing child-like dolls [2]. “I am helping people express their desires, legally and ethically”, claimed a self-confessed pedophile (Shin Takagi) who makes this type of dolls [2]. It has also been asserted that sex robots may be used to treat male sexual dysfunctions, such as erectile and ejaculation problems, as well as general anxiety about sex [2]. Thus, the development of sex robots raises clinical issues, besides ethical and social considerations [3]: could the use of sex robots ever be therapeutic?

As psychotherapists and sexologists, we believe that the idea of a therapeutic use of artificially intelligent sex robots relies on a false assumption: a mechanical view of sexuality as a mere solipsistic performance that alienates the person from their relationships. In this regard, sexual dysfunctions depend on the complex interaction between physical, psychological, socio-cultural, and relational factors [4], and the ideal treatment involves a multidisciplinary patient-centered approach aimed at understanding the person’s lived experience. Moreover, because robots are not psychologically constituted—i.e., they do not have their own mind and feelings, their words and acts are programmed and therefore predictable and controllable—any type of sexual activity with them is more similar to a masturbatory practice rather than to an intercourse with another human being (which is the context in which sexual dysfunctions commonly occur).

There is a concrete danger here: an individual with sexual dysfunctions, which themselves lead to isolation, may become even more isolated due to the illusion of having found a substitute “autistic” satisfaction. The fact that technology (such as the Internet) can promote addiction and isolation is not new, as for example in the case of Hikikomori (i.e., young adolescents and adults who withdraw from any type of social life and spend days locked in their bedroom, with an extremely intense use of computers) [5].

As underlined by Torjesen [1,2], it has also been asserted that these robots may be used to satisfy the needs of disabled and elderly individuals. Again, in our opinion, the use of robots with these people may lead to increased isolation and frustration. The sexuality of these persons is an important and sensitive issue, and there is need for research and training programs for professionals who work with them, focusing on a broader notion of sexuality (i.e., not exclusively physical, but also affective and relational). Robots have no empathy or relational skills: they can only fake them. Could faking be considered an actual treatment?

In addition, could sex robots decrease sexual crimes and pedophilia by directing these impulses towards objects, rather than women and children? This is a misunderstanding of the real nature of sexual violence conceptualized on the basis of a “hydraulic” model, such that the acts of rapists and pedophiles are motivated by the pressure deriving from the need of satisfying sexual urges. Such a reductionist perspective trivializes the complexity of sexual violence, either against women or children, which always involves issues of power, dominance, control, and psychological manipulation. These are relational—rather than merely sexual—objectives and there is need for a sentient subject (human beings, animals) to achieve them. Robots do not suffer.

In conclusion, accepting the production of these sex robots, not to mention child-like dolls, is unethical because it legitimizes the objectification of human beings, at least on a representational (“fictional”) level. The rapid advances of technology also indicate that in the near future there will be robots increasingly similar to humans, perhaps with more sophisticated “psychological” functions. However, in the scientific community there is no shared discourse regarding the important social, clinical, and ethical concerns raised by such a business, which should be controlled and discussed by committees composed of experts in technology, sociology, psychology, and bioethics. Overall, we believe that in contemporary society, characterized by the cult of technological devices with remarkable consequences on interpersonal relationships, efforts should be made to protect the value of humanity: so imperfect, so unpredictable, and so unique.

[1] Torjesen I. Sixty seconds on… sex with robots. BMJ 2017;358:j3353.
[2] Torjesen I. Society must consider risks of sex robots, report warns. BMJ 2017;358:j3267.
[3] Sparrow R. Robots, rape, and representation. Int J of Soc Robotics 2017. DOI 10.1007/s12369-017-0413-z.
[4] Barbara G, Facchin F, Meschia M, Vercellini P. Female genital cosmetic surgery: beyond a mechanistic view of sexual satisfaction. AOGS 2015;94:1029.
[5] Stip E, Thibault A, Beauchamp-Chatel A, Kisely S. Internet addiction, Hikikomori syndrome, and the prodromal phase of psychosis. Front Psychiatry 2016;7:6.

Competing interests: No competing interests

20 July 2017
Federica Facchin
Researcher, Psychotherapist
Giussy Barbara, Vittorio Cigoli
Catholic University of Milan
Via Nirone 15, 20123 Milan - Italy