In a culture and a church obsessed with sex, it’s surprising that sex robots haven’t got more attention already. Either the technology might be thought to be way beyond our grasp, and instead be relegated to the realms of sci-fi shows like Humans or Westworld; or perhaps even if they were possible, no one would want them anyway, being too weird or creepy. Contradicting this conventional wisdom, an intriguing new report from the Foundation for Responsible Robotics, headed up by ethicist Aimee van Wynsberghe and roboticist and Robot Wars judge Noel Sharkey, has argued that it is time to take sex robots seriously.
The report considers the social and ethical implications of the rapidly approaching entrance of sex robots into our culture, based on academic research and extensive consultations with key stakeholders. Looking at the current state of technological development, they suggest that sex robots may well be poised to go mainstream- the RealDolls from Abyss Creations have received the attention of the wider media such as BBC, and are designed to be a “full companion robot … [with] conversational abilities”. Moreover, they also examine trends which suggest the likelihood of strong consumer demand, with numbers approaching a high in one study where “two thirds of males were in favour of using sex robots”. Though more conservative estimates are mentioned, it’s easy to imagine that, when sex robots eventually become affordable, there’ll be a large enough base of willing buyers to make this more than a fringe phenomenon.
A faith-based response?
One notable absence from the paper is the lack of Christian input- as the authors note, there is very little on this topic from religious groups, and only find a couple of Muslim scholars who have written about sex robots from a religious background. It might even seem that Christians have nothing relevant to say- there isn’t any explicit 11th Commandment which tells us “Thou shalt not have sex with robots”. Is there anything we can add to the discussion?
The ethical question of consent
I suggest we can respond maturely, agreeing and disagreeing respectively with the right and the wrong in cultural norms, as I’ll start to do here. One of the headline grabbing components of the report is its discussion of the possibility of robotic rape and child sexual abuse, given the possibility of robots mimicking clear non-consent, or the design of child sex robots. The authors express grave concerns at these developments as a “very dangerous path to tread”, worried both that these might reinforce troubling behaviours among prospective child abusers or rapists, and also that these actions would be intrinsically wrong. We can find huge amounts to agree with here- sexual abuse must be condemned in the strongest terms, as a degrading and despicable practice harming beings made in the image of God, and so the possibility of reinforced perverse behaviour should be extremely worrying. On top of this, Christian ethics doesn’t just condemn actions but also intentions and motives- Jesus condemns lust as being equivalent to “adultery in your heart” (Matthew 5), suggesting that it doesn’t matter just if this creates broader evils, but is wrong in itself.
Freedom of self-deception
On the other hand, the ethics of robotic sex between consenting parties is likely to become much more acceptable to most people. Though the report itself is balanced in considering whether such sex is meaningful, the likes of academic Kate Devlin have argued that “if people find happiness in this self-deception (for self-deception it will clearly be), who are we to judge?”. For many, the only relevant questions are whether this brings pleasure, and whether it’s engaged in consensually. As a result, it’s likely that many will wholeheartedly embrace the rise of sex robots, and the report notes that some are already embracing silicone dolls, engaging in a “fictive relationship that appear[s] to be psychologically satisfying”.
A full sexual ethics
The ethics of pleasure and consent when considering deception and manipulation are tricky, and the report itself is particularly concerned by “the deception of the vulnerable”, a concern I share. But leaving this aside, questions of pleasure and consent, while crucial to a full sexual ethic, are not sufficient to fill it out entirely. Instead, Christians should view it as having deeper spiritual significance, as an act of “radical self-donation” that requires mutuality and a larger context of a shared life-direction.
Commenting on 1 Corinthians 6, pastor and cultural critic Tim Keller puts it well when he suggests that “you cannot have physical union without whole-life union”. Contrary to common perceptions of prudish Christians who think sex is dirty and untouchable, it’s instead the case that Christians should think robot sex does not treat sex as being as awesome and amazing as it really is, by reducing it and removing it from the larger purpose for which it was created.
Much more should and can be said on this topic, with the report covering a range of fascinating and troubling considerations, from cybersecurity and privacy to sexism, to whether robots may spur deeper social isolation. As wider society wakes up to these widespread implications, Christians must not bury their heads in their sand and refuse to talk about this in denial or for fear of awkwardness. A discourse which Christians do not shape will be shaped regardless, and shaped in a way that they do not like. Instead, being “quick to listen and slow to speak” (James 1:19), we should think deeply about how we can respond carefully and gracefully to a profound social change, bringing good to a fast-moving culture.
Joshua Parikh is a student who has done an undergraduate degree in Philosophy Politics and Economics, and is about to do a Masters in Philosophical Theology, both at Oxford University