Last week saw three headlines dominate the news in Vancouver. Alek Minassian tragically murdered 10 pedestrians on Toronto’s Yonge Avenue, multiple papers ran front-page stories about a UBC book reading, and—as spotlighted in the entertainment press—the wildly popular HBO show Westworld began its second season.
At first glance, there’s little to connect the events. Minassian’s cold-blooded attack occurred 4,000 kilometres from a fireside discussion with Marina Adshade, professor at the Vancouver School of Economics at UBC, who was talking about her highly anticipated book chapter. Sunday night’s season opener of Westworld, too, made it above the fold in a totally different section of the papers.
Dig a little deeper, however, and all three are tied by an unlikely thread—sex robots.
Perhaps most overt was the weekend’s premiere of Westworld. Based on a 1973 movie written by Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton, the show earned 22 Emmy and three Golden Globe nominations for its first season. Following a similar plot to the dinosaur epic, Westworld is set in a perverse safari park—but instead of being populated with extinct species, the area is full of high-end robots, or “hosts”. Visitors to Westworld pay large sums of money to indulge in whatever they wish within the park, without fear of retaliation from the machines. The humanoid creations appear almost indistinguishable from people, but are unable to feel emotions, or—most importantly—remember. That makes them excellent target practice for gun-nuts, and also perfect prostitutes.
Able to act out their sexual fantasies without (supposedly) hurting the machines, many hosts take advantage of the sex robots’ compliance. What they don’t realize, however, is that the automatons are more human than they’ve been told—a concept that’s developed in the first episode of the new season. Following the experiences of Dolores, a beautiful android played by Evan Rachel Wood, the narrative explores the aftermath of sexual assault on a sentient being. Her journey is chilling.
That depiction sits at odds with UBC professor Marina Adshade’s latest work: the second high-profile mention of automatons last week. Penning a chapter for the book Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications, the academic read her essay at the UBC Bookstore last Wednesday—an event that made it into the pages of four separate local publications.
Arguing that robots could improve marriages, Adshade discussed how humanoid machines could revitalize relationships by making them less about sex and more about love. The academic suggests that people have become increasingly demanding in what they desire from a spouse. In the past, she says, women were happy to marry a husband that supported the family, and men were content to have a caring mother for their children. Pointing out that couples still want those traits, she argues that people now expect more, including sexual compatibility, intense romance, and someone who is an excellent co-parent.
Adshade believes that checklists like those are too much to expect from one person, and that sex robots will help society move away from assuming that a single individual should fulfil an individual’s desires. In her view, sex robots will let people focus on other qualities in a partner, removing the worry of sexual compatibility.
The professor’s discussion considers a situation where, unlike in Westworld, the automaton has no capability for intelligence. Devoid of their own agency—or, more accurately, unable to understand what agency is—robots can become a tool that complements human companionship: a life-like, full-size sex toy. What Ashade doesn’t address, however, is when the boundary between robot and human becomes hazy—when a robot is not a sexual aid, but becomes a substitute for a woman.
That’s where Toronto attacker Alek Minassian connects to the theme. Moments before the assailant drove a white van onto a crowded sidewalk, killing 10 and injuring 13, he posted a now-famous Facebook status: “Private (Recruit) Minassian Infantry 00010, wishing to speak to Sergeant 4chan please. C23249161. The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger.”
“Incel”, short for “involuntary celibate”, refers to a radical misogynist movement where men blame women for their unintentional chastity. Propagated on online forums like 4chan, Reddit, and incels.me, the central belief in the community is that society is rigged against men and favours women. Like many internet collectives, incels have their own jargon. “Chads” and "Stacys” denotes men who are sexually confident and women who choose to sleep with them, while the “Supreme Gentleman” Elliot Rodger references the 22-year-old who murdered six and left behind a vitriolic manifesto that condemned women and sexually successful men.
Not just a harmless in-joke, the language on the incel forums blurs the line between women and sex robots. Alongside the terms used in Minassian’s message, a common idiom in their discussions is “femoid”. Short for “female humanoid”, it’s used in place of the word “woman” to depict how, in an incel’s view, women are not entirely human, but are instead robot-like androids who only crave sex with Chads. Used to shame women for their sexual choices and values—they are described in terms of their “smv”, or “sexual market value”—“femoid” is often referenced in conjunction with the idea that men should rape women.
In the same breath, the forums host topics about how lonely men should use sex robots to combat their sexual frustration. Rather than operating them as a part of a relationship, as Adshade suggests, incels discuss using machines to enact often violent fantasies, and live out their vision of women as, literally, sex objects. “Sex robots need to hurry up and come,” says one post on incels.me. “Hopefully they are realistic and feel realistic because I am tired of porn.” “Most men would choose fuckable plastic over the toxic entitlement of many women, so it’s all good,” another reads. Both viewing women as robots, and imagining robots as women, the forums collapse the distinction between human and machine.
That ambiguity is mirrored in the technology. As companies refine their products, sex automatons are becoming increasingly realistic. Doll creator Realbotix, for example, recently launched Solana, a robot that can be transformed at the user’s will. By swapping out her face—held on by magnets—an owner can instantly change her appearance, and at the click of a button can transform her voice and personality. In Spain, the company Synthea Amatus engineered Samantha, a robot with exaggerated breasts, buttocks, mouth, and vagina, with sensors embedded in the plastic. Mimicking a human response, the robot wriggles and moans when touched.
It’s developments like those that make sex robots increasingly problematic. History is full of examples of western society viewing women in terms of their physical attributes, rather than their thoughts and desires. By creating sex robots with cartoonish sexual characteristics, these companies perpetuate the idea that a woman’s value is tied to her body. That choice is exacerbated by commodity culture. Billions of dollars are spent to encourage people to have relationships with objects. Marketing products not just as items, but as something more—a creation that makes people feel good, or desirable, or rich—an object can become a part of a person’s identity. Humanoid sex robots exacerbate the idea that it’s possible to relate to an object like another person, and—by extension—that a person can be treated like an object.
As this week’s headlines reveal, realistic sex robots are becoming less of a fringe idea, and more of an impending reality. It might be time to talk about the ethics.
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