Robotic “Companions” Are Testing The Scope Of Privacy And Sexual Freedom


Authored by Jonathan Turley,

Consider this: A brothel opens, offering “sexual services,” including “experiences” with girls under 15 years old.

Typically, the police response to such a brothel would make the Normandy landing look like a small skirmish.

But this brothel, Chub AI, is a virtual brothel, reportedly “staffed” by artificially intelligent bots.

The controversy is part of a broader debate over sex bots and even sex bot brothels.

Not long ago, the first sex robot brothel, Lovedoll UK, was shut down in Gateshead, England. 

Even individuals such as Steven Crawford have purchased a doll and then pimped it out to customers. With the rise in such sales, the number of legal and legislative actions are rising as well.

Over 50 years ago, what became known as the “sexual revolution” began in the United States with a debate over the scope of privacy and sexual freedom. We are now facing a second such debate, but liberal voices that once called for sexual freedom are now advocating bans and criminal penalties to deny the right to choose a different type of companion: sex dolls and bots.

Houston’s city council unanimously blocked a proposed “sex robot brothel” from opening in the city, which would have been the nation’s first pay-by-the-hour robot brothel.

“Westworld”-like technology is now on a collision course with long-standing privacy principles. For those fearing an “ex machina” future, there is an equal number of people fearing an ex-privacy future in the balance of this debate.

A growing market for both sex bots and dolls is fueling the debate around the world. For companies such as Kinky S Dolls, the brothels are the equivalent to road tests for prospective owners of anthropomorphic bots that can cost $3,000 each.

Sex dolls (which are anthropomorphic but not mechanical) are already widely used privately and increasingly in brothels. One Canadian brothel offered “six classy, sophisticated, and adventurous ladies; curated for the discerning gentlemen”…starting at $80 for a half hour.

Since Ovid’s story of Pygmalion in the “Metamorphoses,” the dynamic of humans and inanimate objects has been a part of our literature. In that story, the lonely sculptor created his perfect woman out of ivory, only to fall in love with the statue. He prayed to Venus to give him a lover like his statue Galatea. She did so, and “the maiden felt the kisses, blushed and, lifting her timid eyes up to the light, saw the sky and her lover at the same time.”

The robotic world is approaching its Pygmalion moment. New anthropomorphic devices are being programmed with more and more human features and lifelike responses. With breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, they can respond to questions and even display emotions from jealousy to desire. They are developing warm and reflective responses to touch.

Indeed, Pygmalian’s story captures both the fantasy and the controversy over the explosion of sexbots. While both male and female bots are available, the consumer base for bots remains largely men, and the objections have been almost exclusively focused on gynoids, or fembots. For feminists, the sexbots are allowing men to objectify women and domination fantasies.

In The Guardian, journalist Jenny Kleeman denounced new bots that can hold conversations and even joke precisely because they are “a dream woman” for men who “exist only for men’s use.”

Kathleen Richardson, a robot ethicist at the De Montfort University, wrote a paper calling for a ban on all machines, but not human-like dolls. Richardson insisted that “the development of sex robots will further reinforce relations of power that do not recognize both parties as human subjects.” A supporter of the Campaign Against Sex Robots, Richardson warned “technology is not neutral. It’s informed by class, race and gender. Political power informs the development of technology.”

This debate is different in that the fear is not how a product can harm humans, but how humans are simulating harm through a product.

From a legal perspective, these sex robots are nothing more than a ramped up toaster with a fetching name. Even the term “brothel” can be challenged. In Paris, a sex doll brothel was opened and licensed as a “game center.” The analogy is based on the fact that bots, in the view of customers, are simply machines designed for recreation.

The new bot battle is an extension of prior fights over pornography and prostitution. Some advocates long argued that pornography constitutes objectification and fuels violence against women. In the case of prostitution, many libertarians argue that two consenting adults should be allowed to contract for sex.

Our current system has a glaring disconnect, where you can get paid to have sex on camera for a movie with multiple partners, but not to have sex in private.

The bots remove the alleged victim in these scenarios. No one is being directly harmed when someone has relations with what is essentially an advanced appliance.

This issue becomes far more difficult, however, when the bots are designed to resemble children. Such devices have already been banned in some countries, including recently in the U.S. The possession or import of child sex dolls has led to arrests in various countries, including the seizure of 123 such dolls in the United Kingdom.

In the U.S., the “Curbing Realistic Exploitative Electronic Pedophilic Robots (CREEPER) Act” was notable in its sweeping underlying claims about not only childlike robots, but seemingly all robots.

“Dolls and robots not only lead to rape, but they make rape easier by teaching the rapist how to overcome resistance and subdue the victim,” it states.

Moreover, it maintains, “Dolls and robots are intrinsically related to abuse of minors, and they cause the exploitation, objectification, abuse, and rape of minors.”

There is now a push to pass a bill referred to as CREEPER 2.0, which would outlaw not only the importation and transportation of such dolls but also their possession and sale.

The vast majority of people have little problem with banning such childlike sex bots. These disgusting tools are depicting individuals who cannot consent in any context. However, the definition is vague and could raise legal questions in barring products that are perceived as having “features that resemble those of a minor.”

The legal problems are magnified in broader efforts to ban sex dolls and bots. In 2002, in Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, the Supreme Court struck down two provisions of the Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996 that dealt with virtual or depicted child pornography. That included purely computer-generated images where there is no actual child or victim. Both provisions were found to violate the First Amendment, and the court rejected the type of assumed harm claimed by CREEPER.

In the absence of a direct victim, we are left with a pure moral or social judgment on the private tastes and relations of adults.

In Paris, feminists opposed sex-doll brothels on the basis that the dolls cannot consent and allow for violent fantasies. Lorraine Questiaux of the feminist group Mouvement du Nid (Nest Movement) called the brothel a “place that makes money from simulating the rape of a woman.”

In Sweden, feminist organizations moved to ban sex bots as advancing the “objectifying, sexualised and degrading attitude to women found in today’s mainstream pornography.” They object to the right of men to create artificial women who “obey their smallest command” and “cannot say no to something that the man wants.”

For many libertarians, the answer remains the same, the matter should begin and end with personal choice.

In the series “Westworld,” “host” Annie asked a reluctant guest “if you can’t tell the difference, does it matter if I’m real or not?

Legally, the answer is no. 

But as that difference erodes, the question as to whether it matters to others will grow.

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