In our quest for technology to advance the human experience, tech companies have – for decades now – been turning their expertise to re-creating sexual intimacy. The invention of the first commercially successful sex robot has been one of the major battlegrounds in the race for digital sex – these machines being the evolution of the inflatable sex doll, digitally engineered to look, act and communicate like a human being.
Until recently, I had not spent much time thinking about sex robots, even though I spend a fair amount of time in my professional life considering sex. The Schools Consent Project is a charity which sends lawyers into schools to teach young people the legal definition of consent and about key sexual offences, including "sexting" and "revenge porn". As its founder, I'm occasionally contacted about a particular consent-related development: an odd ruling in court, a comment by a celebrity oblivious to its impact. It is in this capacity that the "Roxxxy" robot first came across my radar. Its creator, True Companion, is an artificial intelligence company in the US claiming to have invented the world's first sex robot with a resistance setting. The development is uniquely sinister and needs to be explored.
Current market offerings are startlingly lifelike and offer the buyer a high level of control over its appearance. For the bargain price of $9,995 (£7,663), True Companion allows you to pick one of 73 hair colours in 39 styles, as well as eye colour, eyebrow colour, pedicure colour, skin tone and even pubic hair style. Rival company Abyss Creations (which Jenny Kleeman reported on brilliantly earlier this year) has made a robot with special material for the skin that gives off a realistic spanking sound when hit. Some say these robots reinforce the objectification of women and the commodification of sex; others, that they allow otherwise isolated individuals to experience intimacy. Either way, Roxxxy is a different beast.
The robot has various settings allowing it to adopt different "personality types" to cater to its users' fantasies: the dominatrix, the barely-18-year-old, etc. So far, so predictable. The controversy lies in the "Frigid Farrah" setting.
In simulating resistance, it enables users to simulate rape. Of course, its creators wouldn't describe it that way. On its website, True Companion awkwardly explains that "Roxxxy […] is simply not programmed to participate in a rape scenario and the fact that she is, is pure conjecture on the part of others." Indeed, she is designed simply to "provide her opinion or feedback, just as any person would on a date" and, as a result, "[she] can be used to help people understand how to be intimate with a partner". But in case any prospective buyer momentarily thinks they have stumbled upon a sexual therapy e-learning centre, they are coyly promised elsewhere on the site that if they touch Frigid Farrah "in a private area, more than likely, she will not be to [sic] appreciative of your advance". However it's described, the effect of this setting is clear: to withhold consent, and to appear as human as possible while doing so.
Roxxxy is of course only a machine: the sum total of an electricity current and her component bits of metal. But the fact that she is not a thinking, feeling human does not make her existence unproblematic.
The "frigid Farah" setting seems to service and provide a distraction for criminal impulses that should probably be subject to psychiatric intervention. They are premised on an inherent conflict: their raison d'être is to suspend their users' disbelief to convince them that they are interacting with a real person (if not, why make the dolls so painstakingly lifelike?) while simultaneously trusting that their users are able to identify the moral and legal imperative to treat real people differently.
The unavoidable reality is that there exists a proven relationship between one's behaviour and the type of content they are exposed to. For example, exposure to certain pornography is known to negatively influence the attitudes of young people towards sex. The robots go a step further: instead of mere observation, they demand a physical engagement from the user. All of a sudden, criminal liability is a less remote possibility. Swap robot for person and this private sexual act automatically becomes a serious sexual crime.
It is not currently an offence to own a sex robot like Roxxxy. However, the causative link between exposure and behaviour is sufficiently well established that it already shapes our law on pornography. A Home Office consultation paper called for tougher legislation in this area "to protect society, particularly children, from exposure to such material […] which may encourage interest in violent or aberrant sexual activity".
Under the Obscene Publications Act 1959, it is a criminal offence for pornography sites to publish content which is "deemed to be obscene if its effect [...], taken as a whole, [is intended] to deprave and corrupt persons". In its online charging guidance, the Crown Prosecution Service states that pornography showing "realistic portrayals of rape" is frequently prosecuted, save where it shows "actual consensual sexual intercourse". Actors in rape porn always confirm that they consensually took part in the making of the film: their concern is their legal liability, not their viewer's conscience. But these assurances might not be enough. Porn sites can still find themselves facing criminal proceedings for platforming content which is "explicit and/or lingering" if it "indicate[s] to the viewer approval or encouragement of the behaviour involved thereby normalising the depraving or corrupting behaviours".
Perhaps more surprisingly, it is an offence to possess non-photographic child pornography (i.e. computer-generated images, cartoons, manga images and drawings) under section 62 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 – even where no children at all were harmed in its making. Critics claim that section 62 is our closest embodiment to an Orwellian "thought police" crime. Its intention, though, is to circumvent the non-photographic pornography triggering a sexual interest in young people that manifests itself in more traditionally criminal ways (i.e. possessing child pornography or committing a sexual offence against a child). If the net of criminal liability is cast wide enough to encompass this kind of content, there's a compelling argument to criminalise inventions like Roxxxy, too.
Some have argued that the frigid Farah setting is akin to consensual "non-consensual" roleplay, for example two consenting adults enacting "rape fantasies". But knowledge that one's sexual partner is consenting is the crucial difference. Whether this consent is knowingly disguised or not, its existence enables some to take pleasure in the pain or restriction of their sexual partner (indeed, its existence is the very foundation of the S&M community). There must be a distinction psychologically between this – sexual pleasure derived from the joint pretence of overpowerment, which is at all times mandated by the "overpowered" person – and sexual pleasure derived from the actual overpowerment of a person. The robots are designed to ape the latter, and in doing so they condition the link between pleasure and a lack of consent.
In law, rape is the penile penetration by A of the mouth, anus or vagina of B, without B's consent and without A's reasonable belief in B's consent. For a rape conviction, the Crown must prove their case beyond reasonable doubt. We may yet see a case where a defendant's use of Frigid Farrah-type technology is advanced before the jury as evidence of his predilection for non-consensual sexual acts, thereby undermining any defence that they either didn't have sex or that the complainant consented to it.
It has been suggested that there is an inherent unfairness in criminalising a product which allows some men to live out their sexual fantasies. We don't criminalise women for wanting to take part in consensual non-consenting role play (i.e. a rape fantasy), so why not allow men equal free rein over their bedroom activity?
But these acts don't divide neatly between genders. Women can use sex robots; men partake in role play. But the real issue is that these activities aren't interchangeable, because fantasising victimhood is not the same as fantasising criminality. Only products which foster the same consent-blind, pro-criminal sexual behaviour are equally harmful, and should be outlawed accordingly.
The sophistication of the design and technology behind Roxxxy marks a step forward for robotics. For human society, it feels like a regression.