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I sort of figured that Trump’s America might incite a national argument about the political fallout from the president having had sex with a porn star. I’m a bit more surprised to find that we’re having a vigorous political debate about sex robots.
But we’re not, really. What most people mean when they say “sex robot” is really more of an elaborate, electronic sex doll. And what most of most people are thinking of when they say “sex robot” is female sex doll. The political debate in the headlines lately isn’t about sex with robots so much as it is about sex with robots that look like women.
I have written elsewhere about the wrong-headed notion that such simulacra could help lower the body count of toxic masculinity. Essentially, there is little proof that being able to virtually subjugate others does much to minimize the urge itself. Initially, I thought the racist playgrounds of 4chan and Reddit were proof enough of that idea, but as I dove into the history of sex and robots, I learned there’s been an even longer-running experiment along those lines. Dutch sailors made fabric female puppets to keep them company back in the 1600s. In other words, straight men have been screwing inanimate objects that look like women for centuries, and yet they’re still pretty pissed when they can’t get the real thing.
Science fiction (dominated historically by straight men) has had remarkably few innovations on the concept of sex dolls. Authors have created whole universes and populated them with mind-blowing technology, yet when it comes to sex they keep re-inventing the wheel. Or, rather, the vagina. Over the decades the genre has existed, the most futuristic forms of sex have been mostly straight men having real-penis-in-increasingly-realistic-fake-vagina sex. Even in holograms and cyberspace, "teledildonics" seem to keep things pretty vanilla. The tools and toys and body-encasing suits that enable various forms of virtual sex exist just to replicate the sensations of mom and dad’s Saturday night romp.
As this Atlantic piece notes, the history of the female sex doll — and why most sex dolls are female — is bound up in the violence of patriarchy. Its future is, too. Western culture encourages men to conceptualize themselves as the owners of women; it’s not much of a jump from there to owning a sex doll. I also wonder if the hegemony of the female sex doll has to do with a failure of imagination; for lots of straight men, desire has to be located on something female, which then necessitates a bunch of other signifiers (breasts, long hair, sexy underwear). The Fleshlight — which is a kind of sex robot — amputates the woman entirely, but it’s a relatively recent innovation. Heterosexual (and not so heterosexual) women, on the other hand, have long made do with masturbation aides that have only the vaguest relationship to the male form. Look at the polymorphous sex toys of yesterday — and today — and tell me that women haven’t always been the true science-fiction pioneers.
What I’m saying is, what about sex with robots-as-robots? I had trouble finding examples. It’s possible that the “orgasmatron” of Sleeper was nothing more than very high tech pornography, but I suspect it might actually be one of the only popular examples of a human having sex with an actual machine. I’d count James Woods’ encounter with a particularly lascivious television in Videodrome as well. When I went looking for examples on Twitter, several people suggested Her, but that’s less a machine than an imaginary woman. More to the point is the AI Lovelace in Becky Chambers’ A Long Trip to a Small, Angry Planet. While "Lovey" is presented as female with aspirations to a female body, the character that is in love with her, Jenks, also desires her as she is: “He took his clothes off and climbed into the [computer’s core], as he had done many times…He kissed the smooth, warm metal and said, ‘I don’t see any reason to change the best thing I’ve ever had.'”
I don't doubt that the fertile, febrile fields of fanfiction have produced more along these lines. In those boundless realms, I'm sure people are mashing together the moist sensuality of the human form with the antiseptic lines of machines. I will be honest — I was afraid to look. I'm strangely comforted that the stories are there, though, because I think it's probably good for some small segment of the population to be thinking expansively about what it's possible for humans to want. Sex with robots is a reminder that not only can sexuality be non-binary, it can exist along a whole other axis as well. Having sex with a being that is more like Artoo than Threepio sounds ridiculous, but that's only because so many of us continue to confuse the mechanics of sex with what it is to desire.