Should our law protect robots against rape?

Imagine this. The year is 2030. You are a male, cis-identifying*, heterosexual adolescent. You are rather shy when it comes to social contacts, particularly girls. You have never been in a romantic relationship and you have never had sex with another human being before. However, you have already gained a lot of sexual experience in your life: both with avatars through your virtual reality goggles, and also with human webcamgirls — nowadays, the interaction you can have with digital sexworkers is hyper-realistic, including smell, taste and sense-sensations. But today, you’re trying out something new: you have booked your first date with a sexrobot, named Lola. According to the website of the doll-brothel, Lola is “barely 18”, “likes it rough” and “is insatiable”. You are excited to meet her.

This future is nearby. Sexdolls are on the rise. Futurists predict than soon, 1 out of 10 youngsters will have had sex with robotdolls — many of those will be able to talk, make breathing movements, or suck. Developers all over the world are competing in the race: who can make a doll that feels, looks and even acts the most ‘real’? Or actually, I should say: the sexiest.

Because a real person would probably not be the ideal sexpartner to its users.

A real person might have a headache, every now and then.

He or she might be more into vanillasex, while you prefer BDSM.

He or she might say something on a datenight that makes you feel insecure, or even angry — bye, bye, erection.

He or she might insist on frenchkissing or massages or oral sex before penetration, or — oh, my — on having an orgasm, too.

would you allow your teenager to have sex with Lola?

Not Lola and her colleagues.

They like what you like.

They want what you want.

They never complaint.

They don’t need foreplay to get aroused, let alone deep conversations, or support, or attention.

Even stronger: they would still help our male adolescent to an orgasm, even if he would mistreat them. They will please him even if he’d curse at them, for fun or out of frustration; if he would belittle them, punch them in the face or penetrate them without any form of consent — obviously, he’ll have to do the latter, as most of these dolls can’t talk.

What’s the problem, one might ask? What is wrong with verbally or physically abusing a robot? The thing can’t feel anyway. Moreover, critics may even argue that perhaps it’s a good thing that users mistreat robots in a way to unleash their apparent frustrations — that way their aggression focuses onto a product instead of on real human beings (this argument is actually popularly used .

Although this argument sounds logical, I disagree with it. Instead, I propose we consider that verbal and physical abuse of robots needs be critically approached in public conversations and perhaps even forbidden by law. I argue this not for the dolls’s sake, mind you; I believe it is important for human society and inter-human relationships.

protests for human rights have characterized history — and the battle has only just begun

Think back of the male adolescent that I introduced at the beginning of this article. It’s now two years past his first encounter with Lola. Ever-since, he’s fucked tens of other robots. For as far as he knows, sex is uncomplicated and fun. The robots certainly never complain about his skills. Instead, they generally say encouraging things about his physique and performance and, despite of the staccato tone of voice in which they do so, this has helped grow his confidence. He enjoys his regular sexdates with dolls — and his orgasms. As far as our young male is concerned, these robots are all he needs! At least…that’s what he believed, until he met a human girl at school. She’s as shy as he used to be before he met Lola and her friends, but also smart, kind, pretty and, best of all: she seems to be into him, too! So far, the young man and the girl have been on two dates: one in a restaurant, one in a VR-popconcert. It was nice: they talked a lot and kissed a little. Tonight, though, expectations are up. He has invited her to come over to his place for what we call ‘drinks and a movie’.

How do you think this young couple’s date-night will evolve, if, indeed, they end up having sex as the young man (and perhaps the young woman, too) is hoping? Although it’s clearly impossible to predict their respective behaviours, it seems fair to assume that our young male will end up rather shocked by the stark contrasts between his earlier sexdoll-experiences, and this human adventure. Even in the (probable) case that he’s watched YouTube tutorials on ‘how to please real women’, the reality will be all too different from what he knows. Human sex appears messier and clumsier, or slower or more intimate than he’d ever imagined. He might be yet again confronted with his own shyness. He might find the ‘real’ sex awkward. He might find the girl too silent, too slow, too dry, too passive or the opposite of that: why does she keep pushing for positions that don’t work for him, and why does she ask him to go down on her while all he wants is to simply do what he feels he always does? And why on earth would she say afterwards that this is not how she would have wanted it to be, does she mean to say he isn’t experienced or good enough?

If only the boy had realized that the dolls have taught him porn-fantasies, not fingering and — arguably most important than techy bedskills- communication techniques.

Sure, all of this could also happen if one only ‘practices’ with humans. Sometimes, the preferences of bedmates simply don’t match, other times, bedpartners have to get used to one another. These situations demand patience, honesty and good communication skills — none of these our male adolescent has developed through his interaction with Lola and Co. If he and the real girl like each other enough, they might work things out. But for the male — having a silicone alternative seems more than attractive. Sex with dolls, then, becomes the easy way out. Rather than having to confront complexities, one can escape in fast-food-style pleasure. And rather than practising patience and vulnerability in a sexual dialogue, one repeats a self-centred version of sex. Lola won’t mind, but the rest of us, will.

Roanne van Voorst is an anthropologist of the future (phD) and a writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her work has been translated and published internationally. Her current research centers on sustainable humanity, and the future of love, kindness and empathy. See for more information:

Anthropologist of the Future, internationally published author & public speaker

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