Issue #77: Should We Build Robots Men Can Rape?


The RoboPsych Newsletter

Exploring The Psychology of 
Human-Robot Interaction
Issue 77: September 20, 2017

Should We Build Robots That Men Can Rape?
Quote of the Week:

“Sex robots are likely to play an important role in shaping public understandings of sex and of relations between the sexes in the future. This paper contributes to the larger project of understanding how they will do so by examining the ethics of the “rape” of robots. I argue that the design of realistic female robots that could explicitly refuse consent to sex in order to facilitate rape fantasy would be unethical because sex with robots in these circumstances is a representation of the rape of a woman, which may increase the rate of rape, expresses disrespect for women, and demonstrates a significant character defect. Even when the intention is not to facilitate rape, the design of robots that can explicitly refuse consent is problematic due to the likelihood that some users will experiment with raping them. Designing robots that lack the capacity to explicitly refuse consent may be morally problematic depending on which of two accounts of the representational content of sex with realistic humanoid robots is correct."

Robert Sparrow, “Robots, Rape, and Representation”

Who Creates/Uses Rape Robots?  

Roboticists are considering building sex robots that encourage their own rape. 

This issue’s quote is the abstract from a recent article that explored ethical questions regarding creating robot sex dolls that can refuse sexual consent.

Think about that for a second. 

We are about to see widespread production of sex dolls whose “repertoire” of “consenting behavior” will range from enthusiastic participation to (potentially) violent verbal and physical resistance. Not to mention the possibility of producing models that could deliberately enable the simulation of child sexual abuse.

Most of us see more than a few worms crawling out of this can.

First off, many cringe at the image of a robot being designed to have sex with a person. Others see potential individual and/or societal benefits. Perhaps even more of us are repelled by the prospect of a robot built with the capacity to withhold consent to sex. Since the (very short) definition of rape is “sex without consent,” these designers would be creating the conditions for humans to routinely “rape” robots which (not who) say “no.” 

Would having sex with that robot be “rape?” 

If we assume that humanoid robots are representations of humans, then the behavior of humanoid robots expressly designed to engage in sexual activities with humans retain some resemblance to those activities taking place between humans. The exact nature of that resemblance may be debated (since “sexual activity” takes place between humans and, infrequently, other animals, not between humans and inanimate objects; we usually call that “masturbation”), but it seems clear the intent of robot designers is to simulate human sexual situations as realistically as possible. 

But, rape physically and psychologically harms people. Robots, on the other hand, are not (yet? ever?) sentient and experience none of the trauma of a human rape victim. So does simulated rape harm anyone? As a representation of rape, many ethicists, including Sparrow in the article quoted above, would say that simulated rape is an ethical equivalent of rape itself. 

Of course, there are those who would say that since a robot is an artifact it is incapable of ever actually “consenting” to sexual contact. But deliberately creating a humanoid robot that would simulate refusing sexual consent -- in essence creating a situation in which a person (over 90% of whom are male) who has purchased the robot largely for the purpose of his sexual pleasure is “denied” that pleasure -- is an invitation to simulated rape, complete with simulated escalating “resistance.” 

Centuries ago, Emmanuel Kant asked a question about this kind of situation: “What sort of person would do that?” Who is the person who chooses to experience sexual pleasure by “forcing himself” on a robot that is simulating refusal? Furthermore, who is the person who designs and produces a robot that credibly simulates the behavior of a woman being raped after withholding sexual consent? 

These are questions that asks us to make connections between behavior and character. We’ve often been told to “punish the behavior, not the person.” Ethically, however, the answers to these questions seem clear. While some arguments (flimsy, in my opinion) have been made that sexual robots which behave in these ways may prevent actual rapes, I think the much more credible point of view is that creating these kinds of robots is reinforcing and strengthening unethical behavior. I believe the chances are better that encouraging this practice actually increases the potential incidence of rape. 

We’re about to enter into an era in which we will be called on to make many ethical decisions we’ve not had to make before. Encouraging any manner of violent sexual behavior against women does not represent the kind of social, scientific, or technological progress to which we aspire. 

We can -- must -- do better than this.

Tom Guarriello, Ph.D. 

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