The future of sex technologies and gender remains, well, complicated

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[Photo by Hayley Knoph]

For the last century, robots persist as a symbol of the future. Movies, in particular, capitalize on the prospect of man-made beings that assist humans in every aspect of life—even sex.

From the robotic prostitutes of Blade Runner and West World to the charming artificial intelligence of Ex Machina and Her, sex robots have been part of film since its beginning. Even the first feature length science fiction film, Metropolis, presents its female robot as a hypersexual being. In that 1927 German film, the “Maschinenmensch,” or “Machine-Human” in English, seduces the city’s men into a life of sin through her hypnotic and erotic dance.

Throughout sci-fi films of this sort, one pattern seems to arise: “female” robots are represented as sexualized, while “male” robots tend to lack sexuality.

“It follows the codes of gender that you often see in mainstream media,” explained Rachael Liberman, a Visiting Teaching Assistant Professor at the University of Denver’s Media, Film, and Journalism Department. “We often see male fantasies dominating versus female fantasies.”

Renee Pens, an optician and science fiction fan, offers a similar opinion.

“You can basically make the ‘perfect’ woman,” she said. “I think a lot of men have some underlying fantasy of having a woman they can control and make them everything they have ever desired. They don’t have to fear any insecurity or rejection.”

In many media representations, the male creator imbues his robotic creation with details of his fantasy. In The Stepford Wives, the men of the town of Bedford replace their wives with subservient androids confined to domesticity, a classic version of the male fantasy. The phrase “Stepford wife” has even entered regular American speech to describe a submissive wife, even if she is a human.

On the other hand, cinema usually depicts male robots, like R2-D2 and C-3PO from Star Wars or Sonny from I, Robot, as being devoid of sexuality but full of strength, intelligence, or innovation.

“The male robot is more coded with technological advancement and the future,” Liberman said. “It almost connects this idea of maleness to technology to the future to advancement to intelligence, while female robots are coded as sex objects.”

Even when robots are not assigned a specific gender, people tend to give it one. Despite  showing no anatomical resemblance to a human, Roombas are often given genders and names by their owners.

“I think we just live in a world that so desperately wants to categorize things in heteronormative ways and through a cisgender lens,” said Colorado State University student, Morgan Iacono, referring specifically to the debate over BB-8’s gender in The Force Awakens.

But what about robots in real life?

“Even with dating websites, we’re already allowing technology to help us find a partner,” Liberman said, describing the future of sex technology. “I don’t think it’s that far off that we allow technology to help us with pleasure and desire.”

Products currently available include TrueCompanion’s Roxxxy, a realistic sex doll that can carry a conversation and respond to touch. RealDoll also offers anatomically-realistic dolls but are less interactive, but it also plans to release a sexbot utilizing artificial intelligence in the very near future.

The evolution of sex technologies doesn’t lie solely on sex dolls, though. Several pornography websites have embraced porn to be viewed using virtual reality technology. Shot in 180- or 360-degrees, VR porn immerses its viewer in the scene.

“There is more of a relationship to the action versus just being a kind of voyeur,” Liberman explained, contrasting porn in a virtual reality with more traditional forms. “You seem to have some sort of power as an audience member in the space.”

VR porn can even go beyond Demolition Man-style headsets that avoid fluid transfer. A game controller in development called VirtuaDolls allows users to physically experience the sexual interactions in the virtual reality scene.

“I feel like that immersive experience would be a game-changer,” Liberman said.

As of now, the latest in sex technologies has been targeted specifically to male users, but Liberman believes that women could become a major player in the industry.

“Women absolutely have an interest in the commodified sex industry, but historically, there has been a stigma around women openly being interested in sexuality,” she said.

She also predicted that as soon as VR porn becomes the standard in pornography, women will become more active in both its production and consumption. “With VR, I absolutely think that women will be interested. If [feminist] directors start shooting for VR, it’s a no brainer.”

Currently, though, it seems women are less open to the idea of sex robots. Researchers from Tufts University conducted a study revealing that female participants’ approval of the use of sex robots scored less than that of male participants.

Pens argued that men will remain the target market for sex robots. “I think there are definitely more men that are going to be appealed to the idea. Women are usually a little more modest and conservative so if it became popular, I don’t think it would be broadcast the way it is for men,” she explained.

Some predict that sex technologies can possibly help types of people other than those who are simply looking for casual robot sex. From functioning as partners for disabled individuals to assisting patients in providing sperm samples, the possibilities for sex robots expand endlessly.

“I feel like while they have the potential to perhaps help people who have intimacy fears or the like to work through those issues,” Iacono said, “I fear it might lead to a further disconnect with the humanity of living sex partners.”

Liberman also recognized public fear as a likely reaction to such technologies.

“We’ve seen panics over technology before,” she said. “We always have this reluctance to adopt new technology because it’s replacing something that we’re used to.”

“It’s a complex discussion, and I think the roots of the issue are in the human connection and you define it and how you define sexuality.”

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