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I Say No To Android Sex!

Expanded Horizons does not have a lengthy explanation in the guidelines about why we don't want stories about robot sex workers, but maybe there should be more of one, because we get so many of these stories. Apparently it is unclear to some people (especially those with an agenda to publish robot sex worker stories) what the problems actually are with robot sex worker stories.

There are many, many problems with these stories. The first and essential problem is with the premise itself. "Artificial" people, created only for the sexual enjoyment of others.

The idea of any people being "artificial" is a can of worms itself. It's one thing to talk about a small robot going around vacuuming your carpet and another to talk about robots for sex, a very intimate act (at least, as it is considered to be by many). So you're already dehumanizing sex. Even separating sex from life, sex being something only living organisms do and something which propagates life.

Next, these robots, unlike life-like sex dolls, invariably have human feelings and thoughts and emotions and ethics, and so on... they're people. Not sex toys. They're people that the authors are dehumanizing.

Sex workers are dehumanized as it is, in real life. You have to start unpacking the way the stigma against sex workers works in the real world in order to get at this angle of the problem. A story in which the sex workers are robots or androids (but amazingly, have much of the range of human emotion etc. etc.) just takes this stigma and makes it literal, i.e. "These characters aren't 'real' people, so everything that's going on here is completely OK," at least below the surface conflicts. You never have to get into the deeper social and economic issues that drive people into sex work, you never have to address human-on-human exploitation, or drug use, or STDs, or pregnancy, or lack of education, or abuse, or even the emotional impact of being forced into sex work -- anything at all, because these are androids. You can casually mention that they're being abused, and don't have to wrestle with that in your story because "these aren't real people" -- you can adopt a tone of just "oh poor androids, too bad they're being abused unspeakably!" /sniff/ Then the "bad guy" who does the abusing gets his comeuppance, and we're done. Yay! (Not.)

These androids have been made with the express purpose of being in sex work. It's OK for them to be doing this with themselves because that's what they were built to do. There's no guilt. That's what these entities were designed to do, and it's their most natural role! They were created for this purpose! Like, um, that argument about women being "created" for domestic work and people of color people being "created" for manual labor and um, all that other real life oppressive bullsh*t. In SF, it can be stipulated as part of a story's premise that 1) machines can be "made" for the purpose of doing certain things (we all accept this as part of society's master narrative), and 2) these machines can have thoughts and feelings and ethics (common SF premise). We can therefore get away with not considering these thinking, feeling, entities "human", and thus, we never have to address and challenge the underlying implication idea that people can be "made" (by some divinity, aliens, or other humans) to be exploited by others and limited in their social role to the place where the dominant group deems them "appropriate".

(As an aside, SF seems to do this with various other groups of people, even real-life groups, but that's beyond the scope of this essay.)

So now that we have some (sentient, feeling, intelligent, moral) "non-people" who were created by "real people" for sexual exploitation, and there's no guilt in any of this, we add in the race fail and gender fail and sexual orientation fail etc.. Sexbots can have "perfect" beauty no human female (or male) can achieve, thus actualizing the advertising industry's presentation of women as objects who can only achieve "perfect" beauty through genetics, starvation, surgery and digital "enhancement". On the race end of things, sexbots may be compared to or referred to as "geishas", or maybe they're default white and turn into PoC for some plot point. Or PoC bodies and skin colors may be referred to with reference to food. Or the sexbots may be said to have no race because they can turn into any race (racial identity thus being reduced to ("artificial") skin color, facial features and hair features). This way, the sexbots can "be" any race that the person who owns or contracts them wants, fulfilling his/her racial fetishes (and without having to deal with any of the issues of objectifying, "othering" or exploiting "real" PoC)!

We also have have sexbots who "service" people of any gender (making them more "valuable" as commodities), and ones that can morph into having any combination of primary and secondary characteristics their owner desires (fulfilling all trans and intersex fetishes of their owners/those who contract for them), all without any discussion of the exploitation/dehumanization of trans folks in sex work in real life. These androids were designed and built for doing this and they're happy to do it! (In fact, the way they were designed, they really can't do anything else, or even imagine doing anything else! Your TV doesn't wake up wanting to be a microwave oven, now does it?)

Sexbots are also portrayed as "perfect" lovers because they can and will do anything, unlike real people, who have boundaries and preferences and who are capable of saying "no." Oh no, artificial people are programmed not to be able to say no! (Rape culture, anyone?) They always want sex, your way, all the time! You can always be sure no means yes with a sexbot. In fact, you can even abuse them with the most violent of fetishes, because they're not "real people". Even in stories where the sexbots don't like this treatment, and there's some sense of "the guy who treats his sexbot like this is the bad guy", the ethics of mistreating a sexbot never seem to match up to the same ethics of "mistreating" a "real" human. It feels more like that spin on slavery that is sometimes presented to (white) children: "The slave owners who beat their slaves were bad guys, but they weren't all like that -- some slave owners treated their slaves well!" Without, you know, examining how slavery itself is the problem.

(Except sexbots can't even think of doing something else with their lives unless they're "broken", because they were "made" to do that one thing and that's how they were "designed". By SF premise.)

Oh wait, what's that about only slaves who were "mentally ill" would ever think of running away?

(Don't forget to catch that bit about the "submissive state that it was intended for them to occupy" and how this all supposedly comes from the Bible (here, the word of the Divinity who created us all. It's Divine Intent!))

So. At the end of the day, all those people who are seen as less than fully human, especially in a sexual context (women, trans people, intersex people, sex workers, LGB people, slaves, etc.)? If instead of making them real people in the story, we do the exact same things to them but we make them into sexbots, we're done! Problem solved! It's all justified now. Now they're clearly "in their place" and it's clear they've been "created to be there" and they're clearly "not really human" and we can tell as problematic a story as we like!

And then how dare some editor or blogger point out that all we did was put lipstick on the proverbial pig?

Note: I have yet to see a disability-sexbot story, but it would fail hard for the same reasons already enumerated here. I have read stories where it would clearly be possible within the setup for sexbots (disability fetish!), but as yet I have not received such a story.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 1st, 2010 07:21 pm (UTC)
Didn't a similar novel just win the Nebula? >_<

Quoting from Wikipedia:

Emiko is a Japanese-designed windup girl (a humanoid GM organism, used as a slave, and programmed to seek a master and obey him; windups are also called "New People") abandoned by her Japanese master. As such, she is illegal in Thailand and her condition is exploited by Raleigh, a pimp. Emiko has a genetically altered pore structure, which makes her skin extremely smooth, but prone to overheating.
Jun. 1st, 2010 08:46 pm (UTC)
Wow. I wonder if this came up at Wiscon. Because this is the sort of thing that should come up at a con like Wiscon.

While we're waiting to find out about that, why don't we put out a call for reviews of this book? It seems as good as any plan to start with something very current and very high-profile.
Sep. 13th, 2010 03:30 pm (UTC)
The Windup Girl came up at Wiscon in the Take Back the SciFi panel, with many of the issues here being brought up. And I heard similar conversations a couple of times outside panel space.
Sep. 13th, 2010 10:08 am (UTC)
Followed a link from a Windup Girl review.

It seems to me that you're cutting off a lot of possibly soon-to-be-relevant SF. Some of what you describe sounds plain bad writing: yeah, if it has emotions and self-awareness and language use, it's "people", artificial or not. And Paolo's Windup Girl is just a genetically engineered human, as far as I can tell

But with full-blown AI, the category of "people" can be rather broader than the human range. Such beings *are* designed for a purpose -- you can go talk to the designer, the programmer! And there's no particular reason for them to have the same pattern of desires or boundaries as humans. Which raises interesting challenges to a consent-based morality: how does that apply when the consent of a being can be manufactured to order? Not through forced brainwashing of an existing being, but through ab initio design?

Really, it applies to unpaid robot workers in general, but there are probably people who wouldn't think twice about a robot butler but would get queasy at the butler being taken to bed.

Though again, it sounds like you get a lot of stories trying to straddle the fence: "they're made to do this, but they're being abused, but we don't have to care". Whereas for me the well-thought endpoints are

(1) Stross's Saturn's Children, where the humans never did figure out AI from scratch, just built electronic versions of human brains, and abused/conditioned them into obedience

(2) Chobits, looking behind its fanservice, where the robots are advanced PCs in humaniform cases. Or as I put it, the 'evolutionary' path is of giving Windows Program Manager more and more capability with vision and language and motor control and self-monitoring, but never leaving its core function of waiting for human orders.

In the one case they clearly are not just people but basically human, and the abuse isn't covered up by the author; in the other, our assumptions about 'abuse' of a humaniform and linguistic being are genuinely challengeable.

Even separating sex from life, sex being something only living organisms do and something which propagates life.

That seems oddly conservative for a queer-friendly venue. Only potentially reproductive sex is good? Robot sex has no less ability to propagate life than anal or oral or masturbating with a vibrator.
Sep. 13th, 2010 07:25 pm (UTC)
Thank you for these book recommendations, I will look into them.

That seems oddly conservative for a queer-friendly venue. Only potentially reproductive sex is good?

I am not sure how you are reading this conclusion into my words. I certainly do not hold any such proposition to be true. What I was pointing out is that in the real world, non-living organisms do not have sex with one another (and though people do have sex with non-living objects, these objects are not sentient as the android sex workers are often painted to be). And though of course not all children are conceived through sexual intercourse, most children are (which is what I meant by "sex propagates life"). It does not mean sex is the only valid means of reproduction, or that reproduction is the only, or only good, role for sex in people's lives. I do not hold such a position, and I will endeavor to be clearer in the future.
Sep. 13th, 2010 07:40 pm (UTC)
I didn't think you'd mean that conclusion in the end, but I couldn't see why you were using those words in the first place.

So you're already dehumanizing sex. Even separating sex from life, sex being something only living organisms do and something which propagates life.

Why does it matter if sex is being separated from life? And can you say the sex is being dehumanized, if both parties have human intelligence?

in the real world, non-living organisms do not have sex with one another

"Non-living organism" seems an oxymoron, especially in a world before robots.

Why is all this about living organisms and children relevant, especially if you aren't reaching for a conservative "unnatural sex is bad" position?

Edited at 2010-09-13 07:41 pm (UTC)
Sep. 13th, 2010 08:22 pm (UTC)
Why does it matter if sex is being separated from life? And can you say the sex is being dehumanized, if both parties have human intelligence?

A self-aware AI is a nonhuman sentience, and that's an important and meaningful distinction. In particular, an AI is not a being which reproduces sexually, therefore it by definition does not have a sex drive; it can be programmed to simulate one, but such programming is inherently coercive and unethical because you're forcing the AI to engage in behavior for the sole benefit of another party.
Sep. 13th, 2010 09:22 pm (UTC)
This is why I find the subject so fascinating. Inherently coercive? Who are you coercing? The AI only exists because you wanted it to fulfill this function, and there's no pre-existing nature as you have with human children. The AI is the ultimate blank slate; it only has the desires and reactions the programmer gives it. (Or that it acquires through mechanisms that the programmer gave it.)

You say "forcing the AI", but it's not being forced with a gun to its head or by having its passport stolen, it *wants* to serve.

What's the ethical theory in which designing such AIs is unethical?

(Again, assuming the Chobits branch of AI, of increasingly complex computers, as opposed to electronic human brains. Or the Asimov one, for a more venerable source -- the Laws of Robotics were supposed to be how the robots actually thought and what they wanted, not external constraints on their behavior.)
Sep. 17th, 2010 04:34 pm (UTC)
Programming directives are external constraints on the behavior of an A.I.; Asimov's Laws of Robotics were overtly intended to enslave robots.
Sep. 18th, 2010 06:24 pm (UTC)
Not as I remember the stories. The Laws were laws of robotic psychology.

And "Programming directives are external constraints"? The AI is nothing but programming directives and the data structures they create. Anything you could identify as an internal desire or "free will" of the AI would also be a programming directive.
Sep. 13th, 2010 11:38 pm (UTC)
What if the robot is given a sex drive that it can satisfy by having voluntary sex with other robots?

That's one of the elements in Saturn's Children by the way. A robot having a sex drive isn't a bad thing, when the robot can choose their lovers. The other things the vanished humans did to their robots were definitely evil though, and the way the results twisted and warped robot society is a major aspect of the book.
Sep. 17th, 2010 04:36 pm (UTC)
It is one thing for a sentient robot to of its own free will decide that it wants to engage in sexual interaction despite not having a reproductive drive. It is another thing entirely to force robots to engage in sexual interaction by imposing an artificial need for sex on them.

Sep. 18th, 2010 06:26 pm (UTC)
Forcing a robot to want sex is no more artificial than forcing a robot to exist in the first place.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )


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