When I was studying at Bible College, I remember one of my lecturers used to say “the Church is fully equipped to respond to any challenge that it faces … from the 1970s.” His point was that, unfortunately, the Church has a track record of being rather late to the game in addressing issues that arise in our culture: something that is seen clearer than ever with the recent debates around transgenderism. In short, we as the Church need to be proactive rather than reactive. We need to look ahead, see where culture is heading, and prepare ourselves, so that we may serve others as best we can. Hence, this article.
Are We Really There Yet?
Over human history we have seen varying degrees of sexual revolution, even in our own time. From the rise of casual sex to the evolution of pornography – among other more depraved and unusual activities – there have been noticeable and rapid changes to how sex is perceived and practiced in our society. Thus, it’s not surprising that in a culture as sex-obsessed as ours is we should encounter another development in this area.
In July of this year, 2017, The Foundation for Responsible Robotics (FRR), an organization whose aim is to suggest ethical policies concerning robotics, released a report called “Our Sexual Future with Robots.”1 Within this report, they address the current state of sexual robotics and seek to answer seven questions, such as “what kind of relationship can we have with a robot?” and, “could sexual intimacy with robots lead to greater social isolation?” They then provide short interviews with two sex robot manufacturer CEOs, before summarising and concluding their report. There are many insights provided in this report, but the most obvious one is that this is now a current issue, as we can see from the very existence of the report itself.
For a long time, sex robots have been portrayed in sci-fi media, as seen in Ex Machina, Westworld, Humans, and others. However, the lines between reality and fiction are becoming increasingly blurred, and two practices are particularly disturbing.
The first is the manufacture and sale of child look-alike sex robots. Shin Takagi, a self-confessed pedophile, and founder of Trottla, remarked “we should accept that there is no way to change someone’s fetishes […] I am helping people express their desires, legally and ethically. It’s not worth living if you have to live with repressed desire.” In fact, even Ron Arkin, a robotics professor, has argued that such robots should be prescribed by doctors to treat those with pedophilic desires. Though, I believe many would agree with professor of Philosophy Patrick Lin when he states that “treating paedophiles with robot sex- children is both a dubious and repulsive idea. Imagine treating racism by letting a bigot abuse a brown robot. Would that work? Probably not.” Currently, Canadian courts are deciding whether such a robot constitutes child pornography due to a case that has arisen.2
The second practice is the programming of sex robots to emulate non-consent i.e. for the purposes of imitation rape. Little needs to be said about how unsettling this is, but we cannot be so naive as to think that such actions in private will not lead to a distortion of thinking, and, eventually, a distortion of actions towards real people (edit: though theoretically purchasable, it is possible that robots with this setting are still in development. Hopefully they’ll never make it to commercial sale.)
1. Women Will be Abused and Mistreated.
It is a trend that women are exploited more by technological advances in sex than men. Though pornography is by no means a male-only practice, the majority of users remain male, and it is the female workers that suffer the worst maltreatment in the industry. Even a CEO of one of the robot manufacturers has admitted that though some of the customers are women, the market is dominated by male consumers. As one journalist wrote about the robots portrayal in fictional media, “being literally objectified women, female robots have traditionally been vehicles for the worst male tendencies.”3 How much more true will this be of real life. As Megan Murphy aptly comments, “it is irrational to believe that offering men something that physically looks like a woman — that men are encouraged to engage with as they would a woman — to beat up or rape will discourage men from thinking of women as objects upon which they can act out violent fantasies or project their anger. As we know, the existence of hundreds of thousands of prostituted women around the world and a billion dollar porn industry has not stopped rape or abuse.” This treatment of women is a far cry from our Lord and Saviour who welcomed, taught, protected, respected, and cared for women in a culture where they were treated as commodities. May we learn from his example.
2. It Will be a While Before This Practice is Common.
Even in light of the current evidence, we shouldn’t think that use of sex robots is widespread for the time being. Though the manufacturers won’t release their total sales, we can be fairly confident that due to how expensive they are, their rudimentary development, and the popular disinclination towards the idea of them, sex robots remain uncommon and for the few. However, recent history teaches us that changes in cultural sexual ethics and popular acceptance of practices can change remarkably suddenly, so maybe I will be proved wrong.
3. The Current Aversion to Sex Robots Will Dissipate.
Maybe this point is more pessimistic than the evidence warrants at the moment, but it does seem that sexual desires are becoming increasingly warped, as seen by “advances” (for want of a better word) in pornography. It was only a few short decades ago that the extreme sexual content available now was never even considered by most. In addition to this, it also seems that technology has been consistently used to fuel sexual pleasure, and thus, I remain pessimistic. Whether it is five years, ten, fifty, or more, I believe this is an issue that we, as the Church, will have to face.
Despite these concerns, however, human history has seen the rise and fall of much worse inventions, and so these developments should come as no shock to us. Not only should we not be surprised, but we need not feel hopeless either. Jesus was on his throne when the Greeks visited brothels in Ancient Ephesus, he was still on his throne during the rise of pornography, he remains on his throne today, and he will remain on his throne if and when sex robots become integrated into our culture at large; and not only is he on his throne, but he still offers the hope that he offered two thousand years ago – that he is a willing saviour for a sinful people.