Sex robots could change the way we think about relationships

Regardless of what we might think of them, sex robots are probably going to be a part of our society’s future. What’s more unclear, however, is how they might change our society. For instance, there is debate over how they could affect offences such as pedophilia or sexual assault, while others have suggested that they could create addictions or even “make men obsolete.”

According to a UBC professor, sex robots could have a positive effect on another topic: marriage.

In a chapter she submitted to an essay collection that explores the social and ethical implications of sex robots, UBC economics professor Marina Adshade suggests that the proliferation of sex robots could change the way we define marriage itself.

She explained that sex robots could lead to the creation of marriages that don’t have a component of sexual intimacy between partners. Although these partners might marry for reasons such as friendship or wanting to raise a family, their sexual desires would instead be fulfilled via sexbot.

“Today, if you want to marry somebody, you want to look for somebody who is your best friend, a parent to your children if that’s what you’re looking for, and somebody that you have kind of a sexual connection with — which is a lot to ask of another person,” she said.

“Sex robots will allow us to disconnect those things — sexual intimacy and marriage — to allow some people to enter into marriages that don’t have that component.”

An example she provided involved an asexual person entering a marriage with a sexually active person, in which the sexually active person’s desires would be satisfied through a sex robot.

Once sexual intimacy is no longer seen as a requirement for marriage, this could also contribute to an increase in non-monogamous marriages, whether or not a sexbot is involved in them.

“We’re heading in this direction anyways: many people are having this type of [non-monogamous] relationship structure. Maybe many people want to have this type of relationship structure. I think that it’s stigmatized right now, I don’t think that it’ll be stigmatized in the future, and I think that having sex robots available will help de-stigmatize that type of relationship.”

For example, an individual in a heterosexual marriage could use a sexbot to satisfy desires for another partner, or to perform sexual acts that their partner wouldn’t want to perform.

The end result of these changes could be a departure from the universal concept of marriage. Of course, concepts like sex and monogamy would still be present in many marriages, but they would become options rather than socially-imposed requirements.

Technology and social change have long been linked

Adshade ties her research into a long history of technological developments that indirectly led to social changes. For example, she cited an argument that the inventions of household technologies such as microwaves and washing machines helped pave the way for the acceptance of same-sex marriage.

Whereas the purpose of earlier marriages was to enter households organized by strict labour divisions — in which husbands earned money and wives performed housework — these technologies drastically reduced the time spent on housework, thus leading to a redefinition of marriage centred around romance. With this definition, it became easier for people to see the irrationality of prohibiting same-sex marriage.

There’s also the invention of contraceptives, which removed many of the consequences of sexual activity for women and made sex an integral component of marriage. As per Adshade’s research, sex robots could deconstruct this.

“Sexual intimacy and sexual connection didn’t use to be parts of marriage,” she said. “It’s a fairly modern construct that only really arrived about a hundred years ago when we got access to birth control.”

However, for the changes Adshade predicts to occur, she acknowledges that there would have to be a widespread adoption of sexbot technology, which could be difficult if they’re too expensive.

She also noted that, at this moment, true sex robots are only products of the future.

“There is [sic] no sex robots. There are fancy sex toys. The manufactures may call them robots but they’re not robots, not in any meaningful sense. We’re still a ways out from having something that even resembles a sex robot.”