Gendered Robots and the Devaluation of Gendered Labour

Christina Clemente
JD Candidate, 2019

In the final scene of The Stepford Wives (1975), a robotic replica of the main character, Joanna, is seen eerily approaching the human Joanna. The robot holds a stocking stretched between both hands, and although not shown, it is clear to the audience that the robot will strangle human Joanna to death. This striking metaphor illustrates the real harm inflicted on women by robotics, and by the creation of artificial women, or sex robots.

Companies have been manufacturing sex dolls for decades. However, recent technological advancements have allowed for the creation of sex robots so lifelike, they are indistinguishable from human women. In this essay, I argue that these lifelike sex robots can perpetuate harmful views on women’s labour and women’s agency. Sex robots such as “Realdolls,”[1] are a very literal personification of the overt sexism, racism, and misogyny already present in society. Arguments that these robots serve a therapeutic purpose, providing companionship to lonely men, deserve more critical treatment. Furthermore, proposals to regulate the creation and manufacturing of sex robots alone are insufficient, as they overlook the systemic and societal causes of the harm.

The potential harm that lifelike sex robots could have on women’s agency has garnered concern from a number of feminist writers. Sinziana Gutiu, for example, points to the effect lifelike sex robots may have on consent, since they are programmed to always say “yes.”[2] Because sex robot users are able to bypass consent, Gutiu suggests this erodes consent, and therefore autonomy, in intimate relationships between human individuals.[3] Similarly, in interviewing sex robot engineer, Sergi Santos, Melanie Ehrenkranz highlights the misogyny underlying the hype around engineering mastery and robotic creations like sex robots.[4] Santos, for example, claims to believe “that men should understand that a woman is not an object.”[5] However, Santos has the audacity to suggest that the “seduction mimicking” algorithm titled “call for attention” that he created for his sex robot is like consent.[6] This “gamifying” of consent is dangerous because it “downplays the idea of consent,” undermining the nuances of communication between two human individuals.[7]

In addition to reducing women’s agency, sex robots reinforce already damaging notions of what constitutes women’s labour. To understand how this occurs, it is necessary to look at how the industry caters to isolated and lonely individuals.[8] First, rooted in the marketing of sex robots as companions for lonely men is the idea that women are responsible for providing emotional labour. This is not a new idea; whether human or plastic, women are disproportionately categorized as the providers of companionship, aesthetic beauty, sexual, and emotional labour. However, the manufacturing and distribution of sex robots reinforces this unequal distribution of emotional and sexual labour in society, creating a self-perpetuating feed back loop. Lonely men seek out feminized robots to offer them companionship because they understand it to be a “female” job, and the feminization of robots entrenches the emotional labour is the work of women.

Second, reliance on sex robots for companionship could undermine support for funding social services, or paying care workers to provide companionship and emotional support to isolated or mentally ill people. This is highly problematic, particularly since feminized labour is already undervalued in our society. As well, undervaluing feminized work disproportionately disadvantages the care work labour force, which is mostly made up of women, particularly women of colour. The manufacturing and distribution of sex robots therefore reinforces the unequal distribution of undervalued emotional and sexual feminized labour in society.

The discourse supporting lifelike sex robots often points to their therapeutic role, their ability to provide companionship to marginalized individuals.[9] The push for further technological advancements is therefore justified by the alleged therapeutic benefits the sex robots offer lonely men. However, if the objective is to create the most lifelike companions, then surely a robot’s ability to say “no” would mark the highpoint of sex robot creation. The implausibility of this type of programming exposes the fact that the motivation behind sex robots is likely not wholly “therapeutic,” or to honour the female form.

Lifelike sex robots currently allow men to wilfully ignore issues such as sexism and violence against women, diminishing the value of women’s agency and women’s labour. As suggested by the interview with Santos however, the focus should be on educating people about consent and sexism, rather than relying on a regulatory approach that would limit the manufacturing and distribution of sex robots. As underlying issues of increased loneliness and lack of community support buttress the demand for sex robots, cutting off the legal supply of these robots addresses only one half of the problem.

[1] Siri Agrell and Tralee Pearce, “Silicone Soulmates Offer Love to the Lonely,” 11 October 2007, The Globe and Mail, online: <theglobeandmail.com>.

[2] Sinziania M. Gutiu, “The Roboticization of Consent”, in Robot Law, Ryan Calo, A Michael Froomkin & Ian Kerr (eds) (Northampton: Edward Elgar, 2016) at 187.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Melanie Ehrenkranz, “The Latest Futuristic Sex Doll is Teaching Men all the Wrong Things about Consent” MIC, online: <https://mic.com/articles/171698/the-latest-futuristic-sex-doll-is-teaching-men-all-the-wrong-things-about-consent#.KOY9CgfhI&gt;.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] See e.g. Guys and Dolls (BBC), online: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wgkSngzwdhk>.

[9] Ibid.

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