Sex robots are likely to play an important role in shaping public understandings of sex and of relations between the sexes in the future. This paper contributes to the larger project of understanding how they will do so by examining the ethics of the “rape” of robots. I argue that the design of realistic female robots that could explicitly refuse consent to sex in order to facilitate rape fantasy would be unethical because sex with robots in these circumstances is a representation of the rape of a woman, which may increase the rate of rape, expresses disrespect for women, and demonstrates a significant character defect. Even when the intention is not to facilitate rape, the design of robots that can explicitly refuse consent is problematic due to the likelihood that some users will experiment with raping them. Designing robots that lack the capacity to explicitly refuse consent may be morally problematic depending on which of two accounts of the representational content of sex with realistic humanoid robots is correct.
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The only other paper written on this topic of which I am aware is Danaher . This paper, which is excellent, concentrates on the case for the legal prohibition of the rape of robots rather than on the larger questions concerning the ethics of the rape of robots and the ethics of the design of robots that can be raped, which are my focus here. Moreover, Danaher’s paper treats only a subset of the cases that I discuss here.
The essays collected in Wilks  represent a useful starting point for this larger project.
For a discussion of just how much definitional work this minimal claim leaves to be done, see Christina .
I offer a brief discussion of the issues that might be raised by sentient robots, as well as an explanation as to why I do not consider them at more length in the current manuscript, below.
Such robots might also be vulnerable to forms of sexual abuse other than rape, including psychological abuse.
Russell  offers some speculations about the issues that may arise should sentient humanoid robots ever be created.
It is also possible to imagine people treating such robots in ways that we might consider to be psychologically abusive were such treatment to be directed to a real human being. This behaviour might also be thought to be morally problematic for reasons akin to those I provide below. However, given that my topic is the ethics of the rape of robots, rather than the ethics of our treatment of robots more generally, I have chosen not to discuss this possibility further here.
No doubt “male” sexbots will also exist in the future and might be (ab)used by men or women: the company, True Companion, that purports to produce the world’s only commercially available sexbots, also advertises a male robot “Rocky” as well as the more famous female robot Roxxxy. However, the vast majority of Real Dolls produced are shaped like women and purchased by men: Gurley  reports that women constitute “less than 10%” of the purchasers of Real Dolls. There is no reason to believe that this will not also be the case with sexbots. Scheutz and Arnold  offer some early results on gendered differences in attitudes towards sex robots and report that more than two thirds of their male respondents said that they would use a sex robot while almost two thirds of their female respondents indicated that they would not. For the purposes of this paper I will therefore follow Danaher  and assume that the sexbots under discussion are modelled on women and that the “users” of these devices will overwhelmingly be male.
As I will discuss further below, this set of behaviours might have been consciously scripted by the robot’s designer who wanted it to be able to cater to those who enjoy rape fantasies. Alternatively, it may emerge as the consequence of other design choices that were not intended to facilitate rape.
In adopting this culturally stereotypical account of rape as my paradigmatic case of rape of a robot, I by no means intend to imply that the majority of real rapes fit this model or that rapes that do not are any less rapes by virtue of that fact. Rather, my intention here is to mobilise the strongest possible set of intuitions that this particular scenario would be a case of rape. I consider cases of the rape of a robot that would in fact look more like the majority of real rapes in the following paragraph.
Notice also that there is a clear sense in which, it might be argued, a penis shaped dildo represents a man—and an artificial vagina represents a woman—by synecdoche. This is not to deny that many people may make use of dildos without any thought of, or interest in, having sex with men. As I will suggest further below what the object represents is arguably a function of how a relevant community perceives it rather than the intentions of individual users.
I believe that this suggestion was made to me independently by both Michael Flood and Catherine Mills in conversation about the topic of this paper.
Similarly, Danaher explicitly attempts to distinguish sex robots from sex dolls by insisting that the former must have “some degree of artificial intelligence (i.e. some ability to sense, process and respond to signals in its surrounding environment)” .
Danaher  discusses only the first class of cases.
This literature is so divided that participants in the debate tend to be formed into two mutually opposing camps, each convinced that their views have been thoroughly proven. Consequently, even the claim that the question is contested tends to generate controversy depending on the audience. If my reader is amongst those who believes this question to be settled either way, I would ask him or her to at least acknowledge that the opposing perspective also has a significant number of adherents regardless of the plausibility of their claims.
My thanks to Brendan Keogh for drawing my attention to this passage.
Although it is unlikely that it would render them entirely unproblematic.
The strongest versions of these arguments, which have been developed in the literature about the ethics of pornography, blur the line between the effects and the content of pornography. According to Catherine MacKinnon  and also Rae Langton , for instance, pornography just is the subordination and silencing of women. For my purpose here what matters is that these arguments rely on a philosophical claim about the relations between various speech acts rather than on an empirical claim about the social consequences of pornography. For a recent critical discussion of the philosophical claim, see Bauer .
The discussion that follows assumes that resemblance is primarily a matter of physical resemblance. However, as was pointed out to me by an anonymous reviewer, robots may also represent or resemble things, including individuals, by virtue of their behaviour (for instance, vocal utterances or characteristic movements) or by virtue of the role that they play in the user’s life (for instance, the user’s own psychic identification of them with a particular thing or person). These alternative means by which robots may have representational content complexify but do not fundamentally alter the discussion that follows. In particular, as per the argument below, the ultimate authority as to what a particular robot represents remains society rather than the individual user. For reasons of space, I have chosen not to discuss these alternative mechanisms for representation further in the current context.
Moreover, I believe the vast majority of those who witnessed, or learned of, it would identify it as such. The significance of this observation will become clear below.
Further—disturbing—evidence in favour of this claim is provided by the fact that at least one sex doll manufacturer offers a “hymen” along with the choice of latex genitals that may be fitted to its dolls. It’s difficult to understand how the concept of virginity in a doll could refer to anything other than virginity in a woman.
Similarly, Stephanie Patridge  has argued that representations of activities in virtual worlds have a social meaning that resists the efforts of individuals to alter it through entertaining alternative accounts thereof.
As I shall discuss further below, the conclusion that sex with a robot that does not explicitly consent is not rape seems to imply that many sex robots (and also sex dolls), which can’t explicitly refuse consent, cannot be raped—a result that itself has further implications for the ethics of the design of sex robots and sex dolls.
Note that, as was already emphasised above, the line of argument developed by MacKinnon and Langton (and others) in debates about pornography does not rely on a claim about the causal power of pornographic representations. Rather, these authors argue that pornography itself constitutes or enacts the subordination, objectification, and/or silencing of woman.
It is worth observing that most societies currently maintain a striking double standard when it comes to this question and are much more reluctant to criticise representations of (non-sexual) violence than they are of sexual violence and perhaps sex more generally .
Similarly, a number of authors have turned to virtue ethics in order to explain what is wrong with playing video and computer games that involve computer-generated representations of violence, rape, and/or paedophilia. See, for instance: Coeckelbergh , McCormick , Patridge , and Sicart . My argument here lends weight to these criticisms. By contrast, Kershnar  argues that our enjoyment of fantasies of immoral acts need not reflect poorly on our character.
It is, of course, possible that modelling good behaviour with robots might cause us to behave better with real animals (and people). However, my worry here is about the claim that treating robots well could render us virtuous regardless of whether or not it meant that we were more likely to treat people (and animals) well.
The design of such a robot would arguably also damage the character of the designer by demonstrating them to have sexist and morally reprehensible attitudes towards women sufficient to constitute a vice.
Richardson  argues that sex dolls are problematic because they promote the sex trade, while Sullins  argues that the design of robots to encourage intimacy is unethical because it involves deception (see also Sparrow ). As my own project is to investigate how thinking about the hypothetical rape of robots can illuminate the ethics of their design, I will not attempt to evaluate these other lines of criticism of sexbots here.
While other forms of pornography also often represent women as essentially desiring of, and available for, intercourse at all times, this representation takes place only while the viewer or reader of the pornography is viewing or reading it. However, if it is impossible to rape a particular sex robot then for each-and-every moment of its existence this robot represents a woman who cannot be raped.
Consequently, unlike in the case where the robot represents a person, there seems to be nothing problematic implying that such robots are always available for sex.
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I would like to thank Selma Sabanovic and Ana Paiva for the invitation to present a keynote lecture at the HRI 2016 conference in Auckland, which prompted me to begin writing this paper. I am grateful to Ron Arkin, Michael Flood, Catherine Mills, and Matthias Scheutz, for comments and discussion early in the development of this manuscript and to Daniel Black, Michael Flood, Rebecca Harrison, Catherine Mills, Nanette Ryan, David Simpson, and Bob Simpson for comments on various drafts. Jonathan Herington was kind enough to draw my attention to two important sources that I had, criminally, missed. I would also like to thank Mark Howard for his work as a research assistant in support of the publication of this manuscript. The research for this paper was supported under the Australian Research Council’s Centres of Excellence funding scheme (project CE140100012). The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the Australian Research Council.
Funding The research for this paper was supported under the Australian Research Council’s Centres of Excellence funding scheme (project CE140100012).
Conflict of interest
The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.
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Sparrow, R. Robots, Rape, and Representation. Int J of Soc Robotics 9, 465–477 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12369-017-0413-z
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