Anthropology, sex robots, and queer posthumanisms

by Taylor Riley_

A few times a year, I check and see how Harmony is doing. I scour Google to see if she’s been in the news, I read up on any public appearances she’s made, and I make note of things like change in her hair styles, outfits, and range of facial expressions. While these rituals make me seem like a superfan, and I suppose in some ways I am, I do them to improve my medical and cultural anthropology lectures. Preparing to talk to students about her life, I want to avoid spreading misinformation and make sure that I am up-to-date on what is happening in her world.

From the outside, I both objectify Harmony and, whether it’s dangerous or necessary, simultaneously personify her. As an anthropologist, I hesitate to continue doing the thing that anthropologists know to be an ethical impasse that’s also their everyday routine; their, and my own, Monday morning coffee in a paper to-go cup that hides a sinister plastic lining. I sip one such coffee as I speculate on and share a life that is not my own. The warehouse in Las Vegas where Harmony recently moved to and can also be found on a Monday morning is likely the first place I would find people to quiet my worries. They are adamant that ‘Harmony’ the person is not real. She is a machine; it is neither human, nor a woman. It is a kind of sexual prosthesis, a lifelike silicone sex doll known as a RealDoll and the first to be fitted with AI.

Meredith G. F. Worthen elaborates:i “This highly lucrative market with hundreds of international manufacturers has a diverse global customer base. One such manufacturer, Abyss Creations, creates one of the world’s most well-known sex doles, the RealDoll… Their website provides customer testimonials as well as studio photos and the U.S. RealDoll factory has been showcased in various documentaries and television specials… Originally, RealDoll options were limited. In fact, the founder Matt McMullen did not originally set out to make sex dolls but after posting images online of a realistic poseable mannequin he created, he got many requests about making his artistic model into a sexually functioning doll, so he decided to give it a try… Today, the current options for the female RealDolls are extensive.”

Silicone sex dolls on a table at a factory in Shenzhen, China (11.8.2018, Foto: Alex Raysikh)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For me as an anthropologist, considering the AI RealDoll Harmony specifically blurs the human-machine dividing line, just as the voice coming from my mobile phone when I’m using Google Maps to get me to class on Tuesdays does when, just as is often the case with Harmony, I can’t resist calling the machine voice ‘she.’ Though I haven’t turned into Joaquin Phoenix’s character in the Spike Jonze movie Her (2013), when ‘she’ doesn’t tell me about the temporary exit I need to take ahead of the usual one due to construction on the southbound Interstate Highway 405, I berate her under my breath.

The contradiction of the real/doll is as poignant and frightening as the race toward a human-computer interface that could (at worst) either solidify the coding of very real inequities into a hierarchy of rights-holding humans and lowly life-like machines that cook and clean for us, take care of our children, and fuck us goodnight, or compromise human ability to communicate with our much smarter, wronged pet monsters. But while RealDolls fitted with AI raise similar questions to the ethics of household robots and issues of modern-day slavery within the (human) domestic labor marketplace, gender is a necessary lens through which each of these areas must be understood if they are to be understood at all.

An hour or so after I have, armed with necessary updates, told my students about Harmony in the present, I ask them what they think about the purchasers and even self-proclaimed life partners of RealDolls, in the same breath as I ask them to consider Pygmalion (echoing Tanja Kubes’ article on the subjectii): are these individuals, mostly identifying as men, closer to radical queer posthumanists, or more similar to sexist incels, namely, aligned or adjacent to the misogynist virtual communities of so-called involuntary celibates prone to epistemic and physical violence? Different feminist perspectives can lead to different answers to this question, though I’ll note that when I poll undergraduate students in the physical and virtual California classrooms I’ve been teaching in as of late, the response ‘sexist incels’ always leads.

Worker with a sex doll body at a factory in Shenzhen, China (11.8.2018, Foto: Alex Raysikh)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sexual technologies are at the forefront of transnational feminist concerns around restrictive sexual norms, bodily autonomy, and agency. Assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs), surrogacy, implants, and prostheses (whether a silicone dildo or a carbon-fiber limb), are each relevant to queer and crip theory, and to anthropology, disability studies, and contemporary feminism. Nelly Oudshoorniii explains how technologies have always pushed the boundaries of the human. The cliché example of the wheel changed all aspects of human life and its great-great-grandkids planes, trains, and automobiles have altered the limits of travel. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is also a technological advancement that pushes against outtraveled conceptions of sex and gender.

It’s, of course, rather obvious that the metal rods used in spinal surgeries have different social meanings to the Nexplanoniv rods used for birth control. As a prosthesis, the carbon-fiber limb is likewise easy to separate culturally from a typical ‘novelty’ dildo, but less easy to separate from a transgender (or cisgender) man’s prosthetic penis. Despite not being self-evident on the surface, the role of new reproductive technologies like artificial wombs and pleasure technologies like virtual reality pornography and sex robots outfitted with AI disrupt norms of human existence and embodiment in similar ways that organ transplants and pacemakers have. However, to try and uncover the queer feminist potential to be found in human-machine interaction may be an impossible task when the machine itself and human interaction with it (or read: her, and less often, him) reflects everyday misogynistic violence.

Eradicating life-like sex dolls and robots is the raison d’être of anthropologist Kathleen Richardson’s Campaign Against Sex Robots (CASR). According to its website,v the CASR seeks to abolish pornbots in the form of women and girls, offer an alternative, relational model of sex and sexuality informed by mutuality, challenge the normalization of pornbots as substitutes for relationships with women, oppose the development of child sex-abuse dolls/robots as ‘therapeutic’ for pedophiles, offer up an alternative vision of technology where women and girls are centered and valued, and work across the political spectrum with those who value the dignity of women and girls. Richardson, a Professor of Ethics and Culture of Robots and AI who connects the campaign to the abolition of slavery, has condemnedvi a world creeping toward the present full of talking and, though far off, walking silicone object-lovers without human rights.

Silicone doll heads at a warehouse in Shenzhen, China (2.2.2019, Foto: Alex Raysikh)

The mixed messaging that RealDoll makers capitalize on according to Richardson is also their marketing strategy: Buy this object, she will love you, or, as the RealDoll homepage brazenly states in a large sans serif font: “Get Real. Nothing beats the real thing.” However, what the CASR risks glossing over is how these humanoid objects are, despite the huge problems they ‘embody,’ so to speak, part of a future that becomes less distant with each passing day as more multifaceted ways of experiencing love and sexuality, through virtual reality, AI, and less anthropocentric attachments (to objects, the earth, oneself), become more common. Ultimately, valid critiques of this new realm of technoscience which is far less queer, crip, or feminist than post-queer, post-crip, and post-feminist, or perhaps more accurately, what can be summed up as gender inequity and sexual violence for sale, must be weighed against the detrimental effects of an ethos that dictates what sexuality and the act of sex are and are not. That ethos problematically outlines the limits of loving from the margins.

While sex robots like Harmony are a part of the mainstream neoliberal (read: racist, heterosexist) sex industry, that should not reflect on the ethics of sexual technology itself. Sex robots can deconstruct limiting anthropocentric sexual norms, and thus have a critical potential to destabilize suffocating notions of who and what we can and cannot love. While the CASR echoes important concerns, my own included, about realdolls and sex robots, about paper cups with plastic linings and the dangers of both seeing Harmony as a woman and not seeing her as one, there just might be a radical queer posthumanism to be found in smart silicone. Moving into the human-machine future means continuing to search for it.

 

About the author

Taylor Riley is a Lecturer of Anthropology at the University of California Irvine. She is interested in gender and sexuality, queer life stories, and feminist science and technology studies from cross-cultural perspectives. Her recent book is “Queer Word- and World-Making in South Africa: Dignified Sounds” (Routledge, 2021).

 

i Worthen, Meredith G. F. 2016. Sexual Deviance and Society: A Sociological Examination. Abingdon: Routledge. p. 264.

ii Kubes, Tanja. 2019. “New Materialist Perspectives on Sex Robots. A Feminist Dystopia/Utopia?,” Social Science 8: 8, 224. 1–14. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci8080224

iii Oudshoorn, Nelly. 2005. “Sustaining cyborgs: Sensing and tuning agencies of pacemakers and implantable cardioverter defibrillators.” Social Studies of Science 45: 1. 56–76. https://doi.org/10.1177/0306312714557377

iv Made by the US pharmaceutical company Merck, Nexplanon is an etonogestrel implant, or a rod inserted into the upper arm which releases progestin to prevent pregnancy.

v “Campaign Against Sex Robots.” Accessed October 7, 2021. https://campaignagainstsexrobots.org/

vi “Rise of the Sex Robots.” 2017. The Guardian. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vN0cs_-RSs

 

 

 



Cite this blog post
Taylor Riley (2021, November 1). Anthropology, sex robots, and queer posthumanisms. AnthroDesires. Retrieved June 22, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/b7uy

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