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David Mills and sex doll 'Taffy'David Mills

Are sex robots just turning women into literal objects?

Some consider sex dolls a lifeline for the lonely and sexually curious. But is it that simple? A new documentary meets some early adopters.

An image of Ciaran Varley
Ciaran Varley

This article contains adult themes

Would you have sex with a life-size robot?

It's a question that hundreds of men are saying yes to each week - including Dr Sergi Santos, a sex robot developer based in Barcelona.

He has sex with his mechanised dolls several times a day to help relieve his high libido. And, according to the new BBC Three documentary, Sex Robots and Us, presented by James Young, Sergi's wife, Maritsa, doesn't mind. "He has a bigger drive than I do," she said. "If he’s calmer, it makes it easier for all of us."

The husband and wife duo work together to make unnervingly realistic sex robots. The models moan, 'Ah' when something is put in their mouths, and have sensors that trigger them to say things like, 'Can you be a bit more gentle?' and, 'Come on my boobs' when a man is about to orgasm. 

Mechanised dolls like this are now available around the world - there are even sex doll 'brothels' in Europe, where customers spend around 100 euro for an hour with a robotic woman.

Dr Sergi Santos, left, and presenter, James Young, pose with a sex robotBBC Three
Dr Sergi Santos, left, and the presenter, James Young, pose with a sex robot

Back in 2007, David Levy predicted in his book, Love and Sex With Robots, that people would be routinely doing the no-pants dance with robots by 2050. At an international congress on the topic at Goldsmiths University in 2016, Levy and other academics agreed that this trend would develop and develop fast.

“This technology’s happening, whether we like it or not," said Dr Kate Devlin, one of the academics at that congress.

Adrian Cheok is a professor of pervasive computing at City University London. He told the 2016 congress that, in the near future, “sex with humans may be like going to a concert to listen to live music".

Just as we consume music by interacting with technology, and occasionally going to gigs for the live experience, so, Cheok predicts, we will soon enjoy sex at a technological remove, reserving the real deal for, well, special occasions.

Currently, sophisticated sex-robots are rare. In 2010, Douglas Hines unveiled what he called 'the world’s first sex robot'. 'Roxxxy' is a full-size, interactive sex robot, who comes with a computer and AI. It's not clear whether any commercial versions have ever been sold.

Meanwhile, RealDoll, who sell life-size silicone sex dolls, are working on a mechanised version of the dolls.

Maritsa Santos works on a sex robotBBC Three
Maritsa Santos works on a sex robot

Another development is BlowCast, part of the world of 'teledildonics', or remote mutual masturbation.

It allows users to experience a virtual blowjob from a choice of camgirls on a live sex cam site. The 'cam girl' basically fellates a vibrating dildo that’s been hacked to collect sensory data. The user then wears an internet-connected sleeve, or 'fleshlight', which takes the same sensory data from the cam girl’s dildo. Users can select from different models, based on user-reviews – a bit like Tripadvisor, but for blozzers.

It’s customisable, data-enriched, performance-enhanced sex technology, and it’s available now.

BlowCast offers an array of models to choose from.https://www.camsoda.com/blowcast/

Lots of experts researching the trend say that sex robots are a good idea, or at least represent an exciting opportunity. Dr David Levy has previously said such robots will mean that everyone who is lonely or miserable will now have someone.

Kate Devlin is a senior lecturer in the Department of Computing at Goldsmiths, working in the fields of human computer interaction and artificial intelligence. “Personally,” she told the audience at the sex robot congress, “I would be fine with letting my daughter marry a robot.”

In December 2016, a French woman named Lilly declared her intent to do just that - marry a robot that she had 3D printed. Lilly apparently dislikes physical contact with humans, and there is a school of thought that robots can be used in therapy.

"Roxxxy provides physical and sexual pleasure, but also provides social interaction and engagement," Douglas Hines said. "It's customising technology to provide a perfect partner. She's not meant to replace a real partner, but is meant as a supplement.”

Kathleen Richardson, from the Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility at De Montfort University, rejects the idea that robots can substitute intimate human relations. “The way that human beings address their relations with human beings can’t be addressed with property," she said.

Richardson set up an organisation, Campaign Against Sex Robots, and she argues that sex robots are the latest development from a troubling, patriarchal culture that we should be trying to shake off.

“The model of this technological future comes from the sex industry,” she told me. “They keep perpetuating this idea that women are objects – sub-human.”

She spoke about the idea of 'instrumentalising' human beings. “People’s bodies are bought for hours, minutes," she said. "Particular intimate functions are bought. That view of humanity has become a world view, but I think that comes from the darkest part of humanity.”

According to Richardson, to understand the thought process that has led a culture to believe it is okay to develop sex robots, we actually need to go back to Ancient Greece and the origins of slave-owning societies. Obviously, that problem isn’t exclusive to women, but Richardson does believe there’s a gender-bias in sex-robotics.

“It just so happens that women have always been looked upon as property, so, to create them as robots, it’s part of that imagination.”

Eleanor Hancock, who has spent time with sex workers in Liverpool as part of her MA degree, argues that it’s not illogical to think of sex workers as robots. In fact, she believes that robots could replace them. 

“Escort agencies invest in tech at the moment like dildos and toys," she said. "They’ll just invest to stay at the head of the market."

So what about the people who are actually buying these products?

David Mills with sex doll, Taffy.David Mills

David Mills is a 58-year-old from Huntington, West Virginia. He makes his living from royalties he earns from a book he wrote about atheism, published in 2006. Mills is also a proud RealDoll owner, and is excited by the prospect of further robotic developments.

He bought his doll, who he calls 'Taffy', in June 2014, for “around $7,000, with customisations”. But the novelty wore off pretty quickly.

“It’s boring,” he told me. “I always found that, if you’re with any woman, after a period of time you get settled and it loses the excitement of the initial taking her out of the box. Most of the time, I just masturbate, or I’ll just watch porn.”

Mills is twice-divorced. “My first wife – mother of my only child – was literally a mail-order bride," he said. "She lived in Poland during the Communist era, and was looking for a way to emigrate from her country and move to the United States. She was totally gorgeous, and I was looking for a wife at the time. So I flew to Poland in 1984 and married her.”

He met his second wife over the internet in the early 2000s, which led to the dissolution of his first marriage. He was the petitioner in both divorce cases. Mills has a 21-year-old daughter, who is well aware of Taffy. He does still date.

“If I could press a button right now, and be in bed with a woman or be in bed with a sex doll, I would choose the woman every time,” he said.

Anyway, what does Taffy offer him? His answer to that question seemed quite telling.

David Mills

“If women in their marriages or relationships, if they were cooperative and really tried, I mean, 99% of the time men would be happy," he said. "But it’s when the distance comes between the relationships - when they don’t try anymore, they don’t please anymore, they don’t experiment anymore, they’re not open to novel experiences - that it gets old.”

So Taffy offers David a chance to live out sexual fantasies, a world where he can do what he wants, where he’s in control. He feels similarly about porn and prostitution.

“I really prefer porn over real sex to be honest," he said. "Well, for the most part. I would say the best two or three sexual experiences in my life were with real women that I have paid for.”

So far, if we take Mills as a case study, none of this seems to contradict Richardson’s thoughts about ownership and the sex trade. What did he think of that idea that owning a sex doll/robot is an extension of a desire to own women?

“That’s a completely false argument," he said. "Nobody says a man should own real women. Now, you do have to own a RealDoll or you have to pay money for that. But that’s the best argument she’s got?!”

https://secure.realdoll.com/select-realdoll-2/

A big criticism of sex robot development could be that these products may encourage the objectification of the female body, as well as reinforcing unrealistic physical ideals. Mills’ response to that?

“They make male dolls too. And I assure you that these male dolls look a hell of a lot better than I do. So we’re not in a competition.”

Sex expert Karley Sciortino has made a film about sleeping with the first male doll. She visits the doll-making company, where artist Matt Krivicke talks about customising new creations based on requests from clients. They say they’ve had just as many orders for the male doll as their female equivalents.

https://secure.realdoll.com/select-male-realdoll2/

Kathleen Richardson is sceptical about the idea that the dolls and robots market is going to be totally egalitarian, though.

“I’m waiting to see male robots," she said. "The point about those objects is that their primary market is gay men. This is part of the whole delusion that built up around liberal feminism: that liberation meant being in pornography or using male prostitutes. It never happened, did it?”

In her view, the market will decide, and the market is decided by men.

“From a capitalist point of view, it doesn’t matter who buys a product, but what happens is that the people with the most power and status dictate the market," she said.

David Mills holds hands with his sex doll, David Mills

Sex with robots is one thing. But Professor Adrian Cheok, for one, insists that it will be the 'love' bit that takes longer to develop.

Is that true? In David’s case, for all his bolshiness and insistence that the doll was just a means to an end for him, there were glimmers that he has felt some companionship with Taffy.

“I tell you what I like to do - this sounds kind of weird - I like to hold hands with the doll," David said.

This article was first published on 6 January 2017

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