A vibrator can’t mow the lawn: On the ethics of sex robots

Niska was definitely my favourite character in Channel 4’s recent sci-fi drama, Humans. She was the beautiful but terrifyingly violent synthetic lifeform who applied her emergent consciousness to wreak dreadful retribution on the more sadistic and perverted homo sapiens.

Her victims had not been abusing other people, but insentient ‘synths’. Nonetheless it was hard to resist cheering as she beat seven shades out of the customers at a ‘smash club’, who had paid hard cash to physically brutalise synthetic humans or the customer in a neo-brothel who wanted her to adopt the persona of a small child while he raped her.
I thought of Niska when reading about the launch of the Campaign Against Sex Robots. Initiated by academic ethicist Dr Kathleen Richardson of Leicester’s De Montfort University, the campaign asserts that: “robots are a product of human consciousness and creativity and human power relationships are reflected in the production, design and proposed uses of these robots. As a result, we oppose any efforts to develop robots that will contribute to gender inequalities in society.”

Most science fiction in this realm, from Westworld and Blade Runner to Humans, focuses on the development of artificial consciousness, a prospect which remains so distant as to be almost irrelevant. However the development of sex robots which simulate consciousness and human interaction is already with us, albeit in rough and ready early stages. A company is already manufactiuring ‘Roxxxy’ – marketed as the world’s first sex robot, and claims the order book is full already. It is this type of development, Richardson argues, which may bolster traditional gender stereotypes of women as a ‘sex class’ as radical feminist theory would posit.

This may seem far fetched. There is, after all, no obvious moral demarcation between the synthetic robot, the rubber sex doll and the humble vibrator. Some will argue that the hi-tech sex robot is nothing more than an expensive masturbation aid and therefore harmless if not outright healthy. This argument begins to crumble when one considers the ethics of a sex robot with the appearance and mannerisms of a young child. I’m sure I am not alone in finding that concept repulsive and distressing. Why? Because these issues are not just simply utilitarian, but cut to the essence of our sense of self. It is precisely our ability to exercise restraint and responsibility which, in large part, comprises our shared humanity. The argument against sex robots is less to do with how we abuse an inanimate object than in how we risk degrading ourselves in the process.

That said, I have some serious concerns with the positions set out by Richardson and her colleagues. Central to her argument is that the development of sex robots replicates the dynamics of prostitution. The problem with asserting that a sex robot is akin to a prostitute is the corollary – it implies that a sex worker is little more than a robot, devoid of agency or, crucially, the ability to consent. This will not only be considered deeply offensive and ignorant by sex workers themselves, but strikes me as a profoundly dangerous line of thinking when there are still those around who seem to believe a sex worker cannot withdraw consent or be raped.

It is rarely wise or effective to reach for a legal ban when considering new frontiers of technology and human sexuality. I won’t be signing up to the Campaign Against Sex Robots any time soon. Nonetheless I am grateful there are those wrestling with the ethics of these developments while the lovely Niska resides safely in fiction.

Has Chicago Sun-Times published the worst article about sexual violence ever written?

On Satuday, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell published an article that on first reading made me feel physically, viscerally sick. By the next morning my shock had drifted into anger and outrage. Only today, another 24 hours on, could I consider it with enough of a calm head to try to figure out what the hell the author is talking about and to unpick her logic. When I did, I found that if anything her argument gets worse. [Read more…]

This week’s warblings

Just a quick fly-by to keep you interested amid solemn memorial of how the Easter Bunny died to bring us chocolate…. Your thoughts and feedback would be welcomed as ever.

On the Guardian this week I was writing about men and fertility.

It is well established that roughly equal numbers of men and women have fertility problems, and yet in the US there are five doctors specialising in female infertility for every one specialising in men. At a societal and cultural level, we have always considered reproduction and fertility to be women’s business, and infertility to be women’s problem. This is reflected in the medical and pharmaceutical industries. While IVF is notoriously expensive, unreliable and exceptionally invasive for women, alternative drug treatments are again almost exclusively offered to the female partner, if at all.

One shocking example of why this might be is explained by Barnes. In the 1960s, the drug clomifene citrate was developed and licensed to boost ovulation in women. When it became clear that the drug might also be effective in treating some forms of male infertility, researchers applied to conduct clinical trials. The drug company, unconvinced there was any market for male fertility treatments, refused. Now the drug is out of patent and there is no profit to be made in developing the treatment. Fifty years on, clomifene citrate remains unlicensed by the US Food and Drug Administration for use with male fertility and unauthorised by Nice for men in the UK.

I find it interesting and quite depressing how hostile the typical male internet commenter is to concerns about male fertility, as witnessed in the comments. There’s a failure to acknowledge that this is a really common (and neglected) men’s health issue which causes enormous amount of stress, unhappiness and relationship difficulties to many men (and women, of course) and yet the default reaction is “ugh, babies, families, horrible things that get in the way of my video games.”

It is also interesting, I think, that people who every other day are wailing about how the local or global population is being taken over by Chinese/ Pakistanis / Muslims / Africans suddenly start declaring that a collapsing birth rate in the Western world is no problem, because the rest of the world is breeding enough to make up for us.

Also this week, I wrote a thing for IB Times about men, boys and sex work,  including stuff about abuse and trafficking, off the back of the Student Sex Work Project’s findings that more male than female students have worked in the industry.

It may well be that you are now thinking it crass to focus on the gender of abused children, as if one gender mattered more. I wholeheartedly agree. Unfortunately, too often this is exactly what happens.

As ECPAT noted in a recent report, the United Nations 2001 protocol on sex trafficking specified that there were particular focus on “women and children” and that in practice, international initiatives with ‘children’ almost invariably means ‘girls.’ To quote ECPAT: “many of the programmes initiated since 2001 that focus on adolescents trafficked for sexual purposes have assumed that the focus should be on girls.

“It seems that not enough effort has been made to collect data about boys who receive money for commercial sex after moving away from home to establish whether they have been trafficked or what measures would help protect them.”

Your thoughts would be appreciated.

Racist is not something you are. Racism is something you do.

There’s a fallacy that commonly emerges when people talk about prejudiced, bigoted or oppressive language. It is the idea that racism is something only practised by racists; homophobia something only practised by homophobes, transphobia only something practised by transphobes etc etc.

There is an obvious and banal point attached to this, which is that pretty much every one of us harbours some stereotyped or prejudiced thinking of one sort or other, often unknowingly. We can all resort to a choice of word or turn of phrase, or hold an opinion or belief which we had thought entirely inoffensive until someone comes along and points out why it might be derogatory or degrading to others. The decent thing to do under those circumstances is apologise, learn and move on.

There is another consequence of the fallacy which is much more insidious, because its effect is to prevent people taking responsibility for their own words and actions. [Read more…]

Getting into bed with Christian fundamentalism: Behind the APPG report

In the wake of Mary Honeyball MEP’s efforts to push the whole of Europe towards adopting the so-called ‘Nordic model’ of criminalising the purchase of sexual services, the British media gave generous coverage yesterday to a new report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade.

Most of the papers obediently parroted the line that after hearing expert testimony from 413 different witnesses and organisations, the MPs were recommending the ‘legalisation‘ of prostitution but the criminalisation of buying sex and tougher policing of pimps. The current law, they reported, is an inconsistent mess which (pretty much) nobody thinks effective.

I have no intention of raking over the Nordic model debate yet again. I will quickly point out that to make the provision of a service legal but the purchase of the same service criminal would strike me as the ultimate example of an inconsistent mess. I would add that from what I have heard and read from sex workers themselves, the single greatest hazard to their safety is probably the legal bar on joint working and shared premises, which arises directly from efforts to combat pimping and brothel-keeping. Every sex worker I’ve heard comment on yesterday’s report seems in agreement that the proposals would put them at greater risk and further marginalisation, and I see no reason to argue.

I would note too that yesterday’s report, as a piece of research, is pretty dreadful. There is no attempt to record, report, quantify or evaluate the full range of evidence and opinion submitted to the inquiry, leaving a strong impression that the committee had simply cherry picked the snippets of testimony which fitted with their pre-ordained positions and ignored everything else. While the report admits to receiving contrary submissions, there is no attempt to explain or justify the route from evidence to recommendations.

Perhaps the most troubling detail is barely mentioned in the report itself. The All Party Group which funded it is made possible by the provision of a secretariat and expenses from a charity called CARE – Christian Action Research and Education, which spends more than £400,000 per annum purely on ‘influencing public policy.’ This not only includes supporting the All Party Group on prostitution, it also involves providing (at the last count) a dozen free interns for sympathetic MPs.

So who are CARE? To quote the Telegraph:


Care describes itself as a “mainstream Christian charity bringing Christian insight and experience to matters of public policy”. A closer look at its website appears to contradict the claim to be “mainstream”. The organisation’s published doctrinal basis is distinctly fundamentalist and among other things talks of “the divine inspiration of Holy Scripture and its consequent entire trustworthiness and supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct”. In other words, the Bible is the literal truth.

CARE are furiously and proudly homophobic, to the extent that one MP (a gay Christian) once described them as ‘a bunch of homophobic bigots.‘ They were heavily involved in lobbying against the introduction of gay marriage and against the repeal of Section 28, while they believe in prayer as a ‘cure’ for homosexuality.

Perhaps most disturbing is their position on abortion. They directly fund the network of CareConfidential crisis pregnancy centres in the UK, where counsellors were recently filmed undercover claiming abortions would increase chances of breast cancer and could predispose women to becoming child sexual abusers.

At this point, allow me to step back for some perspective. For those unfamiliar with British parliamentary process and convention, All Party Parliamentary Groups are not formal, official bodies. Unlike (highly influential) select committees, they have no official remit, no official authority, not even a budget (which is why they go cap in hand to ‘charitable’ lobbyists to pay the bills.) All it takes is 20 MPs or peers with a shared interest to decide to form a group. Consequently there are APPGs on everything from greyhound racing and crown green bowls to jazz appreciation. The report published by the APPG on prostitution yesterday carries no authority and does not compel the government to act in keeping with its recommendations.

However, what we have seen is a major new offensive in a long-running propaganda war. Few people reading the newspapers yesterday will have appreciated that the APPG is a self-selecting cabal, dancing pre-planned steps of religious and ideological conviction, to a tune played by bunch of extremist, fundamentalist bigots. They will be unaware that the recommendations of the APPG are, surprisingly enough, all but indistinguishable from the policy positions previously laid out in CARE’s own documents. What readers of the press across the political spectrum, from the Mail to the Independent to the Guardian will believe is that a group of MPs has spent a year collecting and examining expert testimony then concluded that the Nordic model was the best approach to take.

This is a profoundly dishonest and disingenuous contribution to the debate. It is no longer a shock to find leftwing and / or feminist politicians jumping into bed with rightwing religious fundamentalists, accepting their favours and cash for the cause. Dworkin and McKinnon were doing the same with Reagan’s pals on the fundie right back in the early 80s. However it is important for democracy that if these unlikely bedfellows are going to be engaged in such unholy relations, they do so in the full glare of sunlight, not skulking in the shadows.

White Slave Traffic: A Friday 13th guest post by Emma Goldman

Intro: A few years ago, the former sex worker and blogger Maggie McNeill had the idea of making Friday 13th an auspicious date for sex workers and their anti-prohibition allies. She wrote:

“Friday the 13th should be good luck for whores even if it really were bad luck for Christian men.  Now, I’m not really superstitious; I don’t believe that a day can bring either good luck or bad.  But considering that the reasons for fear of this day are so closely related to the reasons our profession is maligned and suppressed, perhaps whores and those who support our rights should make every Friday the Thirteenth a day to speak out in favor of full decriminalization and an end to the institutionalized persecution of prostitutes.”

It’s a compelling invitation, and when I was looking for inspiration as to what I might write, I went back to one or two of my favourite sources. As I was browsing Emma Goldman’s Anarchism and Other Essays, I quickly realised that much of what needs saying had been said over a hundred years ago, and is every bit as relevant today as it ever was. I couldn’t hope to do any better.

Goldman lived her life alongside sex workers and devoted much of her time to working for their welfare, rights and sexual health, along with sexual freedom for all women and men, including gay men, lesbians and ‘Uranians’ – those we would now call trans, intersex or gender non-conforming. Goldman was continually persecuted and even imprisoned for these efforts, as she was for her anti-capitalist and anti-war anarchism.

As a quick note on Goldman’s beliefs, it is important to note that when she describes prostitution as an “evil” she meant a political evil – an evil of commercial exploitation, not an evil of personal morality. She used the exact same language about factory work and all other forms of purchased labour under capitalism, which she calls “economic prostitution.” She also saw prostitution as an inevitable product of sexual repression, monogamy, religious restriction and the institution of marriage, which she abhorred.

When this essay was first published in Goldman’s own journal Mother Earth, it was seized as obscene material after a complaint from the notorious Christian moralist Anthony Comstock. You can read the full original here, but for now, here are some selected extracts from one of the most powerful arguments for decriminalization ever written.


The White Slave Traffic by Emma Goldman (First published January 1910)

Our reformers have suddenly made a great discovery — the white slave traffic. The papers are full of these “unheard-of conditions,” and lawmakers are already planning a new set of laws to check the horror.

It is significant that whenever the public mind is to be diverted from a great social wrong, a crusade is inaugurated against indecency, gambling, saloons, etc. And what is the result of such crusades? Gambling is increasing, saloons are doing a lively business through back entrances, prostitution is at its height, and the system of pimps and cadets is but aggravated.

How is it that an institution, known almost to every child, should have been discovered so suddenly? How is it that this evil, known to all sociologists, should now be made such an important issue?

To assume that the recent investigation of the white slave traffic (and, by the way, a very superficial investigation) has discovered anything new, is, to say the least, very foolish. Prostitution has been, and is, a widespread evil, yet mankind goes on its business, perfectly indifferent to the sufferings and distress of the victims of prostitution. As indifferent, indeed, as mankind has remained to our industrial system, or to economic prostitution.


What is really the cause of the trade in women? Not merely white women, but yellow and black women as well. Exploitation, of course; the merciless Moloch of capitalism that fattens on underpaid labor, thus driving thousands of women and girls into prostitution. With Mrs. Warren these girls feel, “Why waste your life working for a few shillings a week in a scullery, eighteen hours a day?”

Naturally our reformers say nothing about this cause. They know it well enough, but it doesn’t pay to say anything about it. It is much more profitable to play the Pharisee, to pretend an outraged morality, than to go to the bottom of things.


Moralists are ever ready to sacrifice one-half of the human race for the sake of some miserable institution which they can not outgrow. As a matter of fact, prostitution is no more a safeguard for the purity of the home than rigid laws are a safeguard against prostitution.


The most amusing side of the question now before the public is the indignation of our “good, respectable people,” especially the various Christian gentlemen, who are always to be found in the front ranks of every crusade. Is it that they are absolutely ignorant of the history of religion, and especially of the Christian religion? Or is it that they hope to blind the present generation to the part played in the past by the Church in relation to prostitution? Whatever their reason, they should be the last to cry out against the unfortunate victims of today, since it is known to every intelligent student that prostitution is of religious origin, maintained and fostered for many centuries, not as a shame, but as a virtue, hailed as such by the Gods themselves.


Until 1894 very little was known in America of the procurer. Then we were attacked by an epidemic of virtue. Vice was to be abolished, the country purified at all cost. The social cancer was therefore driven out of sight, but deeper into the body. Keepers of brothels, as well as their unfortunate victims, were turned over to the tender mercies of the police. The inevitable consequence of exorbitant bribes, and the penitentiary, followed.

While comparatively protected in the brothels, where they represented a certain monetary value, the girls now found themselves on the street, absolutely at the mercy of the graft-greedy police. Desperate, needing protection and longing for affection, these girls naturally proved an easy prey for cadets, themselves the result of the spirit of our commercial age. Thus the cadet system was the direct outgrowth of police persecution, graft, and attempted suppression of prostitution. It were sheer folly to confound this modern phase of the social evil with the causes of the latter.

Mere suppression and barbaric enactments can serve but to embitter, and further degrade, the unfortunate victims of ignorance and stupidity. The latter has reached its highest expression in the proposed law to make humane treatment of prostitutes a crime, punishing any one sheltering a prostitute with five years’ imprisonment and $10,000 fine. Such an attitude merely exposes the terrible lack of understanding of the true causes of prostitution, as a social factor, as well as manifesting the Puritanic spirit of the Scarlet Letter days.

There is not a single modern writer on the subject who does not refer to the utter futility of legislative methods in coping with the issue. Thus Dr. Blaschko finds that governmental suppression and moral crusades accomplish nothing save driving the evil into secret channels, multiplying its dangers to society. Havelock Ellis, the most thorough and humane student of prostitution, proves by a wealth of data that the more stringent the methods of persecution the worse the condition becomes. Among other data we learn that in France, “in 1560, Charles IX. abolished brothels through an edict, but the numbers of prostitutes were only increased, while many new brothels appeared in unsuspected shapes, and were more dangerous. In spite of all such legislation, or because of it, there has been no country in which prostitution has played a more conspicuous part.”

An educated public opinion, freed from the legal and moral hounding of the prostitute, can alone help to ameliorate present conditions. Wilful shutting of eyes and ignoring of the evil as a social factor of modern life, can but aggravate matters. We must rise above our foolish notions of “better than thou,” and learn to recognize in the prostitute a product of social conditions. Such a realization will sweep away the attitude of hypocrisy, and ensure a greater understanding and more humane treatment. As to a thorough eradication of prostitution, nothing can accomplish that save a complete transvaluation of all accepted values especially the moral ones — coupled with the abolition of industrial slavery.