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…]

Making a Dent in the narrative

At the risk of labouring the point, I read the first sentence in Grace Dent’s Independent column today and almost gave myself a black eye, so hard was I facepalming. Here it is, in all its glory;

It seems doubtless to me that the staggering rise in reported sex assaults in primary and secondary schools – more than 5,500alleged sex assaults, on boys as well as girls, in three years – goes hand-in-hand with the unfettered availability of extremely hardcore pornography to minors.

I spelled out a lot of this last time, but let me bring it together with a bit more info, because it is really quite remarkable that one single sentence can be so wrong in so many ways.  [Read more…]

Sexual offending in schools: Looking beyond the Dramatic Big Number

Last month, Anthony Reuben came to the end of an experimental 18 month contract at the BBC. His job had been Head of Statistics, and included training and advising BBC reporters on how to understand and present numerical issues. The end of his tenure was commemorated with a nice little profile at the Online Journalism blog.

Many stories that reporters get, he notes, are ‘big number’ stories which appeared to be striking but require the journalist to scrutinise further to establish whether the numbers really were striking when placed in context.

It is rather a pity Reuben didn’t stay in post for just a few weeks longer, then we might have been spared the dog’s dinner of a story which featured prominently on most BBC news broadcasts yesterday.

The headline, duly replicated in most newspapers, is captured here. “School sex crime reports in UK top 5,500 in three years.” As the broadcasts filled out the details, it was described as “a national emergency.” [Read more…]

Open thread: Normal service shall resume shortly

Hello strangers!

Happy to confirm that I have not fallen off a cliff, and that with kids returning to school and some kind of long-forgotten routine casually sidling up to me on the sofa, normal HetPat service shall resume shortly.

I have a couple of issues just bubbling up to the surface for proper blog posts, but in the meantime, I thought I’d welcome in the season of mist and mellow fruitfulness with a quick open thread.

To get you started, here’s a comment that sonofrojblake just left under my previous post. [Read more…]

Sex in Class, boys, girls and consent

Last night Channel 4 showed a new documentary, Sex In Class. 

It followed Belgian sex educator Goedele Liekens as she brought her frank and explicit classroom methods, normally delivered in the Netherlands, to a group of 15/16 year-olds at a state secondary school in Accrington, Lancashire.

The programme was great in many ways, demonstrating not only the desperate need for full and proper sex and relationships education in British schools, but also the effectiveness and enormous benefits of the Dutch approach. Where the film fell short was not in what it portrayed, but what it didn’t.

Of course the documentary had been made from many weeks filming and edited down into 47 minutes, so this is not necessarily a criticism of Liekens, but there were a couple of troubling omissions from the final cut. [Read more…]

CPS and male victims, the UK Statistics Authority gets involved

[If you are new to this saga, you may wish to catch up here, here, here and here.]


At the time we sent our letter to the Guardian, I also sent on a copy and a few additional remarks to the UK Statistics Authority, as a formal report.

The UKSA is an independent body set up by legal statute to oversee official statistics and ensure that all public bodies adhere to a Code of Practice that demands accuracy, transparency, accessibility etc in all official reports. I suggested the UKSA might wish to have a look at the CPS report into Violence Against Women and Girls. [Read more…]

Jeremy and me: Some thoughts on the Labour leadership election

I’ve had quite a few messages in recent weeks asking me about my thoughts on Jeremy Corbyn’s bid to become Labour leader. Most of them have basically been recruitment pleas from his supporters trying to get me to either publicly ‘declare’ for Corbyn or to sign up as a ‘three quidder’ and vote for him.

If you are following me on Twitter, you’ll appreciate that this is not an unreasonable request. I’ve been sharing a fair few pro-Corbyn pieces and sniping viciously at the other contenders in the race. I’ve also had a couple of (deserved) barbs reminding me that when the broad Labour left announced that Corbyn would be their candidate, I issued a plaintive sigh that there wasn’t anyone who felt a bit more current and relevant. I compared the Labour left to the bearded old men sitting muttering into their pints in one corner of a pub that has been gentrified all around them.

On that point I can only hold up my hands and confess the whole ‘Corbynmania’ phenomenon has startled and astonished me. I did not remotely see it coming, a failure of judgement I shared with pretty much all observers and commentators, not least Jeremy Corbyn and most of those who nominated him.

With four holiday weeks to go until the election, it now looks more likely than not that Corbyn will become the next leader of the Labour party. I will not be signing up to vote for him, but i will cheer loudly if he wins. Allow me to explain.

As I see it, our so-called parliamentary democracy is a fraud. It is not a system that allows the populace to control the mechanisms of multinational capitalism, it is a system that allows the mechanisms of multinational capitalism to control the populace. Any illusions to the contrary should have been blown away by the ideological triumph of neoliberalism in the 1980s and 90s. Margaret Thatcher seldom said a truer word than when she declared that New Labour was her greatest achievement. Since 1994 Britain, like the US, has been choosing between political options which are barely a few degrees apart on the political spectrum. I am not saying there is no difference between Labour and Tories – Labour do show a genuine compassion and concern in place of avarice and self-interest – but the key point is that neither party in any way threatens or disturbs the oligarchical power of the corporate executives, the money-changers and the moguls.

I honestly do not know if Jeremy Corbyn could ever win a general election. My gut says no, but then my gut said he could never even get close to winning the leadership, so what do I know? Where I would be certain is that if he did one day become PM, he would be unable to implement any genuinely socialist reforms. Leaving aside the ever-increasing web of international law and treaties which cement governments into neoliberal economic policies (of which the approaching TTIP is but the latest example) there is a more brutal, less subtle outcome on the horizon – the corporations, the bankers, the traders could and would simply pack up the bulk of the nation’s wealth and up sticks to a more “conducive” market and bankrupt the country in a retributive act of grand larceny.

A Corbyn-led government in 2020 would therefore be a bitter disappointment at best and economic calamity at worst – not because Corbyn would be running the country, but precisely because he wouldn’t be. And all of that is why I cannot in good conscience make myself part of an internal, Labour party leadership election, it would help to dignify a process in which I have no faith.

So why, for all that, will I cheer and celebrate wildly if Corbyn wins? It will not be because I believe in Corbyn, but because I believe in Corbynmania. The sudden outpouring of radicalism, the wave of hope, the demands for a different kind of politics all add up to one of the most inspiring moments in recent political history. With hindsight, the near-total devastation of the Labour party in Scotland three months ago was not an isolated phenomenon, but part of a much wider existential crisis within a Labour party that is now almost entirely adrift from its origins, its natural grassroots and even its very raison d’etre.

The most grotesque spectacle thrown up by the leadership race has been the cabal of ex-Blairite centrists within the media-Westminster establishment who have been openly mocking any expression of idealism, especially that of younger generationx. Owen Jones yesterday accurately described how: “Some of these commentators huddle together on social media, competing over how snarky and belittling they can be towards those oh-so-childish/unhinged/ridiculous (delete as applicable) Corbynites, unable to understand that rare thing, the birth of a genuinely grassroots political movement. And that’s the problem: this snarkiness is all some seem to have left. “

Today those people have been in near-hysterics because last night Brian Eno said, at at a Corbyn rally, that “electability isn’t the most important thing.” The condoscenti have been hooting and howling, entirely oblivious to the patent truth that it has been the cynical pursuit of electability at all costs which has made the modern Labour party all but unelectable. Just look at the pathetic platitudes spouted by Kendall, Burnham and Cooper in lieu of a policy platform, transparently terrified of actually presenting concrete policies which could perhaps be debated or disputed.

Amongst all the commentary, perhaps the most astute and incisive analysis has come not from Blairites or the Labour left but from a Tory. A couple of weeks ago, Matthew D’Ancona explained why the Conservatives should not celebrate the rise of the ‘unelectable’ Corbyn, but should be deeply fearful. Whatever Corbyn might achieve in government is a distant question, but what he might achieve in opposition is a different prospect.

As D’Ancona notes, Corbyn’s successful leadership bid and then his presence at the dispatch box and in the media would inevitably drag the whole terms of debate to the left. Assumptions which go unquestioned with a neoliberal New Labourite leading the opposition would suddenly be up for challenge, up for debate. For many years now, distinguished economists, including many Nobel-prize winners and voices of similar renown, have been pointing out the broad idiocy of austerity policies. A Corbyn leadership would surely bring those debates into the mainstream.

I genuinely do not know what a Corbyn victory in September might achieve, but I do know it would act as an earthquake under the complacency and stasis of contemporary Westminster politics. Nothing could ever be the same again. It might be the beginnings of a genuine new left movement, which would be long overdue. It could spark all kinds of rifts and schisms in the Labour party, which may well also be long overdue.

There are those who imagine the Corbyn phenomena to represent a sudden reawakening of the radical left in Britain. There’s a little bit of that, I am sure, but there is something bigger going on. This is a sudden reawakening of the democratic left. People, first in Scotland, now elsewhere, came to a collective moment of realisation that the system no longer represents them and their values. They felt alienated and detached from political power. Rallying to an alternative – whether the soft left, nationalist alternative of the SNP or the socialist alternative here – is not really an endorsement of a specific agenda or policy platform, but an assertion of democratic power. It may be ill-fated, it may be unrealistically romantic, but it is real, it is important and it is happening right now.

So I’m still not signing up to vote for Corbyn, but Corbynmaniacs? You have my unwavering support.


CPS erasure of male victims…. VICTORY!

Well this was, in all honesty, unexpected. 

I fully accept the concerns raised by some, however, that we need to be clearer in our annual VaWG report about the inclusion of men and boys, which is why I have arranged for amendments to be made to the current, and all future, reports. We will clarify our introductory remarks and we will also, where possible, include a breakdown of gender volumes.

When we first set about getting together our open letter, my most optimistic hope was that the CPS would notice it had happened, grudgingly admit we might have a point, and make some token effort to be less blatant in showing contempt for male victims next time .  But it was really just a plaintive cry.

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine the CPS might admit they got it wrong, go back amend the current report and so publicly commit to not doing the same again in future.

As I’m sure you’ll notice, the piece by Saunders is brimful of self-justification and waffle, as well as a lot of words that address complaints which were never actually made in the first place, but right in the middle is everything we asked for and considerably more. Honestly I don’t care.

This is something I don’t often get to write as a campaigner, activist or journalist, so I am going to revel in the moment….



Feminist indoctrination in schools? The Telegraph’s tankful of bullshit.

Yesterday it seemed like everyone and their dog was pointing me towards the article in the Telegraph by Dan Bell of Inside Man magazine. “We must stop indoctrinating boys in feminist ideology” screamed the headline, followed by the standfirst: “Feminist organisations, backed by government policy, are teaching young boys at school to feel guilty and ashamed of their gender.”

I should be clear from the off the Dan is a mate of mine, I am generally a supporter or (and occasional contributor) to Inside Man, and the argument that is about to follow is one that Dan and I have had (literally) over a pint in the pub before, and may well do again. On that basis I am sure he won’t mind if I take it public, and explain why I believe on this issue he is not just wrong, but irresponsibly, damagingly wrong. [Read more…]