Should sex with a robot be considered cheating?

A study out of Finland shows us that sex is sex and robots are robots, and the overlap is confusing.

Film teaser for Steven Spielberg's 2001 film A.I.
  • A new study from Finland suggests that people view sex with a robot more kindly than they view sex with a human prostitute.
  • The effect is maintained even when the customer is married.
  • While the exact causes of these opinions remain unknown, several proposals have been made. They may well serve as ethical guides going forward.

Robot sex dolls are a thing now. A proposed robot brothel in California is in the crowdfunding stage, Chinese scientists are pitching lifelike dolls as the solution for a society with a shockingly skewed gender ratio, and a TV show including sex robots as characters is watched by millions. Regrettably, philosophical investigation into the ethics around sex robots has not kept up with the tech or culture. A new study carried out in Finland may help to close the gap, though its findings raise as many questions as they answer.

The strangest study these people will ever be part of.

This photo taken on February 1, 2018 shows a worker trimming the skin imperfections of a silicone doll at a factory of EXDOLL, a firm based in the northeastern Chinese port city of Dalian. With China facing a massive gender gap and a greying population, a company wants to hook up lonely men and retirees with a new kind of companion: 'Smart' sex dolls that can talk, play music and turn on dishwashers

(FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images)

The study, to be presented at the International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots in Montana because we live in a world where that's a thing now, involved two experiments asking Finnish library patrons their opinions on the moral character of a person using a brothel either staffed by humans or robots in a short sci-fi story. The moral stances, sexual histories, level of disgust with pathogens, and familiarity with science fiction media were all recorded and used to analyze the subjects' answers.

The participants' moral stances were measured using the Moral Foundations Questionnaire, created and made famous by Jonathan Haidt. It breaks moral psychology down into five foundations: Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Purity/Sanctity. The test asks questions designed to determine how relevant a foundation is for a person when making a moral choice and then gives them statements related to each foundation for them to rank their agreement or disagreement with. You can take the same test yourself here.

The subjects were then randomly placed into one of four groups to read a vignette. Their story featured either a single or married man in 2035 visiting a brothel on a trip in Europe. The brothel either advertises "You cannot tell our robots from real women" or "All our workers are real women." The story ends with the man paying for "services" which were left to the reader's imagination.

The readers than expressed their opinion of the man by answering a series of questions. These questions focused on their opinion of his behavior, their opinion on his character, and their opinion of buying sexual services in general. The answers were then compared with the demographic data collected above.

What did they say about the man?

As you might expect, people viewed a married person who went to the brothel of any kind more harshly than a single person. However, people saw the act of sleeping with a robot as less objectionable than sleeping with a human for both single and married individuals.

Subjects with more sexual experience judged the act of going to a brothel less harshly overall. Female test subjects found the character to be more morally degraded than the male subjects did. The act of sleeping with a robot was condemned less than sleeping with a human, except by people with very high scores on the purity/sanctity spectrum.

A second, larger test was carried out with only one change; a scenario where the customer was a woman was added. The results were largely the same, although people saw what the female customer did as slightly worse than what a male one did.

Why would we get these results? 

The silhouettes of two teenage girls rescued from a cyber sex den. Could sex robots be the solution to such situations?

Photo: ED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images

The authors concluded that:

"Sex with a sex robot is seen to be closer to sex with another human than masturbation. Also, attitudes towards sex robots seem to be influenced by the same factors as attitudes towards robots in general. In summary, sex with a robot is considered to be sex and a sex robot is seen as a robot."

These findings are largely in line with a previous study carried out by Thomas Arnold of Tufts University, who interpreted his results by saying:

"Relationships seem to drive how people morally judge the use of sex robots… The more you start thinking about it as something that could compete against or interfere with your relationships, that seems to be what people morally object to."

He further explained to New Scientist that his study "found that most people thought of it more like masturbation or using a sex toy."

A relationship was found between how people scored on the pathogen disgust quiz and how much they objected to the character's actions, with people scoring lowest on that scale objecting more to a married person sleeping with a sexbot than those who got a high score. Highly germophobic people objected the most strongly to the idea of a married person paying for sexual services of any kind but especially disliked a married person paying for sex with a human being.

This suggests that while many people object to the idea of cheating no matter what the situation, at least some of this objection is based on the idea of the need to prevent "contamination" of the marital union. Given our common notion of robots as sleek and clean, it may be the case that the fear of disease isn't applied to them in the same way it is to a human sex worker. It also explains why they would be less concerned about a single person going to a brothel than they are for a married person.

"No judgment here," say sci-fi fans

Perhaps most surprisingly, the more familiar or involved people were with science fiction fandoms the more accepting they were of the idea of sex with robots. This correlation was so strong that it removed the gender difference in how the character was viewed. The authors of the study do not know if consuming science fiction work causes this acceptance, however, it is possible that people who are open to this idea could be the same people who are attracted to science-fiction.

What else don’t we know?

The study's authors were very clear that much more work is needed. They suggest that further studies should have test subjects more reflective of the entire population and from cultures that might have different attitudes towards robots than the Finns.

As sexual robots become ever more realistic and popular, we're going to have to have a clearer understanding of how we view them and what we consider our use of them to be. This study is far from definitive, but it does give us a point to start with.

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Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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