Proponents of sex robots want us to believe that they’re more than toys; they’re companions that help us with relationship problems and improve our quality of life. But there’s no good evidence that says having sex with robots has health or therapeutic benefits, according to a review of the research published this week. This doesn’t mean they’re bad. It just means that we need more studies before we fall for claims that sex dolls spell the end of loneliness.
Despite being a $30 billion business, sex robots still don’t have the best reputation, so it makes sense that makers are trying to position them as therapeutic aids. Supporters point to three intriguing possibilities: sex robots can lead to safer sex (by getting rid of sex trafficking or tourism), help couples with bad sex lives, or be a good option for pedophiles. Similarly, a recent New York Times column suggested that sex robots might quiet the anger of involuntarily celibate men (or “incels”) who believe that women owe them sex.
For an editorial published in the British Medical Journal, Chantal Cox-George of St George’s University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Susan Bewley of King’s College London combed through hundreds of articles on the relationship between sex robots and health, and they found that the health claims are still just speculative.
Maybe the robots could lead to safer sex, they write, but there’s no evidence yet that they will. Maybe the robots could be a solution for couples where one wants a lot more sex than the other, or maybe it’ll make someone feel even more isolated. Sex robots for pedophiles could help them with repressed urges, but it’s also possible, they write, some won’t distinguish between fact and fantasy.
This doesn’t mean that people’s worst fears about sex robots — for example, that they’ll lead to women being dehumanized — are true, either. Cox-George and Bewley ultimately call for more rigorous studies, and it’s clear that we do need more research, especially as sex robots become cheaper and more common.
Still, there is a limit to how much good the robots can do. Many of the health claims and discussions about sex robots saving the incels miss that, in so many cases, sex isn’t about sex. That is, people don’t want sex just because they want sexual release. Masturbation exists. It’s a simple option, and it’s a lot less trouble than interacting with other pesky humans. People want sex because of everything else it represents: power, excitement, drama, desire, and more.
Sex robots can only save the incels if their biggest problem is being starved for sexual release. But incels don’t just want sexual release. They’re obsessed with status, with the traditionally masculine men they call “Chad” and the conventionally attractive women they call “Stacy.” They want to feel powerful and desired (preferably by the hottest woman around), and these are social yearnings that sex robots simply can’t solve. Similarly, sexual problems in relationships aren’t always just because one person isn’t getting enough. The lack of sex often represents other underlying issues, like emotional distance, an inability to communicate, or resentment. Suggesting a sex robot would be a quick solution that doesn’t address the deeper problems.
Ultimately, it’s unlikely that sex robots are either all good or all bad. As with almost everything else, there will likely be a way to use them that is helpful and a way to use them that is harmful. We need to figure out how exactly that will be and stop overpromising.