For most sex toys, the idea of asking for consent is laughable. But with the recent, meteoric rise of AI-powered tools, conversations around AI sex toys and consent have begun. And they’re getting serious.

The sex robots on the market today aren't the most convincing human replicas (see: Emma), only conversing in basic language with frigid movements and unable to replace a real-life partner. Still, roughly 56,000 sex robots are sold every year, robot brothels are popping up across the world, and the industry is worth approximately $200 million, according to sex-toy review site Bedbible.

"While [the AI sex robots on the market] may be able to get the job done, so to speak, they lack the emotional and cognitive abilities of humans." Rijul Gupta, CEO and co-founder of deepfake detection and universal translation company DeepMedia AI, told Decrypt, "With how rapidly AI is advancing, it’s possible that technology can create a highly realistic and sophisticated sex robot."

There is a future in which individuals have human-passable AI sex robots in their homes, or even an AI girlfriend that watches TV with them. But some experts fear this opens a window for such products to be exploited in order to fulfill a user's rape fantasy—and that this could have a knock-on effect on the user's brain and possibly even lead to real-world consequences.


While someone cannot technically "rape" a robot—as AI does not have the capacity for want or desire—people can still simulate such an act with an AI. Experts suggest that this will have an effect on the aggressor’s psyche, their relationships, and possibly the general public too.

"Porn drastically impacts people. The exposure to sex and this very unrealistic thing has implications for your relationships and intimacy, almost forever," Moraya Seeger DeGeare, a certified couples therapist and relationship and sex expert at couples app Paired, told Decrypt.

"With sex robots, we're talking about visual and physical stimulation,” she added. “So the impact of having a visual and a response—that interaction is going to be actually changing your brain chemistry."

The potential negative effects of pornography (especially pornography linked to rape and abuse) on our brains has been widely researched—with one 2014 study suggesting a link to altered brain structures in avid viewers, though the research was inconclusive. DeGeare speculates that adding an emotional response to a porn replacement could have an even more drastic impact on people.


If that’s true, then when creating a highly intelligent, AI-equipped sex robot, you're faced with a consent predicament. Do you equip it with a consent model to teach users healthy practices, but open your product to the risk of being used for rape fantasies? Or do you scrap the consent model and create unhealthy expectations around sexual partners?

Consent models

No one expects you to ask your dildo for consent, so the default stance on this is to ignore consent models for sex robots too—right?

"They are not alive. Pretending otherwise is pure fantasy," Brian Sloan, founder of Autoblow AI—which claims to be the “first company to use AI in a sexual device”—told Decrypt. "We should not require consent from 80 pounds of silicone any more than we should ask consent from a banana to eat it."

It sounds logical, but do we run the risk of users developing bad consent habits around actual humans thanks to their experiences with humanoid sex robots?

"Removing consent from the picture because these are robots is akin to actively fostering rape culture," Mike Allmond, a sex toy expert with over 30 years in the industry and co-founder of Lover's Lane, told Decrypt. "We might not want to think about it that way, but it definitely leads to a dehumanizing effect."

Rape culture refers to society normalizing sexual violence and abuse, especially against women. Allmond believes that, with the advancement of robotics and AI, disregarding a consent model will only further this issue. And with 95% of sex robots sold being presented as female, this is likely to disproportionately affect women.

And the issue only gets worse if people begin to create sex toys in the image of people they know.

"Could you imagine if you discovered that your ex-partner was, what looks like, brutally raping a sex robot that has been designed in your image?" Robert Sparrow, a philosopher from Monash University who wrote a paper on robots, rape, and representation, told Decrypt. "I'd find it hard to imagine that someone is going to say that there's nothing problematic with that."


What if a robot says no?

The solution may be to build standardized consent models for the sex robots of the future. In the best case scenario, a consent-requiring sex robot could increase the understanding of consent to a user, with potential knock-on effects as they interact with humans in the future.

"Here in New York, the requirement for sex ed is one of the lowest. It's one class in fifth grade," DeGeare said. "Where are people going to go to start building their values around: What is reluctant consent? What about enthusiastic consent?"

AI sex robots may not be the answer to creating a healthy culture around consent. But in the absence of impactful sex ed, sex robots have the ability to train users on the topic.

It may be possible for some of the current language models for chatbots to require users to sweet talk the AI before things get hot and steamy. But it’s a different situation when the AI is in a physical form and a human can potentially overpower it. How can a sex robot revoke consent and prevent someone from abusing it? 

One sex robot released in 2018 had the ability to revoke consent, entering a "dummy" mode and verbally saying "no.” But it appears there is little that can be done to prevent a human from forcing themself upon the robot.

"Sadly, people with the desire to rape another human are perfectly fine with that human being unconscious," DeGeare explained. "So even the model you're talking about actually doesn't quite work, does it?"

Some might argue that allowing people to simulate immoral acts in a vacuum—where nobody will actually get hurt—could prevent the aggressor from carrying out such acts in the real world. A small debate in the philosophical realm argues that child sex robots may prevent real-world pedophilia, often referred to as the so-called gamer's dilemma.

However, research has shown that 85% of men arrested in the UK for possession of child sex dolls were also found to possess child pornography. This indicates that the theory doesn't work in reality, and it may not work when it comes to other types of sex offenders.


An issue that needs to be addressed

Currently, there is no concrete answer or consensus among experts on whether the sex robots of the future should require consent or not. On one hand, some experts argue that it promotes rape culture. On the other, it allows people to simulate rape fantasies without immediate and obvious real-world repercussions. But as experts suggest, there may be less obvious negative mental effects that could result in real-world trauma.

"When it comes to sex robots, I think the regulations need to happen rather quickly," Allmond said, "Much like we have enabled our kids to be bullies on social media, this may foster a very dangerous type of behavior if we don’t take action."

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