What Women and Men Want from Sex Robots

By Jeremy Hsu | March 10, 2016 12:19 am
Credit: Willyam Bradberry | Shutterstock

Credit: Willyam Bradberry | Shutterstock

More than two-thirds of men recruited for a sexbot study say they would give sex robots try. About two-thirds of women in the same study say they would not try a sex robot. Those findings come from the first exploratory survey of human attitudes toward sex robots. Such research has huge implications beyond whether humanity ends up using robots for sexual satisfaction—it can also reveal gender differences in how people view modern human relationships.

Debates about sex robots typically focus on either the crude robotic sex toys of today or Hollywood’s science fiction fantasies such as “A.I.” or “Ex Machina.” One U.K. researcher made headlines by calling for a ban on sex robot technology. But there has been surprisingly little effort to find out what people think about robots and sex in the real world. That is why researchers at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts set out to discover out what people think sex robots should look like and what uses of such robots would be considered appropriate. They hope their research can help create a future where robots prove more beneficial than harmful for human psychology and relationships.

“I think it’s very important to realize that sex robots and companion robots are all instances of social robots that have an effect on people,” says Matthias Scheutz, a computer scientist at Tufts University. “Especially when it comes to the potential of these machines to cause emotional harm to humans.”

Previous attempts to poll public opinion on sexbots have usually asked just several basic questions about whether or not people would have sex with a robot. Scheutz and Thomas Arnold, a research associate at Tufts University, went for a more complex survey by having people rank answers to a wide variety of questions on a 7-point Likert scale with 1 meaning “completely inappropriate” and 7 meaning “completely appropriate.”

The university researchers recruited 57 males and 43 females through the Amazon Mechanical Turk online service in an effort to get a more representative national sampling of the U.S. population. Their work was presented at the International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction (HRI 2016) on March 9.

More Like Masturbation Than Human Sex

Men and women shared a common understanding of sex robot capabilities and how sex with a robot should be classified in comparison with human relationships. For example, both male and female participants agreed that sex with a robot was more like masturbation than sex between humans. But men typically had greater enthusiasm than women for the different possible uses of sex robots.

One of the greatest differences in opinion came up regarding use of sex robots for sex offenders. Women showed disapproval on average by giving an “inappropriate” rating of 3.7 on the 7-point scale, whereas men gave a more favorable “appropriate” rating of 4.88 on average. Men and women also diverged in their “appropriate” versus “inappropriate” ratings for the case of using sex robots to practice abstinence.

On the other hand, both women and men generally agreed that using sex robots was more appropriate than hiring a human prostitute. They also agreed on sex robots being appropriate for use by disabled people and for reducing the risk of sexually transmitted diseases.

“We need a larger discussion on relationships and intimacy,” Scheutz says. “Some differences really may be the results of more complex differences between male and female attitudes toward human relationships.”

Significant gender differences in ratings sometimes appeared even when both men and women were generally in agreement. For example, men gave higher “appropriate” ratings to using a sex robot instead of cheating on a partner, to improve self-esteem, for making porn films, for group sex involving both humans and robots, to engage in unusual sex practices such as rough sex or sadistic behavior, and for sex education. Women also gave ratings that classified such uses as “appropriate” on average, but with lower levels of approval.

Men and women most closely agreed on using sex robots to maintain a relationship between humans, to assist training for the sake of preventing sexual harassment, and in isolated environments where normal human relationships are not available. The latter suggests that people probably won’t begrudge Mars mission astronauts or Arctic researchers their more intimate moments with future robots.

Pushing the Boundaries of Sex Robots

In terms of sex robot form and appearance, both men and women strongly agreed that sex robots should not look like a human child. That finding may reflect general disapproval of pedophile behavior. But more significant gender differences emerged for every other possible form of sex robots presented in the survey. Once again, men consistently gave higher ratings than women to every possible form of sex robots.

Sex robots that look like an adult human received the highest approval ratings from both men and women. Men gave a very high “appropriate” rating of almost 6.5 on the 7-point scale. Women also gave such sex robots a reasonably high rating of almost 5.2.

The adult human form of sex robots was followed in descending order of approval rating by “a fantasy creature,” “any recognizable life form,” “a celebrity” and “one’s current partner.” All those sex robot forms generally received an enthusiastic approval rating of more than 5 from men.

But women gave a much more tepid response with most ratings hovering between 4.5 and 4. The average rating from women even dipped slightly below 4—more disapproval than approval—for sex robots that resembled celebrities. It’s not entirely clear whether the female ambivalence about celebrity sex robots directed more toward Jude Law’s Gigolo Joe character from “A.I.” or the idea of men lusting after robots shaped like Hollywood’s latest female stars.

The differences of opinion were even greater for other possible sex robot forms. Men gave fairly high approval ratings above 5 for sex robots shaped like “one’s deceased spouse” and “one’s friend.” Women seemed to disapprove of such sex robots with average ratings between 4 and 3.

Besides the child sex robots, only two other sex robot forms drew universal disapproval from both men and women. Sex robots shaped like “one’s family member” had ratings of 3.3 from men and just below 2.2 from women, which suggests neither gender seems to approve of sex robots resembling siblings or parents. Similarly, sex robots shaped like animals drew general disapproval with an average “inappropriate” rating of 3.7 from men and an even lower rating of 2.6 from women.

Great Expectations for Relationships with Robots

Today’s sex robot technology remains fairly primitive because robotic technology is still stumbling out of infancy. But Scheutz expects the porn industry and others to continue developing such technologies until they become more sophisticated than crude sex toys. Humans have already shown a tendency to easily form emotional attachments to relatively simple machines such as Aibo robot dogs or cuddly Paro seal robots. That makes it likely that more humans could form emotional attachments with either sex robots or other future robots capable of more sophisticated social interactions.

Some people have formed emotional attachments to virtual characters that don’t even have a physical body. Certain games or smartphone apps offer a virtual boyfriend or girlfriend experience. In China, a Microsoft chatbot program called “Xiaoice” has become a beloved virtual friend for millions of Chinese social media users who message “her” to share their hopes and fears.

Hollywood examined the idea of a virtual companion to life in the 2013 film “Her,” directed by Spike Jonze. (WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW.) The near-future story featured Joaquin Phoenix forming a romantic relationship with an artificial intelligence named Samantha and voiced by actress Scarlett Johansson. Scheutz pointed to one of the film’s more clever twists toward the end when Phoenix’s character discovers that he’s not exactly in a monogamous relationship with his beloved Samantha. Instead, it turns out the AI Samantha has been having hundreds of romantic relationships with people all over the world.

“In addition to understanding what triggers our evolutionary buttons, we have to understand how we react to the possible capabilities of robots that are very different than our experiences with humans,” Scheutz says.

A smart AI with an attractive physical body could prove even more alluring and confusing for humans. But Scheutz does not believe a ban on sex robot technology will prove helpful in navigating future relationships with robots and AI. Instead, he wants to help improve understanding of how social robots in general impact both human psychology and human relationships.

Scheutz’s lab has already conducted a follow-up online study with slightly different questions that surveyed 200 people through Amazon Mechanical Turk. But someday, he hopes to arrange long-term experiments that could show how humans interact with social robots over weeks or possibly months. From a practical standpoint, such experiments will rely on robots becoming advanced enough to perform their own behaviors without being remote controlled by researchers.

“Once we actually understand how these interactions work out, whether they are harmful or helpful to relationships or human psychological wellbeing, then we can step in legally,” Scheutz explains. “But we need a basis for such legal decisions, so we need to gather data and do experiments.”

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  • Nemo_of_Erehwon

    An interesting read. I’d take with a HUGE grain of salt any findings of a study on, what is at this time, such speculative subject on which people will not have lavished much thought nor formed many real opinions yet.

    Also, the video clips are seriously lacking, in that there is no clip of the documentary against human-robot dating from Futurama. The Space Pope says: Don’t date robots!”

    • Jeremy Hsu

      Thanks! You make a very good point about taking these preliminary studies with a huge grain of salt, given that ordinary people obviously don’t have any experience with sex robot technology. I did like this particular study because it assumed everyone was starting from that position of ignorance about the tech and then tried to tease out their current impressions of such robots. And I think the results may say a lot about modern views on relationships in general. (Also, your point about the lack of Space Pope video clips is well taken.)

  • Rags

    I can understand why we men have more interest in a sex robot. Go to a sex shop. What do we have? A fleshlight. What do woman have? Penises on treadmills, and a billion other things. We simply can’t do much with our tools. Its not toy friendly as it needs to ahem, penetrate the situation, which ergonomic wise is a huge design problem. Unless you have a sexbot that solves it. Bring em on.

    • kwijino

      Like everything else, women are already catered to and men considered pigs? Yeh, bout sums it up.

  • Dionysus Zeus

    What if your AI were advanced enough to be offended? Since your Robot has feelings is it OK to indulge yourself then simply reboot it so it would never know. It’s quite confusing because if AI became sentient then it would have rights and we could end up making alimony payments to a Robot. It sounds ridiculous but since ethical considerations strongly influenced the survey preferences it isn’t impossible is it ?

    • Don’t Even Try It!

      True. I would hate to even consider the legal ramifications of having non-consenting sex with an AI! Could be some serious jail time!

    • Rykimaruh

      this is where configuration and settings come into mind when planning to make these.Set limitations on it so the algorithm does not continue beyond a predetermined threshold in such a way that it could start to develop self conscience…these are robots…don’t let that get to your emotional side

      • Dionysus Zeus

        I suppose you could limit your AI such that it didn’t become self aware, thus avoiding any moral implications. But what if you didn’t and it was self aware, then what ?

  • KMHamm

    Wonder what the opinions would have been regarding your partner remote controlling the robot. For example, say I’m on a business trip. Would I, using VR and a robot, want to make love to my girlfriend? Would she want that? And what if SHE was the one on the business trip and I was home with the VR controlled sexbot? Let’s add another dimension. Say I could call a service (1-900- whatever) to link a person into my sexbot?

    • Ken Mitchell

      Violet Blue has already written extensively about “tele-dildonics”. These toys already exist. (But for now, they’re pretty expensive.)

  • Phillip Shurtleff

    Could the difference, at least in part, between the ratings by men versus women be due to men thinking about themselves using the robot and only their own pleasure whereas women are thinking about other people (mostly men, I assume) using them resulting in negative attitude changes toward women? I would think that women would be similarly interested in a robot looking like Johnny Depp as men would be in Charlize Theron if they are only thinking of themselves, but if they are thinking about how they would be compared to a celebrity robot, seems natural that they have a more negative attitude. Is there a way to structure the study to find out?

    • ArmyATC

      My thought too. Women don’t like the idea of competition.

    • TomD

      “due to men thinking about themselves using the robot”

      Let me fix that:

      “due to men thinking about themselves”

  • Chris

    57 males and 43 females recruited for the study. This is where I must shake my head and sigh. That is a ridiculously small sample. Especially when considering the topic, where there are not many developed opinions in the first place. This same study could be reproduced a dozen different times, and I’d bet serious money that you would get a dozen statistically significant differences (can you imagine the variance and pointlessness if they did political polls with such small samples?). But it gets worse. They were all “recruited” via posting the survey on Mechanical Turk. So not only is the sample size too small to give any reasonable percentage of confidence to the results, but we are being asked to imagine that Mechanical Turk workers accurately represent the views of the larger population overall. I don’t think they do. It is far too easy to stereotype the typical Mechanical Turk worker–and for good reason: they tend to be very specific types of people.

    I say this not to be negative, but in an emotionless way to defend very basic, tried-and-true practices that separate good science from the bad: this study is junk. Get a far larger sample, at the very least 10 times as large, but more appropriately a hundred times bigger. Take your sample from much more randomized sources than stuck-at-home Mech Turk workers. And then, when you’ve done that, do it a few more times at least to compare data between the studies to see what is consistent and what is just noise. At that point, you may have some information that is compelling so that qualified peers can scrutinize it themselves to see if it holds up. Then, and only then, after all that, is it appropriate to publish findings to the public as if you know something.

    • http://and-still-i-persist.com bfwebster

      males and 43 females recruited for the study. This is where I must shake my head and sigh. That is a ridiculously small sample. Especially when considering the topic, where there are not many developed opinions in the first place.

      Pretty much my reaction. Beyond that, since this was done via Amazon Turk, I suspect the sample group was largely self-selected.

    • Don’t Even Try It!

      I agree! I think this should be classified as “Junk Science”!

  • BozoerRebbe

    Isn’t a vibrator a kind of robot?

    • Micha_Elyi

      Isn’t a vibrator a kind of robot?
      –BozoerRebbe

      Why yes, her vibrator is a kind of robot. And her romance novels are a kind of virtual-reality porn.

      For some odd reason, most people, men and females, refuse to admit that females consume the majority of porn and sex toys. Few people are willing to admit that female-preferred porn and sex toys are what they are. Kind’a disrupts the fem-narrative that sex is icky stuff only men want.

      • Andrew Kiener

        “fem-narrative”? The idea that sex is “icky stuff only men want” is very very uncommon among feminists; it’s much more common among patriarchal religious types.

    • pretzelchoked

      Isn’t porn a kind of robot also?

    • fartytowels

      Guard your electric tothbrush zealously.

  • Marty Johnson

    Funny how the most “open minded” persons when it comes to accepting perverse actions between consenting adults become less open minded when it involves only a single consenting adult. Who cares what other people do in their bedroom.

  • CplRock

    Not sure how you can discuss sex robots without reference to 1987’s “Cherry 2000.”

  • Mina Larsen

    You will never get honest answers from women in a poll. They will typically answer whatever is PC at the moment.

    • Maia

      Does this mean your comment here is your own version of PC?

  • Billll

    To sell to women, give the robot the ability to take out the trash.

  • calipso_2100

    The difference between men and women when it comes to sex robots could be because men view sex as just sex. While women want a bigger package – sex and a relationship. Who would want to have a relationship with a computer?

  • bwana

    There could very well come a time when AI is at such a level that robots and humans are much the same. At that point, a “life companion robot” might be a valid option. It would probably reduce current birthrates is nothing else…

  • Adrian Marshall

    Rest assured, if they ever make realistic sex robots, robots that behave, perform, look and FEEL like humans, they will fly off the shelves. Men and women equally will be saving up their pennies to buy them. Disease numbers and reproduction numbers will likely plummet. But eventually folks will long for a real person. Where the real money will be is in the cloning of sex drones, Real people without minds of their own. Stepford wives and the ilk. CHA CHING!!!

  • C B

    I agree that it is worth studying sexbots and the interaction with human psychology… but please not with less than a few thousands of people!

  • nik

    In answer to the question, “What Women and Men Want from Sex Robots?”
    The simple answer, is, A Good F**K!
    That can then be adjusted to the individuals preferences and ideas of what form that would take, or not.
    Another question, is, would ‘child’ robots satisfy pedophiles?
    The next question is; will a robot eventually cease to satisfy, and will the recipient then want to get the same services from a human, and will they then treat that human as if they were just a robot?

  • fartytowels

    Women will belittle it (more than men) until they see it, then they’ll all want it.

  • Ibrahim Hamid

    Personally, I feel that the remote control capability should always remain with the researchers or human creators of the robots ONLY.

    Because enabling the robots with such capability will make it easier for them to decide to become violent, oppressive, or suppressive against humans.
    Such an undesirable scenario will thereby vindicate the general fear and concerns by humans regarding the robots’ propensity or potential to violence, etc, against humans — including their human creators/researchers of course.

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Lovesick Cyborg

Lovesick Cyborg examines how technology shapes our human experience of the world on both an emotional and physical level. I’ll focus on stories such as why audiences loved or hated Hollywood’s digital resurrection of fallen actors, how soldiers interact with battlefield robots and the capability of music fans to idolize virtual pop stars. Other stories might include the experience of using an advanced prosthetic limb, whether or not people trust driverless cars with their lives, and how virtual reality headsets or 3-D film technology can make some people physically ill.

About Jeremy Hsu

Jeremy Hsu is journalist who writes about science and technology for Scientific American, Popular Science, IEEE Spectrum and other publications. He received a master’s degree in journalism through the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at NYU and currently lives in Brooklyn. His side interests include an ongoing fascination with the history of science and technology and military history.

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