Proctor : April 2019
36 PROCTOR | April 2019 Numerous developments in communicative technology have served to embody and express human sexuality. Social robotics, while not yet a conventional contributor, is gaining considerable attention in discussions around the representation and enactment of societies’ sexual practices. One such topic of discussion surrounds the development of sex robots. Sex robots are already in existence, being both manufactured and marketed by various companies.1 While the technology is relatively unheard of and certainly not widespread, it is probable that highly realistic sex robots will be created in the near future, thus eliciting unprecedented questions as to what their development could mean for the future of social behaviour and intimacy. Assuming that robots do not have moral status and thus cannot be moral victims of sexual violence, what happens if this technology is designed specifically to allow users to engage in acts of robotic sexual violence? More seriously, should they be criminalised even if their use has no extrinsically harmful effects? What constitutes robotic sexual violence? It is quite obvious, by virtue of their name, that sex robots are not the same as industrial robots. Rather, a sex robot is categorised as artificial entity that is used for sexual purposes.2 The technology is intended to represent human-like appearance and movement, and possesses some degree of artificial intelligence in which it is capable of interpreting and responding to its environment.3 However, the question of what constitutes robotic sexual violence is a tricky issue. For instance, criminal law provides that rape is any non-consensual penetrative act,4 but if the robot is not a moral agent, then it is incapable of granting consent. So, why is the development of sex robots contentious? Some proponents of sex robots argue that the technology has both the ability to protect women and children from sexual predators, while concurrently treating those who have illegal sexual desires.5 In contrast, opponents find sex robots problematic, arguing that the creation of this technology should be criminalised because it encourages the objectification and commodification of those in society who are already vulnerable (specifically women and children).6 There is no denying that there is something quite disturbing about the representational properties of sex robots. It is easy to argue, for example, that they recreate women as submissive and ever-consenting tools, which will contribute further to subordination, suppression and the normalisation of ‘rape culture’. However, there is no conclusive scientific evidence to suggest that this will actually be the case. Society should therefore be concerned about expanding the scope of criminal law too far. Without any empirical evidence for or against sex robots, their total criminalisation remains an uncomfortable concept. Should sex robots be criminalised even if their use has no extrinsically harmful effects on others? Regardless of the pro-sex robot/anti-sex robot debate, it could be prima facie argued that sex robots should be criminalised because they are ‘morally wrong’, meaning that they are both harmful to moral character and amount to public wrongdoings. According to legal moralism, it is a proper object of the criminal law to regulate conduct that is morally wrong, even where such conduct has no extrinsically harmful effects on others. 7 It is likely that society will think about sex robots from a legal moralistic standpoint and within the context of current norms. However, this prima facie argument could be defeated by obtaining scientific evidence suggesting that such usage will decrease the incidence of real-world sexual violence. There may be a link between the consumption of pornography and its harmful effects that could provide guidance on the sex robot debate. In fact, there are several studies that show no positive correlation between pornography and sexual crimes, and possibly even a negative correlation.8 Regardless, it is an issue that needs to be carefully researched and the possibility of using sex robots as remedial tools should not be dismissed without consideration. It is imperative that society does not get too far ahead of reality. So, how should Australia react to the development of sex robot technology? Few jurisdictions, including Australia, are yet to legislate on the creation, distribution and general use of sex robots. In June 2018, however, the United States House of Representatives unanimously passed the Curbing Realistic Exploitative Electronic Pedophilic Robots (CREEPER) Act, which bans the importation and distribution of childlike sex robots. The Congressional findings include the allegations that childlike sex robots both lead to rape and teach the user how to overcome resistance and subdue the victim.9 Childlike sex robots are just one niche of the nascent robotic sex industry that has generated serious debate and is met by most with outright revulsion. However, with no empirical evidence that childlike sex robots do actually lead to rape, it suggests that lawmakers in the US legislated using their feelings, rather than science or reason. It is quite possible that sex with robots could create a dehumanisation of interpersonal relationships between humans, further isolating those who already struggle with human connection and therefore increasing their risk of offending. 10 However, society should be cautious of arguments that make robust claims about the effects of sex robots without any conclusive scientific evidence. While opponents of sex robots raise significant arguments regarding how women and children are being represented, the response should not necessarily be to criminalise the creation of such technology. As a society, in order to truly do everything we can to decrease the occurrence of sexual violence in Australia, maybe we need to reimagine what it means to create a sex robot, and to think about how such technology could assist us to explore sexuality. Social robotics Should sex robots be criminalised?