Health claims behind sex robots remain unproven

(Reuters Health) – Health benefits claimed by marketers of sex robots – safer sex, therapeutic possibilities, and the potential to treat pedophiles and sex offenders – haven’t been proven, or even well studied, experts say.

Sex robots – or sexbots – are anthropomorphic devices created for sexual gratification. Four companies sell them for $5,000 to $15,000. These realistic mannequins come in different ages, genders, appearances and textures with customizable oral, vaginal and anal openings. One company produces a childlike robot marketed as a “pedobot.”

Those in favor of using sexbots argue for “harm limitation” to reduce prostitution and sex crimes. Opponents say sexbots could promote the idea that humans, too, are sex objects available for objectification.

In an editorial in BMJ Sexual & Reproductive Health, Dr. Chantal Cox-George of St. George’s University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust in London, UK and colleague Susan Bewley of King’s College London call for research into the ramifications of these devices.

“The majority of customers will probably make purchases for sexual gratification, and not for health reasons,” Cox-George told Reuters Health by email. Still, she said, “It is important for health care professionals to know the evidence in case there are medical risks or benefits, for example, with infections, in psychosexual therapy, or the treatment of sex offenders.”

Cox-George and Bewley looked for sex robot-related research and found no reports with primary data about their health aspects.

Proponents argue that sexbots could provide a future with no sex trafficking, sex tourism or sex trade. In red-light districts, robotic prostitutes made of bacteria-resistant fiber and cleaned after each use could prevent the spread of sexually-transmitted infections. At some brothels in Barcelona, Spain, and Dortmund, Germany, sex robots and love dolls are already available.

Oliver Bendel of the School of Business FHNW in Basel, Switzerland, a machine ethics expert who has written about surgical, therapeutic, and ethical concerns of sex robots, told Reuters Health by email, “Many universities are not interested in research on this topic. It is a risk for scientists to deal with the subject. We believe we are an enlightened, open-minded society, but it is difficult to conduct serious research in this area.”

Psychosexual therapists should examine the therapeutic value of sex robots, Cox-George and Bewley say. The robots could help patients practice sex without pressure, but how would they affect empathy, intimacy and human relationships? No studies show whether they fulfill intimacy or companionship needs, or intensify those needs.

People with sexual dysfunction who turn to sexbots might become even more isolated by having “substitute satisfaction,” said Federica Facchin of the Catholic University of Milan in Italy. Facchin, who wasn’t involved with this study, has written about using sexbots for therapeutic reasons.

“Sexual dysfunction depends on the complex interaction of multiple biological, sociocultural and psychological factors,” she told Reuters Health by email.

And could sex robots treat pedophiles and sex offenders? The company that creates life-like child dolls claims they help people “redirect dark desires.” But others say they normalize sexual deviancy and act as a practice ground for violence.

“These important issues should be raised and discussed by a multidisciplinary committee with experts in technology, sociology, psychology and bioethics,” Facchin said.

Sexbots could change societal norms, Cox-George and Bewley say. They have unrealistic body types, which could distort views of attractiveness and body confidence. Use of the dolls could also blur boundaries to consent, especially when robot personalities can be selected to simulate non-consensual sex or rape. At the same time, if research does demonstrate therapeutic benefits, doctors may be able to prescribe sexbots for harm reduction.

“Scientists have to argue scientifically,” Bendel said. “We need empirical studies.”

Bendel and colleagues are studying whether sexbots should have human-like voices, have a specific gender or be humanoid at all. Some fantasy characters are already being marketed.

“Facts are being created in the brothels and at home,” he said. “A reality arises about which we know nothing. We have to change that.”

SOURCE: BMJ Sexual & Reproductive Health, online June 4, 2018.

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