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‘Is sex with a robot cheating?’ What 10 years of research tells us about sex robots

What do we really know about attitudes to sex robots, their technology and development, and the ethical issues around them? Frustratingly, academic research into sex robots generally isn’t as well-funded as it is for, say, the world’s most damaging diseases.

Over the last decade or so there have been various research papers and studies conducted by universities and research groups to help better understand attitudes to sex robots. These studies, however, tend to rely on participants answering hypothetical questions rather than actual sex robot owners giving insights.

This is because despite media fascination with sex robots they remain a niche industry, with no official statistics about how many are produced or bought. It’s also understandable that sex robot owners aren’t generally keen to speak openly to lab coat-wearing researchers about their relationships with their electronic beaus.

Also, as with much published research, studies about sex robots often focus on American participants, despite the sex robot industry having many proponents across other continents, particularly Asia.

With these caveats, it’s still interesting to see how attitudes to sex robots may have formed in recent years, so we’ve compiled ten sex robot-related studies worthy of your attention.

They contain insights into some of the important questions arising from sex robot use, around ethics, loyalty, companionship, potential therapeutic uses, sexism, and loneliness.

Sex robot-seekers like… sex

This might not come across as particularly revelatory, but research suggests that people interested in sex robots tend to be more interested in sex acts, generally.

A 2022 questionnaire-based study found that participants’ willingness to engage with sex robots was closely related to erotophilia: a personality trait associated with being highly sexual and masturbating a lot.

While it seems rather obvious that people more interested in sex might be more interested in sex robots, research backing up this simple assumption could be handy to understand the main function of sex robots. Some are marketed as ‘companion’ robots, and it’s true that some people do use them for this, even believing they are in committed relationships with sex robots. 

However, the research suggests that if you’re interested in sex robots, it’s more likely because you just really like sex and want to have more of it.

The age of robotics

In 2020 Canada-based academics Simon Dubé and Dave Anctil authored a paper pushing for the field of sex robots to be understood under the term erobotics. The word derives from Eros: the Greek god of love and sex.

The researchers’ main thrust was that far more research into how humans’ sexual relationships with all kinds of robots is needed, and that giving the field this new title will help unify and promote efforts.

They wrote: “To comprehensively explore human-machine erotic interaction and co-evolution, we argue that we need a new unified transdisciplinary field of research – grounded in sexuality and technology positive frameworks – focusing on human-erobot interaction and co-evolution as well as guiding the development of beneficial erotic machines. We call this field Erobotics.”

The word hasn’t really taken off since, but we’re all for the more unified approach.

Sex robots and sexism

If you’re interested in getting naked with a sex robot, does that make you sexist?

Well, no, not intrinsically, we’d argue. But a 2024 study of 212 questionnaire participants found a significant link between sexist views and interest in sex robots. If a participant scored highly in ‘hostile sexism’ they were more likely to be interested in robo-sexuality and, interestingly, less interested in ‘just being friends’ with a robot.

Could this be something to do with viewing women as objects – quite literally? Researchers said, “preconceived beliefs about social hierarchy and gender inequality may impact romantic and platonic interactions between humans and robots.”

Sex robots and otaku

A 2019 study into associations between otaku – Japanese youth culture describing secluded people with an affinity for manga characters – and sex robots didn’t do much to challenge the stereotype of the sex robot fan as a shy man living in a fictional world.

Researchers asked participants, of which there were 261 in total, to say how likely they were to be interested in making contact with, or buying, a sex robot. Participants who had high scores for manga and anime fandom were more likely to be more interested in sex robots, as did those who rated highly for shyness.

With many sex robots featuring manga-style designs, it’s unsurprising that some may view them as a potential erotic extension of their cartoony collection. The huge popularity of hentai – sexualized or pornographically-depicted Japanese animated characters – also suggests a logical link to desiring a sex object.

Sex robots to boost sexual confidence

Could having sex with a robot help someone increase their sexual confidence, and become better at human relationships? Does practice make perfect?

This notion was examined by researchers in 2018, in a summary of arguments for and against the sex robot industry. As is still the case for so many areas of sex robot development, uses and ethics, the overall conclusion was “more research needed”. However, the competing views on sexual confidence were interesting.

Researchers noted that “sexual activity with robots has been described as a masturbatory practice, so someone with sexual dysfunction, which may already lead to isolation, ‘might become even more isolated by the illusion of having a substitute satisfaction’.”

However, they also note that “sexbots might provide ‘companionship’ for the lonely, mentally and physically disabled, the elderly, or those who find intercourse traumatic, though this justification requires a change in meaning of ‘companion’ from a living, interacting person.”

Could that change occur soon? With the development of AI, it could be on the horizon.

Sex robots: the therapists’ views

The jury might still be out on the suitability of sex robots to help address human sexual confidence, but what about therapists’ views of suggesting sex robot use to patients?

A 2019 questionnaire and interview-based study looked at sex therapists’ views of sex robots, finding that 45 percent of them could imagine recommending sex robots in therapy. Only 11 percent said that using sex robots for therapy was “not conceivable” for them.

Researchers said that sex therapists’ opinions should be taken into account in the development of sex robots, especially when their public perception is largely dominated by overblown media images.

They wrote that “scientists engaged in sexual research should be involved in the development of sex robots to design robots with positive effects on sexual education, sexual therapy, sexual counseling, and sexual well-being for interested groups.”

That’s certainly virtuous and idealistic. But sex robots are overwhelmingly made by companies making them for profit for the ‘leisure’ market, rather than for therapeutic use, so they’re more likely to take sex-seeking customers’ feedback on board than those of sex therapists, sadly.

Sex robots, cheating and ‘disgust’

A research paper on the “moral psychology” of sex robot use, authored in 2020, touched on the issue of infidelity and honed in on the concept of disgust.

Researchers constructed a story about someone visiting a brothel to have it off with a sex worker, and asked participants for their reactions to the protagonist of the story. Today many people might take umbrage with condemning the use of sex workers as bad behavior per se, but researchers asked participants to rate how disgusted they were with the person in the story doing so.

They found that when the sex worker in the story was a sex robot, the protagonist was condemned less harshly than participants than when the fictional sex worker was a human. This effect was magnified when the story protagonist was known to be married.

The finding led the researchers to write: “We have for the first time experimentally confirmed that people are somewhat unsure about whether using a sex robot while in a committed monogamous relationship should be considered as infidelity.”

Sex robots as a “threat” to women

In 2021 Warsaw-based researchers looked at factors that affected heterosexual women’s views of sex robots as a romantic ‘threat’ to their involvement with men, and found a couple of interesting links.

Firstly, women’s perceived threat from sex robots was reduced when the robots in question were seen to be aimed at heterosexual women as well as men. So, they may have been seen less as direct ‘replacements’ for women, and as something women could get involved with too. This could be significant, as most sex robots on the market are modeled on women and aimed at heterosexual men.

Secondly, politics came into play. The women in the study showed reduced levels of perceived threat from sex robots that were suitable for men or women, if the women participants were politically liberal. More conservative women in the study perceived sex robots as a threat regardless of whether the robot was aimed at heterosexual men or women.

The researchers said, “Incorporating political views can be crucial in examining the social perception of new and controversial technologies, such as sex robots.”

Can you sexually assault a robot?

The issue of consent for sexual acts has come to the fore with the rapid development of AI. If an AI system were considered sentient, should it have the same legal and ethical rights as a human? Should having sex with it require it to give consent?

Back in 2017 Robert Sparrow, a philosophy professor at Melbourne’s Monash University, wrote a well-cited research paper addressing a question that came earlier in the sex robot timeline: could allowing people to ‘rape’ robots help potential sexual abusers avoid attacking humans?

Some have suggested that although unsavory, facilitating this could help direct aggression to a target that arguably doesn’t experience it in ‘real’ terms. There have also been discussions about allowing potential pedophiles to use child-like sex robots for similar reasons.

Sparrow had a dim view of these ideas, writing: “Even when the intention is not to facilitate rape, the design of robots that can explicitly refuse consent is problematic due to the likelihood that some users will experiment with raping them.”

He added that “sex with robots in these circumstances is a representation of the rape of a woman, which may increase the rate of rape.” Noted sex robot researcher Kate Devlin, however, has said that she’s never found evidence of a link between sex robots and real-world violence.

Robots, Rape, and Representation, International Journal of Social Robotics.

More on ‘cheating’ with a robot

Following the 2000 ‘Moral Psychology…’ research, a 2021 research paper found that participants considered physical romantic acts committed with sex robots as “less severe”, and were less likely to judge them as infidelity than acts committed with a human.

In the study women were more likely than men to judge sex robot sex acts as cheating behavior, when they were asked to consider sex robots in general. The researchers wrote: “This finding may be explained by the portrayal of sex robots as hyper-feminized female sexual partners for men, both in the way these technologies are presented as well as how they are sold.”

However, some participants were asked this question with regard to a sex robot specifically matched to sexual preference – e.g. a man asked to consider his heterosexual girlfriend fooling around with a ‘male’ sex robot. In these cases this gender disparity disappeared, and all participants in this scenario were more likely to consider the acts cheating.

So basically, the takeaway is: if you’re going to fool around with a robot behind your partner’s back, don’t tell them what ‘gender’ the robot is.

Perceptions of Infidelity with Sex Robots, Association for Computing Machinery.
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Jamie F
Jamie F

Jamie is a freelance writer, contributing to outlets such as The Guardian, The Times, The Telegraph, CNN and Vice, among others. He is also the creative force behind the Audible podcast Beast Master.

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