David Levy, recently the subject of an admiring profile in Newsweek, is an expert in artificial intelligence. He has twice won the Loebner Prize for programming the most lifelike chat partners. He has also written many books about computers that play chess. Perhaps his most famous book, though, is a 76-trombone salute to a time in the near future when they will play with your deepest desires instead. If you thought your significant other was too attached to her phone, just wait until that phone is a tireless, expert, ever-learning, and ever-willing sex robot.
Sure, Levy's vision in Love and Sex With Robots is silly. But it's also profoundly creepy, and has troublesome implications now that sex robots are quickly becoming a reality.
He doesn't present sex robots as a possible future, but as the inevitable and desirable future. Sex with robots will be extremely common, more common than sex with humans. And it won't just be the lonely men who are the usual clientele of prostitutes. "[W]omen will want not only a personal demonstration of the robot's virtuoso lovemaking skills but also to feel the robot's virtual love for them," he writes.
He claims that sex robots could lead to a total reevaluation of sexual roles. The robots will teach men how to better connect with their feelings, and women how to derive more pleasure from their bodies. "Some couples will, of course, own two robots, a malebot and a fembot, and will enjoy orgiastic sessions," he admits. It will become socially acceptable to bring your sex robots to parties. Presumably they will allow you to lean on them as you explain, gigglingly, that you have to "uh, leave early" with them.
[T]he social and psychological benefits will be enormous. Almost everyone wants someone to love, but many people have no one. If this natural human desire can be satisfied for everyone who is capable of loving, surely the world will be a much happier place. Many who would otherwise have become social misfits, social outcasts, or even worse will instead be better-balanced human beings.
In fact, for Levy, "in some ways they [the sex robots, that is] will be better husbands, wives, and lovers than our fellow human beings." Levy even retrieves the long-discredited defense of pornography as a marital aid in his praise of the sex-bot armies. "Marriages and partnerships that today are in trouble in the bedroom will no longer be at risk, thanks to the practical instruction in sex that will be available to all."
Levy doesn't dwell long on the challenges this future may bring, though he admits that determining the rights of robots may be tricky. He only gestures at some of the more complicated questions, such as what will happen "when one parent wants their child to have sex lessons from a robot but the other does not?" (Emphasis mine.)
The real problem is that Levy's understanding of sex is almost entirely degraded. That's really the only word for it. It's the view of the chronic masturbator and porn addict, dressed up with a few phrases from Fleshlight promotional literature and juvenile dilations on the Gigolo Joe scenes from the Kubrick-Spielberg movie A.I.
Levy's own exploration of why people enjoy sex with other people is extremely superficial. He relies on a few surveys that asked people why they had sex, or decided to have sex. Respondents got to choose from options like "to have fun" and "to express love." The option "to please my partner" rated at the top of one of the surveys.
But instead of exploring what "to please my partner might mean," Levy just rides on: "The most obvious way in which humans obtain pleasure from sex is through orgasm." Everywhere sex is reduced to the mechanical act. His taxonomy of sex includes one-night stands, which he describes as being "the only encounter with this particular sex object." As you can see, even before the sex robot revolution, Levy has already taken to referring to sexual partners as mere objects.
When Levy says he is trying to convince people that they can enjoy sex with objects, he is arguing with a straw man. We already know this. In the Secret History, Procopius tells us that Empress Theodora would sprinkle millet on her thighs so that geese would peck at her and send her into ecstasy. And this was done onstage.
The truth that Levy has lost is that healthy sexual desire does not take as its object a mere sensation or state, but a person. We also know this, instinctively. If the hand that is discreetly caressing you is revealed to belong to someone other than your lover, the pleasure the hand gives is instantly poisoned and felt as a desecration.
We have words for bestiality, pedophilia, and necrophilia, acts where the sexual object lacks personhood. The existence of "anti-fap" boards on reddit, as well as the recognition of pornography addiction as a serious problem, is more evidence that something goes wrong when sexual desire is directed away from people.
What healthy sexuality desires is a person. We don't want mere sensations, but to be wanted and accepted by another. We want another persons' conscious intentions for us acted upon our bodies, and for our intentions to be received as well. Lovers may use games that temporarily disguise consent and even pleasure itself, but their desire is to be freely wanted and freely given as persons, not as nerve endings. We call perverse those sexual encounters in which people intentionally and radically efface their own or another's personhood.
Sex robots of the sophistication Levy describes may one day come to be, though I doubt there is so much demand that they will be available soon. They are nothing more than expensive Fleshlights, with better firmware. Just as with prostitution, the more sophisticated their illusions become, the more intense will be the guilt that comes after their mechanical gimmickry has done the job. The shame that Levy thinks people will escape will only become stronger.
Self-reproach will remind the users: This is not real. Nobody really wants me for who I am. All I can do is "turn on" a hard drive that engineers rightfully call a "slave."