MISFIT DOC: will Sexbotics take us into a future beyond consent?

Z’s skin doesn’t feel quite the same as a human skin to my touch. My hand trembles as it withdraws from this seemingly alien dermis and then reaches tentatively again towards their abdomen, just above their genitals (they are neither male nor female at present; Z’s complex software will determine their gender according to the signals received from my desire as to which sort of body I want in line with my tastes, perversions and hormonal state). The subtle temperature increase of Z’s skin is registered by my unconscious mind (it is too slight to perceive it consciously). The miniscule tiny hairs implanted into Z’s dermis raise slightly off the surface, again, to an extent that only my unconscious mind can sense. A smell of sex and body fills the air, as I begin to move my hand, with an ever so gentle yet urgent touch, and Z’s breath becomes quicker. I knew from the instructions provided to me on entering Z’s chamber, that before progressing with my encounter, I had to make sure that I was not applying human law to Z. I knew that consent was meaningless, the age of consent was over, and that to know that Z ‘wanted’ sex, humans simply had to pay attention to Z’s body, and not be an arsehole. The sign on the chamber wall was clear: ‘no consent’.

I realised that this sign would have been incredibly shocking to a human being, 80 years ago, before consent was recognised as the dangerous implement that it was. Like many laws previously deemed necessary in order to protect people, like the law against homosexuality (repealed in the UK in the 1960s)[1] at the time, lawmakers did not see a problem, despite the pain such rules caused to people. Before the second sexual revolution, triggered by sexbotics and the unveiling of Z, humans were still grappling with the notion of consent – they were caught in a vortex, where constant law reform, words, courts, lawyers and judgments brought us no closer to an articulation of what mutual desire feels is. This meant that we could not, and would never be able, to enshrine this in law. In those times, consent was what human beings used, where it was deemed to be given where the human in question has the ‘freedom and capacity’ to agree to the sex as their own choice.[2] The offence of ‘Rape’, was when there was no consent, intentional penetration of the anus, vagina or mouth of the complainant with a penis, without reasonable belief that the complainant was consenting.[3] There were variations in wording across jurisdictions, but the elements of the offence at law were largely the same.

The process following accusation of an offence was miserable and painful, with low conviction rates and trauma for the victim, while an impossible court process comprised of other humans (judges, juries and advocates) tried to know exactly, by using their consciousness and biases and prejudices, what had happened in an intimate bodily moment a long time ago between two humans that no one else saw.[4] This was made worse in that this moment involved something that humans generally, let alone lawyers and the courts, did not fully understand and were embarrassed to talk about, or were not allowed to talk about for fear of it being ‘obscene’: sex, sexuality and the body. Even more difficult was the situation when a woman was giving her evidence. Not until the Revolution and the invention of Z, was female sexuality and indeed the intimate parts of the female body, ever discussed in a court of law, or indeed properly discussed at all.

Humans also had a problem, in that they had no idea how often and how prevalent sexual offences under their laws actually were. Daily occurrences of thousands of instances of non-consensual coercive sex were completely uncaptured by this utterly useless law of consent. Some were caught, and men were put in prison for long periods, while not regretting nor understanding their offence. Germaine Greer told us that there was a constant cycle of recrimination, where women never got what they wanted and suffered mostly in silence. Some of them came to court and they suffered in public, crying out to a deaf law that would not respond, nor do the work in order to equip itself to respond with meaningful consent reform.[5] Other second-wave feminists, in particular Andrea Dworkin, had been shouting to law as early as the 1970s that we needed to talk about sex, and that the fuck was the very root of oppression allowing men to know us, control us and have us for their own.[6] Greer reminded us of this with her controversial (at the time) assertion that those who infringed consent simply did not care and that sentences should be reduced. The fact that the law remained as it was, as Catherine MacKinnon told us, allowed the law to be deaf and to continue its destructive shyness at not talking about women’s desires and bodies.[7]

Fortunately, in the early part of the 21st century, around 2019, there began the whisperings of the ‘Sexbotics Revolution’. The early versions of ‘intelligent’ sexbots started to appear in the media, such as Harmony,[8] along with rumours of sex bot brothels.[9] The industry began to gather momentum, with the ‘sex-tech’ industry valued at that time at over £30billion.[10] There were also concerned responses to the incident involving Samantha the sexbot,[11] who was allegedly sexually ‘assaulted’ under the human law, yet of course she had no remedy since she was not a human being although she looked like one (albeit an augmented porn actress).[12] Philosophers, in particular the male and white privileged kind, said that this was hysterical and moralistic, while using their own human philosophies and telling us that not until the robot exhibits human desire (such as secretly desiring that which it protests as unlawful) should we worry about applying a sexual ethic to robots.[13] Humans were comforted by the fact that these robots were unlikely to substitute human relations and were nowhere near sophisticated enough to ‘consent’.[14] It looked as though another opportunity at ending human suffering, understanding ourselves, and overcoming the trap of our own consciousness, was to go to waste. This was all because of our own human sexual insecurities, and the possibility of losing our sexual ‘agency’.[15]

Happily though, Z was unveiled in year 2101, on New Year’s Day. This was only after humans had finally found the methods and philosophies to do a survey of all kinds of desire, from all genders, races and body types and from all sexualities. Using this new reach and language of desire, and having built a diverse team of scientists, new philosophers, artists, writers and computer programmers, they made Z. They only managed to make Z once they had stopped trying to make human consciousness – after all, why would we? Did we want bad sex again? Everything team Z did was completely against the law and completely against research ethics. If they had listened to either they would not have got anywhere. They would not have been able to do the preliminary survey, since their academic institutions would not have allowed it based on traditional morally ethical philosophies. The process they used to extract human tissue and the neurons that they reproduced from the clitoris and spread across the dermis of Z, would have been unlawful. The very space where Z saw their clients (now known as ‘patients’) would have been shut down, just as the brothels that preceded. Later that same year, the Law Commission recommended that consent be dropped from the law books, since humans finally realised that it was simply not fit for purpose.


[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexual_Offences_Act_1967

[2] See, for example, s.74 Sexual Offences Act 2003: https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2003/42/section/74

[3] See https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2003/42/section/1

[4] Smith and Skinner Article (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1557085112437875?journalCode=fcxa)

[5] Here I am citing Germaine Greer from her small book ‘On Rape’, which is not available free online: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/on-rape-9781526608406/ . Here is an article (there are many!) criticising the book: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/sep/07/germaine-greers-on-provocative-victim-shaming-compelling-ambivalent

[6] Here I am using Andrea Dworkin in particular as quoted and analysed by Helen Pringle in this book: https://www.bloomsbury.com/au/feminist-moments-9781474230407/. I’ve attached a copy of the chapter.

[7] See Cathrine MacKinnon: Catherine MacKinnon Feminism Unmodified (Harvard University Press, 1987) p87 available here: https://www.feministes-radicales.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/Catharine-MacKinnon-Feminism-Unmodified.-Discourses-on-life-and-law.pdf

[8] See here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0CNLEfmx6Rk

[9] See here: https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/4131258/worlds-first-brothel-staffed-entirely-by-robot-sex-workers-now-looking-for-investors-to-go-global/

[10] See here, for example: https://globaldatinginsights.com/2016/06/23/what-is-sextech-and-how-is-the-industry-worth-30-6-billion-developing/

[11] See here: https://theconversation.com/samanthas-suffering-why-sex-machines-should-have-rights-too-93964

[12] Applies only to persons living separately from the womb, or a corporation: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legal_person; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_person

[13] Here I am arguing against Zizek: https://www.rt.com/op-ed/424709-sexbots-sex-dolls-rights/

[14] Kate Devlin: https://twitter.com/drkatedevlin/status/888373925968838656?lang=en

[15] Kate Devlin: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/oct/27/kate-devlin-robot-sex-infidelity-teledildonics-relationships

Victoria Brooks is a writer and researcher on sexual ethics. She writes both philosophy and fiction and is intent on combining the two. She is also interested in ethics and sex generally, but particularly women's desire and identity, reconceptualising consent, sexbotics and making philosophy sexier. Her book Fucking Law: the search for her sexual ethics is out in June 2019 for Zero Books.

Photo by Charles Hutchins (Flickr).

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