The future of sex? ‘Robots, Rape and Representation’ by Rob Sparrow

The future of sex? ‘Robots, Rape and Representation’ by Rob Sparrow

New research by Monash's Professor Rob Sparrow explores the brave new world of sex robots, the disturbing idea of the ‘rape’ of these robots and what this represents, and why it matters to be civil to machines.


In the not too distant future our lives will increasingly involve relations with robots, machines with varying degrees of artificial intelligence, from driverless cars, to home assistants, to all manner of robotic companions, including those designed for sexual gratification, the so-called ‘sexbot’.

Monash ethicist Rob Sparrow’s new research article ‘Robots, Rape, and Representation examines the issues that are likely to arise from the possible mistreatment of these sex robots, drawing out the wider issues presented by our relations with humanoid robots, and predicting that sexbots could play an important role in shaping public understandings of sex and of relations between the sexes in the future.

It's a sensitive topic, and Sparrow is careful to draw the distinction between the “rape” of robots and the actual rape of human beings. It is the use of robots to represent or simulate rape where disturbing questions arise. Although robots don’t experience pain, or have self-awareness, and aren’t likely to anytime soon (advances in artificial intelligence being some way behind Hollywood imaginings), this doesn’t mean that the way we treat robots, or more particularly mistreat robots, doesn’t and won’t have repercussions.

Reading the article one becomes acutely aware of the many challenges in thinking about robots, human beings, and consent. The word ‘rape’ means something human to most of us, or inhumane but to do with humans, not to do with robots: Sparrow questions whether a robot can be raped at all, when we don’t typically refer to the ‘rape’ of mechanical masturbation aides.

Looking at the link between fantasy and actual behaviour, Sparrow asks will the rape of robots lead to the rape of real women? He acknowledges it’s hard to make an absolute link here between cause and effect, but he suggests that the simulated rape of robots could be seen as a kind of advertisement for violence towards women, and endorsement for a toxic culture of disrespect.

Most compelling is the argument that how we treat a robot is less about how the robots feel about us, and more about how we feel about ourselves. This is what is referred to by ethicists as ‘virtue ethics’, and Sparrow explains how the ‘rape’ of robots reflects badly on the person, revealing them to be “sexist, intemperate and cruel”.

Sparrow also suggests that the design of sex robots poses a difficult dilemma for engineers. If robots can “refuse” to consent to sex then they can be used to simulate rape with all the negative social and ethical consequences he has identified. If sex robots can’t – or don’t ever – refuse to consent to sex then they seem to represent women as always available for sex, which itself is a central myth of the “rape culture” that contributes to the prevalence of rape. Only if sex robots don’t look like human beings might this dilemma be avoided, however sex robots that look like machines might appeal to robot fetishists, but are likely to leave the rest of us cold.

Whatever their design, Sparrow’s timely research shows us that what might have seemed like a futuristic and disturbing quandary is actually a very real concern, and we need to start the thinking now, because the very existence and use/mis-use of these sex robots is going to have a significant impact on future human sexual relations.

Read the full article: Robots Rape and Representation by Robert Sparrow

About Rob Sparrow

Professor Rob Sparrow is an academic and researcher in the Philosophy Program at Monash University, and is Adjunct Professor at the Monash Bioethics centre, part of School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies (SOPHIS). His research tackles the ethics of new science and technology, including the use of domestic robots and the future of autonomous robots in the military.

Study at Monash