Whenever I mention that I write about sex and technology, I wind up in a conversation about sex robots. Over the past few years, digital assistants like Siri and Alexa have become fixtures in our daily lives, acclimating many of us to the idea of intimacy with a virtual intelligence. And as movies and TV shows like Her, Ex Machina, and, of course, Westworld have explored what an intimate relationship with a robot might look like, it has become easier to believe that it’s only a matter of time until robot sex is de rigueur.
But as commentators eagerly launch into debates about the ethics of it all, they tend to neglect some important points. For starters, the technology that would make realistic humanoid droid lovers a reality is still out of reach. Perhaps more significant, the sci-fi canon depicting future relationships with robotic lovers was never meant to be taken literally.
Stories about sex with robots were “a way to think of women’s rights and what it would mean to have sex with a woman who wasn’t your slave.”
Although recent advances in robotics and A.I. can make digitally enhanced sex feel like a particularly timely topic, the reality is that writers have been exploring what a future filled with nonhuman sex partners might look like for quite some time — well over a century, in fact. In stories like R.U.R. and The Clockwork Man, both published in 1923, robots weren’t intended to be literal machines, but rather a metaphor for societal change. Like, for instance, the liberation of women.
In the early days of sci-fi writing, stories about sex with robots were “a way to think of women’s rights and what it would mean to have sex with a woman who wasn’t your slave or your property or wasn’t some kind of possession,” says Annalee Newitz, a science journalist and author of Autonomous, explaining that The Clockwork Man, the novel that invented the concept of a cyborg, is also deeply concerned with how men might adapt to a world filled with suffragettes. “If you can’t imagine what a liberated woman looks like…