Governments need to wade in on the sex robot debate, urges law professor

While the sexbot industry might not be something you’re particularly well acquainted with, it’s burgeoning. So much so, troubling variations on the conventional bug-eyed, vermillion-lipped blonde have started to emerge. As the market expands, so do the options, with realistic childlike models available as well as sexbots with whom you can simulate rape. Now is the time, warned John Banzhaf, law professor at the George Washington University Law School, for national governments to adjudicate on the contentious sexbot industry.

Governments need to wade in on the sex robot debate, urges law professor

Experts on the subject are in two minds about the potential risks of childlike and rape sexbots. One camp believes the controversial robots would permit those who harbour destructive fantasies to act out their desires in a harmless way. In theory, some experts believe, this would provide an outlet for their fantasies, allowing for victimless resolution. The emphasis is on “theory”, though, and obviously this isn’t something you would want to experiment with unless you’re absolutely certain.

Banzhaf, speaking to The College Fix, disagrees, citing evidence that rape sexbots may normalise and thus increase the likelihood of real-world rape, and imploring lawmakers not to “stand by and blindly ignore a major potential problem by doing nothing.”

It’s easy to sympathise with Banzhaf’s qualms. The details are nauseating; one of the sexbots in question can be set to “frigid” mode, whereby it resists the user’s advances, in turn simulating rape. A report by the Foundation for Responsible Robotics flagged up the availability of “ultra-realistic” childlike sexbots. And while the robots may provide a victimless outlet for depraved urges, there’s a very real risk that if they were to seep into the mainstream, rape and child abuse would become increasingly normalised; the industry could provide a gateway into harmful criminal acts.

The New York Times voiced similar scepticism, declaiming that “we should no more be encouraging rapists to find a supposedly safe outlet for it than we should facilitate murderers by giving them realistic, blood-spurting dummies to stab… to make such a solution available is to risk normalising rape by giving it a publicly acceptable face”.

The Foundation for Responsible Robotics was also quick to point out that the driving force for many sexbot users is the “want to take control of another human and reach into their emotional life. For these clients, a robot would be a pale reflection – a fictional shadow – of a human.” What’s to say the “anonymity and passivity” of sexbots would do anything other than whet users’ appetites, culminating in real-life crime?

Banzhaf recommends that the public debate is taken up in a formal governmental capacity: “The first step would be to have hearings and do studies to determine just how serious the threat is, whether there are any real benefits to having sexbots programmed to simulate being raped, and then what, if any, new laws, regulations, etc. might be appropriate,” he said.

One thing is clear: the time to act, to study and to implement checks is now. “If these sexbots do pose significant risks to women and/or to young children, but no action is taken now, it may be too late if we wait until millions are already in the hands of actual or potential rapists, actual or potential child molesters,” concluded Banzhaf. Society’s collective conscience on sexbots is still nascent, and this formative period is key; debates about how to proceed with responsible regulation could well be a matter of life and death.

Image: Michael Coghlan

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