Interview in Vice – How women really feel about sex robots

I was interviewed by Steven Blum of Vice Read the original post here.

How Women Really Feel About Sex Robots

MAR 31 2016 3:00 PM
How Women Really Feel About Sex Robots

A recent survey found that women and men had drastically different opinions on the appropriateness of sex robots in a variety of real-life situations. We asked a sex researcher: Why?

According to a recent survey conducted by researchers at Tufts University, women just aren’t into the idea of fucking a robot. About two-thirds of women polled by the university said they wouldn’t shag with a droid; in comparison, two-thirds of men said they would.

Conducted by researchers Matthias Scheutz and Thomas Arnold, the modest, 103-person poll is the first to capture how men and women see sex robots. Perhaps because the controversy over erotic automatons is so murky and theoretical, the researchers sought to understand their usage in specific hypothetical scenarios. Subjects were asked whether sex robots would be “appropriate” or “socially useful” for those who were disabled, lonely, on a spaceship, into minotaurs, or bereaved. Men were generally more chill about all of these scenarios than women were, but there were some points of agreement: Both women and men agreed that sex robots shouldn’t be made in the likeness of children and that they were appropriate to use instead of prostitutes.

Still, it was weird to me that women weren’t more into robot sex than men because a) Jude Law’s character, Gigolo Joe, in A.I. is objectively hot, and b) so many women already use vibrators. For answers, I got in touch with Shelly Ronen, a PhD candidate at New York University who studies sex, intimacy, and technology. We talked about the many ways in which robots can be disturbing—but also why they might not end up being a big deal at all.

Photo via Flickr user MikeCogh

BROADLY: Let’s talk about the recent survey that found women were less comfortable with the idea of a sex robot than men. Assuming that conclusion holds true in a larger, more comprehensive survey, do you have any theories as to why that could be?
Shelly Ronen: There could be a few reasons. Assuming this survey is really able to capture respondents’ desires, then the first possibility is that women hold a more emotional notion of meaningful sex, one that values connection with another person more highly than men do. Certainly this is in line with the traditional gendered double standard that holds women to a different standard in pursuing sexual behavior. Men are not just free to engage in meaningless sex, they are also encouraged to do so in a way that is not the case for women; women are more likely to suffer reputation consequences for doing the same.

So perhaps women are responding to that social pressure, knowing that sex with an object, which is a form of meaningless sex, would be more harshly perceived. Perhaps they have internalized the double standard and actually experience desire for more “meaningful” sex—sex that involves an emotional connection with another person. Another related option is that men, more than women, see the sexual appeal of dominating their sexual partner. Maybe they are more aroused by the idea of sex with a literally objectified sexual partner. This would be in line with the feminist critiques of heterosexual desire as rigidly locking men and women into gendered roles of patriarchal oppressor and subjugated sex victim. But I doubt that all heterosexual desire is really that simple. And the fact that some women (albeit fewer than the proportion of men) do say they would have sex with sex robots means that there is more overlap between desire among the “opposite” genders than we might have once thought.

Additionally, men are encouraged to evaluate their masculinity in terms of sexual voraciousness while women are not. So might it be that men are enacting a kind of identity work (basically, doing the socially desirable thing) by saying “yes” to sex. Meanwhile, women are performing their own kind of gender-congruent behavior by erring on the side of “no” to sex.

When people hear the words “sex robot,” what do they think? How do they exist in our collective conscience?
No research has really looked at this question. But judging by the popular media representations of sex robots, we have a whole host of anxieties about them. Most obviously, sex robots are often portrayed as here to destroy us: take our jobs, do them better than us, make us redundant and impotent. We appear to be also really concerned about whether they’ll learn to do more than what we have designed them to do. Will they learn to love other people, not just us, their owners? Will they trick us into believing they are humans?

Some surveys try to get at the question of interest in sex with robots, and it appears that men are more interested in that than women, which is surprising when you consider that more women than men use sex technologies in the form of vibrators. There is something about a fully humanized sex commodity that triggers a different kind of reaction for people. People that don’t think vibrators are immoral do consider sex robots immoral. And women, who might be more likely to use a vibrator, are less likely to indicate interest in sex with a robot intended for sexual uses.

In an episode of the podcast Flash Forward, you discussed how it will be a relatively long time before we even see life-sized sex robots, and that by the time they do come to market, we will be used to having sex with our partners through our devices. How do you think technology will change the way we view intimacy, connection, and sensuality before sex robots become available?
It’s likely that in the future we will get more sexually creative, on the way towards creating sex robots. We’ve already undergone lots of transformations that are not entirely driven by technologies: the rise of romantic love, the deinstitutionalization of marriage, the uncoupling of sex from marriage, the rise of the “hookup,” and the increasing acceptance of LGBTQ or alternative sexualities. There are definitely technologies that are implicated in these social changes, like the invention of birth control, which was huge, and the wide dissemination of automobiles, which gave teenagers unprecedented access to private space to fool around in. It’s likely that technologies will continue to play a part in the broader transformations of love, sex, and intimacy.

In the short term, there are a bunch of long-distance sex tools that are much more feasible. Some are already on the market, and they allow you to have sex with your partner through sex toys networked via the Internet. I think the use of VR and hardware in conjunction with the much more advanced visual technology in the pornography industry is very likely imminent.

But then there are going to be transformations in intimacy that have less to do with the invention of toys or tech. The rise of the asexuality movement, despite accounting for the experiences of a minority of people, is also pressing an important conversation for us as a society: What [is] the connection between intimacy and sexual behavior? Is it causal, sufficient, even necessary? That’s just one way in which intimacy will continue to be reimagined, regardless of the invention of sex robots.

The survey also found that both genders were uncomfortable with the idea of a sex robot made in the likeness of a child. Do you think that view could change as well? That society could end up comfortable with the idea of robots being used to treat pedophiles?
I don’t know if the view will “change” in the sense of: if you surveyed these same people in five years, and then again in ten and 15 years, then a larger and larger portion of them would say it’s alright. It’s possible. I think the scenario in which this is most likely the case (that people increasingly endorse child sex robots as acceptable) would involve some medical trials that show that the use of these kinds of “therapeutic” sex tools reduce the incidence of future offense among convicted pedophiles. We are a sufficiently punitive society that I conjecture this would be a powerful sway on popular opinion.

More likely, however, is that people are going to continue saying child sex robots are unacceptable even as the industry producing them and the market purchasing them increases significantly. I mean, look at pornography. There is a widespread moral objection to child pornography. There are laws to make sure that underage performers aren’t involved in the production of porn. But even just in the realm of legal porn (set aside child pornography that involves children as performers), the ideal of youth is widely valorized. Sex with women dressed as schoolgirls is clearly a popular fantasy. So I think the relation between sexual fantasy and public opinion is less direct than we might think.

Do you think relationships between humans and sex robots will eventually be viewed as equally valid as relationships between humans?
There’s really no way of knowing. If we get to that point, it won’t be without a significant amount of social upheaval.


Object Solutions Gets Written Up

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In addition to my academic research I also collaborate with the tremendous Ernesto D. Morales on a design fiction project called Object Solutions.

We got written up in the Daily Beast! Check it out here, “What if ‘The Onion’ Made Drones and Sex Toys?” by Rose Eveleth. 

Future of Sexbots: On Podcast Fast Forward

Stellar journalist, Rose Eveleth interviewed me along with two other sex robot and sex futurist experts, A.V. Flox and Madeleine Ashby, for her podcast Flash Forward.


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This week we have three experts helping us think through how we get to sex robots, and what we do when we get there. A.V. Flox is journalist who covers the intersection of sex, law and technology. She is very skeptical of all the sexbot hype, and says we have a long way to go before we’ll see anything remotely like an actual sex robot. Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer and futurist who’s been a guest on the show before. A few of her books involve sex robots, and she thinks that before we get anything human we’ll start to see cartoony looking forms. And Shelly Ronen is a sociology PhD student at NYU who studies sex and sex object production. Ronen says that it’s possible we won’t demand full-on humanoid robots, but instead be totally satisfied by less human-like machines.

Together the three of them walk us through all the things we might have to sort out before and after the rise of the sex robots. How do you keep them clean? Where do you store them? What happens if they break? What will they look like? How do you handle the uncanny valley? Who should use them, and how does their existence impact sex workers?

You can read an optimistic take on sex robots in the book Love and Sex With Robots by David Levy and you can find more on Levy’s outlook on robots here. Levy is optimistic about sex robots — not only does he think they’re coming quickly, he also thinks they could have some very positive impacts. On the other side of the table is the Campaign Against Sex Robots. You can guess how they feel about these devices, and their argument is generally summed up here. Essentially, they feel that prostitution is bad, and sex robots would be a form of prostitution and encourage it, therefore sex robots are bad. This is an argument that many people disagree with, including sex workers who point out that many of them enjoy and would like to keep their jobs.

Plus, we have to make this a lot sexier before it will work for most people:

To top everything off, here are some fun fact about our long tradition of wanting to create and love female robots:

  • Robots were originally assumed to be male. The 1920’s science fiction play R.U.R. that gave us the word robot also gave us the term for a female robot: a robotess.
  • The term “gynoid” (which you don’t see quite as much anymore) was coined by the writer Gwyneth Jones in her 1985 novel Divine Endurance.
  • The term “fembot” first shows up in 1976, in a script for the show The Bionic Woman.
  • Brigitte Helm played “Maschinenmensch,” the female robot in the iconic 1927 movie Metropolis. Apparently her costume was extremely uncomfortable, and other actors would apparently slip coins into various openings out of pity for her. She used those coins to buy chocolate.

Flash Forward is produced by me, Rose Eveleth, and is part of the Boing Boing podcast family. The intro music is by Asura and the outtro music is by Broke for Free. The illustration is by Matt Lubchansky. The music for our various sex robot commercials was by Alaclair, Strong Suit and BoxCat. The voice for the Hadaly commercial was Jaya Saxena, whose writing you can find at The voice forMargot’s Discount Closet Solutions was Mike Rugnetta, who has a podcast called Reasonably Sound that you should absolutely listen to. And the voice convincing you to buy a Leopold was by Brent Rose, who is currently driving around America in this crazy high-tech van. You can follow his adventure at and on Instagram @brentdangerrose.

If you want to suggest a future we should take on, send us a note on Twitter, Facebook or by email at We love hearing your ideas! And if you think you’ve spotted one of the little references I’ve hidden in the episode, email us there too. If you’re right, I’ll send you something cool.

And if you want to support the show, there are a few ways you can do that too! We have a Patreon page, where you can donate to the show. But if that’s not in the cards for you, you can head to iTunes and leave us a nice review or just tell your friends about us. Those things really do help.

That’s all for this future, come back next week and we’ll travel to a new one.


The (Fictional) Future of Love

Can Product Design Save Sex and the Modern Relationship?Inverse header

I was recently interviewed by Yasmin Tang for Inverse magazine. She wanted to know about my collaboration with Ernesto D. Morales, on our design fiction project.

OS’ “The Future of Love” initiative, which just kicked off, is intended to be a genuine inquiry into the everyday inconveniences that diminish romance and a search for products that might augment it. Ernesto D. Morales, the company’s founder, isn’t saying technology can solve all matters of the heart, but he does think it’s worth exploring. He posed the following question to Inverse: “How will we know what changes driven by technology we prefer or don’t prefer if we don’t think about what those could be?”

Take a second and read that again. It’s a reasonable point.

The project involves our generating ideas for objects that solve relationships “problems” through extreme user-centered design with a twist. We bend the laws of physics, rules of chemistry, social norms and common sensical ideas of what is sensible or cost effective. And voila, we will generate objects that are solidly within the realm of innovation and somewhere in the borderlands between real lived experience and science fiction reality.

For Ronen, there’s no debating that technology can offer solutions to relationship woes. It did so just 50 years ago: “The internet and the cell phone are the automobile of the 1990s-2000 youth generation,” she explained to Inverse, referencing the legacy of “Make Out Point” and the need for private spaces. Her question is how to examine the incidental romantic benefits of consumer tech in order to understand what new products with more direct benefits might look like.

In a sense, the technologies here are the questions themselves and the legitimization of technological inquiry into romance. Marital aids aren’t the talk of Silicon Valley, but in many cases they provide the service advertised. Surely there are other things we can do and products we can build — products that don’t vibrate, but do help us get in tune with each other.

This summer we are hoping folks will help us by suggesting “problems” for us to ideate around. Help us out here.

Read the full Inverse piece here.

Union-busting NYU Provost Finalist for UF Presidency

McLaughlin ‘has done wonders’ at NYU by Erin Jester

Gainsville Sun, October 14, 2014

McLaughlin expanded faculty governance, including both tenure-track and non-tenure elected faculty representatives on committees, Vintinner said. As a result, participation in faculty governance increased.

But he also had a hand in ending the first union of graduate student workers at a private university, in 2005, when he and NYU executive vice president Jacob Lew refused to negotiate a new contract at the end of the union’s fifth year of existence.

Since then, “We’ve had a really long and hard fight for a contract negotiation,” said Shelly Ronen, a graduate student in NYU’s sociology department and a member of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee’s bargaining unit.

GSOC and university administration are currently negotiating a new contract for graduate student workers, although Ronen said the two sides are having difficulty reaching an agreement.

McLaughlin hasn’t had much of a role in labor negotiations in the last several years.

However, Ronen said, “I think graduate workers at the University of Florida need to be watching this decision very carefully.”

read the whole piece here.


NYU Graduate Union Votes for Change by Samuel Feldblum

Brooklyn Rail, October 3, 2014

After months of negotiation with the school failed to produce a labor agreement for the G.S.O.C. during the spring, the Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (A.W.D.U.) swept elections for positions on the bargaining committee at the beginning of the fall semester. Running on a platform of increased democratization of union activities and increased transparency of negotiations, the A.W.D.U.galvanized the graduate student body, with voter turnout much higher than during the previous round of elections. Their opponents, Make History Again, did not lose the support that had earlier put them in charge but were swept out of office by hundreds of new voters supporting A.W.D.U.

Now armed with a mandate to implement their more ground-up, participatory approach, A.W.D.U. looks to get a contract in place without ceding the overly generous concessions offered to the school during the last round of negotiations. Foci range from “bread-and-butter” issues like wage increases, health insurance coverage—including coverage for family members—and protections for lost income due to cancelled classes to more specialized issues of child-care assistance, lactation rooms, and stability for international students in job placement. Special attention is also being given to the conditions of workers at the Polytechnic Institute. When interviewed, the bargainers-elect—David Klassen, Ayesha Omer, Shelly Ronen, and Ella Wind—expressed optimism that the increasingly energized base would be able to secure such a strong contract. The input and zeal of more members, they hope, will overcome the weakened position of the outgoing administration and result in a more favorable deal. Their strategy is one of “revival from below.”2

“Everyone needs to be reading the blog of the bargaining committee and knowing what’s going on, who are the main characters and what we’re up against,” explained Ronen. “And people should come to bargaining sessions. That’s going to be the real fun. I want to sit across the table from negotiators with a bunch of excited colleagues in my unit standing behind me, backing me up—and holding me accountable.” Maintaining the energy of the campaign will be essential for theA.W.D.U. committee members if they hope to achieve the robust package of concessions that they aim for.

Read the whole piece here.