Sexbots vs Carebots

Aviva Rutkin, writing for New Scientist wrote a piece last week prodding at the moral panic around sexbots and arguing that there is a substantial disparity between titillating reporting on sexbots and their actual manufacture, sale and future use. I really appreciate that she ends up connecting the viability of home robots with the moral and material valuations of different kinds of labor.

To get there, she takes us on a journey that begins with the dazzling appeal of reporting on sexbots. Not only are sex robots “recession proof” as objects – or so says sexbot maker Douglas Hines – but the headlines sexbots (and their moralistic condemnation) can garner are no doubt providing endless thrills for analytics-obsessed journalists.

Yet notwithstanding the dazzling appeal of reporting on sexbots, sex is not likely to be the only kind of home robot. Care robots are coming onto the market, albeit their emergence is rather slow, and their designs are embarrassingly somewhere between cuddly and uncanny.

But public opinion is not falling in step. People are still unsure about (or downright uncomfortable with) outsourcing care for the elderly and children to machinery. And how interesting that is, or perhaps it’s just absurd, given that this kind of work is some of the least respected and lowest paying work.

Read below.

Why granny’s only robot will be a sex robot

Not Like Us is Aviva Rutkin’s monthly column exploring the minds of intelligent machines – and how we live with them

Robobear
A robot bear to care for you

AFP/JIJI Press

Douglas Hines started out with what sounded like a nice idea.

In the early 2000s, the former Bell Labs engineer was busy caring for his elderly father and building his own technology business. That’s when he first came up with the idea for a companion robot: a machine that could look after his dad and keep him in touch with the outside world via webcam.

Hines started working on a prototype, but ran into trouble finding financial and legal support for the project. So he gave up, and instead turned his attentions to Roxxxy, a life-size sexbot dressed in filmy black lingerie (“always turned on and ready to talk or play!”). That gambit was far more successful. As Hines deadpanned in an interview with IEEE Spectrum in 2010, adult entertainment is “recession-proof”.

Hines’s story is a good allegory for the wider landscape of care robots: five years later, sexbots, though not yet exactly flying off shelves, have stoked enough cultural interest to inflame a widely covered campaign to ban them. Meanwhile, care robots for the elderly remain stuck in sociocultural purgatory. They’re the flying skateboards of the service industry: always predicted, always trotted out as an example of the future, perpetually just out of reach. It’s time to admit that the problem with this vision isn’t the technology. It’s us.

On the surface, the fates of sexbots and carebots should not be so divergent. Both are mechanised stand-ins for roles that are typically undervalued and ill-treated in society, with neither ethically straightforward to replace. Neither will work without a robot that can move around on its own and do some heavy lifting. Both would work even better with some level of social or emotional intelligence built in, to better respond to human needs.

Where are all the robots?

It’s especially curious that the carebot revolution has not taken place, in light of how direly we need it to. In the UK, the number of citizens over the age of 65 is expected to surge by 12 per cent by 2020; and the number of over-85s by 18 per cent. Reports have identified care for the elderly as one of the fastest-growing roles in healthcare.

It’s certainly not a lack of robots that’s causing the hold-up. A bevy of recent prototypes includes Toyota Research Labs’ Robear to lift people out of bed, wheelie bot Zenbo, which can call for help in an emergency, and the seal pup Paro, which takes on the emotional labour of fuzzy companionship. In a demo video for Robot-Era, a project recently piloted in Italy and Sweden, “friendly machines” pick up groceries and mail, relay video calls, take out the rubbish, provide reminders about medication, and take their owners’ arms as they stroll down the street.

But how well will these sell? Not very, if you believe surveys. It seems that people don’t like the idea of carebots looking after their vulnerable relatives. Of more than 25,000 people questioned in a 2012 survey of attitudes in the European Union, 60 per cent thought robots that care for children, the elderly and the disabled should be banned outright; and 86 per cent said they would be uncomfortable with one caring for their children or parents (though many more were OK with the idea of a robotic assistant and even a surgeon).

In a separate poll of people in the US, 65 per cent of respondents across all ages agreed that it would be a “change for the worse” if robots became the primary caregivers for the sick and elderly.

Why the squeamishness? We generally look forward to robots doing the chores for us, from answering emails to picking apples to defusing bombs, tirelessly, cheerfully, with uniform precision. (The word “robot”, in fact, is derived from the Czech word for forced labour.) It’s quite all right for a machine to carry out such demands, from the trivial to the tawdry.

On the surface, carebots look like mechanised butlers, too. However, in difficult moments they flip the script – asking us to relinquish control, human connection and our fantasies about ourselves.

Complex dilemmas

Every day, carebots will run into hundreds of small moral dilemmas: their owner decides not to take today’s prescribed medication; she keeps leaving the stove on, or wandering out of the house and down a street heaving with traffic; or he commits a crime in full view of a watchful mechanical eye, as in the film Robot and Frank, in which an ageing thief recruits his carebot as an accomplice.

What mistakes will be acceptable, and which will be grounds for a recall? Will there be limits to a bot’s responsibilities? Or will their charges have to submit to their power?

In the paper “Granny and the Robots”, Amanda Sharkey and Noel Sharkey at the University of Sheffield, UK, point out another drawback to life with a robo-caretaker: it’s lonely. Putting a carebot in place of a human might deprive many of one of their few opportunities for regular social contact. Such isolation is linked to poorer health outcomes, such as a greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. It could also make people feel plain dehumanised – ripped of their dignity, a vulnerable object to be lifted, fed or prompted at intervals.

“If the human rights of the elderly are to be respected as much as the rights of other members of society, it is important to ensure that robots introduced into elder care do actually benefit the elderly themselves, and are not just designed to reduce the care burden on the rest of society,” write Sharkey and Sharkey.

Or, as one person put it recently in The Guardian, being left with a carebot is just “another way of dying even more miserably”.

There’s another reason that carebots might not sit comfortably with us: they don’t jive with our flattering visions of ourselves. Looking after another human being is hard work. It’s physically and emotionally taxing, occasionally messy, and can be boring and thankless. It’s also among our lowest-paid jobs. There’s an expectation that this work is a kind of calling, performed out of love or a sense of service by a friend or family member, or at least a compassionate and conscientious worker.

The reality is a harsh departure from that ideal. In elderly care homes in the US, people are more likely than in the wider community to be subjected to emotional and physical abuse or neglect  – one in 10, according to some reports.

Carebot dystopia

No one looks forward to a carebot dystopia, in which machines exercise dubious moral power over people. But the alternative, too, can be discomfiting: robots turning out to actually be preferable to human aides. It doesn’t reflect too well on us if our future seniors opt to live in a non-human ghetto, with whatever glitches and lack of contact, over the prospect of abuse by bitter and angry staff.

“We need to think of automation as a political question,” said Lucy Suchman at Lancaster University, UK, speaking at a White House workshop on artificial intelligence in New York City on 7 July. “What grounds are there to believe that a robot can engage in the work of care?” Work like this is difficult for a machine to master because of its nature: heterogeneous, open-ended, and often reliant on the ability to interact with others.

Rather than jump to robotic substitutes, we could think of other ways to sate society’s growing need for workers who care for the elderly, such as revaluing the work involved. “The fact that you get paid a huge amount of money to write code and you get paid nothing to take care of people’s children is not a reflection of the relative skills,” said Suchman, “but rather a reflection of the valuation that we make of those jobs within a particular political economy.”

We should ask whether there are really not enough people to do those jobs, or whether it’s just that those roles have been devalued, she added.

The problem closely parallels the idea of using robots for childcare. New parents are expected to extol the joys of parenthood and gloss over the drudgery, even though the experience is a proven drag on personal happiness. Tireless devotion is considered a virtue, one that the vast majority of us cannot attain; leaving a child with just a human nanny carries an undeserved social stigma of neglect, even though for many it’s the only practical solution.

What would the neighbours say if they heard that little Jimmy was left with a machine while mum went out for a well-deserved drink? It may not be fair, but it’s not unimaginable. That’s a tough norm for a shiny new robot to break down.

Leaving a loved one in the care of a machine will look tantamount to admitting that we have other things we’d rather do – that all humans have things they’d rather do. Like, maybe, spend time with our new sexbot.

So while sex robots already have enough of a built-in audience that people are fighting over whether we’ll marry them or ban them, the future for care robots is looking a lot murkier. Unlike with sex robots, we don’t know what we want from them.

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.

LISTEN HERE

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 12.16.21 PMScreen Shot 2016-02-09 at 12.16.38 PM

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 jayasaxena.com. 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 ConnectedStates.com 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 info@flashforwardpod.com. 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.

 

Double Dirty Work – published in Public Books

My latest piece in Public Books just came out. Read the original here.

DOUBLE DIRTY WORK: SEX RESEARCH AND
SYMBOLIC CONTAMINATION

SHELLY RONEN

September 1, 2015 — “Your skin is very dark,” a hostess in a Ho Chi Minh City bar complains to sociologist Kimberly Hoang. The woman has taken Hoang under her wing to help her become desirable to the bar’s Vietnamese clientele. “You need to buy foundation that will make you look lighter,” she adds. “You are lucky because you do not need surgery … You cannot wear long dresses, because you are short and chubby … You have to remember to sit and stand up tall. Women who look expensive get tipped more.”

Hoang, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, embedded herself in four different hostess bars appealing to distinct clienteles to research her bookDealing in Desire: Asian Ascendancy, Western Decline, and the Hidden Currencies of Global Sex Work. Hostess bars make up part of Ho Chi Minh City’s diverse “sexscape,” offering a unique window into global sex work. The male clients are brought in and seated, fettered with shots of expensive liquor as gestures of hospitality from bar mommies. They select women to sit with and entertain them. Hostesses pour drinks, lead toasts, sing karaoke, dance or initiate drinking games; sometimes they serve as hired girlfriends (gai bo) or have sex for money or valuable gifts.

Immersing herself in this world, Hoang first learned to embody moneyed pan-Asian femininity for Vietnamese businessmen riding the wave of economic ascendance. Later Hoang worked at bars catering to Westerners, many of them former bankers who moved to Southeast Asia to escape their economic failure following the recession in 2008. For these men, the allure hinged on the appearance of Third World dependence on white largesse. There, instead of lightening her skin, Hoang was advised to sunbathe and apply copious eye shadow to conjure a “smoky” aesthetic considered exotic. Connecting these details of attraction to broader economic processes, Hoang’s book reveals how deeply global capital is intertwined with sexual and economic desire.

HOSTESS BARS MAKE UP PART OF HO CHI MINH CITY’S DIVERSE “SEXSCAPE,” OFFERING A UNIQUE WINDOW INTO GLOBAL SEX WORK.

As with the women who rely on hostessing to survive, Hoang’s research exacted a cost from her body itself, one that registered both in the field and at home. “I learned how to adjust my gait,” she reports, “serve, take orders, smile when people criticized my weight, and remain silent when men touched me inappropriately.” Even years later, Hoang still finds herself clinking her glass below others’, just as she did during ritual toasts for bar clients, where the gesture is a compulsory sign of subservience.Strangely, fellow academics often assumed Hoang’s research was fun. “Wow, so you get to party all night and call that fieldwork?” one colleague teased. As a young scholar studying sex toy production, I recognize this dismissive and condescending attitude. I am often met with prurient reactions and questions about my own sexual proclivities. Does my research reveal something about my own sexual tastes? People are eager for sordid details, at least when they aren’t looking puzzled and asking why I study that.

Hoang’s research placed her in a more treacherous position, personally and professionally, and in ways that go far beyond physical safety. As an ethnographer, Hoang gets in there: she does not just observe but actively participates in the hostess role. In other words, she gets dirty.

Conducting research on sexuality is already a kind of “dirty work,” as Janice Irvine has called it.1 The phrase captures paradoxical attitudes towards sex research, since “dirty work” is both stigmatized and socially necessary. Irvine shows that famous sexologists, though inundated with letters praising the importance of their work, also faced constant hostility and even discrimination in their academic workplaces. The contradiction also applies to more contemporary researchers. Professional humiliation—such as the revocation of a job offer because sex research is “not in keeping with [the university’s] mission”—is joined by more insidious disadvantages, which include a lack of training and mentorship, confrontations with ever-cautious Institutional Review Boards, and difficulty finding places to publish one’s work. Some of Irvine’s respondents even told her they felt discouraged from working on sexuality until after they had achieved tenure—all for fear that it might damage their careers.

<i>Saigon</i>. Photograph by Robert S. Donovan / Flickr

Saigon. Photograph by Robert S. Donovan / Flickr

In the face of this dispiriting environment, moreover, one of Irvine’s respondents observed that research methods can affect public and professional reception of sex research. Numbers, the scholar observers, lend legitimacy to dirty work: “I think because I am using quantitative methods [my research] is respected. I am not sure what the situation would be if I was using qualitative methods.” Indeed, by participating in the sexual practices she studies, Hoang risks an even more toxic professional response. Where quantitative researchers may claim academic distance from polluting topics, ethnographers like Hoang engage in adoubly dirty work.

The extent of Hoang’s participation in studying hostess culture often prompts readers to identify her with the sex work she describes. Hoang herself becomes suspect in the process. Indeed, in both academic and public settings, audiences are always curious to know, how dirty did she get? How far did she go in the name of research? Did she engage in sex work? Rather than attending to her analytic payoff, these questions derail and even suppress the point of the research by attending to Hoang’s own body and immersive methods, rather than the findings obtained through months of ethnography. What’s more, criticism and advice about self-presentation doesn’t stop once Hoang leaves Vietnam. She is warned by supportive advisors that she will be sexualized when presenting her findings, and that she must adjust her dress and appearance to prevent encouraging that kind of scrutiny. She must walk a fine line to manage her own symbolic contamination and maintain her professional standing.

What does this double dirty work yield? Perhaps most helpfully, Hoang reveals the stakes of masculine status in these hostess bars, finding the dynamics of Asian economic ascendance and Western decline reflected in the relationships between gendered bodies. Further, Hoang identifies distinct uses of intimacy in each setting. For local businessmen, hostesses assist in developing relations of trust with esteemed guests. Sexy hostesses embody the ideal Vietnamese economy, signaling that the country is a good investment. Viet Kieu men (Vietnamese men living overseas), meanwhile, indulge in “fantasy-oriented” intimacy, by which they get to feel attractive and superior to Western men. Finally, hostesses at bars catering to Western clients convey sexualized poverty in line with stereotypes of needy sex workers in the “Third World,” presumed to be tragic victims forced into sex work without alternatives. Some of these women are even able to extract long-term remittances from overseas Western boyfriends. Throughout, Hoang engages in yet another subtle symbolic contamination: the book “dirties” the economic realm by showing the close relationship between global capital and sex work.

HOANG’S BOOK REVEALS HOW DEEPLY GLOBAL CAPITAL IS INTERTWINED WITH SEXUAL AND ECONOMIC DESIRE.

On this point Hoang’s research resembles Anne Allison’s in Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club (1994).2 Both Hoang and Allison describe how flows of capital direct sexual preferences and legitimize gendered expectations. Allison’s research explores a different time and place in Asian economic ascendance (some 20 years earlier in the now-fallen Japan), but her ethnography of one hostess club in Tokyo finds women offering sexualized servility as a means for white-collar workers (sararimen) to indulge in conspicuous consumption and consolidate an ideal of masculine productivity.Allison’s project offers particular insight into the Japanese cultural practices that manifest in these hostess-client relations. Unlike bars in Ho Chi Minh City, these Tokyo hostesses are officially discouraged from having paid sex with clients. But interactions at the bar allow sararimen to playfully complain about their bosses, who are seated with them, and to engage in fantasies of bounded intimacy that they do not have with their wives. Like Hoang, Allison is faced with suspicions about the credibility of her academic project, as well as abuse in the field. Between derogatory remarks and uninvited touching, bar clients are puzzled at her interest in such a culturally frivolous subject. Why doesn’t she study something more serious, they wonder, more Japanese, like flower arranging (ikebana) or tea service (chanoyu)?

Despite, or perhaps because of, this willingness to get dirty, both Allison and Hoang show the interdependence of capital and sex in ways that quantitative sex research cannot, and that economic research pretends do not exist. Nightwork shows how time at the hostess club incorporates realms of pleasure into work while cultivating devoted workers. Dealing in Desire shows how clients compete for masculine honor, trading for economic status in the currency of bodily pleasures. Both Hoang and Allison show that economics is about far more than just impersonal monetary exchange. The stakes of personal desire shape the spheres of sex and money—spheres that modernity understands to be properly separate.

It is these conclusions and their immense theoretical significance that get obfuscated or suppressed when readers focus on titillating details. When a lecture audience politely asks how far Hoang went for the sake of the research, they distract from the analytic prize. They understand little of the knowledge earned through dirty work because they are seduced by its dirtiness. Obsession with the researcher’s contamination also offers an unwitting testament to the persistent taboos against studying sexuality. As long as we are preoccupied with the bodies doing dirty work instead of their larger socioeconomic significance, we overlook the troubling links between capital and sex that Hoang’s research so remarkably unveils.

In case you missed it: My piece in Cyborology

Sex Toy Liberation, The Taboo of Replacement, And the Inner Animal: A Review of Beautiful You by Chuck Palahniuk

Chick Palahniuk's Beautiful You

Penny Harrigan is perfectly average and she’s never had an orgasm. She is the leading lady in Chuck Palahniuk’s latest book Beautiful You, in which C. Linus Maxwell, CEO of MicroDataCom releases a line of sex toys so potent that women literally recede from society, preferring to stay home to masturbate incessantly. Remember the 1998 episode of “Sex and the City” in which Charlotte became addicted to her rabbit vibrator? It’s like that, but global. The book is a quirky cross between a motivational anecdote about a woman’s journey to sexual empowerment, and a grim critique of dystopian industrialized society, just with painful details and boring writing.

Palahniuk is stuffing much too much into this book, as if he’s shoving the narrative into a box that’s already packed to capacity. The story involves chemical sex toys, genetic engineering, caricatured sex shamans, nanobots that make women into robots –hijacking them for corporate interest – and even a lurid rape scene. This world is fictional of course, these technologies are all pure fantasy, but the world is also similar enough to our own that it reveals some of the darker taboos associated with sex toys. Beautiful You brings up questions about gendered pleasure, empowerment, control and technology. 

Can Sex Toys Give Orgasms For All?

At the outset, our heroine is a “no one;” Penny has failed the bar three times and works as a less-than assistant at a law firm. Maxwell (a.k.a. “Climax-Well”) should want nothing to do with her. He’s bedded European royals, famous French actresses and even the president of the USA (who’s a woman, by the way), so why stoop to the levels of this dull, Midwestern no one? The main answer is, because she’s never had an orgasm.

The common wisdom is that women don’t get off as much as men do. A figure that’s bandied around a lot, even by sex toy makers, is that only a third of women can orgasm from intercourse alone. Intercourse, of course, is commonly seen as the finishing point in the hetero sex script: kissing, touching, intercourse, and it’s over. Intercourse probably ends when he ejaculates, but what about her? Research confirms there are gender inequalities in how well that script serves women. A study of college sex showed that the orgasm gap is especially large in casual “hookup” sex. That is, men are much more likely to report orgasm during their last hookup.

Why is it so hard for straight women to get off? Maybe women need relational closeness more than men do, to reach orgasm? The evolutionary biologists would probably say so. I am unconvinced. My best guess is that men are relatively incompetent at getting women off and women don’t masturbate enough to help them out while having partner sex. Much like Penny, they just lie there passively expecting or accepting pleasure. But more than incompetence, there is evidence that men’s motivation also contributes to the orgasm gap in casual sex. Women’s orgasm rates are significantly higher in relationship sex, suggesting that when men care more, women get off more. Of course, it could just be that they are getting more practice. But the exact cause for orgasm inequality is not obvious. In Beautiful You, sex is like a physics experiment. When Maxwell presses the right places with the right forces at the right times, Penny experiences eye-opening, mind-blowing, life-threatening pleasure. This formulaic sex is pretty hard to believe, and unfortunately, it makes the (many) sex scenes in the book decidedly unsexy.

Unfortunately, sex toy makers haven’t always prioritized women’s ideas of sexiness. The first vibrators were used by doctors treating hysteria! The sex toys we know today were cast during an almost century-long struggle over sex and gender. At the center of this battle was the substantial challenge of securing safe, empowered pleasure for women. In the 1970s, sex toys became more widely available than ever, but the “dirty bookstores” where they were sold were largely unwelcoming to women. Feminists like the recently deceased Dell Williams played a considerable role at this turning point for sex commodities. She opened Eve’s Garden in 1974 in New York City, and two years later Joanie Blank founded Good Vibrations in San Francisco. These “clean well-lighted” stores—as Good Vibes advertised itself—provided a feasible path towards closing the orgasm gap, and delivering equal pleasure for all. That’s how toys came to be known as tools for women (straight, lesbian or otherwise queer) to wrest true sexual liberation from patriarchal oppression (in other words, bad sex). Sex-positive boutiques are commonplace today, but at the time, they were radical.

Sex toy makers to this day are greatly indebted to this feminist rhetorical strategy of empowerment and sexual self-determination. And C. Linus Maxwell’s toys get the same marketing spin, though his are supernaturally powerful. The Beautiful You line of sex toys, were they real, might be revolutionary. But there is still one issue that threatens to rain on our orgasmic parade.

The Perils of ‘Orgasm For All’ 

Image Credit: Stacy Leigh

Palahniuk’s toys are as sinister as they are sublime. Maxwell’s products include a proprietary formula that is mixed with pink champagne and squeezed into the vagina using a syringe. Et voila: new heights of pleasure (not to mention yeast infections?). The collection also includes the “instant ecstasy probe,” and ghastly “earth magnet” beads that have to be sucked out to release their victim. Each product brings Penny to such extremes of pleasure that she is repeatedly on the verge of death. Riiiiiiight.

The maniacal C. Linus Maxwell and his bizarre products are fantastical caricatures, but the scenario being played out in this book reflects a real taboo for sex toy makers and retailers. Will sex toys be so good that they will become bad? Primarily, this is about what I’m calling a “taboo of replacement.” Could vibrators be substitutes for romantic partners? Maybe not. But what about something more sophisticated, like a moving fucking machine or a humanoid doll?

The more humanoid the product is, the greater the taboo of replacement. Sex shop retailers and educators routinely counsel consumers on how to confront a partner “feeling threatened.” They anticipate that men in particular will be threatened by the introduction of other penis-like objects in the bedroom. This appears to be fundamentally caused by a prospect of being replaced. The imagined doomsday scenario being a sex cyborg: a composite organic body and (wo)man-made technology, that is so superior to regular-old, unaided sex that not just sex, but relationships cease to exist.

For some, the scenario is appealing. Why put up with bickering or communicating about needs if a vibrating member gives you quicker, better orgasms? But for sex toy makers and retailers, it’s a menace to the approachability of their products. Of course this is a false binary: the idea that high tech cyborg sex will replace human relationships is preposterous. Relationships offer a lot more than orgasms. And a cock ring can’t hug you. Yet, sex toy makers find themselves having to constantly emphasize that their products are for partner play. Their message is clear: ‘it’s not substitution, it’s supplement!’

A World Made Mad By Sex Toys

Image Credit

Palahniuk not only delves into the cyborg doomsday scenario, he goes beyond it. In the world of Beautiful You, women don’t go to work, don’t bathe, and forget to eat and drink. Penny herself must first accept and eventually master her most animalistic, inner self: a self that lets out a “long scream of obscenities… a torrent of animal gibberish and profanities” during climax. Meanwhile, men fill the post-apocalyptic streets in search of their girlfriends and wives. Here is where I think Palahniuk is pointing to something interesting about modern sexuality. Sexual desire is a realm where we play out our modern battle between the civilized and the animalistic. Indulgence in sex is an indulgence in visceral desires, so-called animal ‘drives’ that threaten to take over. So frightening is the scenario in which we cross over to the other side that they lead to the world in which men are reduced to infantile shadows of their former selves. Penny is practically attacked by one man who demands, “You’ve got to help me! … As a woman, you’ve got to take care of me!”

What’s more, the main drama of this book unfolds between a civilized company man, Maxwell, and a foul-mouthed sex victim, our heroine. As if that’s not already wild enough, Penny has to apprentice with a bearded lady shaman to survive. Our company man is deranged, yes, but his DataMicroCom stock still soars. At his most evil, Maxwell tortures and murders women with a few swipes on a handheld controller, as he reclines in the back of a darkened limo. At her most powerful, our heroine is eating scavenged food in the Himalayan mountains, masturbating with the aid of human bones. Which is the civilized being and which is the irrational animal? And Penny gets off easy compared to the rest:

The only other females to be found were those haggard zombies standing in the miles-long line that stretched from the doors of the tapered pink tower on Fifth Avenue. The bedeviled wretches looked interchangeable. Their stringy hair had fallen out in clumps, and their fingernails were bitten down to the quick. To a woman, they each carried the same purse, wore identical shoes, dressed in look-alike outfits. These articles of clothing weren’t attractive or well made, Penny noticed, but they were all products manufactured by DataMicroCom and its subsidiary companies (181)

Is this the destiny of liberation? So potent is sexual pleasure, that if women can achieve amazing orgasms without men, they will no longer participate in modern society. Though I’m always intrigued by the potential for speculative fiction to offer social critique, Palahniuk falls short here. In this world, ‘orgasms for all’ leads to zombie women who neglect personal hygiene and obey their capitalist manipulators. Replacement leads to an uncivilized woman. Is Palahniuk really implying that women’s dependent heterosexuality and the labor they perform (emotional and otherwise) in taking care of men, is the only thing keeping us civilized?

Lucky for us, it’s only a book. We can still put our toys back in their boxes. But the world we return to is one in which orgasm gaps persist among young straight college students, and relationships remain the modal path to intimacy. Meanwhile, sex toy makers continue to avoid the taboo of replacement, seeking to position their toys as compatible with all kinds of relationships and intimate arrangements. They are forever balancing the need to appeal to the animalistic desires in their civilized customer, and narrowly avoiding turning customers off from their products because they appear uncivilized.

If I could write the ending to Beautiful You (or perhaps hold the controller that determined Palahniuk’s keystrokes?) I would take us somewhere else. I would embrace the uncivilized woman. I would have Penny accept herself as a cyborg heroine. She would have a message of sisterhood that could truly wrest these women-turned-robot-shoppers from the clutches of their civilized oppression. Abandoning patriarchy and overcoming their consumerist chains, these cyborgs would indulge in frenzied masturbation—sure, why not?—and remember to feed each other and bathe. Theirs would be a sustainably sexy and collectively just society. That’s my vision of the revolution. Who’s with me?

Shelly Ronen is a PhD candidate at New York University. Her dissertation looks at how ideas of sexual intimacy and deviance are reflected and challenged during the production of sex technologies such as vibrators, dolls and robots. She blogs regularly at shellyronen.com, tweets as @sronen, and her work has appeared in both academic and nonacademic publications. 

Social Science Fiction: “The Male Clock” by Marsiglio and Siler-Marsiglio

 Making Fiction from Non-Fiction

I received a notice about a new book of science fiction, with a twist. The book is called The Male Clock and it was written by a sociologist, William Marsiglio, and his writer wife Kendra Siler-Marsiglio. The book includes a foreword on the connection between Marsiglio’s research interests and the themes of the book.

Male Clock CoverHere’s what the blurb says:

As speculative fiction informed by social science and biomedical perspectives, The Male Clock propels readers into a futuristic, yet believable world transformed by SGEV – a debilitating virus that drastically compromises men’s ability to procreate. Set mostly in the years 2034-2042, Jordan Giordano, a prominent American journalist, navigates a world steeped in personal misfortune and public controversy. Jordan chronicles his intimate struggle to become a father and family man while doing investigative reporting related to the ever changing social landscape with its radically altered sexual politics, heated public debates, and new technologies. The troubled era is defined by its upswing in baby farming, pharma company transgressions, new S.W.A.T.-based and bioterrorism technologies, sperm retrieval companies, sperm ID cards, devices preventing wet dreams, a surge in lesbian relationships and male prostitution, sperm-donating priests, and more.

Because the novel explores the gendered dimensions to family, interpersonal relations, reproductive and public health, and identity issues it can serve as a provocative supplemental text for diverse courses in sociology, psychology, gender studies, sexualities, history, public health, and related fields. The plot should resonate with young people as well as persons thinking about or trying to have children. Ultimately, The Male Clock will compel people to question how individuals and groups cope with unwanted social change that challenges our identities and social conventions.

Edgy and provocative, The Male Clock is a creative blend of sci-fi and social science that takes the reader into a dystopian future where men’s fertility is threatened and societal norms of masculinities and femininities are turned on their head. Ideal for instructors looking to integrate diverse materials into their gender, sexuality, or families courses.” Dana Berkowitz, Associate Professor, Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies, Louisiana State University

The Male Clock has exciting possibilities for the classroom of the 21st century: joining smart social science with speculative fiction to help students imagine a dystopian future, and hopefully also to forge positive alternative futures.” – Michael A. Messner, Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies, University of Southern California

The Male Clock is an intriguing twist on normative gender tropes about sex and fertility.  With thought-provoking insight into a host of social science topics and a fast-paced sci-fi storyline, The Male Clock is sure to be a useful tool for courses related to gender, sexuality, relationships, family, and health.” – Gayle Kaufman, Professor of Sociology and Gender and Sexuality Studies, Davidson College

Read a preview here.

A Moment of Excitement:

How exciting! A book of social science fiction. I love the idea that works of fiction can be informed by social science, and can be used in the sociology classroom to enrich learning. After all, style of writing found in journal articles leaves a lot to be desired, so this way students can read something engaging and memorable. They can form associations between fictional works and academic work about the social world, bringing the social science to life for them. This is hardly a new concept; Marsiglio did not invent the idea, and he’s not the first academic to write a novel. But this is still not a pass time that’s exactly encouraged by mainstream sociologists. And it should be!

As I read the book blurb, I immediately started thinking about my own collaborations with artists and non-academics, and how I wish I could present my full portfolio of work as a integrally connected. After all, my output is not accurately measured by my academic Curriculum Vitae (CV) alone. This book was my encouragement to consider my academic and non-academic ponderings as interrelated, and to strive to unify them.