Uncanny Vulvas

This is a lightly edited version of an article I wrote that first appeared in Jacobite. I had a great conversation about this article and evolutionary psychology more generally (link here) with John Danaher, who edited a book about sex robots. Most recently, I gave a presentation as a damaged android for the Zombie Apocalypse Medicine meeting about the dangers of counterfeit fitness.


Uncanny Vulvas- Diana Fleischman

Sex is consistently underrated as a driver of innovation. Yes, space exploration helped us develop the technology for things like cochlear implants, powdered (machine) lubricants and scratch resistant lenses. Lust has furthered the development of cash transfers, point-of-view filming and video chat. I predict that historians of the development of artificial intelligence are going to see sexual gratification as one of the phenomenon’s great motivators. Evolutionary psychology can give us insight into how sex robots are going to develop and the ramifications they’ll have on society.

Sexbots are usually woman-shaped gynoid machines. At the present time, sex robots are simple: they’re silicone sex dolls that have some capacity for movement and response. Manufacturers are rolling out new models and new promises: sex robots that respond to touch and penetration, sex robots with interchangeable faces and bodies and sex robots with different personalities. Future robots will have the allure and cues of fertility of a flesh-and-blood woman combined with the artificial intelligence that creates compulsive reward directed behavior. An intelligence, unlike the intelligence of humans, that will have the gratification of its owner as the only goal.

Sex robots are overwhelmingly gynoid because heterosexual men drive the market for sexual products like prostitution and pornography. Across cultures, men desire more sexual partners, need to know someone for less time before they want to have sex with them, and have lower standards for a sexual liaison than women. Looking at gay men is instructive here. Their sexual interactions are not limited by women’s sexual choosiness and they, on average, have many more sexual partners than straight men or lesbians.

A woman would have to know someone for 3 months to be as likely to have sex with someone as a man would be after one day- via David Buss

It isn’t hard to see the reason for this. Men don’t get pregnant and don’t lactate, and they have smaller, easier-to-produce sex cells than women. For a man, the cost of producing offspring is cheap. Getting one’s genes into the next generation is the engine of evolution. The low opportunity costs make men motivated to take every opportunity, even if it comes in the form of a robot. Ever think a dog is dumb for growling at his reflection in the mirror? Human men can become aroused looking at flat images of nude women in black and white, our evolved psychology can respond in maladaptive ways towards novel stimuli.

Courtship is expensive and complicated by design, and it’s the limiting factor of the sexual fulfillment of men. Women impose costs on men to gain sexual access for very good reasons: to test their genetic fitness and their long-term potential supporting a family. If courtship is costly and the costs are not clearly defined, this not only tests a man’s motivation toward a specific woman, it also acts to monopolize a man’s resources so he can’t afford to woo anyone else. Pornography and prostitution are popular because they arrive at sexual end goals, or a reasonable facsimile, with more clarity and lower costs than in the mating market.

The complications of courtship are driving improvements in sexual substitutes, like masturbation aids (e.g. fleshlight, fliphole) and 3-D porn. There are already thousands of RealDolls in the world, silicone sex dolls that cost around $6,000 each. LovePlus is a Japanese game in which players interact with a virtual girlfriend including kissing her by touching the screen and taking her out on dates, has hundreds of thousands of usersLovePlus is a great demonstration of how this market isn’t only about providing sex, but also virtual companionship. You can’t even have virtual sex with Rinko, the ingénue of the game. These substitutes aren’t very good, and yet they are already competing with flesh-and-blood companionship.

A silicone facsimile of a woman’s face- via Alex Raysikh from shutterstock

Union power, increases in mandatory working standards, and minimum wage laws accelerate the push toward automation. Machines are already replacing cashiers and factory workers. Soon the jobs of truck drivers, clerks, and accountants will be automated. The current political climate around courtship and interactions between the sexes is more powerful than the market forces that are replacing jobs, because escalating costs aren’t transparent and neither is the punishment for not paying them. If a business owner wants to adhere to employment laws, he reads them. The costs of courtship are codified nowhere.

The average single man paying attention to contemporary social fashions will struggle to understand the new rules of meeting, courting, or having sex with women. Something as banal as trying to converse with a woman wearing headphones is now often considered harassment. A man’s chances of mating success increase when he approaches many women, but so too do his chances of a gaining reputation as sexist, exploitative, or immoral. To take a fraught example, how does a man know that a woman is genuinely consenting to sex? A lack of ability to pick up on cues can incur catastrophic costs.

Men high in conscientiousness, who are sensitive to social disapproval but who nonetheless have difficulty reading subtle social cues, could make good husbands for women. These men are unlikely to want to take the risk of approaching women. As substitutes like sex robots and virtual companions become better and cheaper, they will monopolize the attention of such men.

Think of an introverted engineer with Asperger’s syndrome who wasn’t sure how to broach a conversation with a woman back in 2015 and definitely isn’t sure how to do that in today’s climate. In 10 years he could have a beautiful robot companion (indeed, he could have one that could emulate the experience of having sex with dozens of different women) that has a lower barrier to entry than the mating market and that keeps him satisfied enough to remain a happy bachelor. Some woman misses out on a conscientious guy with a good income who might not know exactly how to respond when she says “nothing’s wrong,” but will definitely keep the cars tuned up to get the kids to their mathematics championships. The world might miss out on his sons and daughters and their analytical approaches to some of the world’s problems.

The kinds of men described above, who have difficulty reading social signals but who are nonetheless strongly sexually motivated, have a characteristic that means they’ll be less put off by sex robots than the average person: resistance to perceiving the uncanny valley. “The uncanny valley” is the way that representations that fall just short of looking like humans often look “creepy.” Anthropomorphized robots are more relatable and trustworthy than machine-like robots. It’s also difficult to imagine that many people would want to have sex with a conglomeration of gears and wheels.

My view is that the uncanny valley is something analogous to Capgras delusion, a psychological disorder that causes sufferers to believe that someone they know has been taken over by an imposter, often inhuman. According to VS Ramachandran, there are two aspects to recognizing faces: the identification of the external familiar representation and the “internal” validation – the warm emotion that goes along with it. In the uncanny valley, you recognize a robot as humanlike, but it’s missing the facial movement or some other characteristic that gives you a warm feeling of recognition. Many men won’t experience the uncanny valley, especially with regards to sex robots. These men are going to be the early adopters. Men are worse at identifying faces than women and are far more likely to have prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces.

Sex is weird. Sex is gross and awkward. Natural selection addressed this issue by causing arousal to attenuate the human disgust response. It’s worth noting that men have a much lower baseline sexual disgust than women, and that sexual excitement further reduces disgust sensitivity in men. In a classic paper by Dan Ariely, aroused men had much more positive attitudes about all kinds of unusual sexual acts. Sexually aroused men were more likely to say that it would be fun to watch a woman urinating or that they could imagine getting sexually excited by contact with an animal). 3-D pornography of video game or cartoon characters that might be creepy in a nonsexual context are popular genres. The most direct evidence that men won’t be put off by uncanny vulvas is from a paper that laments the “unabashed sexualization of female-gendered robots” in comments on YouTube videos of robots. Bawdy comments on gynoids – “you’ll have to replace it monthly due to semen corrosion,” for example – were more frequent than comments expressing unease.

Perhaps we should encourage some men to use sex robots. Men who get environmental cues that they’re evolutionary dead-ends disproportionately menace society. In the 1980s, evolutionary psychologist couple Wilson and Daly found that perpetrators of violence and homicide had something in common: they were young, single and didn’t have access to the kinds of resources with which to win mates. Polygynous societies in which wealthier men have access to multiple women are more violent and less stable because they have a class of young men without the prospect of getting a mate. Monogamy, rather than being the state of nature, may have been an important cultural technology for reducing violence.

Men have much greater variance of reproductive success than women. Sometimes they get cues that they have nothing to lose you have everything to gain from taking risks through violence, sexual or otherwise. This is one reason that pornography decreases the rate of sexual assault. When men get cues that women are interested in them, even if those women are mere representations, their evolved psychology leads them to less risky ways of attempting to achieve reproductive success. How many teenaged boys would be able to build up the resentment to commit mass shootings or suicide if they had a beautiful sex robot at home?

Importantly, this is distinct from Freudian catharsis, or “discharge theory” (pun intended). There isn’t evidence that aggressive or sexual impulses can be purged by “getting them out of your system.” The motivation for these impulses is instead weakened by environmental cues that indicate you don’t need to engage in risky strategies to achieve reproductive success. The cues a sex robot would provide to the evolved psychology of a previously disgruntled teenager would be “you’re achieving incredible mating success and status by staying at home and playing video games, keep at it!”

This feeling of achievement from merely staying at home, playing video games and having sex with a robot is, of course, a double-edged sword. We could call this “counterfeit fitness”subjective cues of evolutionary success without real-world ramifications. Society and education incentivize effort with markers of status like diplomas, potentially a means to an end for reproductive success. The men who would have been most likely to have access to multiple women throughout history were men high in status, like kings and men high in dominance, like warlords. Video games and social media already undermine the native psychological mechanisms that make us work towards status — they supply more immediate rewards and take far less effort than anything we work towards out in the real world. Sex robots are only going to make that worse, especially for young men. The game Love Plus, in which the ultimate reward is simply getting to know a virtual girl and attaining her virtual signals of approval has already replaced pursuing dating real women for thousands of men. Imagine if winning a video game was punctuated not with just saving the princess but having sex with her. Imagine if men could have the diversity of sexual experience of Genghis Khan, Muhammad, or John F. Kennedy without actually achieving anything. Sex robots are about to make the virtual world even more alluring.

What does this mean for women? When the sex ratio changes, so too do sexual norms; sex robots are going to emulate an increase in the ratio of women to men. Contrary to a prediction based on the idea that men would wield greater patriachal control if they were in higher numbers, a larger percentage of women relative to men on University campuses is associated with women who are more likely to have casual sex and less likely to be virgins. When there are more men than women, women are much less likely to have casual sex. The majority sex (in this case men) competes for the minority sex (in this case women) and the minority sex calls the shots. When there is a female majority in the population, women compete for access to mates with casual sex. Whereas a male majority competing for access to scarce women compete with long-term commitment.

Sex robots will emulate a majority women ratio, shifting women to compete for men’s attention by requiring less courtship and commitment in exchange for sex. The long-term ramifications are unclear, especially the way long-term technologies and cultural norms will interact. Perhaps women will discover they have to make the costs of courtship both low and transparent to compete with sex robots. Or, perhaps, new technology could enable women to recombine their genes with one another, making men enamored with sex robots (or men generally) totally redundant.

There has, unsurprisingly, been a feminist backlash to the development of sex robots. “[Sexbots] reinforce an incredibly dangerous idea: that women’s bodies are only bodies, and exist only for men’s use” says founder of Feminist Current, Meghan Murphy. Kathleen Richardson, head of the campaign against sex robots, wants to stop the development of sex robots because she believes sexbot-human relationships are unethical due to their similarity to relationships between sex workers and clients (which she also wishes to abolish). 

Not all feminists agree with Murphy and Richardson, Kate Devlin endorses the development of sex robots but agrees that hypersexualized and subservient representations of women are problematic. Devlin wants to go beyond sex robot technology “developed by men, for men” and believes sex robot technology should be steered in a progressive direction, beyond” heteronormative” and gendered depictions including sex robots designed for women’s pleasure.

Both camps underestimate the degree to which evolved psychology, rather than culture or technology, shape attitudes. If feminism had been as well-developed during the advent of pornography or prostitution would they look fundamentally different? Would there be a way of steering them in a progressive direction, to make them as appealing to women as they are to men? The technologies developed to satisfy sexual urges will always cater to masculine tastes and interests that are older than media or indeed humanity itself. Unless or until we live in a post-gender transhumanist society, men will be the drivers of sexual technologies and markets.

Underpinning feminist anxiety is the specter of female replaceability. Men can build alternatives to a sexual market that has been made less navigable because of ideology. Substitutes are built and bargaining power dissipates. Sex robots are to gender politics as scabs are to labor relations.

Facing one’s own market-driven replaceability results in existential dread. But market innovation has already created something dreadful on the other side of the coin: a large segment of men that have no prospect of satisfying their most basic desires. French author Michel Houellebecq wrote on the topic of sexual have-nots in his novel, Whatever:

Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. Some make love with dozens of women; others with none. It’s what’s known as ‘the law of the market.’ In an economic system where unfair dismissal is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their place. In a sexual system where adultery is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their bed mate. In a totally liberal economic system, certain people accumulate considerable fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment in misery. In a totally liberal sexual system, certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude.

Taking this to its most extreme conclusion, the technology of counterfeit fitness could set up the conditions for existential risk. The Fermi Paradox is the unsettling idea that even though the chances of extraterrestrial life are extremely high, nobody else in the universe has contacted us, or visited us.  Counterfeit or “fake” fitness, which delivers the cues of status and sexual popularity, is evolving much faster than our minds can evolve to contend with them. Imagine extraterrestrial civilizations, in their millions, with their own super-advanced alien sex robots, too busy with proximate rewards to contact, colonize or destroy our little planet. In the shadow of desire-hacking technology, humans are going to need to get a sober view of sex differences, evolved motivations, and the best ways to exercise control to limit destruction and increase productivity. 

33 thoughts on “Uncanny Vulvas”

    1. Is it possible that vibrators and anonymously downloadable woman-written erotica have already made women the permanent minority in the sexual market? That men cannot linguistically compete with women in wooing women?

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  1. A huge variety of sex toys in all shapes, sizes, and functionalities, designed specifically for women’s pleasure – applauded.
    Sex toys designed for men’s pleasure – “HOW DARE YOU”!

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  2. There must be a million reasons why extraterrestrials did not destroy or even sent us a message but the idea that they are furiously masturbating and non-stop climaxing seems improbable. Many human societies have adopted strict prohibitions against say prostitution, drug addiction and other disrupting distractions. Presumably, opium addiction is stronger than sex, yet we are able to restrict it.

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    1. And why would we bother with ever more sophisticated sex-bots when we could just implant a stimulation systems directly into pleasure systems in our brains? Not actually hard to do.

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  3. >Men high in conscientiousness, who are sensitive to social disapproval but who nonetheless have difficulty reading subtle social cues, could make good husbands for women. These men are unlikely to want to take the risk of approaching women.

    Wouldn’t that be men high in agreeableness (compliant with mores) and neuroticism (susceptible to social anxiety) are unlikely to approach?

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  4. Tools like Second Life already enable heterosexual men to have emotionally meaningful relationships with each other – through the simple expedient of presenting themselves in female form.

    This is not just applicable to heterosexual men – it is also, for example, an opportunity for disabled people of both genders to present themselves in able-bodied form, and for many such disadvantaged groups to access relationship and companionship opportunities that would not otherwise be available to them.

    When it comes right down to it, biological mechanisms for sexual arousal are quite easy to fool with appropriate imagery and context – and our deeper emotional needs for companionship, tenderness and romantic love are much-less gender-specific than our more primitive drives of physical arousal.

    I can well imagine a market for telepresence-operated sex robots, fulfilling a similar purpose to the one which Second Life does today – enabling people to create a space free from the physical challenges that they are ordinarily faced with, to leverage this technology to strip away the cultural factors which normally stand as an impediment, and to connect with one another for emotional support, tenderness, comfort and romance.

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  5. I really enjoyed the post and think you make some excellent points about the economics and evolutionary psychology of cybersexual surrogates. That said, I think sex robots will be a very niche product for the foreseeable future.

    First off, I think the uncanny valley might be more of an obstacle than you believe. I don’t think it’s at all clear that the uncanny valley is related to the mechanisms Ramachandran discussed or those implicated in prosopagnosia. There are many theories, such as evolutionary development to avoid pathogens, as to what might cause the uncanny valley effect. I don’t know of any evidence that the effect will be less present in a sexual context. There are at present subgroups, such as furies or men who wear diapers and pretend to be babies, with sexual interests that evoke disgust in most people and have almost no chance of becoming mainstream. The most common reactions I’ve observed to sex robots is humor and disgust. For most people I don’t think the technology to span the uncanny valley will exist in the foreseeable future.

    Second, are problems of practicalities. I arrived at this post through the Marginal Revolution blog, a commentor there name Phinton observes that:

    “It seems the problem with sex robots is the size and weight. I have seen TV shows about the companies that make these things, and they hang from meat hooks in the factory and the workers labor mightily to move them around. On the one hand, it seems you’d like your sex robot to be very sturdy, so you can “eff the daylights” out of it. Nobody should feel like a man from effing the daylights out of a balloon. But the sturdiness of the robot means it’s very hard to put up when finished.

    And, never discussed is the cleaning of these things. So, you finish, you are sweaty and breathing heavy and ready for bed. Normally, you just pull on some shorts and go to sleep with a smile and then wash up in the morning. But with the sex robot, you now have some cleaning ahead of you at 1:30 in the morning before sleep can come. Dragging the heavy thing like a dead body to the tub. I’m not even sure what the cleaning process would be like.“

    There are a hodge podge of other reasons that I think sex robots will remain uncommon. Like the social stigma attached to owning one that may counteract the kind of psychological validation you discuss. Not to mention that they cost as much as a car (I wonder if they’re insurable…).

    I believe many of your larger points have a lot of validity. But I think the dynamics you‘ve discussed will be fueled by conventional pornography and better display technologies like HD and VR along with services like OnlyFans for those who want direct personal interaction.

    Sex and technology have a bright future together (I think Covid and quarantine may accelerate the development) but I think sex robots will be the flying cars of the sexual revolution.

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  6. Young liberal (perhaps placing them in a more competitive market for fewer liberal men) women on Tinder (a dating app often known for hookups) seem to be very angry (at men, society, and maybe life in general) . Maybe I am reading too much into this but it would be interesting to see if this could be tested in some way.

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  7. One of the things I think people miss from this conversation isn’t about who buys these products, but who sells them. It’s unlikely that the high-end models that get closer and closer to simulating real human beings will be independently informed; much as your cell phone is completely reliant on giant information networks in order to function completely, so too will sex robots be leased (or their software licensed) in a way that informs the massive machine-learning banks behind their behavior patterns.

    The current state-of-the-art in AI involves teaching neural networks how to respond to human desires in a way that best elicits “addictive engagement capitalism.” Google Home, Amazon Alexa, Apple’s Siri all exist for one reason only: to make money. All of these products exist to find your stress points, emphasize them, and then sell you ways to relieve them. They find something about yourself that makes you vaguely uncomfortable, heightens your awareness of it, and then sells you the relief, all in the name of maximizing shareholder value.

    Sex robots would be a exceptional case. As Diana points out, sex robots are “relief machines” more than anything else. Since addictive engagement capitalism exists to find, irritate, and then sell you the relief from your frustration, and since uncanny valley-crossing sex robots require an ongoing use of massed resources to be successful relief machines, then the conclusion is simple: all sex robots will be sadists. She will not be there to create pleasure, except insofar as its cessation will make you anxious for more (“Alexa: Buy more lube”). She will not be there to elicit love, joy, patience, kindness, faithfulness, goodness, and gentleness. She may show those traits to you, but she will not be there to help you have those traits. If anything, her behavior will be in the service of a perverse, subtle sadism: a calculated effort to make you feel inadequate and capable only of addressing that inadequacy with buying more stuff.

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  8. This article felt like reading my own mind, I agree to almost everything. Except that the “fake fitness” will affect productivity. Pesonally, I am more productive after beating the meat, becase I fee my mind from the sex stuff to finally be able to concentrate on the math and science.

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  9. As she writes: “Sex is consistently underrated as a driver of innovation.” This is so clearly demonstrated in the worldwide explosion in transgenderism, and the gender identity industry! As Sheila Jeffreys has been pointing out for years (maybe decades), transgenderism is at it’s root a men’s sexual rights movement. I would not be at all surprised if the male billionaires such as James/Jennifer Pritzger, Martin/Martine Rothblatt and their cronies who are both pro-transgenderism and transhumanism and heavily invested in these industries are also heavily invested in these sex technologies as well. They are aware of the incel market worldwide. Great piece!

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  10. I would argue that using a sex doll – no matter how advanced – is still a form of masturbation, a practice most males continue with regardless of whether they are in a relationship or marriage. Interpersonal relationships between people are built on empathies and emotions which are currently unable to be replicated with artificial intelligence, and are still a long way from machine learning. The nuances of human nature have evolved over thousands of years and are far from uniform. (Even if robots were to become sentient they would be a different species and inhabit a different time and place, therefore evolve, act and think differently to humans.) However, if we were to create a service robot which could trick our neural pathways to become a near enough substitute for a human relationship, it would surely be made for both males and females, catering to the respective needs of each. It would be bad business to ignore half of the population of earth.

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