An anonymous man, claiming to be a London-based corporate attorney, calls me after I list my services on a popular website advertising pay-per-minute phone sex. He says that he is moving to the United States soon, and talks to me for hours at the rate of $1.69 a minute. He describes to me his idea of an ideal relationship: Every day, upon coming home from work at night, he would be relieved from the burden of making decisions. His entire life would be structured by a woman whom he regarded as his superior — she would control his finances, he would sleep below her bed at night, he would not be allowed to do anything that had not been explicitly commanded, and she would inflict sadistic torments on him mercilessly at her own whim. He wants me to marry him and turn him into a living doll.
The attorney on the phone is willing to pay handsomely to experience an illusory salvation from that very freedom to which Jean-Paul Sartre said we were condemned. He asks me, his voice deeper now and shaking, what my “ideal relationship” is. He always sounds so serious when he talks about wanting a real relationship with me. Attempting to play to his angst, I describe a kind of self-objectification: I’m an icon of the divine and he is my doll. He spends his days adoring me. Respectively, we both merge our subjective experiences to objective reality, obtaining eternity through self-denial. I lay on my antique rope bed staring at the large early 20th-century lithograph of Christ as the Lamb of God hanging on the wall as I quote Sartre to the masochist on the phone. He tells me this sounds like the truest form of being in love.
After that I start to hypnotize him.
The attorney on the phone is willing to pay handsomely to experience an illusory salvation from that very freedom to which Jean-Paul Sartre said we were condemned
With “erotic hypnosis,” or “hypnodomming,” a bad-faith attempt is made at inverting the technosexual relationship: The consumer of the domme’s labor, a commodity, is paying for the subjective experience of feeling like an object, mediated by a phone call sold on a website. Teledildonics, the remote controlled sex toy, allows for perhaps the most intimate technosexual rendezvous; and like all previously existing forms of media, it is rapidly being assimilated into the sex industry. Vibrators which can be remote controlled by mobile or desktop apps like OhMiBod and Lovense currently exist on the mass market. On sites like Chaturbate, models use custom scripts to cause these toys to be controlled by users’ tips, selling their sexual interactions with people via these remote controlled toys as labor. The user is paying to control the subjective experience of the webcam model, assigning an exchange value to the sense phenomena that she encounters. The subjectivity of the sex worker here — far from being disregarded — is a component of the commodity, the aesthetic experience of the mediated erotic encounter. Teledildonics has already begun to incorporate robotic elements. Lovense’s Max and Nora, a penis sleeve and vibrating dildo respectively, can move in response to a remote individual’s movements with their respective toy. Because the libidinous ghost in the machine is a component of the technosexual fetish fantasy, one way that sex robots will doubtlessly extend the relationships embedded in the sex industry, rather than as inert objects mimicking the sex worker’s supposed role as an object, is by creating a new market for mediated sexual labor, a market for remote sex-robot operators.
The feminist response to the idea of sex robots’ immanence has varied. Kathleen Richardson of The Campaign Against Sex Robots considers the hypothetical creation of consumer sex robots to be “extending relations of prostitution into machines” via “the transference of humanlike qualities to things” and that it is “neither ethical, nor is it safe.” Richardson writes, “the development of sex robots will further reinforce relations of power that do not recognize both parties as human subjects.” Richardson’s critique of sex robots is phenomenological, premised on the idea that the consumers within the sex industry fail to perceive sex workers as conscious subjects. She proposes that that the psychological process, which she compares to animism, of anthropomorphizing “things” (a metaphysical category she implicitly assigns robots to) is what allows objects to become embedded in human relationships. And, the argument goes, when social relationships fail to recognize the subjectivity of members of a particular class or identity group, the manufacture of objects meant to simulate members of that group reifies that demographic’s status as second-class. Likewise, in an article in the New Statesman, “Why do we give robots female names? Because we don’t want to consider their feelings,” Laurie Penny extends this phenomenological critique of the feminization of AI applications — regarding the female personas of, not just sex robots, but personal assistant apps like Siri and Cortana as well — as examples of an extension of the sexual division of labor into feminized devices. Penny argues that the philosophical recognition of the subject’s natural political rights is derived from a recognition of its empirical experience.
Critiques of the sex robot have one metaphysical assumption in common: The sex robot is an object. But it’s also an icon
In opposition to these critiques of sex robots as reifying women’s objectification, a blog article entitled “I’m a Feminist, and I Can’t Wait for Sex Robots” makes the case that because sex workers are subjects — “Sex workers ARE NOT ROBOTS,” it says — and robots are objects (“masturbation aids”) that the use of a sex robot and solicitation of sex workers do not exist on the same continuum of social experience. And in “Loving machines: A de-anthropocentric view of intimacy,” Dorothy Howard interrogates the role of the human subject as pivotal to the technosexual experience. “[It’s] more difficult to limit definitions of love to the anthropocentric because it’s increasingly hard to define what is human,” Howard writes. She cautiously points to “object-oriented ontology,” noting that while it may represent a “sincere queering of intimacy” that its very openness increases the risk of its being appropriated by the machinery of the marketplace under liberal democracy. The sex robot is used as an example of this appropriation: The production of the sex robot as a commodity according to the aesthetics of mass culture’s deconstruction of the female body is likened to Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “desiring-production” and Jean-François Lyotard’s “libidinal economy” — where pre-conscious desire, without reference to an individual subject, is viewed as an engine of social reproduction. Contrasting with this, Howard invokes Paul B. Preciado’s “dildotectonics” which “locates… sexual technologies of resistance” and “studies… the ways in which they interrupt the flow of production of body-pleasure-capital.” The topography of dildotectonics’ “dildoscape” is, however, drastically altered by teledildonics. When a sex toy is remote-controlled by a partner, it becomes a kind of media; and the dildoscape becomes permeable, woven into social reproduction.
All of these critiques of the sex robot have one metaphysical assumption in common: The sex robot is an object. And thinking of the robot as an object is itself a kind of fetish. When I self-objectify with or for a client, demanding to be venerated as a religious icon, I’m selling him my labor but charging him for the idea of my labor as a commodity. I invert our relationship in the language of humanistic phenomenology because it’s what gets him off. I tell every man I domme that I am going to turn him into an object, a toy, a pet — that I am going to exploit him: “You are going to be my doll” or “my whore” and “I’m going to make you sell sex for me” or “hypnotically drain your psychic power for occult purposes.” (All the while I am in actuality selling both sex and my psychic energy.) The sex robot as object sells the same idea. There is always someone on the other side of the robot — constructing it, programming it, reproducing the ideas it was programmed with. To objectify the robot is to objectify these relationships. The fantasy of the sex robot is often of a person being transformed into one, or of a totally artificial being becoming a person and then suddenly desiring sex. The fantasy robot in these cases is a symbol for the general constitution of “objects” and “subjects” respectively. The robot is not just an object, but an icon — an image of the logos which structures society, the absolute Subject.
In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir describes the effect of the female effigy on a woman’s self-consciousness, writing that she “sees herself in the doll more concretely than in her own body, because she and the doll are actually separated from each other.” Dividing her self-concept into a “male subject” and “female object,” this woman “gives herself supreme importance because no object of importance is accessible to her,” Beauvoir writes, connecting the pathology of narcissism to women’s oppression. Gender roles have liberalized substantially in the West since Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex in the 1940s, but the public sphere is still masculine by default. I am a BDSM goddess, a professional narcissist, because it’s impossible for me to have a respectable career. I demand to be adorned with flowers, incense, perfumed wreaths, ointments, powder, robes, umbrellas, banners, flags, and triumphal streamers. I tell my devotee to abase himself before me, flagellate himself, empty his heart and mind of all thought except for me, and to recite my name like a prayer until he dissolves his identity in mine. I dehumanize myself in this way. I objectify myself. To paraphrase Dorothy Day, I dismiss myself by making myself a saint. The submissive is a living doll whom I cast in my own image; I can only see myself through his eyes. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre writes that the “relation of object-ness is the fundamental relation between the Other and myself” and that it is only “probable” that any given passerby is “a man and not a perfected robot.” Simone de Beauvoir writes that “all love requires the duality of a subject and an object.” She is including here self-love.
Roxxxy TrueCompanion has grotesque, imprecise features. Her low-hung jaw gives her mouth, which is always open, an underbite. She wears pencil-thin eyebrows, baby pink eyeshadow, and poorly blended blush high on her cheekbones, a dated aesthetic that reminds me of the latex “female” masks that some doll fetishists wear to conceal their masculine faces. In a video posted on TrueCompanion’s official YouTube channel, Roxxxy is on her knees with her legs spread, wearing thigh high stockings and a robe with the word “Bride” embroidered on the back in cursive, pulled up over her leopard-print panties. Her hips thrust forward gawkishly; her spine juts in; her blonde head convulses. This is sex. The video is eerily silent. A man wearing a lab coat walks onscreen and removes her wig to squeeze her skull, demonstrating its give, then puts the hair back on her head. The camera pans to Roxxxy’s hands and feet before returning to the man in the white labcoat, who is trying to sell Roxxxy to the viewer.
The logical conclusion of the transhumanist quest for an incorruptible soul would be fucking a robot with a porn star’s personality
Roxxxy, who is now marketed as the “world’s first sex robot,” began as a transhumanist project to preserve the human personality after death. “Humanoid Self Persistence” is the name given by TrueCompanion to this strategy of digitally encoding the user’s personality traits into an artificial intelligence. Roxxxy’s creator, Doug Hines, speaks of experiencing angst over the absurdity of human mortality in the midst of grief over the loss of a friend in the attacks of 9/11. The world’s first sex robot therefore represents a response to the West’s post-9/11 existential dread of the unpredictability of blowback from its colonial Other. According to her creator, the sex robot is programmed according to a “process when one applies their own traits onto an external system that has humanlike characteristics, whereby their own essence may exist beyond the temporal constraint imposed by their physical being.” The sex robot “become[s] an extension to their owner, having been seeded with the owner’s likes and dislikes.” Roxxxy TrueCompanion does not directly replicate the personality of its user, but is an incarnation of anima — an archetypical projection of sublimated erotic impulses upon a hard-wired neural network.
To obtain immortality, as is the intent of Roxxxy TrueCompanion, is to obtain that same God-like synthesis of objective and subjective being that Simone de Beauvoir saw in the self-objectifying split self-concept of the female narcissist. In this context, the sex robot is a perfected doll — an effigy not only of the physical form, but of the “personality.” If personality is ever able to be convincingly reproduced by a sex robot’s AI, the market for this technology could be used in the sex industry as a means to mediate access to sex workers’ bodies. Currently, one can purchase sex toys made from moulds of a porn star’s genitals: Stoya, Joanna Angel, and Christy Mack have all modeled for Fleshlight, for example. If this practice of modeling consumer sex commodities off of sex workers were extended into AI, the logical conclusion of the transhumanist quest for an incorruptible soul would be fucking a robot with a porn star’s personality.
Existing models of Roxxxy TrueCompanion come preloaded with five non-specific personalities — each one offering a different sexual script: Wild Wendy (for people who want to fuck robots who love to fuck), S&M Susan (for sadomasochists), Mature Martha (for age fetishists), Young Yoko (for lack-of-age fetishists), and Frigid Farah. Roxxxy’s creator says of Frigid Farah in a 2010 YouTube interview, “If you try to touch Frigid Farrah in a way that might not be appropriate for her, she will say ‘Please don’t touch me there; That’s not nice,’ and then it’s your choice what you do from there on in.” If a man chooses to listen to the sex robot when she says “please” and “don’t,” she would lose her intended functions. Since Roxxxy’s personality programming is developed to learn and adapt to the user’s preferences, presumably this could also include the level of consent indicated by the robot. The user’s sexual ideologies — in the form of the sublimated desire to commit rape — become a component of the user’s soul projection upon Roxxxy, making her endure both violent lust and transcendental devotion.
As a sex worker who has spent countless hours interacting both with men who would fuck sex robots and men who would become sex robots, I cannot find the difference between the ideas or desires expressed in these two formulations
Roxxxy is not a social subject. She is not making decisions to express any particular ideas about sex. Roxxxy is programmed with sexual ideas which are then executed, acted out socially with the user. Roxxxy then adapts herself, incorporates the particular ideas of the user, and replicates them. Roxxxy is not an object; she is a dynamic propaganda system, programmed to be a vehicle for the absolute Subject — ideology. When I speak to my hypnosis clients, I use language like “reprogram,” “brainwash,” even “ideological re-education.” The illusion is that I am removing the client’s subjectivity and reconstituting him, remaking him as a social person. The client, however, is always-already a subject; his entering and exiting an altered state of consciousness is ritualistic, following patterns of sexual ideas which always-already constitute us both. Performing the ritual is, itself, too, propaganda. It is particularly effective propaganda because it seems to empirically demonstrate, through partial deconstruction of the client’s socially conditioned consciousness, total reunification into the ideological, the pre-subjective absolute. The hypnotic reprogramming is a sleight-of-hand which, like Roxxxy’s praxis of “Humanoid Self Persistence,” disguises the client’s desires as his very soul; he feels like he is an automaton because he is doing exactly what he wants to do.
When I hypnotize the lawyer, I begin with an induction. I give him instructions on relaxing his body and focusing on his breathing. My words are slow and rhythmic. They are relaxing. I tell him that they are relaxing. The cadence of my speech begins to match the oscillation of the submissive’s breath, the deepening of focus and fading away of his surroundings. I introduce psychosomatic visualizations. I count up to 10 as I progressively guide the client through his relaxation. The visual experience intensifies. I immerse him in a symbolic world, an esoteric thesaurus of ideas which I use to structure his entire empirical experience around the erotic fantasy. He isn’t just in a peaceful meadow or walking down a staircase. The submissive ascends the seven heavens until he is cast down by the fire of the Seraphim and the Zodiac itself cries out and mocks him for being a sissy faggot. When I am performing hypnosis, I am no longer a Marxist; I am a Neoplatonist. My client never understands just how religious this is. Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth. I transform him into a nice, chaste woman. I count him down and bring him out of trance.
The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies describes “technosexuality” as having two common meanings: a broader definition, “in which technology is viewed as a social force that shapes or configures human sexuality,” and a narrower one, a kink for robots. Phone sex is an example of the former, and erotic hypnosis is, as “The Technosexuality, Pygmalionist and Mind Control Fetish FAQ 3.0” points out, connected to the latter. The distinction between these two meanings, however, may be beginning to collapse as sex robots have become taken more seriously as a plausible consumer technology. Sex robots are no longer just an erotic sci-fi fantasy; they are emerging as a means by which we relate to one another in society.
Since the sex robot of fantasy is in the process of becoming a subject, or a subject becoming embedded in an object, an Althusserian reading of the sex robot fetish might look at this emerging subjectivity as symbolic of the social processes, these “ideological state apparatuses,” which precede the construction of the subject. The consumer sex robot is a dynamic propaganda system, establishing a two-way relationship replicating sexual ideology with the user. The sex robot is therefore both a component of State power and a fetish symbol of that power; it is the absolute mimicking the particular, word not quite made flesh. As a sex worker who has spent countless hours interacting both with men who would fuck sex robots and men who would become sex robots, I cannot find the difference between the ideas or desires in these two formulations; both are, in a sense, a narcissistic autoeroticism — with the self-concept as its own erotic object. When I make someone my submissive, I am there to help him fashion his own self-conception as an object; and my sexual labor as such is a component of an ideological structure producing that self-concept. The sex robot symbolizes and embodies that mechanism. Becoming the sex robot and fucking the sex robot only differ with regards to the location of their objective self-concept — whether the “soul” occurs in the interior or is projected externally.
The phenomenological feminist critique of the sex robot as a representation of women’s sexual objectification — that a robot is an object and a man fucking a feminized object reinscribes the objectification of women — would be applicable to sex dolls as well. A critique of a sex robot which would also apply to a sex doll, however, is like a critique of television that would also apply to a statue of a television. A sex robot is not just a commodity object and it does not just reify the social ideas embedded in its form; like phone sex, hook-up apps, webcam sex, et cetera, it is media — a telecommunications device which actively mediates the communication of ideas, and thereby reproduces ideology. A man does not, as the author of “I’m a Feminist, and I Can’t Wait for Sex Robots” writes, simply “masturbate with a robot.” He fucks an instrument for the reproduction of ideology, makes love to an apparatus of State power.