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Robophilia: What's the psychological impact of sex tech?

“It is likely that social norms about sex and relationships will change [in future],” says Dr Helen Driscoll an expert on the psychology of sex and sexuality from Sunderland University Psychology Department when we ask her about the wider social implications of sex tech.

“We tend to think about issues such as virtual reality and robot sex within the context of current social norms,” she adds. “But if we think back to social norms about sex just a hundred years ago, it is obvious that they have changed rapidly and radically. Robophilia may be alien now, but could be normal in the near future as attitudes evolve with technology.”

It is certainly true that people’s views and expectations about sex and relationships have changed dramatically even in the last decade. Today people have way more choice – based both on what is socially acceptable and what is available ­­­ – this must in turn lead to higher expectations. Just 10 years ago internet dating was regarded to be a bit odd and desperate, now quick-flicking through hundreds of online profiles is seen as the absolute norm, whatever people are searching for.

Sex tech itself is a huge sprawling growth industry. As Dr Karen Moloney explained in an article – “Euphoric, Harmless, and Affordable: A Trend Analysis of Sex” published in the Futurist last summer – this covers everything from enhanced porn, remote sex, tech enabled sex to mind sex. While in 2010, the Wall Street Journal reported that in Japanese men were already taking their virtual- girlfriend-apps away on holiday with them to the ‘socially inclusive’ island of Atami.

All this is having an impact on the tech industry itself. iDisrupted author John Straw suggested recently that, like the ascendency of VHS over Betamax in the 1980s, the rise of virtual reality will ultimately come down to buy-in from the porn industry. In fact, the Daily Mail reported in January that adult streaming platform SugarDVDm is already building an app for Oculus Rift that will ‘put viewers into the action’.

“What will drive standard adoption [of VR] again is porn,” said Straw in a statement. “The prospect of making porn that immersive and interactive for the porn industry is simply huge”.

But what impact will this have on real people’s lives? In future sex tech will become “very common,” Dr Karen Maloney tells us “especially those not in settled sexual relationships”. She believes this will have “no [psychological] impact for the well-adjusted” and overall feels the “democratisation” it affords will lead to “healthier, better sex” for everyone.

Driscoll takes a similar view, highlighting the positive benefits of “enhancing intimate relationships”. However, both she and Maloney also raise some concerns.

Moloney suggests it could all have a “possible criminal impact on victims of abuse”. And it does carry additional risks like encouraging addictive behaviour, exploiting the vulnerable and sexualising children - Jennifer Haley wrote an excellent play, the Nether exploring this subject.

Probably the most interesting thing in all this though is rise of virtual relationships and potential problem this will cause in people’s ability to form real relationships.

“Although there are concerns about the potential for addiction, in general, people have not given up sex in favour of pornography. Despite the supernormal stimuli on screen, watching pornography actors is clearly not the same as having sex with them,” says Driscoll. “However, as virtual reality becomes more realistic and immersive, and is combined with teledildonics and neural stimulation to mimic and even improve on the experience of sex with a human partner, it is conceivable that some will choose this in preference to sex with a less than perfect human being.”

“People may also begin to fall in love with virtual reality partners,” she continues.

Interestingly she feels that we “should not automatically assume that virtual relationships have less value” than real relations. As she points out “people already fall in love with fictional characters” even without the chance to meet and interact with them.

“We should also remember that there are already many people living alone, who perhaps have not been able to find a partner, or have lost a partner. Virtual sexual partners may provide significant psychological benefits for them and are surely better than no partner at all.”

This does raise some concerns about people in existing relationships favouring someone virtual over someone human. Would this count as infidelity? And what will the long-term consequences be?

“As technologically enhanced virtual sex becomes preferable to sex with humans, we may see greater numbers of people living alone, spending more time in virtual reality,” says Driscoll. “Based on data suggesting that many young Japanese people are avoiding sex and intimate relationships, some have suggested that this may already be happening in Japan.”

Although she adds the desire for human interaction is unlikely to decline significantly until robots can pass the Turing test.

“When eventually there are intelligent robots indistinguishable from humans apart from their lack of bad habits, imperfections and need for investment,” Driscoll concludes “not only are we likely to choose them over ‘real’ humans, psychologically we will not suffer if we are not able to tell the difference.”

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