Pride or shame? Access to sex robots for older people with disabilities

By Nancy S. Jecker.

Sex is about so much more than pleasure.  It relates to some of the  most central things we can do and be as human beings, such as generate a personally meaningful narrative of our lives; be physically, mentally and emotionally healthy; experience bodily integrity; affiliate and bond; feel and express a range of human emotions; and plan our lives.  Sex is about human identity. For many, it is a wellspring of pride and shame.

For people with disabilities, losing sexual capabilities is not just about losing a source of pleasure, but losing a source of meaning and fulfilment. Since older adults are far more likely to be disabled and experience diminished sexual functioning, there is often a double whammy of ableism and ageism associated with a loss of sexual capabilities.  As someone with disabilities, an older person is perceived as vulnerable to sexual abuse, not as having sexual needs; as someone age sixty-five or over, they are viewed as “too old” for sex anyway.

Yet, just as society has the power to insult people’s dignity by shaming and stigmatizing their sexual desires and behaviour, it has the power to support dignity and serve as a bulwark against shame.  Drawing on this insight, societies should consider making reasonable efforts to support sexual functioning for older adults with disabilities.  In the future, this might entail designing and affording access to sex robots (and other sex supportive technologies) for older adults with disabilities.

Needless to say, this would require giving sex robots a makeover. Today’s sex robots reflect sexist, racist, ableist, ageist and heterosexist attitudes. Yet tomorrow’s sex robots could be dashing menbots designed for older adults with disabilities. Sex robots could serve as friends and companions for people who are socially isolated and lonely. Rather than being perceived as inanimate, sex robots could be perceived as partners and equipped with sensors that allow them to “feel sensations.” Rather than presenting as gleaming metallic surfaces, sex robots could be soft and snuggly, capable of stretching, twisting, scrunching and squishing in new ways.

Critics might counter that sex robots are a lie, grounded in a deceitful exchange. For this reason, any relationships we form with them are subpar.  To avoid the lie, sometimes characterized as an uncanny valley, robots should be kept cartoonish and clearly fake.

Yet, in reply, it is far from clear that holding false beliefs is necessary in order to enjoy relationships with sex robots. A person who is sexual with a robot might enjoy and relate to it as a robot, without projecting consciousness or other human qualities onto it. Even if holding false beliefs was necessary, or projecting animacy were commonplace, for some older people truth might be less weighty than other values, such as having interactions to look forward to, plan for, and think about.

Perhaps, a more apropos way of thinking about human-robot relationships is the capability view, which focuses on how robots can support the central things we can do and be as human beings. Seen in this light, sex robots are not a perversion, but a way to enhance dignity by shoring up capability shortfalls. Rather than making robots fake, we should design them to support capabilities we have reason to value.

Rather than defending sex robots on utilitarian grounds, the crux of a capability argument is that people have a claim to a capability set sufficient to enable them to live lives of human dignity. The claim is not that automatic sweethearts can create more pleasure than human partners, but that maintaining sexual capabilities can be vital to dignity and a real source of identity and pride.

While critics fret that sex robots leave us diminished and that relating to robots sexually signifies a loss of our humanity, before jumping to that conclusion, we might ask, what are a person’s real options?  For some older adults with disabilities, the alternative to sex robots is not human intimacy, but celibacy.  Smartly designed sex robots represent an upgrade, not a downgrade, of central human capabilities.


Paper title: Nothing to be Ashamed of: Sex Robots for Older Adults with Disabilities

Author: Nancy S. Jecker

Affiliations: University of Washington School of Medicine, Department of Bioethics and Humanities

Competing interests: None

Social media accounts of post author(s): Twitter: profjecker

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