By Lucy Whitaker
"Twenty years after The Dude said so, it is a genuine critique of our society to say we are beginning to treat objects like women. "
In the Coen Brothers’ cult classic The Big Lebowski, the main character finds himself on a winding yet fruitless kidnapping investigation. For reasons much too convoluted for this article, The Dude’s investigation takes him to the Malibu home of pornographer and loan shark Jackie Treehorn.
There he has his drink spiked and falls into an unconscious state. When he tries to report this to the local police, The Dude’s drug-addled mind inhibits his speech and muddles his words so that he says, “Jackie Treehorn treats objects like women!”
The comedy comes from his failed attempt at taking down the patriarchal objectification of women by conflating the words 'objects' and 'women'. But this acts as a perfect example of the way society also conflates the two.
Life as Fiction
Science fiction films regularly treat objects like women.
Robots are often feminised and, if so, usually sexualised. Recently, Ex Machina and Blade Runner 2049 feature ‘female’ robots made for male sexual consumption. The latest film in the ever expanding Star Wars universe, Solo, will go down in history as the Star Wars film that confirmed that it is possible for a (male) human to have sex with a (female) droid.
This is not something that exists only in fiction. Lifelike sex robots are being made in reality. Thus twenty years after The Dude said so, it is a genuine critique of our society to say we are beginning to treat objects like women.
We need to consider the ethical considerations of this science-fiction-turned-reality. To start with, yes: this is a gendered issue. Like most science and technological industries, men dominate robotics. Thus sex robots are being designed to represent the heterosexual male fantasy.
"Unlike her human counterparts, your sex robot is free of physical imperfections, low libidos or complaints."
Standard sex robots contain three penetrable holes and coquettishly respond to compliments with giggles, smiles and winks. Often the feminine ideal presented is the same as in porn. Unlike her human counterparts, your sex robot is free of physical imperfections, low libidos or complaints. She has huge breasts and will even compliment you on your penis size.
Some feminists welcome their creation. The more men can inflict their abusive sexual fantasies on robots, the less they will do it on women, or so goes the argument. They will buy robots instead of buying into the abusive and destructive sex work industry. You can even get your husband one so he’ll stop pestering you and you can continue your relationship in sexless peace. Huzzah!
But how true is any of this? The argument for technology creating a fantasy world devoid from reality, and thus free from the ethical restraints of society, has already existed in video games and violent cinema. If you kill a sex worker on Grand Theft Auto, no one is getting hurt and no crime is being committed.
However, games like these do not exist in a vacuum with a clear separation from reality. Sex work is by far the most physically dangerous occupation a woman can enter, with staggering homicide and sex abuse rates. These are heavily gendered, with women and transgender sex workers suffering at a much higher rate than their male counterparts.
Killing a sex worker in Grand Theft Autois more of a reflection of society than many gamers would care to admit. Similarly, committing violent sexual acts against a robot leaves no one hurt. However, sexual abuse against women is rampant and is only recently being challenged on a societal level. When this is the case, is it okay for a man to abuse a “woman” if she is only an object?
The problem with this is that we already treat women like objects, and treating objects like women does nothing to challenge that. When women buy sex, it is usually in the form of a non-anthropomorphic sex toy. Men are much more likely to buy human sex, or sex dolls that look like women.
Women are reduced to body parts and sex objects for male consumption in films, adverts, magazines and in real life. Men feel entitled to grope and lay a claim to women’s bodies like there is no person who will get hurt from their actions. The precedent already exists that women’s bodies are objects designed for the male fantasy.
The physical act, however, only forms part of sexual abuse.
A man from Hong Kong recently spent the equivalent of £35,000 on a sex robot in the likeness of Scarlett Johansson. Legally there is no problem with this, which means there is no problem with anyone creating a sex robot in the likeness of anybody else. You can do whatever you want to them.
Psychologically, there are huge ramifications with the knowledge that someone might be raping or beating your robotic likeness. A similar issue has arisen in virtual reality video gaming, where women’s avatars are being chased around by male gamers to be groped and sexually harassed.
This brings the final issue with the fantasy versus reality argument. Do you believe that sexual harassment is all about the physical stimulation? In VR, men do not get any physical sexual satisfaction: no actual bodies to touch, no physical stimulus to respond to. It is a psychological thrill and a power trip. Men who abuse women will not be satisfied with abusing robots.
Sex robots are not a science fiction fantasy or a ‘what if?’ scenario. They are already here and thus we need to talk about the ethical and gendered dimensions of their existence. In a society that conflates objects and women, we must consider the ramifications of blurring that line further.
When we treat objects like women, and vice versa, we perpetuate the standard that the female body exists for the male fantasy. But women are abused exactly because they are not objects. Men abuse women because they exist in the space between objects and people: they are a fantasy object to be consumed and a person to psychologically dominate.
Sex robots will not reduce sexual violence against women. They will reinforce the idea that the female body exists to be sexualised.