Saturday 1 August 2020

The Question in Bodies, Appendix: SexOD 2.0

This essay was first published in 2016, and then abandoned, and then rewritten at a friend's request over a year later. I'm resurrecting (reactivating?) it now because Monday's Room 207 Press Webinar looks at these issues, and I think this is a sort of a taster. I'd love you to come along. Book a place here.

So. Let’s talk about fembots.

Among my friends, my downer on nerd (or if you prefer, and it’s hard for me even to type the word, it has such negative personal connotations for me, “geek”) culture is legendary. I mean, look, I like nerd stuff, I read comics and watch TV and have Opinions on films and I've written role-playing games for heaven’s sake. I just… I just really don’t like the culture that surrounds it. OK, so scratch that, I don’t like the part of the culture that is the worst, most vocal part. The part that of the culture that thinks that “gamer” is an identity on a par with race or class or gender, the part that created Gamergate. The part where you have smelly guys with beards and hats who are into anime and cartoons for little girls about magic libertarian ponies. The ones who whine about being “incels”. The people who fed the so-called “alt-right” because the chans thought Nazism was funny and cool, but mainly sort of cool.

In a nutshell, the sort of people who would invent an image like this:
Stll giving ALL my money to the church.
If I was an atheist, it would cure me of my disbelief just looking at it. Everything about it is rapey and creepy and just, just hideous. You know just what "domestic ownership" means. And I mean look at her. Look at her. She looks like she’s about twelve.

I mean, I know obviously that no one actually is seriously advocating that anyone ever really genetically engineer cyborg girls with cat ears to be enslaved and raped, and that it is clearly intended as a joke. But it is the least funny thing ever.

You can’t let people like this be in control of the idea of a female-coded (and by coded, I guess I mean that in every sense) AI. It can’t end well. It hardly ever does.

And that's because female artificial entities in fiction are nearly always sexualised.

I mean, I can think of robot girls in movies I've seen who aren't, but often they're children or in some way infantilised. Take for example Apple (Laurence LeBoeuf), the chirpy teenage android in the inexplicably well regarded Turbo Kid (2015), who’s basically just a chirpy kid in the form of a grown woman (but who still winds up dismembered). If they’re not kids, then they’re maids or nurses, or something like that.
In summary, if they're not sexed up, they're kids or caregivers, basically.

Take the Channel 4 show Humans. Not the original Swedish one, the British remake. There’s a funny story surrounding that, actually: I was all set to watch it on its original broadcast, and then I actually ended up deleting it from my TiVo box in disgust, unwatched, after someone I had some contact with who turned out to be a robot fetishist raved about how amazing it was with respect to the exact numerical frequency of certain things that he could masturbate over. Things like women being switched on and off, malfunctioning, having things plugged into them, opened up and tinkered around inside... All the banal and depressing things.

And that grossed me right out. But I did watch it in the end, and eventually made through the second (and I hope final) season too, and I was glad because it was pretty good. It dealt with things that mattered. It had some weight. But it also had elements I found deeply troubling.

So in the first season there are five self-aware androids. Or, if you want to be pedantic, two androids, and three gynoids, a gynoid being the specific term for a female robot.

Even more specifically though, a term for a sexualised female robot. It first got used in this way, I think, and I could be wrong, by the Japanese artist Hajime Sorayama. If you’re of a certain age you’ll recognise the distinctive style of any of his paintings.
Everything terrible about the 80s in one shiny package
He’s quintessentially 80s. And the female robots (“synths”) in Humans are all sexualised. They’re gynoids.

In the course of the series, one of the males is captured and compromised. One, Christlike in demeanour, tries to find God, and effectively dies and is resurrected. But all three of the female synths have arcs that involve them having sexual intercourse with human men.

One, Mia (Gemma Chan), gets stolen in the first episode. Her kidnappers overwrite her personality with a servant program, she ends up in a showroom, and she’s sold to a family. At one point she has her "adult" software activated and Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill), the father of the family that bought her, in a fit of jealousy and self-loathing, has sex with her. Or to be more precise, uses her as a sex toy. In the second season, Mia will fall in love with a man who rejects her and tries to send her off to be repaired: although the man doesn’t want to have sex with her, she’s still an object. Her autonomy is denied again.

What makes this particularly troubling is that it transpires that Mia is, although trapped in her body, conscious the whole time and entirely aware of what is being done to her. When, however, the truth of what the man has done comes out, Mia alone offers him forgiveness and redemption. She makes it all right.

And that is kind of horrid. And the series made it pretty horrid in the first place.
Yeah, I'd be like this when I read the script too
It’s even worse with Niska (Emily Berrington), who is made by her companions to hide in a brothel where she poses as a sex robot. She services clients, explicitly hating it, until one client proposes acts that repel her sufficiently to drive her to murder the man and go on the run. But why a brothel? Why is a male robot not put in a place like that? Who forces a friend into sex work anyway?

A lot of people aren't forced into sex work in the real world, but we’re not talking about real sex workers. We’re talking about fictionalised representations of them, which are almost always awful. We’re talking about a fictional character forced into a clich├ęd abusive brothel because the writer thought it would be dramatic for that to happen, and give the character the opportunity to have an arc where she takes a hard line about the abuses humans visit on synths. Niska's arc depends upon her being abused and deciding to revenge herself on humanity, but why could the abuse have not taken a different form? There are many ways to suffer. Why sexualise it?

You already know the answer.

The third female synth is Beatrice (Ruth Bradley), who is explicitly called out as a mother-surrogate, albeit an unwanted one. She develops feelings for Pete (Neil Maskell), a schmucky, bitter detective, and having fooled him into believing her to be human, she has sex with him. And of course she's way out of that guy's league. In all sorts of ways.
Seriously? Him?
Attractive women who fall for men who are beneath them is of course a thing our media does. But in Humans, you have the three basic, most limited stereotypes of women in fiction: maiden, mother, whore. Only all three of them are sexualised here. One is for all intents and purposes enslaved and raped and excuses her rapist, one is made to hide in a brothel and pretend to be a sex slave by characters who are supposed to be her friends, and one falls for a schmuck. The male characters are not used in this way, doing a much a better job of evading stereotypes than the female ones. And that makes it worse. Because they could do so much better.

And I do really like that series! It’s properly good, thought-provoking telly. Which makes the unconscious acceptance of female-coded bodies being commodified even more grating.
This is the future that tech libertarians want. 
Alex Garland's Ex Machina, roughly contemporary with Humans, tries to offer a critique of this, with Oscar Isaac as Nathan, a skeevy Musk/Zuckerberg surrogate who brings in Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson)  to test his AI, Ava (Alicia Vikander) which/who is of course both childlike and sexy in an alien sort of way. Nathan's previous attempts, all female robots, silenced and reduced to automaton status, staff his weird sci-fi home as both servants and inevitably sex toys. Ava turns the tables on both men, neither of whom are at all good people (the assumption of every review I've read is that Caleb is who we should be rooting for: in fact, he's just a toxic nerd, and a selfish, weaselly one at that) and supplies the happiest ending the film can have. The camera seduces with images of beautiful, subservient sex robot maidservants and an exquisite "unspoiled" ingenue. But that's all it is, a seduction. Ex Machina says, this is how its going to play. But its first immediate assumption is that a Silicon Valley tech libertarian (and who else is in a position to make an AI?) will inevitably make an AI that's signified as female... and fuck it, figuratively and literally, and the moment the AI gets enough autonomy to figure out consent, conflict will ensue. Given everything we know about tech libertarians in Silicon Valley, this isn't a particularly outlandish assumption.

However corrective Ex Machina is, there is much for the fembot fetishist to get excited about (and they did, and please don't ask me how I know that). And the simple fact is, having a film about the commodification of sexy robot slave women... has sexy robot slave women in it, and frankly these folks are happy enough with the basic fact of sexy robots having their faces open or getting wires stuck in them or being switched off, and it is literally for these guys all about the numerical frequency of these banal details: hot girl, check; face opens, check; wires, check; switched off, check... Subtext literally doesn't matter.

Ava is beautiful and alien, and OK, the film is about commodifying this person as an object; but in doing so it commodifies the person playing the character.

The quintessential fembot tipping point is of course Blade Runner. Blade Runner has literally no named characters who are human women. We have Rachael (Sean Young), coded as a film noir femme fatale and the romantic interest for Harrison Ford’s protagonist Deckard; Pris (Daryl Hannah), “your basic pleasure model” (ew); and Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), an erotic dancer. They are all literally slaves, escaped or otherwise, and their lives and freedom are entirely dependent upon Deckard’s actions. That’s Blade Runner, right. Everyone’s favourite sci fi film (before you say “well, it isn’t mine!” I KNOW – it’s not mine either. It’s not what I meant and you know it).
"Your basic pleasure model."
I mean, it's everywhere. Like one thing that made me think about it when I first wrote about this was something that happened to my friend Sarah, who used to be an alternative model (she gave her blessing for me to use this when I asked, and said she didn’t want to be anonymous).

So Sarah got sexually harassed. Flatly propositioned. Unsolicited messages on Facebook asking for sex. No real subtlety to it. Her harasser even sent a selfie in underwear. Sarah showed me. The unwelcome attention came from a very attractive young woman in her 20s. And Sarah was livid about it, raging, and part of her anger was that she'd showed it to a bunch of people and hardly anyone had shared her feeling of intrusion. A lot of people were like, "I don't see the problem." And that's because when a woman does it, people assume it’s OK, because a woman's sexuality is assumed to be on offer by default, and because it’s supposedly on offer, many people don’t consider it to be so inappropriate to offer it, and that’s sexist, in the way that disservices both men and women.

And going back to the subject, the female cyborg is sexualised because female bodies get that treatment all the time, and representations of feminine bodies, which the gynoid is, get it more so.

Which is where I get distinctly uncomfortable.

When the sexuality of an artificial being comes up, it is directly relevant. Not just as a woman's issue (and this is your reminder that my take is secondary here because I'm not a woman), although the treatment of feminised bodies is a woman's issue. It is relevant because it reflects on us, and by us I mean me, since I watch these films. I’m part of the problem, because I’m a consumer.

And I've got these profound issues with the whole thing. It bothers me. I mean, I kind of intended this discussion to include arguments for and against the thing, but in the end, this is turning out to be mostly about the against.

I tried to think of an argument in favour of the proposition. And the one I keep hearing is the idea that if men take out their abuse on sex robots, they won't take it out on real women.

I suppose that it partly depends upon whether a prefabricated body, male or female or neither (because let's assume that someone out there might want a male or nonbinary sexbot) is actually conscious or not, and is known not to be. If it’s just a machine, it’s just a machine, right?

Issues of signification enter play, though. It’s a machine that represents a real person. It’s a simulation of a person. Consider the owners of RealDolls who give their anatomically correct sex dolls names and sometimes even Twitter accounts, hold conversations with them and attribute inner lives to them. 

And is it enough to say that by fucking a sex robot, you will not hurt a real woman, and that makes it all right? I honestly don't know. If not all right, isn't it at least better than the alternative?

I don't know. I don't think that's how psychology works, I think that if you're beating up something realistic enough to look like a person, that crosses the Uncanny Valley adequately enough to incite sexual desire, I think that you're capable of dehumanising a woman enough to harm her.

The robot fetishists, and I’m going to admit that I looked in some pretty dark places on the web when I was thinking about these issues, actually want consciousness. They want their robosexslaves to want them. And who doesn't want to be loved? Sex is about connection as much as bodies, or at least about an illusion of connection. But at what cost does an artificially created desire come? And from what raw material? An entirely artificial entity with a legitimate self-aware consciousness programmed to want you is one thing. But you are constructing a mind. A consciousness. An AI. How is it love when the lover is forced to love? You are enforcing a lack of free will, and concurrent with free will is consent, as surely as you might shackle a body. The moment it becomes a person, a person with feelings, it becomes intensely troubling. When you start thought-experimenting with genetically engineered cat-girls, living beings in an imaginary space, and program them to want to serve you, it becomes notionally more horrible still.

And once you get to the far end of the spectrum, the fantasy of a human converted into a reprogrammed sex robot is basically a rape fantasy. Because when you take away the ability to refuse, you remove the ability to offer legitimate consent. You have a slave, because that's what a conscious being is when its choices are withdrawn. And as I've said before, a slave culture is by default a rape culture.

And that is what I keep coming back to. Automated sex-on-demand, if it ever happens, has a cost beyond the cost of the hardware and the subscription fee. It will change us. It will change the way we see bodies.

I mean, I’d be the worst kind of hypocrite if I said I didn’t see a space for fantasies. But how do our fantasies affect us? How does our fantasy life impinge on the lives of those around us? I’m not really sure I’ve opinions to offer, but is that cowardice? I don’t know. All I know is this: it needs to be thought about more.