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Let’s Experiment With Robot Sex

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For its eighth annual Singles in America survey, Match polled more than 5,000 single people in the United States about sex and dating. Using a representative sample of adults of all ages, ethnicities and sexual orientations, the survery asked questions ranging from willingness to go out with someone of a different political party to willingness to have sex with a robot. For most American singles, questions about robot sex are purely hypothetical, but they do raise all sorts of complex issues.

The Singles in America survey found that only one in four single people would have sex with a robot. Surprised that number isn’t higher? You’re not alone. Dr. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and Match’s chief scientific advisor, says, “I was a little bit astonished that more wouldn’t try it once.” She points out that humans anthropomorphize things like dolls and teddy bears starting at a young age, and robots are no different. “The brain is wired to respond to faces, and in fact, if it’s a pretty face on the robot, that will trigger a little factory in the base of the brain called the ventral tegmental area (VTA), which actually pumps out dopamine—it gives you feelings of pleasure.”

Kate Darling is a research specialist at the MIT Media Lab and a fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center who studies human-robot interaction. She tells Playboy, “We tend to project human-like feelings onto robots and subconsciously treat them as alive, even if we know rationally that they’re just machines.” But as for whether or not sex robots can affect our human relationships, Darling says, “The only thing we know is that this is uncharted territory, because the physicality of robots is more immersive than what we’ve studied previously.”

According to the Match survey, while 31 percent of men were willing to have sex with a robot, less than half as many women would do it. Fisher has written six books about love and sex, including one about gender differences in the brain, which might explain that discrepancy. “Women are quite likely to link sex with romance, and sex with love,“ she says. “The male brain is generally more compartmentalized, so maybe they think ‘Oh, sure, I’ll have sex with a robot. It’s not going to interfere with my wife/girlfriend/dating life, because it’s just sex.’ Women may see it as something that is contextually a larger deal, and that somehow it’s going to have a larger impact on their relationships, and on their own feelings of self-esteem.”

Things get more complicated when people are asked how they’d feel if their partner had sex with a robot. Nearly half of the survey participants said they would consider it cheating. Considering how our brains work, Fisher says this makes sense. “The bottom line is, when you have sex with a regular person, and probably with a robot, you’re driving up the dopamine system in the brain, and that’s what gives you energy and optimism and focus and motivation, and that feeling of intense romantic love. And then, with orgasm, there’s a real flood of oxytocin and vasopressin linked with feelings of attachment. If you come home in the afternoon and your husband is on the bed having sex with a robot, he’s driving up the dopamine and all those feel good chemicals and kicking out feelings of deep attachment to a doll, and not to you.” She adds, “It’s almost like a denial of romance and feelings of attachment, because he’s putting his energy someplace else and driving up these brain systems by himself and not including you.”

Whether or not you consider having sex with a robot “cheating” isn’t really a question about robot sex. Darling believes it says more about the terms of your relationship and how you communicate with each other. “Some people would enthusiastically endorse an arrangement that included sex with a robot. Others wouldn’t be comfortable with it. So long as everyone involved is on board, it’s not cheating.”

If you can’t imagine a situation where you’d want your partner getting it on with a robot instead of you, Fisher suggests, “Let’s say they make a doll that looks exactly like you, and you travel constantly in Europe or the Far East.” Meanwhile, your partner is back home, having sex with the robot. “The partner who’s traveling might feel good that they’re not out sleeping with real people,” She explains.

Of course, sex robots aren’t just for the lonely. They can add a new dimension to a couple’s relationship and encourage both partners to open up about their fantasies. Fisher says, “I mean, I’ve never gotten a man to tell me what his fantasies are, but perhaps with a doll, one could stimulate them to know what their real fantasies are, and provide it another way.” She offers another example where the robot provides a new perspective. “Let’s talk about somebody who has a very difficult time coming, because they’re so busy trying to please somebody. So then they get a doll, and they don’t have to worry about someone else’s feelings, and they discover that they can come a lot faster. And so then, maybe they can work into their fantasy life what happened with the doll and come faster with a partner.”

Sex robots aren’t your typical sex toy. Darling says they’re trending toward looking and feeling increasingly “alive” and human. “That allows for more of an immersive fantasy than a lot of the toys we’ve seen so far.” If you have access to a sex robot, and you and your partner both want to bring it to bed, why not go for it? According to Fisher, “If you’ve talked about why you feel like doing it, and you get a lot of laughs while you’re doing it, and people come rapidly, and you’re hugging and kissing, and the doll falls down on the floor, you may have had a better experience that can enliven the relationship and open things up.”

As long as sex bots cost thousands of dollars, robot threesomes are unlikely to become commonplace—but even a theoretical willingness to have sex with a robot could be good news for your sex life. “We know from this study that those people who said they would have sex with a robot also had a great deal more sex during the course of this year,” says Fisher. She believes people who are interested in robot sex probably have fewer inhibitions in general. “It sounds kooky to them, and they like sex, they’re more comfortable with sex, they’re more adventurous with sex, and they’re certainly going to be more likely to try something new.”