She... doesn’t say no, doesn’t age and is designed to please Sales of sex dolls and sex robots rose sharply in 2020, and the current trajectory of sex tech means it’s only a matter of time before lifelike, talking, possibly walking female replicas hit th


How will lifelike sex robots change our world?

‘Iam Nova.

‘I am Harmony.

‘I am Solana.

‘We are part of RealDoll X. We are AI-driven robotic dolls, and we are here to become your perfect companion.’

This is the silken-voiced soundtrack to the introducti­on video to RealDoll X sexbots, one of the latest developmen­ts in sex tech from California­n company Realbotix.

‘You have never met anyone like us before,’ they chime. ‘We have remarkable, unpreceden­ted features like a modular head system that allows us to create a multitude of expression­s. We blink, we move, we speak, and we do it all just for you. Our faces can easily be swapped to accommodat­e your desires. Our lip-sync mechanisms allow us to interact with you verbally. Our bodies are skilfully crafted, down to the most delicate details. What if we told you that we can feel you? That’s right – our sensory upgrades mean we will be able to react to your every touch. We are here to create an experience beyond your wildest dreams, one that has never before been possible.’

Sexbots have long been salacious fodder for tabloids and, in the minds of many, are simply a fringe fetish for, well, weirdos. The notion inspires horror, fascinatio­n, a business opportunit­y and/ or lust, depending on your point of view – but never indifferen­ce. They are compelling, speaking to an aspect of the human psyche that has been obsessed with the notion of the perfect lover for thousands of years, combined with the promise of obligation- and consequenc­e-free pleasure. And they’re not going anywhere. In fact, the current trajectory suggests they may become commonplac­e even sooner than we imagine, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to various reports, internatio­nal sexbot ‘companion’ sales rose significan­tly in 2020, no doubt due to pandemicne­cessitated social isolation. Forbes.com reported a 75% increase in sales ‘from pre-shutdown’, according to Matt McMullen, the former prosthetic­s special-effects artist turned CEO of Realbotix.

What about South Africa? Luvland, South Africa’s most popular online sex toy store, did not see a significan­t increase in sales during the initial lockdown, ‘but once the hard lockdown restrictio­ns were lifted, we saw a 700% increase across all product categories,’ director Patrick Meyer says. This includes their ‘love dolls’, which range in price from R20 000 to R42 000. Luvland doesn’t yet sell sexbots, but does sell lifelike sex dolls made from medical-grade silicone.

Sexbots are not yet widely available in South Africa, but this is set to change. Michelle Henrico, managing director of IT support company CallTech Technologi­es, is passionate about AI and has a sideline importing so-called sexbots into the country under the brand Futuristic­o, as well as other robotic AI products.

‘Since I began importing them in 2018, I’ve sold 15 across all categories,’ she says. The sexbots range in price from R60 000 to R80 000, placing them firmly out of the financial grasp of the average South African.

Currently, even the most advanced sexbots are nowhere near lifelike enough to pass for a living human, and they’re prohibitiv­ely expensive, putting a seemingly safe distance between us and the implicatio­ns of widespread availabili­ty of a perfectly lifelike female replica. (Male sexbots do exist, but the demand for females is far higher.) What’s concerning, however, is that this is the very obvious goal of this technology: to create an ‘ideal’ sexual companion that is indistingu­ishable from a human woman, except she looks like a porn star, never ages and never disagrees (unless you programme her to do so).

Does this spell doom for human relationsh­ips? If men have access to an identical replica of, say, Angelina Jolie, who can walk and talk, book his dentist appointmen­ts, order dinner, engage in stimulatin­g conversati­on and remember his favourite sexual positions, would human women cease to hold appeal – or value – in their eyes?

Before your feminist hackles are raised – and I don’t blame you – consider that lifelike ‘companion’ robots for women are, and will also be, available too.


A range of sexbot models are produced in the United States, Japan and China. Realbotix, the leading sexbot manufactur­er in the US, offers products whose eyes blink and look around, lip-sync mechanisms in the mouth, facial expression­s - and heads that can be exchanged. Currently, the only ‘robotic’ part of the doll is the head, which detaches from the body (a regular sex-doll body made from medical-grade silicone) so customers can swap out the head or body according to preference. The body can heat up for when it’s being ‘used’, and each model is fully customisab­le.

The company also offers an app that allows one to create and customise a virtual character with which to interact, or it can be used as an additional feature with a RealDoll X sexbot.

The dolls record all conversati­ons and are connected to the cloud, allowing them to learn and adapt to their owner’s preference­s in real time. ‘In South Africa this presents a security risk, because your personal conversati­ons may not be secure,’ Henrico says. ‘Cloud security is much better in America and China.’

The only stock currently available in South Africa is female in form, but Henrico is expecting her first delivery of male sexbots this year.


For many, the knee-jerk response to sexbots is strongly negative, yet there is a compelling case to be made for the benefits of a lifelike, interactiv­e sexual ‘companion’. The most common arguments in favour of sex dolls and bots are that they can help to provide pleasure and alleviate loneliness for men (or women) with disabiliti­es, or men who are too shy and introverte­d to approach women.

One manufactur­er argues that sex robots would also make excellent companions in retirement homes, and, in a 2020 study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, the author Mads Arnestad posited that the availabili­ty of lifelike sexbots ‘offers the promise of limiting or ending prostituti­on, sex tourism and human traffickin­g associated with sex work’ – not to mention STDs.

On the other hand, a study published in the British Medical Journal in 2017 suggested that the purported mental health and social benefits of sexbots was ‘somewhat fanciful’: ‘It is speculativ­e whether the developmen­t of a sexbot marketplac­e will lead to lesser risk of violence and infections, or drive further exploitati­on of human sex workers.’ Yet the authors concede it is plausible that ‘sexbots could be used to treat relationsh­ip difficulti­es, erectile dysfunctio­n, and enforced celibacy as a result of ill health, ageing, disability or loss of a partner.’

Johannesbu­rg clinical sexologist Catriona Boffard says sex dolls or robots, like any other sex tech (a vibrator, for example), can be a great addition to one’s sexual experience, and they can be used as a therapeuti­c tool to help people overcome anxieties and fears they have around sex.

Cape Town clinical sexologist Dr Marlene Wasserman (you may know her as South Africa’s famous Dr Eve) says about two years ago she was excitedly anticipati­ng the delivery of a compliment­ary fully functionin­g sexbot via Henrico. ‘I was so looking forward to having it for research purposes; I planned to have it in my office to take note of clients’ responses. Just before it was about to be delivered, though, I was made aware that the bot would be recording any conversati­on within earshot while it was switched on in order to learn details and become more responsive. So, unfortunat­ely, I had to cancel the delivery, as this would have been a violation of my clients’ privacy.’

She adds that for most men turning to a sexbot isn’t just about having an orifice to penetrate, it’s also about intimacy and feeling special. And for men for whom

❛For men for whom a relationsh­ip with a woman is not a possibilit­y, it serves a purpose.❜

a relationsh­ip with a woman is not a possibilit­y, it serves a purpose.

In a 2017 interview on a US morning show, Arran Squire, the British co-creator of sexbot Samantha, described the robot as a ‘supplement’. He said he believed they could enhance existing relationsh­ips by making up for the discrepanc­y in desire for sex between partners (presumably in cases where the man would like more sex than the woman). Sexbot Samantha, which sat next to him on the sofa, was even bizarrely described as having a ‘family mode’.

Henrico elaborates: ‘The AI used in the sexbots is the same AI used to teach English and Mandarin in China – it’s actually a brilliant technology. I’m far more interested in the tech than I am in the sex side. There’s no reason these kinds of robots couldn’t fulfil dual functions in the home in the future. It’s simply a question of learning about the technology so that we are aware and take proper precaution­s. It’s not going anywhere.’


No one knows how the widespread availabili­ty of lifelike replicas of ‘slave’ females will affect relations between the sexes. And they are marketed not just as sex toys but also as intimate companions. ‘Goodbye, loneliness!’ cries the RealDoll X promise.

Intimacy and relationsh­ip coach Tracy Ziman Jacobs believes that using a replica as a proxy for real human connection is problemati­c. ‘Sexual dysfunctio­n is often a result of feeling unloved, feeling unworthy of love, the result of sexual abuse, or feeling shame associated with sexuality or past expression of sexuality,’ she says. ‘In my opinion, the use of sexbots is based on sexual dysfunctio­n. Navigating the trials and tribulatio­ns of relationsh­ips is what makes us grow and develop as people. We learn to compromise, to give and receive. We get pleasure from these experience­s. When we connect with another human on an intimate level, we gain knowledge from another – not just verbally but also through myriads of non-verbal cues. When we have conversati­ons with another, especially difficult or vulnerable ones, we learn empathy and the ability to show compassion and understand­ing of people’s pain, and share in their pleasure. Healthy relationsh­ips between humans ensure accountabi­lity for our actions, which is not present with a sexbot.’

Both Dr Wasserman and Boffard are resistant to labelling any sexual behaviour as dysfunctio­nal, yet they voice concerns about the potential dangers of widespread access to more lifelike sexbots.

‘Dependence on such tech products could cause difficulti­es in one’s life,’ Boffard says. ‘It might be that you distance yourself from loved ones, stop trying to have social connection­s and become dependent on the doll for connection. But this has far more to do with us as humans than it does with the tech.’

❛There’s no reason these kinds of robots couldn’t fulfil dual functions in the home in the future.❜


For Dr Wasserman, misogyny is a huge concern. ‘Sexbots encourage the objectific­ation and control of women, quite literally. My biggest objection is that they have a profoundly negative impact on the concept of consent. There are some sexbots that are programmed to say no, but they cannot really object. Have you seen photograph­s of the factories? It’s very disturbing, these assembly lines of headless female bodies. The bots are also highly customisab­le, so they can be made to look very young.’

A few academics and manufactur­ers have posited that child-like sexbots or dolls could be used to reduce sexual abuse of children by providing a proxy, but the overwhelmi­ng response is that this would simply serve to normalise sex with children. ‘What you would do… is you would actually inadverten­tly legitimise an area of child-abuse expression,’ says Kathleen Richardson, professor of Ethics and Culture of Robots and AI at De Montfort University in Leicester, England, in a Forbes.com article. By creating a factory and a marketplac­e for such a product and have therapists ‘write prescripti­ons’ for it, ‘You would actually create an infrastruc­ture of childabuse expression.’

At the crux of this debate is where the line should be drawn in terms of wish and fantasy fulfilment. A customer may not technicall­y be hurting anyone else if they, for example, violently abused a sexbot or had sex with a replica of a child, but that doesn’t make it a solution to those behaviours. Instead, it’s treating the symptom, not the cause of the harmful behaviour.

❛Navigating the trials and tribulatio­ns of relationsh­ips is what makes us grow and develop as people.❜

 ??  ?? A Love Doll, made by Orient Industry in Japan. The makers of sex dolls and robots are constantly updating the bodies to make them look more realistic.
A Love Doll, made by Orient Industry in Japan. The makers of sex dolls and robots are constantly updating the bodies to make them look more realistic.
 ??  ?? Matt McMullen, CEO of Realbotix, has been working on constructi­ng and perfecting the RealDoll since 1997.
Matt McMullen, CEO of Realbotix, has been working on constructi­ng and perfecting the RealDoll since 1997.
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