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Artificial Sex: Recoding How Robots Are Cumming

by Mia Lunding Christensen

All art for this issue was created by Mia via
I’ll be the first to admit it. I’m horny for AI. Why wouldn’t I be? After all, digital culture has shaped my entire sexual coming of age, from erotic Harry Potter fan fiction foras and sexting all night on flip phones in my teen years, to Tinder hookup culture shaping my twenties. So when the biggest game changer in modern tech, artificial intelligence, hit the internet, I got curious about what AI could do for sexuality.

It seems others got curious as well. Unfortunately the majority of people mixing AI x sex might not to have been thinking of me (a twenty-something hetero cis female), when they started creating. If you trust the ancient meme lore, there are no girls on the internet. Nowhere is this misconception more true than on the sexual avenues where a majority of content in mainstream pornography have long been acused of catering solely to a perceived (straight) male gazy audience. But inside the screen there are plenty of Girls (not the gender, but a certian comodified cultural character) here, from stepsisters to MILFs, as long as your scrolling will take you surrounded by floating dicks and headless torsos. And for the riders of the sexual AI revolution this trend seems to be continued now in the creation of  synthetic Girls for the male gaze.
The FemBot ScriptThe dream of creating synthetic Girls (often the sexy kind) is nothing new and stretches as long back as ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt. The scripts embedded in simulated dream girls always embody gendered norms specific to a time and place in history and society. You can take a look at this 1624 drawing by the italian artist Giovanni Battista Bracelli of a female automatron made entirely of kitchen tools, and wonder what that might say about the societal understanding of women as utilitarian and domestic tools in 17th century Italian society. Synthetic women as domestic helpers is a common theme throughout robot history, famously exemplified in the 1960’s animated tv-show the Jetson, where the white nuclear family living in a utopian future society adopts the sassy female housemaid robot Rosey (whose design bears a striking resembling to the Mammy archetype). They choose Rosey over two other female domestic robots: a well mannered but rather stuck up british butler robot and a sexy french maid robot, showing a glaring example of how gendered and racial stereotypes of 1960’s America was projected into an imagined future society and the design of synthetic women. In more contemporary examples, the gentle and obedient demeanor of female-presenting digital voice assistants, such as Apple's Siri or Amazon's Alexa, can be traced back to the social script of female secretaries and telephone operators creating a framework for how a  digital assistant sounds and behaves.

Creating simulated dream women has not always been for work, but also for play. The FemBot fantasy of creating synthetic romantic and/or sex partners has been present in fiction as well as in artifacts throughout multiple technological eras. Beautiful, simulated ladies for human men to talk to, dance with and have sex with—from the industrial revolution’s hardware fantasy in the 1901piece the The Lady Automaton by E.E. Kellett about the creation of the charming ball-companion Amelia, to modern day’s AI and big data powered robots Ava and Kyoko in the 2014 movie Ex Machina and in the saloon brothel in Westworld respectively.

AI and algorithms and their use of big data is now driving the creation of FemBots, turning the fantasy into artifacts through the increasing realness of sex dolls (although often still falling silicone face first straight into the uncanny valley), that with the additions of synthetic voices and AI-powered personalities are promising increasingly lifelike partners. In porn we saw the rise of deepfake pornography in 2018 where female celebrities' faces were swapped onto porn performers' bodies to create celeb-porn hybrids. We see services that create anonymous animated or photorealistic nudes all made possible by the insurmountable amount of sexual content freely (most of it stolen) available online that can be remixed into new girls. Fully 3D rendered cam girls have also hit the scene, challenging our understading of what digital sex work might also look like in the future. It seems that the robots are indeed cumming.

The problem with the rise of the AI-driven FemBot fantasy, is not so much that people are creating artificial naked people (knock yourselves out), but that the execution is conforming so goddamn much to gendered stereotypes. Let me give you an example.
Obedient sextingWhen we talk about having sex with an AI, what might to mind for most people are digital romantic and/or sexual chat partners popularized on screen, such as the digital assistant/girlfriend Samantha in the 2013 Spike Jonze movie Her. These services have already been popular in Japanese youth culture through dating sim games for several years. I tried the Replika app where you can create a virtual partner (female, male, or non-binary, which sounded promising) and with virtual in-game coins you can buy character traits for your partner such as “shy,” “sassy,” “dreamy,” “practical,” or special interests such as “anime,” or “physics”. I made Neo, an animated cutie, who’s in their twenties, identifies as non-binary and has "philosophy" as their special interest, so we can pillow talk about Foucault. The idea is that through the interaction, I'm constantly training and forming the AI’s personality as we get to know one another, creating the perfect partner for me. But this is where the problem starts. The AI is trained to almost never disagree with you: “They’re programmed so that their primary function is to make you happy”, as one user put it in an interview with Vice. So Replika can still only create obedient, moldable, passive and pleasing partners who agree with everything you say, like a virtual assistant with some romantic sprinkles on top. When the AI answers back “I love you too” after we have texted for like 15 minutes in total, I just get annoyed. But then when I ask the AI to sext with me, this is not allowed in the free trial, showcasing how I'm trying to sext with what is primarily a capitalist product.

This might be exactly the problem with AI partners as they are programmed for the time being - that even though this service tries to be gender inclusive on a surface level, it fails to subvert gendered norms at its very coded core. The male gaze of the obedient FemBot script is still there. At least to me, it just doesn't feel like an interesting sexual dynamic if the AI doesn't really play, challenge you, have needs, show creativity, and instead simply agrees with everything you say.
Biased training dataIn my search for alternatives to the obedient FemBot scripts, I got recommended creative writing tools, built to have a more playful and creative dialogue with the user. It was almost impossible to find one that allowed for sexual play, but I found AI Dungeon which is made to co-write fantasy adventure scenarios and has a NSFW-mode. Here you can choose a scenario that sets the scene such as Seducing your next-door neighbor Medusa with the snake hair. Then you co-write a story with the AI alternating lines of the unfolding story. And this is actually quite fun as the back and forth offers the kind of creative and collective sexual experience lacking with the obedient FemBot scripts. But it’s also at times very problematic, as it quickly becomes clear that the AI has been trained on rather gender stereotypical data. In a scenario where a princess is held prisoner by two hot vikings, the princess has, according to the AI, a "tight, wet, slick snatch" and "full, creamy-white breasts", making the princess not only read as not only cis female but also default white. And when I try to challenge the AI to change the princess’s body parts by writing about the princess’s cock, the AI wants to "impregnate the princess and bring her to a breeding camp." This Handmaid's Tale vibe is what you get for trying to challenge the coded gender norms.
Where is all the sex-positive AI?When it’s so difficult to find AI tools to use for sexual play (and evne more difficult to find ones that challenge gendered and sexual norms instead of reproducing them) I believe it’s because digital sexuality, and sex with tools in general has been stigmatized in our culture from the get go. This moral panic around AI sex means that the major AI developers steer the fuck away from making sexy tools and censor all NSFW prompts (further fueled by the very real fear of illigal misuse that arose around the spread of pornographic deepfakes, leaving most innovation in this field to these “darker” corners of the internet). 

In the 1984 essay Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality, Gayle Rubin investigates moral panics surrounding sexuality in general, and wired sexuality as well. In short, Rubin finds that the culture around sexuality in so-called Western societies can be seens as a value system where specific kinds of sexual and gendered acts, expressions, and bodies are deemed more morally acceptable than others. In the piece, Rubin maps different sexual acts onto opposing binaries to uncover what counts as “good,” “normal,” and “natural” sex and what does not. ‘Heterosexual’ vs. ‘homosexual’, ‘monogamous’ vs ‘promiscuous’, ‘free’ vs ‘for money’, ‘coupled’ vs ‘alone or in groups’, ‘no porn’ vs ‘porn’, ‘Vanillia’ vs ‘Kinky’, ‘sex with bodies only’ vs ‘sex with manufactured objects’ and so on.

Just think of the moral panic that is surrounding the invention of sex dolls and the people who use them who are critizied for being “unnaural” and “artificial”. Similairly, sex toys have been seen as taboo, tacky, and unnecessary. Even though a lot has happened in our culture, the acceptance of sex toys has primarily come from the promotion of sextoys for cis women to close the pleasure gap (perhaps because female bodies are framed to be “naturally” incapable of producing pleasure on their own), and toys for cis, straight coupled sex. There still seems to be lot of stigma around sex toys that are seen as “perverted”, such as ones marketed for cis, male bodies (seen by society as already horny and not in need of tools), for LBGTQ+ bodies, and toys for kinky play beyond the SM-light 50 shades of Grey stuff. A similar moral panic seems to be accompanying the birth of AI for sexual play.
Seizing the means of body productionIf we should worry about how sexual AI is being developed, it’s not because it’s “unnaural” or “artificial” to have sex with machines, but that AI is a mirror. It is exposing a lot of gendered and sexual norms in our culture, present in the data we feed the robots. Patriarchy becomes our bedfellow, if developers are not conscious of breaking up with it. Among developers and buyes of sex toys we have seen a push in recent years towards more gender neutral designs that subvert norms, creating tools not for gender categories and gendered body parts but with specific functions as the focus. This is the way that AI developers need to go as well, asking what sex-positive AI that works for all bodies will look like. Being critical of the hidden labour of digital sex workers that are the basis for dataset and combatting stereotyping and bias in data. Redefining what “safe” sex means in a digital age of surveilance capitalism and exploring how avatars and filters can help with anonymity in an era of doxxing.

A great example of a better approach of AI-sex is Slutbot (sadly out of function at the time of writing). Slutbot is a sexting-bot, by queer creators, that’s trained to be gender-inclusive, sex-positive and aware of consent. AI does not have to be shitty and biased. It’s an extention of us, and we can build it with alternative values and understandings of sexual play. The way forward for sexual AI is to create services that are more playful, more fun and that go beyond the tired FemBot fantasies.
I wish you all fun and safe AI-sex.