“Religious groups in Houston are protesting the opening of a brothel featuring sex robots. …Why’re they worried about it?” Goldberg said on the show.
While Goldberg and others on the show seemed to laugh off the idea, the matter is serious for some here in Houston.
Mayor Sylvester Turner moved swiftly and presented an ordinance to city council that expands the meaning of adult arcades to include “anthropomorphic devices,” in other words, human-like sex dolls or robots.
It passed unanimously, and some of the public comments before the vote at city hall reveal much about how the community feels.
One Houstonian, Tex Christopher, quoted the Bible in his comment: “In Ephesians 5:31, it says that a man shall leave this father and mother and shall be joined unto his wife and they shall become one. It doesn’t say that a man shall leave his mother and father and go and join a robot.”
Leading the charge against KinkySDolls – the company that wants to open the sex-doll business in Houston – is the Christian group Elijah Rising; it is dedicated to fighting prostitution and human trafficking. It started an online petition demanding the city stop the business, and it collected more than 13,000 signatures.
To learn more about its effort, I visited its offices along the Southwest Freeway, in a former illicit massage parlor.
David Gamboa is the group’s spokesman: “You know, we still have guys show up today thinking we’re a massage parlor, and so they’ll come in asking us for women and we usually bring them back to the museum and we educate them, and a lot of times they just kind of run out the door.”
But some argue that robot prostitutes actually lower the demand for human sex workers. Gamboa disagrees.
“At the end of the day, I don’t think they are going to always choose that over a woman. I think it’s going to be an entry point for men who might be interested in purchasing sex,” Gamboa says.
His theory is also held by some researchers, most prominently a British researcher who founded the organization Campaign Against Sex Robots.
But in the case of the Houston robot brothel, is it really about sex trafficking? Tamler Sommers, a philosophy professor at the University of Houston, says that’s not the real reason people are against it. He often talks about human sexuality and morality in his twice-monthly podcast. Sommers says there just aren’t any empirical studies to prove a connection.
“So I think what people are really concerned with is what does it say about our city? …What does it say about our city that we would be the first city to open a sex-robot brothel?” Sommers says.
He points to comments like this by city council member Brenda Stardig, who said: “We don’t want to be known worldwide for these things. We don’t want for these things to be happening here.”
With the updated ordinance, a company cannot let customers have sex with dolls or robots on site. It can still have a showroom and sell their products, but that’s about it – at least legally.
KinkySDolls did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But its CEO Yuval Gavriel told the British tabloid the Daily Mirror he’s looking into legal options.
Jed Silverman, a Houston attorney who specializes in sexually oriented businesses, doesn’t think this issue will go away.
“I would suspect that they’re going to continue to try to fight against this. The future will let us know what’s going to happen. But if there’s money to be made at doing this, I suspect the fight is far from over,” Silverman says.
He says even if sex-robot companies lose the legal fight, there’s still a chance they could try to simply go around the new regulations. Just like with adult video booths, which still exist in Houston, spending time with a device in the back of the store is not illegal, but it is if the customer engages in sexual activity. But the operator can deny any knowledge of that.
There are currently no laws against opening a sex robot brothel in Houston, but recently announced plans to open one have some residents saying there should be.
The owner of Kinky S Dolls, a Toronto-based company where $120 gets customers 80 minutes alone with a robotic sex doll that moves and talks, plans to open another location in the Houston area. It would be the first sex robot brothel in the U.S.
On advice from counsel, owner Yuval Gavriel doesn’t call his business a ‘sex robot brothel’ but rather a kind of try-it-before-you-buy-it shop for realistic sex dolls, which he sells for $2,000 to $5,000.
“I consulted with a lawyer and the lawyer said, ‘Listen, there are no rules to it, but if you are smart you don’t go out and say you are operating a brothel,'” Gavriel told the Washington Examiner. “He went through all the laws and all of the regulations and currently there are no regulations for this kind of service. The States is a bigger market, and a healthier market, and God bless Trump.”
A sex doll sold by Kinky S Dolls for about $3,500.
Sex dolls and robots may be legal in the U.S., but some believe that establishing what’s essentially a robot sex brothel would cross a line. In response to Gavriel’s plans, Elijah Rising, a Christian organization in Houston that combats sex trafficking, published a petition titled ‘Keep Robot Brothels Out Of Houston’.
“As a nonprofit whose mission is to end sex trafficking we have seen the progression as sex buyers go from pornography to strip clubs to purchasing sex—robot brothels will ultimately harm men, their understanding of healthy sexuality, and increase the demand for the prostitution and sexual exploitation of women and children,” reads the petition, which currently has nearly 6,000 signatures.
Elijah Rising’s argument is based on a paper written by Kathleen Richardson, a professor of ethics and culture of robots at De Montfort University.
“I propose that extending relations of prostitution into machines is neither ethical, nor is it safe,” Richardson argues in the paper. “If anything the development of sex robots will further reinforce relations of power that do not recognise both parties as human subjects. Only the buyer of sex is recognised as a subject, the seller of sex (and by virtue the sex-robot) is merely a thing to have sex with.”
How would sex robots affect rates of prostitution?
One argument, to which Gavriel subscribes, says that increased availability of sex robots would reduce the demand for human prostitutes. It’s an idea tangentially related to the longstanding body of research that shows countries tend to see decreases in sexual assaults and rape after they legalize porn.
In his bestselling book Love and Sex with Robots, A.I. researcher David Levy explores the future of human relationships with robots and suggests that sex robots could reduce prostitution rates, or even someday render it obsolete.
But that’s “highly speculative philosophy,” according to Richardson.
“The reality is that it will just become a new niche market within the pornography industry and within the prostitution trade,” she said in an interview with Feminist Current. “If people buy into the idea that you can have these dolls as part of your sexual fetish, it will become another burden that actual living human beings will have to undergo in the commercial sex trade.”
A sex doll sold by Kinky S Dolls.
Richardson elaborated on this idea in her paper.
“…studies have found that the introduction of new technology supports and contributes to the expansion of the sex industry,” she wrote. “Prostitution and pornography production also rises with the growth of the internet. In 1990, 5.6 percent of men reported paying for sex in their lifetime, by 2000, this had increased to 8.8 percent.”
However, those rates aren’t necessarily causally linked.
Richardson also wrote that if sex toys, such as RealDolls and blow-up dolls, actually led to lower prostitution demand then we would have already seen decreases, but “no such correlation is found.”
Still, that last point might soon become invalid as a sort of apples-to-oranges comparison if technology can produce artificially intelligent and lifelike sex robots unlike anything the industry has seen before.
An illusion of companionship
Image: Film4, from the 2015 film ‘Ex Machina’
Critics argue that the proliferation of sex robots would serve to reinforce the objectification of women in men’s minds, and also reduce the ability for some men to empathize, a necessary component of healthy social interaction.
Houstonian Andrea Paul voiced a simpler objection to the brothel:
“There’s kids around here and it’s a family-oriented neighborhood and I live right here and to have that here is just gross.”
Gross, sure. But to Matt McMullen, creator of the RealDoll, the future of sex robots looks a bit more uplifting.
“My goal, in a very simple way, is to make people happy,” McMullen told CNET. “There are a lot of people out there, for one reason or another, who have difficulty forming traditional relationships with other people. It’s really all about giving those people some level of companionship—or the illusion of companionship.”