Exploring the Therapeutic Possibilities of Future Sexbots

Could cyborgs serve as sexual therapists in the not-too-distant future? Matjaz Slanic/Getty Images

The word "sexbot" tends to invoke sleazy, even scandalous visions of human-machine interaction. Think animate sex dolls. Think sci-fi explorations of prostitution and victimization. And yet, as we explore in the Stuff to Blow Your Mind episode "Sexbots: From Objectification to Therapeutic Surrogates," there are other ways to envision the future of sexual robotics.

Naturally, there's plenty of room for uneasiness. Might sexual robots embolden the worst impulses in their human masters? In the quest for artificial sensuousness, might we create whole new dimensions of suffering, exploitation and enslavement? My co-host Christian Sager and I explore these very issues, but we also discuss arguments that sex robots might only be as human as our least human — and often bestselling — sex toys for men and women. Most interestingly of all, they might take on therapeutic roles, such as sex therapists for veterans recovering from genital injuries, or real-life sex surrogates who aid individuals suffering from a wide variety of sexual dysfunctions.

I encourage you to listen to our podcast episode above, but I also think a thought experiment is in order — a science fictional glimpse into a future where therapeutic sex robots have their place in human society. Read on in this piece of short fiction below:

Sex-therapy robotics need not take an anthropomorphic shape.
Mark Stevenson/Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

Edwin and the Box

It was hard to see the box as anything but an egg.

Edwin stared at the it on the living room rug and tried to imagine the body inside -- a fetal folding of artificial limbs, a robotic embryo surrounded by an albumen of inflated packing material.

Not that it resembled an egg at all, of course. It was as an unassuming cube, and he remained thankful the manufacturers had avoided the sort of suggestive casket-shaped container that might stir neighborhood gossip. The Sabharwals and the Ambersons couldn't possibly understand the pain that had brought him to this point, or the effort it had taken to cave to his therapists.

Because it was the salacious stuff of sci-fi movies and Heavy Metal magazines spiraling back a hundred years or more: the sexbot, the pleasure unit, machines designed by men, for men, that invoked the most limiting visions of femininity and human sexuality. If the neighbors had guessed the contents of this flat-gray box, what might they think? Edwin the deviant. Edwin the lonesome. Or worse, they might suppose him a monster whose lusts were fit only for some sad simulacrum.

Edwin ceased his pacing and averted his eyes from the box. He brought his thumb up to his right nostril and began his breathing method, just as Dr. Xuěqín had taught him. Gradually, the anxiety began to wane.

He took a seat in the reading chair, careful not to knock his screen off the armrest. He'd broken one of the gadgets already through haphazard fumbling, but he was growing more and more used to his new limbs. The sensations of his right arm and leg didn't quite match up with those of their left-side counterparts, making coordination a bit difficult. The prostheses made all the difference in the world, but technology could only do so much. When Edwin was a child, his father had read him Irish myths, most of which centered around the wars of superhuman fairyfolk. He remembered tales of King Nuada, who lost his arm and kingdom, only to regain it all with a magical silver prosthesis — and eventually one made of flesh.

But there was no magic in the world. Edwin's replacement limbs provided a semblance of what he'd had before the incident, but they could not turn back the clock. Dr. Xuěqín had helped him emerge from much of the lingering trauma — what Edwin thought of as "the haunt." For so long, he had struggled just to walk down the street or take the train because the ghosts of the incident were always closer than his own breath. They'd reach into his heart, into the strings of his fight-or-flight hindbrain. He'd see commuters as potential insurgents, a book satchel as a potential roadside IED. The sky buzzed with imagined attack drones.

Of course, these ghosts were never truly gone, no matter the medication or therapy hours. But at the very least, he knew them for what they were.

Edwin stared at the box. He touched the screen's edge and considered pulling up the app. But he hesitated.

War was cruel. Sometimes survival seemed the cruelest part. The incident had irrevocably mutilated Edwin's genitalia as well, which was perhaps to be expected. It was a testament to modern medical science that he'd lived through the blast at all. Wounds like these simply killed you in the old days, but the flip side was that now more men and women had to live with the resulting trauma, as well as the painful road to recovery beyond. They confronted life again on the other side, as if on some alien shore, and figured it all out anew.

He'd fretted over so much. He'd wondered — still wondered — if he'd ever know the feeling of waking beside a lover in the early hours, or sharing the intimacy of a shower on a summer night.

He still had to remind himself that these were not selfish, ungrateful longings. He had to block out the inner voice that whispered the world "untouchable" and insisted that physical intimacy was the providence of the whole. He was not inhuman, so why should he accept inhuman boundaries of experience? Why should anyone?

And that was where the box came in — not a replacement, Xuěqín insisted, but a surrogate. A humanoid machine to help him through the next phase of his recovery, to teach him new ways of touch and, in the end, leave him with the confidence he needed to love again.

His fingers trembled as he slid open the screen and activated the app. He fought the temptation to check the blinds and jiggle the front door lock.

Edwin brought thumb to nostril and breathed in.

The cube opened on the rug like a budding flower.

He swiveled his finger to the other nostril and exhaled.

With silent grace, the subtle body unfolded from the box and rose to its feet. Its flesh had the appearance of amber plastic, its head humanoid but unencumbered by a human face. The contours of its body spoke to no specific gender, but seemed to offer the possibility of either. He'd expected a sexual being, a living statue of desire, but it instead exuded a genderless calm. It gleamed, neither silvered nor fleshed. There was no magic in the world. Yet when the machine extended a gentle hand to Edwin, he found it warm. 

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