Generally we are urged to welcome new technology. Indeed this sometimes seems a bit indiscriminate. After all, some technologies, in the end, don’t make it. Anyone who bought a digital radio in Hong Kong in the last few years, for example, wasted their money. However, there is one exception to this rule: new forms of fun, and especially new forms of fun involving sex.

There is already a Foundation for Responsible Robotics which published a “consultation paper” in May (no doubt the Hong Kong newspapers had more urgent things to worry about) warning that “sex robots could increase the objectification of women, alter perceptions of consent and be used to satisfy desires that would otherwise be illegal.” Why the last one is considered a problem I am not sure.

sex robot poster
Photo: Michael Coghlan/Flickr

But the foundation is just warming up for its part in the prohibition campaign. There is also already a Campaign Against Sex Robots, led by an anthropologist at De Montfort University who is a Senior Research Fellow in the Ethics of Robotics.

The only thing there isn’t quite yet is an actual sex robot…

YouTube video

A little history may be in order. People have always found artificial substitutes if they did not for some reason have access to willing partners of the opposite, or the same, sex. Many years ago I reviewed a history book called “Sex and Empire” about the sexual aspects of the empire on which the sun never sets. One thing in the book, I noted, puzzled me – a saying current in the 19th century Indian civil service which went: “women for duty, boys for pleasure, melons for sheer delight.” How, I wondered, did you achieve “sheer delight” with a piece of fruit?

The only local response was from a retired civil servant, who wrote to the newspaper in which this piece was published saying that in his youth he had been treated to a longer version of the “women, boys, melons” trilogy, which also included a tribute to the erotic possibilities of goats.

However, I also sent a copy of my piece to the author, thinking that his cutting service, if he had one, probably did not cover Hong Kong. And in due course I got a polite reply, including an extract from another book explaining the melon matter.

Apparently you take your melon, dig a hole in it approximately the dimensions of a … banana, prop it up (some people build a special tripod for this purpose) and give it all you’ve got, as it were. It is also possible to use other fruits. In the French Foreign Legion they do it with cacti. Well, they’re tough guys.

If life gives you melons… Photo: Wikicommons.

When I was a student, “love dolls” occasionally appeared as props in rag floats and such like. These were inflatable women, or if you prefer, woman-shaped balloons. They were always dressed, at least in the bikini bottom area, presumably to conceal the comparatively elaborate tailoring between the legs. The rest of the doll was not convincing at all.

The modern version has abandoned the inflatable technology. You now get a metal frame covered in silicon. The leading US version is called a Realdoll and it is eye-wateringly expensive. The cheaper version is made in China, and there are also several Japanese manufacturers.

As you can see they are quite realistic – if you are comparing them with a balloon. If you are comparing them with a real person, the chest to waist ratio is a bit implausible. They are dolls, meaning that they only move if you move them. Some people are working on movement. Apparently walking is out of the question because it takes so much battery power, but I suppose in a sex doll walking is not the kind of movement you want. You can now get a talking head for your Realdoll, for the price of a small flat. But nobody is going to mistake the result for a real woman.

Photo: Realdoll website.

That is not necessarily a problem. According to the Daily Telegraph, “Doll brothels already operate in South Korea, Japan and Spain, while the first robotic oral sex coffee shop opened in Paddington, west London, last year.” The mind boggles.

The only controversy about the existing dolls concerns a Japanese version. Japanese sex dolls tend to be small, both because Japanese people live in small flats and because Japanese ladies are generally quite small also. One version is explicitly juvenile. The manufacturer says that possession of one of his creations has enabled him to satisfy urges which would otherwise be illegal, and he recommends them for this purpose to other paedophiles.

This is a hard sell in western countries, where paedophiles occupy the niche once reserved at different periods for Jews, Gipsies, heretics or witches. They allow guilt-free hatred. So anything that helps them tends to get a frosty reception.

Aside from this, though, all the learned attention being devoted to this topic comes from people who don’t know what they are talking about. Because so far, there is nothing to talk about. There are no sex robots and the estimated time frame for something which might fool a pleasure-seeking drunk in the dark is 15-20 years. Some of the authorities, indeed, say that there will never be a sex robot you could mistake for a real person, because this would feel too creepy. So there will always be a sort of deliberate mistake. The Realdoll guy believes this is a non-issue. A doll is a doll, a robot is a robot and a person is a person. Users will know.

The objections to sex robots, which I suppose are also objections to sex dolls, and perhaps to modified melons, come in three categories. The first is that people who have tried it with a robot will lose interest in the real thing. The second, somewhat contradictory argument, is that if people do with robots things which would be illegal with humans, they may get used to the idea and more likely to do the real thing. The third is that female robots will change some men’s views of female people.

These are no doubt serious arguments. What bothers me is the willingness of some people to leap from the suspicion that the future may contain some dark possibility to the idea that there should be an immediate ban, or failing that: “maybe people who want to buy sex robots need to present the agreement of a couple of doctors, before they are judged emotionally restricted enough to need to retreat to such an inhuman fantasy.”

One of the advances painfully achieved in the second half of the 20th century was the general acceptance of the idea that what people get up to in their own bedrooms, alone or with consenting adults, is their own business. This is a good idea. I have no personal interest in dolls, robots, inflatables, melons or cacti as an aid to play. But if people want to explore technological variations on the traditional paths to pleasure, that is their right.

And I am a bit suspicious about the motives of professors sounding off in this area. If you are tired of labouring in the obscurity of anthropology, ethics or robotics, do not despair. You too can become a public figure by saying something provocative and opinionated about sex.

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.