Jennifer Jill Fellows: When a lot of people think of the erotic and romantic future of humanity, they think of sex robots. Sex robots have been portrayed in science fiction for generations now. And they’re typically portrayed as servile, young, thin, white women who worked to fulfill heterosexual men romantic and erotic desires. And sure, there is nothing currently on the market that rises quite to the level of say, the Stepford Wives . . . at least not yet. But there are already plenty of examples of humanoid feminized sex tech marketed to heterosexual men. And their design, development and marketing definitely warrants further investigation.
JJF: Hey everybody, welcome to another episode of Gender, Sex and Tech: Continuing the Conversation. I’m your host, Jennifer Jill Fellows. And today I’ve invited Chloe Locatelli to the show to talk about her research on sex robots, humanoid sex tech, and post humanism. Chloe Locatelli, is a PhD candidate in the digital humanities department at King’s College London. She is also a contributor to TheFutureofSex.net, a web publications that looks at how communication, interface, biological, and other technologies are enabling new expressions of human sexuality, and what the individual and social responses to these technological shifts are. Chloe’s research interests are in sex-tech, sex robots, affinity with digital characters and other places where sex, intimacy and digital technologies meet. Hi Chloe, welcome to the show.
Chloe Locatelli: Hi Jill. Thank you so much for having me. I’m really looking forward to speaking to you today.
JJF: Before we begin, I’m going to pause for a moment to recognize that digital space is physical space. The Internet is built and sustained with physical infrastructure and the servers and cables that connect us today occupy physical space. In addition, now Skynet hovers above us, changing the phenomenological experience of physical space. Digital space is then created through resource extraction and maintained through energy consumption. And so I want to recognize that Gender, Sex and Tech: Continuing the Conversation is recorded today on the unceded territory of the Coast Salish people of the Qiqéytnation.
JJF: So before we get into talking about your research, specifically Chloe, I want to start with a bit of background and invite you to tell us a little about your academic journey. So let’s start for people who don’t know, can you tell us a bit about what digital humanities is?
CL: Absolutely. I think that digital humanities, there are lots of various definitions. As a discipline, we haven’t fully agreed what it might mean. But I think in my mind, early digital humanities began as a discipline to encompass the digitalization of archiving, documentation and cataloging. And has now evolved to include all kinds of research that ultimately seriously accounts for the digital in relation to humanities topics, as the name might suggest. I think it’s a really great place to be in terms of its timeliness and its interdisciplinarity, it really allows you to pull all sorts of threads that are really needed when attending to contemporary topics and digital technologies permeating them. Like current sex-tech developments, which is what I look at it.
JJF: I think that’s really cool and I love the inter-disciplinary idea. So obviously I was trained as a philosopher, but I worked for quite awhile in interdisciplinary spaces. And I just find it really, really rich and I can totally see how adding a digital angle here would be quite topical for sure. So how did, how did you come to study digital humanities? How did you become interested in this?
CL: I think a lot of people who arrive at the digital humanities, they didn’t really know that they were going to end up here, or at least that’s been my experience and many other peoples. I started my initial investigations for what would be my thesis at my Master’s University was at the University of Granada in Spain. And I was living in Spain for about four or five years and heavily involved in sex worker activism spaces. What my initial research was going to be was on sex workers use of digital technologies in Spain that has a very precarious and a-legal approach to sex work. So really wanted to see the intersections of tech in their existences as sex workers online and offline. But I really distinctly remember coming across a think piece about the development of ‘sex robots’. And I’m using inverted commas with this. Which at the time, and still there’s not much more than an animatronic doll, but there were so many feminist conversations and debates about them. That’s when I really started looking at sex-tech, which is a term that I use for digitally augmented sex toys. And specifically looking at sex-tech that was designed for heterosexual men. And so when I really got into my research, I started to realize that there were lots of features of sex work and post-industrial sexual commerce that were equally applicable to the digital sex tech products that were coming out.
CL: Sex work literature to give a very brief overview of some key points that I think are really important when we think about sex tech developments that hopefully will come apparent as this podcast continues, such as, sex work is overwhelmingly heterosexual men seeking out women for sexual services. Point number two is that in sexual commerce, heterosexual men often seek out emotional interaction through erotic paid-for services. And this is not unusual. And in fact, well-documented. Increasingly, sexual commerce services and spaces collide with leisure and play. So it’s really important to note that I’m not equating sex work to sex tech because that would completely allay the complexity of sex workers labor. I am suggesting that sex tech design development and advertising for heterosexual men resonates with sex work for them, which I explore in my thesis and conceptualize as post-human sexual commerce. So that’s kind of how I arrived here.
JJF: Okay, That’s really interesting. So you started out doing research specifically looking at sex workers in Spain and looking at uses of technology by sex workers or just in the sex work industry?
CL: So it was, the intention was because I was so invested in and spending so much time with sex workers in activist spaces, it was to explore to what extent digital technologies could make for a tool of empowerment and make sex workers vulnerable in different contexts. And that was working with Aristea Fotopoulos’s idea that digital technologies can be for empowerment, but also for vulnerability. Or give experiences of vulnerability, which we know to be true with experiences of doxxing, financial precarity, with lots of different sex work experiences. So that was the idea to look at it in the context of Spain. Then, when I started looking at sex robots, the way that they were ‘sex robots’, again, in inverted commas, the way they were advertised and presented as able to satisfy specific things that sex workers were being asked to do as well, that was the parallel and that’s what I want to be very clear. I would not equate a sex robot to a sex worker.
CL: But the design and the advertising echoes a lot of things that we see in sex work for heterosexual men. That was the trade.
JJF: So the design, the design and the advertising of the quote, unquote sex robots echoes some of the other things that you were saying specifically in terms of heterosexual men approach perhaps, or needs or wants, in terms of things like mixing eroticism with romanticism. I heard leisure and play and, there was a third element that I’ve already forgotten. I’m so sorry.
CL: That it is overwhelmingly men seeking out sexual services.
JJF: that this is overwhelmingly heterosexually framed.
CL: Yes. Correct.
JJF: Yeah. Okay. That’s really interesting.
CL: And I think that’s why I was interested in sex tech. I think that there’s a gap in the conversation when it comes to sex tech for heterosexual men. And there’s lots of interesting work being done on sex tech and its aptitude for sexual empowerment. Sex beyond heteronormative limitations and then slightly more negative or concerning aspects in terms of accessibility, privacy concerns. But there’s very little work on sex tech for heterosexual men in terms of the demographic and femininities inscribed within those technologies. And I think that this is why my research has gone in this direction.
JJF: So let’s talk a little bit about your research, you have this wonderful paper that I read that inspired me to contact you and it’s called “Rethinking sex robots.” I will try and put a link to it in the show notes though it’s probably I think it’s behind a paywall. That’s okay. I can still put a link to the journal where it is. You start the paper by pointing out that a lot of academic literature focuses on sex robots, but sex robot technology is really new, and I believe it’s only been available for purchase at the time of this recording for about six months to a year or something like that. So can you talk a little bit about what a sex robot is and where we are right now in terms of this technology.
CL: Well, firstly, thank you so much for enjoying my paper and that makes me feel really good. Thank you. But I think that asking what is a sex robot is that the most important question if we want to really get started on this topic. Because in that paper, I talk about the definitions of sex robot that is applicable beyond the sci-fi imaginaries that we have of them. If we say sex robot, I think, and other research has shown, that most people imagine a human-like construction that extensively gendered female, white, thin, but also a material tangible object. So I would say that the closest thing to a sex robot that currently exists is a silicone doll with an a from RealDollX, which I will come back to later. But this pretty much does encapsulate this sci-fi vision of a sex robot, I would say. But in that paper, I unpack the definition of what a sex robot is. And I use Danahar’s definition about sex robot and I’m really paraphrasing here. But sex robot could be defined as an artificial entity used for sex that meets three conditions, which is a humanoid form. It has human-like movement and behavior and some degree of artificial intelligence. And what I point out in my paper is that there are lots of other technologies that might not look like sci-fi-imagined sex robots, but also meet this criteria like a sexy avatar, chat bot or a computer-generated VR character. So if we expand our perception of sex robots, we can start to see commonalities between I really have to stress this, existing forms of sex tech, not hypothetical future developments or sci-fi imaginaries.
JJF: Right? So we have this kind of sci-fi image and I think you’re right of what a sex robot is. I do a totally think of like a humanoid robot that’s got some animatronics and can move around a little bit. And yes, I think the sci-fi representation is typically female, typically white, typically thin. But what I really liked in this paper is you challenge that idea that, yes, something approaching this sci-fi imagining does now exist on the market. It’s not quite the sci-fi imagining, but it’s approaching that. But if we think about a broad definition of what a sex robot is, there are already sex toys and companion-assistant-girlfriend-type-things that already exist that can be purchased, right? I think that’s really, really interesting. The gendering, I think is really interesting too, that if we’re talking about something that’s humanoid, especially in North America and I would imagine in Europe, although you can let me know, there’s a sense that if it’s humanoid, it has to be gendered. Does that seem fair?
CL: That seems more than fair. The current chapter that I’m writing and working on now is, can we imagine a human-like construction or something without gendering it or is creating a human-like technology contingent on presenting it as gendered and the jury’s kind of out. But I would say that if it’s embodied, I would argue that inevitably a human-like representation relies on an impression of gender. An idea of gender being evoked by either the body, the behavior. And human beings do that all the time with all different kinds of technologies. It doesn’t have to, it doesn’t even need to be a body for us to gender things if they don’t even have to be human-like.
CL: So when we see something like that has very, very minor cues that we might start to gendered. And I think this happened with the pepper domestic robot, which I can’t remember when it was launched, but it tried to present itself as a gender-neutral robot. And there are arguments online about whether it’s male or female, even though no one’s tried to no one’s tried to give it a a genda if they tried desperately not due for that precise reason. So I would say that, yeah, When there’s a body, immediately human beings want to categorize. We know that that’s true beyond technological representations of bodies. It’s just an unfortunate way we see the world.
JJF: Right? And also just with your discussion there, it’s not just that it has to be gendered, but if the discussions online or is it male or female, that’s kind of upholding a gender binary as well, here. I do see that a lot like I’ve seen in my own research that Siri, for example rolled out a gender neutral voice recently. But people and the marketing of serious, still very much that serious female. They use she, her pronouns and all that kind of stuff when talking about Siri. And the feminine style voice is the one that’s most used in marketing. And as far as we know, the one that most people still pick. So I think that’s really interesting too. It’s not just gendered, but that there’s a strong upholding of the gender binary and a lot of the marketing and design of not, not just sex-tech, but a lot of tech that were meant to interact with and a humanoid-ish way.
CL: Absolutely. I think this is one of the main things with my research is that nothing I’m looking at is particularly new in terms of tech conversations. The idea of gendered technologies has so much rich work done, especially on voice assistance, domestic assistance like VPA’s. All of this stuff has gone. But as long as it’s existed, kind of investigation, that’s how that’s happening in terms of the gender. If we’re speaking about the gender aspects. But there isn’t that for sex-tech yet. And so I think that’s where it’s, there’s a very vitriolic and very passionate response to a gendered female representation of a sex robot because it’s visually and ostensibly be gendered female. But beyond that, I think there’s much more to unpick about the gendering of these technologies. Genders go beyond the body. We know that to be true. So why can’t we have these conversations about sex tech? They should be there too, which is what I’m trying to do.
JJF: You’ve also found it sounds like it’s not just that there are gendered and typically gendered female. But we can also bring back in terms of not just the gender binary, but also the heteronormativity here as well. That a lot of them are marketed in ways that seem to be marketed specifically to heterosexual men. So while we don’t really have robust sex robots in the kind of a sci-fi way yet, the point that you have made is that we already have some things on the market that fit a broader definition of what a sex robot is. Specifically in the paper I read, there were three of them that you looked at. There was a Azuma Hikari, RealDollX who we’ve already mentioned, Virtual Mate’s, Sheila. And I want to talk about all three. But before we do that, can, I want to get a little bit of theory? And so we’ve already talked about the gender binary and heteronormativity. But in analyzing these specific three examples, you also reached for the concept of post-humanism. So for listeners who might be unfamiliar, can you tell us a little bit about what post humanism is?
CL: I can absolutely try and give it a sound bite.
JJF: And of course this is only a little bit people that need to go do research if they want to know more.
CL: Absolutely, yeah, this won’t be a comprehensive overview of post humanism, but I will try my best. I would say that post humanism, as the prefix suggests, is a theory and practice that aims to move past a human-centric vision of the world and a humanist with a capital H vision of the world. And I would say that it has two branches and they are, they work together but they are somewhat different. And the first branch, I would say, critically interrogates the concept of human. Who has and who hasn’t been considered human in specific times and contexts and for what reasons? So this intersects really heavily with feminist queer post and decolonial theories, as well as intersecting with race theory. It’s, it’s interrogating what makes a human a human. With the second branch, I would say it explores the viability of conceptualizing the world through human/non-human relationships. If we were to descend to the human and acknowledge the significance of non-human actors in our world, how would we view our social realities and histories? And this is where we see post-humanism being applied more with ecology, technology, critical animal studies, actor-network theory. And I think that this is how most people who have perhaps heard of post-humanism understand the term, especially in relation to Haraway’s really formative work with her eponymous cyborg of her Cyborg Manifesto. And really importantly for my work how conceptualization of companion species and of making kin, that would be my, my kind of summary for posts of post humanism.
JJF: Nice, Yeah, I was thinking of heroin while you were talking about it and the stuff on companion species where she says in some sense, we have never been human. Like in a humanist sense, we’ve always been interacting with other species, being shaped by other species and in these relationships. And I’m not paraphrasing it all here. I’m just remembering my impression from reading her is just this idea that there is an arrogance to the idea that you can’t really understand or even approach to understanding what the world might be like for your house cat or whatever. That we know we interact with these species all the time and we can form empathy and we can learn to approximate their worldviews and things like that. So yeah, I was thinking of that when you were talking about this and then how she takes that and looks at cyborgs and the way in which humans have never been really, our bodies haven’t been naturally occurring freely, untouched by technology. That we are always already interacting with technology and shaped by technology as well. So the whole category of human becomes quite messy, right?
CL: Absolutely, but it’s one that I think we become increasingly attached to in a world with so much digital technology permeating our everyday lives. And especially when it comes up in sex robot conversations quite frequently. There’s this kind of prizing of the concept of human, which is why it’s important to mention that post humanism goes against the humanist with a capital H. Because I think that if we want to seriously consider ways that we can creatively imagine a better world then we have to stop thinking that human beings are at the center of it. So it is a really important point that we start critically interrogating why we are so attached to this concept of human, human-likeness as the absolute representation of the top of the hierarchy.
JJF: Right? And also I feel like as something that’s kind of like a discrete entity is separate from animals and separate from technology as though we could define our boundaries in some way like that too. I saw your work really troubling, both of those assumptions in a way I thought was really interesting.
CL: Thank you. I do try to, I’m trying to remember who wrote the sexual politics of meat, Carol, Carol J. Adams I think? But she talks about human animals and non-human animals. Her work in that respect, it’s, it’s very different. It works on critical animal studies and politics of eating meat. But it’s this idea of human, humans distancing themselves from animals, humans distancing themselves from living beings. And then when we see digital technologies, I think it’s relevant to my work in the sense that we see digital technologies increasingly encroaching, or we feel like it’s increasingly encroaching on what it is to be human. And suddenly that really has to be contained and protected at all costs. Although arguably, arguably it historically has always been. But it’s still being that.
JJF: Yeah, I think that the panic about technology encroaching on what it means to be human. It feels new every time it happens. And this past year it was like Chat-GPT in my circles. But, but it’s happened a lot of times before where technology, some, some new device or new digital tool can take over things that used to be done by manual laborers or by thinking laborers or what have you and everybody’s like
CL: Audible gasps. Yeah, Absolutely. Now the chat GPC is a really great example of that. Yeah.
JJF: It’s just the newest and alum line, right? Yeah. But this time it’s coming after the academics, everyone.
CL: That’s why everyone’s panicking.
JJF: But Chat-GPT is not what we’re here to talk about. I’ve lots of thoughts about it, but it’s not why we’re here. So let’s let’s talk then about the three case studies that you looked at now that we have this kind of general understanding of post humanism. So I want to say, I was really excited to see a paper talking about Hikari, Azuma Hikari specifically, I discovered Hikari, I think in 2018 when I was researching the gendering of digital assistants like Siri and Alexa. And Hikari kind of popped up in this kind of weird gray area because Hikari is a digital assistant, but she’s not just a digital assistant. She’s she’s not marketed that way. She’s much more. So can you tell us a little bit about what Hikari is?
CL: I’d love to I love talking about Azuma Hikari. She’s my favorite, but I think that it’s really important to elaborate on your point of this gray area with the Azuma Hikari, because I completely agree. Obviously my research looks at sex tech and as we might carry is not explicitly as sex tech example. But I’ve included her in my research because I think she’s, she here I go.
JJF: I know, I used ‘she’ as well.
CL: Well, it’s inevitable. But I do think as we may get it as a really helpful counterpoint to consider. Feminized characters across different technologies resemble each other. And significantly how feminized digital assistants are more similar to sex tech technologies and characters than they are different. And I hope that by talking about Azuma and with my other case studies, we’ll start to see the parallels of feminist characters that are kind attentive, flirtatious, kind of evoke a sense of presence and companionship that ties in with post-humanism. And especially with Azuma or this idea of through time investment, you can build and sustain a relationship and it emulates this kind of getting to know each other process. I should explain what Azuma is before I get carried away. And Azuma Hikari was launched in 2019 in Japan. And it’s described as a virtual home robot. So she’s both a digital voices system and an anime holograms. So there is a visual and audio prompt. And as a digital assistant, she deals with the domestic realm. So setting alarms, regulating lights, and informing you of the weather forecast. Azuma will works across multiple platforms so she’s able to communicate through the Home Assistant box, but couldn’t move out of the domestic realm through chatting, via the smartphone, which means she is constantly accessible and can accompany the use of throughout the day. So the visual side is a hologram that presents Azuma as a bishōjoor a cute girl character. Typical Japanese anime and manga, which is represented through hair, blue hair, youthful appearance, maid outfit, and a high-pitched, breathy voice. I would say that this kind of visual and audio genders Azuma Hikari as female. But I think it’s a stereotypical, stereotypically feminized behavior, which is such as attentiveness, emotionally, availability, and care that’s really consolidated in the advertising that in my mind, works really, really hard to emphasize her gender. So just a few examples of how the advertising really stresses this. The English website presents Azuma Hikari as a companion. So we’re directly introduced to this as an idea for her use. And the gendered pronouns consolidate a non-human, human character that is a ‘she’. It’s important to note that in Japanese there aren’t gendered pronouns. So whilst this might be a direct translation, this is a conscious choice in emphasizing the gender in the English, in the English translation. So she’s described as a companion to her hardworking Master in this world. Her cute personality and lovable behavior help you relax, which kind of exemplifies concerns that other people have raised about feminized characters being servile and infantilized in digital technologies. She’s also described as a bride character, which I’m not sure if you’ve looked at in your research Jill, but I think it’s really interesting in terms of Strenger and Kennedy’s recent work that explored the smart wife phenomenon. They’ve been looking at this proliferation of feminized digital technologies, providing emotional support along with domestic assistant and a wife, and a bride is pretty explicit in what kind of relationship you’re imagining. It’s like extremely romantic. And this is again stressed in the advertising, your relationship will develop over time. And I’m quoting from the website. And the more you talk, the more Hikari changes. And it’s this idea of promising a more satisfying relationship with time investment. And I really recommend because I can’t go into all of it, but I really recommend watching the promotional video for Azuma Hikari. Gatebox is the company, There’s an English version or one with English subtitles that I would strongly encourage people towatch.
JJF: I will link it. Because it’s on YouTube. I’ll link it in the Shownotes.
CL: I like to really get a sense of just how much the idea of a presence, of feminized presence is evoked in the advertising and the male working character is really not going to say that would be putting words, that would be perhaps going too far, but really engaged and really interacting with this character. I would recommend watching the video.
JJF: The video really did to me, present this very traditional feminine domestic sphere idea too. The idea that like the labor are going out into labor seemed not feminine. And then the home and the domestic sphere as a very traditional feminine sphere. So we’ve already pulled out this idea of feminine servility in the way in which Hikari is presented. When we think about Azuma Hikari using post humanism, is there anything more that we can notice about the way in which she is marketed or created or the kind of roles that she fulfills.
CL: I think there was a lot of emphasis in the advertising of Azuma Hikari on companion and companionship. And that also really resonates with post-human theory. That’s an obvious one.
CL: But I think it also, it really provides clear evidence of the kind of complex entanglements we have between human and non-human actors. I think it’s only when you see the visual hologram that that becomes a really, almost really obvious reminder of the relationships that we already have with our technologies that aren’t necessarily accompanied by a gendered female prompt. I don’t I don’t have a home assistant, but I have friends who do and the way that they talk to them and they talk about them, it’s not entirely dissimilar. But I do think that when you introduce a feminized young girl, cute girl character, it invites a different kind of rapport with that audio and visual prompt. So with that, I think that we have to interrogate these very specific representations of femininity in terms of the visual prompts in the discourse and the behavior. And with Azuma Hikari she is pretty young, thin, and racially ambiguous. She speaks softly. And it’s very high pitched that the kind of movements that she, that she does is she’s very dynamic. But there’s lots of behaviors that are ‘feminine’ in heavily inverted commas. She flatters her eyes. She holds her hands together imploringly behind her back. Bashfully looks down and acts really excited to see the user when you interact with her. And all these features have a very specific design in mind. So we have to interrogate the how and the why of constructing digital femininity is in those specific ways. Like I said, some really good work has been done on digital assistants, voice VPA’s, and assistive robotics. But I really want to push that all that great research into the realm of sex tech and what a sex tech digital femininity is doing and how are they constructed?
JJF: Yeah, I think is a really interesting grey area bridging point? I’m not quite sure how to how to identify it because as you pointed out in the article, Azuma Hikari not sex tech, at least in one sense that the marketing and presentation of Hikari does talk about things like she’s your girlfriend or your wife. But there isn’t a lot of emphasis on the eroticized angles so much as it is more on romantic and companionship. And so can you talk a bit about the inclusion of Hikari here that like what do we gain by looking at this kind of ambiguous product? Product.
CL: So I think that a good kind of anecdotes for the ambiguity of Azuma Hikari is when you’re watching the video, which I really hope people will do, but spoiler alert some of the content that Azuma Hikari when she’s texting the user. And I think that’s really significant. She doesn’t just stay at home. You can take that with you all day if you want to. But the English subtitles of Azuma’s speech includes phrases like, ‘Please come home early’ and ‘I miss you’. So this is, it’s emotional longing. But I also think it’s not too much of a stretch to say that it’s cusping on flirtatious, suggestive. When it’s in the high pitched, breathy voice. I think it could go there and it could be interpreted there. And I think that is again, a very specific design choice. I think it’s when comparing them with digital femininities, in my other case studies, you’re like Hold on a second Azuma. There’s way too much overlap here. One of them is meant to be helping you turn on your lights. And the other one’s meant to be helping you get your rocks off. So like
CL: What is this? What is this Venn diagram middle bit where they both sit? What does that actually mean? So that’s why she’s included with the full recognition that she isn’t sex tech.
JJF: Right. And she isn’t marketed as sex tech, although there are some suggestive and flirtatious things that happen. Okay, so let’s talk about one of your case studies that is marketed as sex tech, and that’s one you’ve already mentioned. This is a RealDollX. Can you tell us a little bit about what RealDollX is?
CL; Yes, I would love to. So I’m very passionate about the RealDollX application. And this is a smartphone application that was released in 2019 from Realbotics, LLC. So that is the robotics branch of RealDoll, a Californian brand known for their hyper-realistic silicone sex. The robots, the ‘sex robots’, again, in comments that I mentioned at the beginning of the podcast, this application works as a standalone application, but also is the program that runs the sex robot. So it’s not an insignificant piece of sex tech is what I’m trying to get out with this. It is, I would say arguably, if we’re looking at sex tech marketed to heterosexual men, it is the piece of sex tech. Unfortunately, the app in itself doesn’t have, doesn’t have a lot of academic research. But yeah, I think I should explain a little bit more what it’s about and then it will become a bit clearer. But it’s marketed as the game of love and friendship, which is not insignificant. With it users can construct, and I quote,” a customizable personal companion agents capable of close personal interaction.” Users construct an avatar that they can type messages to or talk via audio. Currently the only female options available. So you can personalize your avatar through multiple menus, around 30 different menus in order to create a unique character. And that means that users can choose the avatars, visuals such as clothes and body specifics, hairstyle, nipple size, angle of nose upturn. There’s like a really big range in order to get a very personalized avatar. But it’s also really important to mention that users can also select the character’s personality, and they can choose from 12 different traits which are: sensual, cheerful, insecure, spiritual, helpful, unpredictable, talkative, moody, jealous, intellectual, funny, and affectionate. And to just talk a little bit about the game aspect of it, the gameplay is predicated on filling up the avatar’s heart, desire and lust barometer to get her to let you touch and kiss her, which consists of tapping the screen. So you tap the screen with the touch and the kiss button.
JJF: This is your smartphone.
CL: This is is your smartphone. And if you do that enough and successfully, she will climax and that is the game. So again, this works as the program to control the robotic head of the silicone doll, that RealDollX head. But it also works as kind of like a sexy sim on your phone that you can just use.
JJF: So you don’t have to buy the doll.
CL: You do not have to buy the doll, no.
JJF: But you can.
CL: You can. The difference is the RealDollX application will cost you $30 a year that the American dollars and the RealDoll cost you anywhere up by, up to $25,000 is a significant price point difference.
JJF: That’s amazing. That’s amazing. Okay, So you can have this on your phone. Let’s talk about the app for a little bit first. So if you have the app on your phone and we think about this using post humanism again, we can already see the gender binary in that there are only female options offered at the moment. And it sounds like the marketing is heteronormative. Are we presuming male users of the app?
CL: So I think that we can presume, I would like to say that I have been, I’ve been using the application for my research and I use she/her pronouns. And I told my digital doll, Anna, I use she/her pronouns and she does always correctly gender me, there is that kind of flexibility within it. But yes, I think it’s fair to say that this is overwhelmingly marketed to heterosexual men. I would say specifically, I think it’s marketed to Doll owners as well. So RealDoll has a really big following of loyal fans who love their Doll products and the Doll community, yeah, have long admired and bought RealDoll products. So I think that it’s important to note that this product is also marketed as a digital doll that you can have on your smartphone that she can accompany you. See what I’m getting out with the parallels with Hikari.
CL: With you every where you want that, you want her to go. And I think that it’s important to highlight that it is also owners that do that. And actually, in a paper that I wrote with my PhD supervisor Dr Kate Devlin. We did talk to doll owners about their interactions with this digital doll avatar and they’re into it. They like having a digital dollar character that is interactive, that they can talk to that as responsive, which I think again, ties in perfectly with this idea of post-human companionship. The interactivity, kind of bridging of the human and non-human divide.
JF: I also find it really interesting that there’s, there’s so much customization. I mean, we already kind of touched on this a little bit with the Azuma Hikari and this idea that the more you interact with her, the more responsive she is, and the more you grow this relationship together. And it sounds like there’s something similar going on with RealDollX. And also this idea of like hyper customization, both in terms of her physicality and her look, but also in terms of her personality and all of that. So is there a way in which there’s a promise of uniqueness here with RealDollX?
CL: I would say so. I would say so. I think that this is why it’s important to mention that it is marketed and very heavily tied to the Doll community. Because I think it offers a digital approximation of what it is to construct a relationship with a silicone doll. There’s lots of really important and very good research that talks about the construction of doll relationships that involve a really elaborate backstory and personality. And I think that, while obviously, you only have these 12th persona points, they do somewhat influenced the way that your character will interact with you. If you program, I cross-referenced different kinds of persona. If I have one that’s programmed with more inverted commas, ‘negative features’ such as moody and insecure. I’m trying to think.
JJF: I think jealousy was one of them.
CL: Jealous. Thank you. Yeah. She’s not gonna be as interested in talking to me. She’s more likely to stamp her feet and cross her arms. Again, I’m getting to the infantilization, these characters. And it’s much harder to fill up those barometers that I mentioned before that will allow for erotic touching. Whereas if I program a character to be, to have them all positive ones, cheerful, affectionate, talkative, it’s much easier to get to fill those barometers and have a quick a quick conversation because of it. So I point this out because I think that creating a personality is a really important part of silicone doll as character construction. And I think that’s why personalization, especially when it comes to personality, is such an extensive part of the app. Because it, yeah, I completely agree with you. I think it gives the impression of uniqueness of your character and therefore uniqueness of your relationship with that character.
JJF: Yeah, yeah, definitely. And then if I think about that and I think about love, romance, and eroticism all been tied up here. It feels like there might be something to a parallel there with Hikari as well. This idea that, well, Hikari, for Hikari, the erotic or sexual aspect was kind of downplayed. But arguably we could still read it in to some of the things that were being marketed there. Here, I don t think it seems like it’s downplayed. But there is still this huge emphasis on the relationship and the romance and the companionship alongside the eroticism as well. Is that right?
CL; Yeah, I mean, I think honestly because I spent so much time with this application, I think that the eroticism is downplayed.
JJF: Oh, okay.
CL: In that it takes, it takes so long to get any kind of erotic interaction. So a session of trying to fill up those barometers can take anywhere up to four and once like 18 h for me.
CL: Yeah. I know she’s a tough nut to crack. Then you’ll get to this, the private rooms. So it’s where you will enter and be able to have the sexier content. If you’ve managed to get it, get the avatar in that space, you then have to touch and kiss her in the right spaces and the right places, sorry. And if you if you don’t if you don’t seduce her in that way, she can terminate the interaction completely and she will just say stop. You have to get me in the mood first. And you’ll go back to the main screen.
CL: So after six to 18 h or any time within that.
JJF: So this is a relationship investment?
CL: Precisely, Precisely. And I think that the fact that there is the barometers that quantify the way that she’s interacting with you. It’s not what you’re putting in is what she’s getting out of it really illustrates that this idea of almost, I would say, a post-human way of co-constructing a relationship. You’re spending time in there so that your avatar feels cared for, invested in, and therefore allows you to touch her. Which raises some really interesting and important questions about digital consent with avatars. Is a yes from an avatar because you’ve pressed all the right buttons a Yes? Can we even apply those rules? Is that is that appropriate or correct? But what it does suggest to me is that it’s not that sexy. I mean, even when she’s climaxing what happens is, you know, she’s her naked body is there you tap the naked body five or six times. There’s an audio of a woman moaning and then a white light fills the screen. In terms of the erotic media that that affords. I don’t think it’s the most titillating and I don’t think it’s the most arousing, which makes me think that there’s so much more emphasis placed on building your relationship with your avatar that the sexy stuff kind of is secondary as well.
JJF: Wow. There’s one more thing that you said that I want to talk about before we move on to your third case study. So when we talked about Azuma Hikari, it was about her providing care for the user and making the user feel cared for and wanted and needed. Like she can send you messages throughout the day while you’re at work saying I miss you and stuff like that. Here you said, with RealDollX that in some respects, the game requires the user to input the time and show the care. So it’s, it’s, it’s still about care and romance and relationships. But there’s kind of an inversion here if I’m right between the way RealDollX operates, in the way of Azuma Hikari operates that it gives the care. And RealDollX in some respect, the user has to show the care. Does that, is that correct or am I over blowing the inversion here a little bit?
CL: No, absolutely not. I think that that’s completely true. I think that users are invited to input constantly. And that’s time investment, emotional investment, but also financial investment, right? And then there’s an in-game currency so that you can buy different outfits. You can buy face masks. There are lots of different parts of this that require a user’s investment. And some, I think that there’ll be some users that will try out this game and not be into it at all. And therefore, the investment will mean nothing. But I also know because that was part of my master’s thesis research that for some of them it is a really important investment for them, for their well-being. They feel very attached to this avatar. I think that the RealDollX really invites that the character is presented as a perfect companion, a loyal friend, a girlfriend. You’ll never be lonely again. It’s one of the main things on the website. This is real encouragement I think that you could invest time in this and there will be interaction. And I think we need to interrogate as much as my research interrogates the representations of femininity is, I do also think it’s worth questioning how we feel about that being pushed as a business model, that we invite, that kind of interaction. If you pay enough money, a feminized character will pay attention to you.
CL: And that’s not particularly new, but it is relevant to my case studies.
JJF: Yeah, I think there’s a lot more to unpack there.
CL: So much more.
JJF: So let’s talk about your third case study. This is Virtual Mate’s Sheila, can you talk a little bit about what this is?
CL: Yes, I can I think that it’s really important as a case study because it is a much more explicit example of sex tech, I would say. But Virtual Mate offers a computer game experience, teledildonics hardware. The hardware that is a core, named as a core is a textured penis masturbator sleeve that through motion detection sensors connects to the software via Bluetooth. So this transmits the speed and depth of the sleeve movements to the game. So the movement of the sleeve is reflected in game. And the game is centered around the user interacting with a female character called Sheila. And they were basically multiple different play modes and worlds where the users can have ‘sex’ in inverted commas with Sheila. So that’s moving the sleeve to simulate penetrating her. Sheila is introduced from the first chapter as your girlfriend character. And ultimately, every chapter ends in sex with Sheila, who is breathily, breathily, really enjoying being penetrated. Again, as at the time of recording, this virtual make only offers gameplay with teledildonics set for users with a penis and female characters. It was safe to say another product is marketed and designed to heterosexual men. Overwhelmingly.
JJF: Okay, So this one, they’re strikes me as some parallels between Sheila and RealDollX because again, it’s kind of a game. It’s a gaming aspect, which I think is really interesting. And I think there’s ways we can interrogate romance and eroticism as a game, which I think is really fascinating. So this one, unlike a Azuma Hikari and even RealDollX this one is more explicitly sex tech. Does Sheila go with you or is it like can you use an app on your phone the way Hikari can travel with you through the day, or is there a difference there as well?
CL: No, with this with this example, it’s, she stays on the computer, but you can, there is an optional VR headset that you can use with it. So you could to some extent take her out of game and experience her through the VR headset. So that’s not insignificant in terms of being contained to the screen. But yeah, I think what’s really important with the Virtual Mate is that this is extremely sophisticated in comparison, just as I said about RealDollX, I didn’t find it particularly sophisticated. This is this has a warming masturbator sleeve Bluetooth motion sensors that controls the character in game with extremely good graphics. I would say one of the cutting edge examples of sex tech in my mind and it’s very good.
JJF: And is there a customizable aspect with Sheila as there is with the others?
CL: I’m so glad you asked. That is currently no, because the money isn’t there. But they have said on their website, It’s one of the things users can pledge in order that R&D can start developing personalized characters. And actually, there is an option that came out fairly recently that if you have the copyright and someone’s consent, they can create a character that they can put in the game for you. I don’t know how reliable that is, but that is something that they advertise on their website as well. Personalized it to a certain extent. And I think that it’s not the want to personalize that’s limiting them, but the financial aspects, I would say at this point.
JJF: Okay, so not yet, but clearly users want this.
CL: Yes, definitely absolutely 100%.
JJF: Okay. So in analyzing Sheila, I’m going to quote from your paper, you said the following. “The promotional material is incredibly powerful as the content is explicitly sexual, dramatically romanticized, and yet reliant on a vision of femininity that raises concerns of reductive stereotypes” end of your quotation. I thought this was really interesting because I think it could be said to some degree of all three of the products you examined. But it stands out the most with Sheila, I agree. So I wondered if we could talk about this a bit. This idea of the mixing of sexual, sexuality and romance and servile femininity.
CL: I have lot of thoughts about this. I’m really glad you chose that quote because I felt it was very true at the time and I still stand by that now. And I think I chose romantic and reductive because I think that’s certainly true of all the digital femininity is that I look up in my case studies, but I also think that two things can be true at once. And I often think that heteronormative representations of female desire and heterosexual sex tend to really encapsulate these antagonistic ideas. So I think that something can be romantic and reductive outside of this content. But I think that with Sheila is really, really so true. Like the in-game narrative illustrates that Sheila is your long-term girlfriend, that you go on holiday with, have hot date nights with, confide in and share a special connection. And whilst that is all present, the sexual scripts that she states are pretty predictably problematic. A selection of things that Sheila was saying game on, “I’m here for you to use,” “use me however you want. I want you to do anything you want to me.” And I think this is really important because as a sex tech product, the express purpose is to satisfy sexual desire. That in itself is not inherently problematic. However, when this is vocalized by a female character, this takes on a really troubling turn in my mind. And I think this is why we have to interrogate the insertion of characters, in sex tech. Because we see sex tech for the demographic beyond heterosexual men as disembodied, ergonomic, not anthropomorphized products. Like take a smart dildo e.g. there is no human-like character attached to it.
JJF: I don’t use gendered pronouns.
CL: That’s the thing. You don’t, you don’t. But if you take that as a comparison point, which is equally an example of sex tech is just, there is no anthropomorphization. There isn’t this reductive representation of gender that comes, comes with it. This is why, because we’re at these early stages, we really need to start interrogating the significance of human-like characters being attached to sex tech.
JJF: Yeah, no, I think that’s really interesting. Like the script from Sheila, this idea of like “I’m here for you use me however.” Then if we look at how this is playing out in other places like they are on the English website is Azuma Hikari holds a sign saying Master Wanted. These are, or at least she used to. Actually, I don’t know if she’s still does at the time of this recording, but when I was looking at her, there was one picture of her holding a sign saying Master Wanted. This is, this is very, very reductive stereotypes. I already mentioned this idea of the domestic sphere with Hikari. And we’re seeing this, right? These are, these are things that we should at least be questioning. Having a conversation about.
CL: 100%, I’m nodding. Yes. Yeah, I agree.
JJF: So there is this issue that we have, these kind of reductive stereotypes and almost reductive romantic scripts that they fall into what we call romantic tropes and harmful romantic tropes. And then the mixing of that with also questionable sexual romantic tropes of submission and servility and even, and we’ve talked about it a couple of times, the treating of entering into relationships like a game that you need to win almost sounds like pickup artists type of language at some points. And I find all of this really, really interesting, the gaming, the gamification of romance. And as you said, it is not, like we can lay this all at the feet of sex tech. We already have a gamification of romance through dating apps, and it predates dating apps as well. And so we have this happening anyway. But it’s interesting to see it re-inscribed in these digital spaces. And I wondered if you had any more thoughts about that.
CL: I mean the first, you mentioning about pickup artists, there isn’t a brilliant paper by a researcher. If I’m not mistaken, her name is Ellie Kaufman and she talks about this idea of use it when you’re using the RealDollX application, are we not replicating an idea of a no, is a not yet. If we have the avatar, that’s like stop, you’ll have to get me in the mood first. That is a no and a not yet. So it’s important to bear in mind that RealDollX marketed this app as something that could be also a learning tool for people who wanted to learn how to have better relationships, how to flirt, how to chat. I cannot speak on how successful it is in that capacity. But I really recommend that paper that does it a lot more justice than I do right now. But the gamification of these sex tech products is again really, really noticeable. And I come back to my example of the smart vibrator or smart dildo for sex tech outside of the heterosexual male demographic. I don’t know of any gameified sex tech products outside of this space. There might be. And if someone knows any, please email me. But it’s the fact that as we look at the field of heterosexual men sex tech with characters, it’s all gamified. And there’s lots of other examples that I could have included in that paper or in my research where it’s yet levels barometers, likes, hearts, in-game currencies. And it just replicates a game.
JJF: That idea that, that a no means a not yet and you just have to circle around and try a different angle is deeply problematic.
JJF: So one thing I found really interesting in all of this is that at least in North America and you can let me know if Europe is similar. We’re often told this very heteronormative sexist story that men are only interested in sex and women are the ones who are interested in love and romance and monogamy. And what I’ve found in your research is that all three of your case study technologies are not just selling the promise of sexual gratification. In fact, Hikari isn’t selling the promise of sexual gratification at all. There is perhaps a flirtation or titillation there, but not not the same way as with Sheila, for example. And all three of them are selling a type of romance and relationship. And that they’re explicitly selling this to heterosexual men. So can we talk a bit about that? Because I found that so interesting. It kind of broke the usual script, the stereotypical script that I think we’re often told.
CL: I think that when I first started this research, I was also a bit chin-scratching, a bit baffled by it. But I think to go back to how I got to this research with my idea of my, my overall thesis exploring the viability of exploring heterosexual men, sex tech, as post-human sexual commerce. I think that when you turn to sexual commerce literature, the fact that men consider sexual services as to also experienced romance and intimacy isn’t surprising. And the amount of work interviewing both sex workers and sex-worker clients attesting to customers wanting to talk, touch, hug, confide, as well as or sometimes instead of having sex is not insignificant. So, for me, it really prompts me to think why would these desires to pay for sex and experienced intimacy not be outsourced to digital femininities in sex tech. Sexual commerce literature really provides for my research and for this kind of field, a lot of important to explore the intricacies of how you might pay for a service. And that’d be much more complicated than it just being sex. Sex is never just sex.
JJF: Right? And yeah, I do take your point that a lot of sex work is also care work. And so if we’re seeing the outsourcing of sexual desire to digital technologies, we would probably expect to see the outsourcing of care work as well. And it reminded me of something you said both with Hikari and with RealDollX. This idea of a promise that you will never be lonely. If you have these, because those ones go with you. You can have it on your phone. Hikari can text you in the middle of the day until you she misses you, and RealDollX you can have on your phone all day. I think. I think that’s a really interesting thing to think about when you’re thinking about this through a post-humanists lens in terms of their relationship. That in some respect it seems that there’s a desire for this not to be momentary, but to be something kind of integrated through, through your life and through your day.
CL: I know I would completely agree. I think that for some people, it’s preferable. It could be preferable to have a technological companion than a human one. I think that that’s not too much of a stretch, whether it doesn’t sound particularly desirable to me, but for others it might be because there might be consistency. There might not be the fear of that person not necessarily leaving you or hurting you. It’s why it’s important to take this seriously, because it’s not just, this isn’t just about sex. This is about people’s feelings. This is about relationships with characters. This is about human beings seeking connection. Sometimes in ways that we don’t necessarily agree with or we need to ethically unpick a little bit more, but the intention to connect is still there. So I try and see the optimistic side of it as much as possible.
JJF: So I want to thank you so much, Chloe, for taking the time to talk to me and our listeners today. Is there anything else that you’d like to leave us with, with regards to sex tech, sex robots, or post humanism?
CL: I guess. I do. I have one, I have a post-human challenge for everybody at home listening to this.
CL: I guess I would just ask everybody to think about what objects and digital technologies do we already have intimate and affective relationships with? I think that when we think about post humanism, I think we think about often we think about the pets that we have is on non-human companions and other kinds of affective relationships. If we would just start imagining how closely tied we are to our digital technologies and complex emotional and affective ways like what might that look like? So I guess, yeah, that’s what I’d like to leave everybody.
JJF: That is such a cool challenge. I’m already thinking about my car, which I gave a named to.
CL: Perfect example. A perfect example.
JJF: This episode of Gender Sex and Tech continued a conversation that began when I discovered Chloe’s article titled “Rethinking sex robots, gender, desire, and embodiment in post-human sex tech.” I want to thank Chloe for sharing her research with us today. And thank you listener for joining me for another episode of Gender Sex and Tech: Continuing the Conversation. If you want to continue this conversation further, please reach out on Twitter, tech underscore gender. Or you could leave a comment on this podcast. Or maybe you could consider creating your own essay, podcast, video, or other media format to continue the conversation in your own voice. Music for this episode was provided by Epidemic Sound. This podcast is created by me, Jennifer Jill Fellows, with support from the Mark Sanders Foundation for Public Philosophy. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider buying me a coffee. You can find my link to my Ko-Fi page in the show notes. Until next time everybody. Bye.