Robot Sex

The conversation began with my remarking on the gay pride sticker from Droid showing two little robots holding hands, one of them carrying the multi-colored gay pride flag. “Yes,” I said, “I suppose once we start making robots, we’ll be required to make the same number of gay robots as straight robots, or else well be accused of discrimination.” 

My interlocutor responded that I was confusing “sex” with “gender.”  “No,” I replied:

I’m not talking about their “sex” or their “gender.”  You can make the robots any way you like. They can have male parts, female parts, male and female parts, parts that fit together with their other parts; they can hook up to a wall socket if you like, like R2D2 into the Death Star. In short, they can have “sex” in any possible configuration you like.  But here’s my question:  Why would anyone design robots to “have sex” if the robots have no chance at all of reproduction?  Why would anyone waste the time, the money, and the resources to design that sort of “function” (if we can call it that) into an android?  What would be the point?

The only possible reason for doing so, it seems to me, would be to give vicarious sexual pleasure to humans. To call what these robots would be doing a “sexual” act would be a stretch.  At best, it could only be metaphorical, the way we talk about the “male” and “female” ends of the plugs on an extension cord.  For two robots, theirs would be merely a simulacrum of a sexual act, in the end no more “sexual” than the “sex” two cartoon characters might be pictured on a computer screen – simply a particular juxtaposition of pixels and electrons, not an organic union ordered to the procreation of new life. 

In the case of two robots, their “sexual” act would be what many people think human sex is: nothing more than two physical bodies in conjunction with each other in one particular way.  And of course, if we think about sex in that way, then the obvious question is: What is it about that particular configuration of human bodies that makes it morally impermissible

Indeed, as the conversation went on, these were precisely the sorts of question I was asked. “So lets say there are two woman who love one another and are committed to one another the way you and your wife are committed to one another, and lets say theyre engaged in an act that, if their biology were different, might lead to children, but in this case cannot.  Why does the absence of this one, single dimension of the act – the possibility of having children – make it something morally unacceptable?” 

         Green Gay Androids of Google

You get the picture. An act identical in every other respect except for the absence of this one thing: namely, the possibility of having children. How is this situation different, my young friend wanted to know, from the same sort of act between a married heterosexual couple having sex during the woman’s infertile periods, when that dimension of the act (the possibility of having children) is similarly absent? 

            Not being Catholic, my young friend didn’t know how often many Catholics use this same argument on behalf of contraception.  Here is a couple, it is said, engaged in a sexual act identical (it is claimed) in every other respect to the one engaged in by couples trying to have children, except for the absence of this one dimension of the act: the procreative dimension.  Why, they want to know, would the absence of this one dimension of the act – the possibility of having children – make it something morally unacceptable to the Church?

I’ll have more to say on this question in the future, but the first thing we might notice is the degree to which such a question is made possible by the culture of contraception.  It might be good to recall that for the bulk of human history, no one could have thought about sex this way. It’s not that people in the past weren’t interested in having sex without making babies – people were always interested in pleasure without consequences. No, it’s just that, whether people were trying desperately to avoid babies or not, couples engaging in sex wouldn’t have been able to avoid thinking about procreation.  Everyone was very aware that what they were doing involved something like planting seed in fertile soil. 

Contraception changes that mentality: sex becomes increasingly divorced from procreation, not merely in practice (which was always a possibility) but in the way people think about sex.  Before the advent of reliable contraception, no one would have said that procreation was just one dimension of sex.  Even today, people euphemistically refer to the sexual act as “making babies” — sometimes even when the couple in question doesn’t want to make a baby.

It’s only in the present rather confused age that we’re in the rather odd position of having people engaged in the act of “making babies” who want to claim that “making a baby” is only one dimension of that particular act, and a non-essential one at that! So, for example, it’s only for this current generation that masturbation would be considered a form of “sex.” In the past, masturbation would have been considered something one did when “sex” was for some reason not available.  For this generation, any sexual stimulation whatsoever can be called “sex.” 

The first thing to notice about many modern conversations about “sex” is that the two parties may actually be talking about two entirely different things.  From the Catholic perspective, talking about sex as though it was merely an arrangement of body parts would be like equating sex with the game “Twister.”  In this confused age, the first question we have to get clear is this: What makes something “sex”?  A configuration of body parts?  A feeling?

More on this next time.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.