Can a Robot Consent to Have Sex with You?

It's a truism in adult science fiction that humans of the future will have sex with robots. But can a robot really consent to have sex when it's been programmed?

Under the law, the difference between an act of sex and an act of assault hinges on one idea: consent. If a person agrees to have sex with you, you're having sex. If they don't agree, or actively disagree, it's a crime. Obviously there are gray areas, and that's why rape trials exist - in the best cases, such trials are intended to determine whether consent was given.

But what about robots? Do you think the blondie bot in Cherry 2000 was really capable of giving consent to have sex with her human boyfriend? Or did her programming simply force her to always have sex, whether she wanted to or not? And what about the Romeo Droid in Circuitry Man, or the Sex Mecha in AI, who live entirely to sexually please women, even when those women are abusing them or putting them in danger?

Then there's the opposite problem, which Ekaterina Sedia tackles in her recent novel Alchemy of Stone. Her main character is a robot whose creator built her without genitals. Even when she wants to have sex, her body makes it impossible for her to consent in a recognizable way (though she does manage to figure out a technical workaround).

Whether programmed to have sex, or designed to refuse it, the problem these fictional bots face is a lack of control over their own desires. You can't really be said to consent to sex if you're never given the option to choose between "yes" and "no."

Cat Rambo has written a short story where one of the characters is a female superhero whose mad scientist creators made her hyper-sexual. No matter what happens, she's always aroused, regardless of whether she wants to be or not. Her solution to this design feature is never to have sex with anyone. She doesn't like the idea of being trapped inside a sexual desire that a bunch of men designed into her without consent.

Researcher David Levy got a lot of media attention for his recent book Love and Sex with Robots, where he argues that by 2050, people won't just be having sex with bots - they'll be falling in love with them, and even marrying them. He talks about the development of emotional and social robots, creatures programmed to perceive and imitate human emotions. Already, roboticists at MIT have created several models of bot that respond to facial expressions and tone of voice with so-called appropriate emotions: An angry voice makes the bot cower; a smile returns a smile.

But of course these emotional robots have been programmed with what somebody thinks is an appropriate response - sort of the way Rambo's superhero has been programmed to respond to everything with sexual arousal. If we accept that robots will achieve human-like intelligence, it seems likely that such bots will sense a difference between what their programming makes them do and what they actually want to do.

So if a robot has been programmed to respond to human sexual arousal with more sexual arousal of its own, is he actually consenting? Or is he just going through the motions of pleasure and desire, wishing that he could control his own responses enough to choose whom he had sex with, and when?

Questions like these, raised in science fiction or speculative science writing like Levy's, are inevitably really questions about ourselves. As of yet, we have no bots who are sophisticated enough to experience intimate relationships with humans - by programming, or by choice. But as humans, we often exist in the gray areas of consent when it comes to sex. Our physical desires, our basic sexual programming, may conflict with what we actually want to do.

Certainly there are many situations where it is obvious that consent has not been given, or has been. But for all the situations in the middle, we are like the bots we imagine that one day we will fall in love with. We cannot untangle what we think we should do (our social programming) from what we want to do. Or we can't disengage our raging physical urges (more programming) long enough to ask, "Wait, do I really want to have sex with this person? Or do I just want to have sex with anything, including furniture?" In Charles Stross' excellent novel Children of Saturn, the always-randy sexbot heroine knows the answer to this question, and responds by humping hotel rooms and spaceships.

So will you ever be able to have consensual sex with a robot? Maybe. Sometimes. Unless you aren't bothered by having sex with a slave or a brainwashed victim, having relationships with robots will probably be just as complicated as having them with humans.

This is the first in a series of columns called Fully Functional that I'll be writing about science fiction and sex. If there are any topics you want me to tackle, pipe up in comments. Nothing is too weird for me. Really. Nothing.