How would robotic prostitutes change the sex tourism industry?

Machines have already changed the face of manufacturing industries, but what happens when prostitutes find themselves replaced by robots? Will machines populate our brothels instead of flesh and blood people? Will the social stigma of paying for sex fade? And how will the availability of robotic sex partners impact countries whose economies depend, in part, on sex tourism?

In their paper "Robots, men and sex tourism," which appears in the current issue of the journal Futures, Ian Yeoman and Michelle Mars of the University of Wellington's Victoria Management School explore how robotic prostitutes could provide a solution to many of the problems associated with the sex trade, namely human trafficking and the spread of sexually transmitting infections. Taking a cue from predictions by European Robotics Research Network chairman Henrik Christensen — who claims folks will be having sex with robots in five years — and University of Maastricht robotics researcher David Levy, who predicts that Massachusetts will legalize human-robot marriage by 2050 — Yeoman and Mars try to envision what Amsterdam's red-light district would look like in 2050:

The Yub-Yum is Amsterdam's top sex club for business travellers located beside a 17th century canal house on the Singel. It is modern and gleaming with about 100 scantily clad blonde and brunettes parading around in exotic G-strings and lingerie. Entry costs s10,000 for an all inclusive service. The club offers a full range of sexual services from massages, lap dancing and intercourse in plush surroundings. The Yub-Yum is a unique bordello licensed by the city council, staffed not by humans but by androids. This situation came about due to an increase in human trafficking in the sex industry in the 2040s which was becoming unsustainable, combined with an increase in incurable STI's in the city especially HIV which over the last decade has mutated and is resistant to many vaccines and preventive medicines. Amsterdam's tourist industry is built on an image of sex and drugs. The council was worried that if the red light district were to close, it would have a detrimental effect on the city's brand and tourism industry, as it seemed unimaginable for the city not to have a sex industry. Sex tourism is a key driver for stag parties and the convention industry. The Yub-Yum offers a range of sexual gods and goddesses of different ethnicities, body shapes, ages, languages and sexual features. The club is often rated highly by punters on www.punternet.com and for the fifth year in a row, in 2049 was voted the world's best massage parlour by the UN World Tourism Organisation. The club has won numerous technology and innovation awards including the prestigious ISO iRobotSEX award. The most popular model is Irina, a tall, blonde, Russian exotic species who is popular with Middle Eastern businessmen. The tourists who use the services of Yub-Yum are guaranteed a wonderful and thrilling experience, as all the androids are programmed to perform every service and satisfy every desire. All androids are made of bacteria resistant fibre and are flushed for human fluids, therefore guaranteeing no Sexual Transmitted Disease's are transferred between consumers. The impact of Yub-Yum club and similar establishments in Amsterdam has transformed the sex industry alleviating all health and human trafficking problems. The only social issues surrounding the club is the resistance from human sex workers who say they can't compete on price and quality, therefore forcing many of them to close their shop windows. All in all, the regeneration of Amsterdam's sex industry has been about the success of the new breed of sex worker. Even clients feel guilt free as they actually haven't had sex with a real person and therefore don't have to lie to their partner.

Yeoman and Mars make these predictions based on the growth of the continued growth of the sex industry, the human fascination with physical beauty, and predicted social reforms to combat human trafficking. They also wonder whether sexual mores might be different where robotic prostitutes are concerned. For example, would spouses view sex with a robotic partner as cheating, or as a form of masturbation akin to using a vibrator? Would people be more open and honest about paying for sex with robots than they are about paying for sex with humans? If robotic prostitutes could be program specifically for female pleasure, would we see equality between men and women patronizing these automated brothels?

Brothels for robotic sex workers make sense, especially if sexbots would prove expensive to own — or perhaps, eventually, sentient — but why limit these brothels to traditional red light regions like Amsterdam or Nevada? The paper notes that, even if we're getting down with robots instead of humans, mechanical prostitution might not be legal everywhere. Just in 2009, the Alabama Supreme Court upheld a ban on the sale of sex toys, although similar statutes have been struck down by courts in other states. Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court Case that struck down anti-sodomy laws on the grounds that the state had no legitimate state interests that could intrude on the right to liberty and privacy in consensual sexual acts. Prostitution comes with the added wrinkle that sex workers may be coerced — physically or financially — into sex, but there's no such issue with non-sentient robotic sex workers. Would US courts find that the rights to sexual privacy and liberty change once our sex toys look and — to some extent — act like humans? Will our perceptions of prostitution change if we make a gradual slide from non-sentient to sentient robotic sex workers?

Yeoman and Mars say they centered their paper around the Amsterdam sex trade because of the city's long history as a sex tourist destination, but sex tourism is a global issue, and it would be interesting to speculate on the impact sex robots might have on the economies of countries, as well as on global sex trafficking and the exploitation of sex workers. From Las Vegas to Thailand to Kenya, sex tourism has enjoyed (if that's the word) an enormous boom. Some regions are specific destinations for sex tourists; others attract a large number of business and entertainment travelers who consequently support a secondary sex industry. To some extent, travelers utilize these sex industries out of convenience or freedom of fear from legal repercussions, but it's impossible to ignore that some tourists are looking for very specific sexual experiences, including experiences with minors. Perhaps sex robots could become sufficiently lifelike and varied to mitigate the demand for the coercive sex trade (although given that comics depicting sex with children have been classified as child pornography, I wonder if child-shaped sex robots would be legal in many countries), but chances are that some people will still want the human experience.

Would sex robots, I wonder, diminish the demand for human sex tourism enough to negatively impact the economies of certain regions? Or would human sex tourism in those regions explode as robotic prostitutes came to displace human ones in places that could afford the robots? If human sex tourism did somehow become an economic impossibility, how might the economies of those regions shift and change? Hopefully, the advent of convincing robotic prostitutes would result in a decrease in human exploitation and sex trafficking (not to mention a decrease in the spread of STIs), but there are many ways these dominoes could fall.

Big thanks to Dr. Yeoman for sharing his paper, which I discovered via Big Think.