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Vol. 13, No. 6, 2014
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Robert J. Lewis
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guaranteed minimum income and




Debates about technological unemployment typically focus on the displacement of mainstream, socially accepted forms of human labour. Such displacement often generates sympathy and ethical concern for the displaced workers. But what about the effects of technology on less accepted forms of human labour? In particular, what about the effects of technology on sex work? For a long time, human beings have used technological artifacts for sexual stimulation; and for an equally long time (if not longer) they have engaged the services of (human) sex workers. Could a day ever come when the former displace the latter? And what ethical/social implications might that have?

The displacement hypothesis is the claim that one day sophisticated sexual robots or artificial intelligences will displace human sex workers (specifically prostitutes), in much the same way as manufacturing robots have replaced their human equivalents. While such a claim might seem like the purest science fiction, it has been defended by several authors. The argument is that if one assumes that sex robots will become increasingly human-like in appearance and function, and that such robots will have advantages over their human equivalents, one can also assume that people will switch their demand from human prostitutes to robots. The Resiliency Hypothesis argues that sex work may be one of the industries that is resilient to technological unemployment.

I argue that no matter which hypothesis you prefer — displacement or resiliency — each provides fertile grounds for favouring the introduction of a basic income. The first holds that if we wish to discourage people from entering into sex work, an unconditional basic income might be the best way to do that; the second holds that even if one has no qualms about sex work itself, the failure to normalize sex work in most countries (even when it has been decriminalized) provides grounds for favouring a basic income.


A sex robot as any artifact that is used for sexual stimulation with the following three properties:

(i) a humanoid form,

(ii) the ability to move in a human-like fashion, and

(iii) some degree of artificial intelligence (i.e. some ability to interpret and respond to signals in its environment.

For example, Roxxy, billed by its makers as the world’s first sex robot, is human-like in appearance and touch, and comes pre-programmed with a set of responses to external stimuli. Videos of Roxxy are easily located online and clearly illustrate that the degree of human-likeness is, at this stage, quite crude. Still, it is an indication of where the technology is going, and when one appreciates that there are more impressive developments in human-like movement and intelligence, one can imagine future sex robots being considerably more human-like in nature.


Technology and technological innovation can have a profound impact on employment patterns. In many cases, the impact is positive: technology can increase productivity and economic growth, and create new and exciting employment opportunities Still, certain forms of labour have displayed resiliency, and there are niche markets for products and services that are made or provided purely by human hands.

How much resiliency is really out there and where does sex work fit within this matrix?


Displacement Hypothesis: Prostitution will be displaced by sex robots, much as other forms of human labour have been displaced by technological analogues.

Yeoman and Mars (2012), for instance, argue for a possible future in which the Amsterdam sex industry is taken over by android prostitutes. Avid Levy argues that prostitutes are at serious risk of being displaced by sophisticated sex robots, and that the ethical and social implications of this displacement need to be addressed.

The Transference Thesis: All the factors driving demand for human prostitutes can be transferred over to sex robots, i.e. the fact that there is demand for the former suggests that there will also be demand for the latter.

The Advantages Thesis: Sex robots will have significant advantages over human prostitutes.

When coupled with some basic decision theoretical principles about what causes people to demand or supply certain things in preference to others, these two theses can make a decent case for the displacement hypothesis.

Innate biological urges provide a reasonably consistent baseline of demand which can be accentuated in certain cultural milieus. One could argue that the level of demand is accentuated nowadays thanks to the increasingly casual and taboo-free attitude towards sex in many Western societies.

The first factor influencing the demand for prostitution is the so-called myth of mutuality: clients seek out prostitutes because they think they can obtain the kind of emotional bond with them that is typically associated with sexual relationships. Prostitutes are (sometimes) willing to facilitate this fantasy. The second factor influencing the demand for prostitution is the desire for sexual variety, both in terms of the number and type of sexual partners and the type of sexual act. The third factor influencing demand for prostitution is the appeal of sex that is free from the typical emotional and social constraints and complications. And the fourth factor influencing demand is a lack of sexual success in ordinary life, where this lack of success can itself be caused by numerous factors, including social isolation, disability, long working hours and age.

The gist of the transference thesis is that sex robots are credible substitutes for human prostitutes. The strength of this case is dependent on the state of the technology. It is relatively easy to see how certain factors would transfer over; less easy to see how others would, without a significant improvement in the technology. For example, it is relatively easy to see how three of the factors — lack of sexual success, desire for sexual variety, and freedom from constraint and complication — could transfer over to sex robots. Indeed, we already see sex robot manufacturers catering to these demand-based factors. Roxxy, who was mentioned earlier, comes pre-programmed with five different personalities, ranging from the prim and proper to the prurient and kinky. These personalities help cater to the demand for sexual variety. We can also assume, plausibly, that sex robots can be made available to those who experience a lack of sexual success, and that sex with such robots can be free from all complication and constraint. What is more difficult to see is whether emotional bonding will be possible with sex robots. But, of course, the case for displacement does not rest on the transference thesis alone. It is only when this thesis is combined with the advantages thesis that we begin to see how sex robots may come to displace ordinary human prostitutes. It is only if sex robots will be demanded (and supplied) in preference to human prostitutes that displacement is likely to take place. So what advantages do sex robots have over humans?

We can start with legal advantages. In many countries, prostitution is legally prohibited, thereby putting both the prostitute and client at risk of legal sanction; the use of sex robots is typically not subject to legal sanction. A similar argument could made on the grounds that sex robots can cater to certain, currently illegal, sexual deviancies.

There are also ethical advantages. Many people are concerned about the ethics of human prostitution, particularly where it is suspected to involve trafficking or enforced sexual slavery. Provided that sex robots do not reach the level of sophistication needed for artificial personhood (in the moral sense of personhood) the same sorts of ethical concern do not arise.

Then there are the health risk advantages. This, however, must be tempered by the observation that if sex robots are reused by multiple clients, poor sanitation could also carry a risk of infection.

Finally, there are advantages of flexibility and production. Robots can be programmed and designed to suit the whims of their users. If the demand for prostitution is increasing at a rate that cannot be met by human workers, sex robots can be produced en masse.


The case for the resiliency hypothesis rests on two key theses:

The Human Preference Thesis: Ceteris Paribus, if given the choice between sex with a human prostitute or a robot, many (if not most) humans will prefer sex with a human prostitute.

The Increased Supply Thesis: Technological unemployment in other industries is likely to increase the supply of human prostitutes.

Though sexual activity comes in many forms, there is a core type of sexual contact that is a deeply human, interpersonal and embodied activity. The desirability of this form of sexual contact is not simply a function of sexual excitement or orgasm since people can achieve sexual excitement and orgasm through solitary sexual activity.

Even if robots did obtain that level of sophistication, it is likely that the human concern for the ontological history of certain objects would maintain the preference for human partners. And no matter how you look at it, robots won’t have the right ontological history.

A Huffington Post/Yougov poll conducted in early 2013 asked people whether they would be willing to have sex with a robot. Only 9% of those polled said they would, with 81% saying they would not, and 10% saying they were unsure. Still, the results of the survey must be interpreted critically: people may not be willing to admit (even anonymously), to a willingness to couple with a robot.

One the problems with the human preference argument, by itself, is that it doesn’t say anything about the overall supply of human prostitution. If there aren’t enough human prostitutes to meet the available demand people many will be likely to seek out the comfort of a sex robot. The case for the increased supply thesis rests on four premises:

(1) An increasing number of jobs, including highly skilled jobs, are vulnerable to technological employment.

(2) People will be forced to seek other forms of employment (all else being equal).

(3) When making decisions about which form of employment to seek, people are likely to be attracted to forms of employment: (i) in which there is a preference for human labour over robotic labour; (ii) with low barriers to entry; and (iii) which are comparatively well-paid.

(4) Prostitution satisfies all three of these conditions (i) - (iii).

(5) Therefore, there is likely to be an increase in the supply of human prostitutes.

When the increased supply thesis is combined with the human preference thesis, we provide a reasonable grounding for the resiliency thesis. People prefer to have sex with humans, and in the future more people will be willing to supply human sexual labour, being driven to it by increasing levels of technological unemployment in other industries. This picture is very different from that being promoted by proponents of the displacement hypothesis.

Furthermore, many (Western) countries have now relaxed or decriminalized prostitution. This trend could well continue, particularly if more and more people are forced into sex work by technological unemployment. When it comes to ethical advantages, we can again note that these have not dissuaded people historically from engaging the services of prostitutes, and, in any event, ethical attitudes have been shifting thanks to increasing acceptance of casual sex. Finally, when it comes to health risk advantages and advantages in terms of flexibility and production, the response is straightforward: human prostitutes will adapt in order to maintain their advantage over robot competitors.


The unconditional basic income guarantee is radical proposal for reforming the way in which income is distributed.

Basic Income Proposal: A basic income is an income unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement. It is a form of minimum income guarantee that differs from those that now exist in various European countries in three important ways:

(i) it is paid to individuals rather than households;

(ii) it is paid irrespective of any income from other sources; and

(iii) it is paid without requiring the performance of any work or the willingness to accept a job if offered.

Human prostitutes are already a particularly vulnerable and precarious sector of the working population, with many people driven into it through economic desperation. It may be right and proper for us to be especially concerned about the effects of technological unemployment on them, and to do our utmost to minimize the suffering they may be forced to endure. But, of course, many prostitutes are unwilling to publicly disclose their participation in the sex work industry and it is consequently difficult to target those who may be affected. A basic income guarantee may be the most effective way to protect their well-being.

If we think prostitution is ethically permissible, the case for the basic income is less easy to see. At first glance, we may even be driven to the opposite conclusion. If prostitution is one of the few industries that is resilient to technological unemployment, we might try to encourage people to join its ranks. But there is still an argument for the basic income to be made here. For even if we think prostitution is perfectly acceptable, and so have no desire to discourage people from becoming prostitutes, it could be that sex work remains so precarious that a basic income guarantee would improve outcomes for the workers. Even in jurisdictions where there is considerable mainstreaming of prostitution (and sex work more generally), there is not always a corresponding increase in the legal protection of prostitutes. Prostitutes are typically self-employed, even when working at a brothel owned by a third party, and consequently don’t have access to the same employment rights and protections as other workers. Furthermore, social stigmas and norms mean that sexual labour tends to be viewed as a unique and exceptional form of human labour, not something that easily sits within the traditional framework of legal rights and protections. The result is that prostitutes face difficulties in protecting both themselves and their income streams. So, if technological unemployment in other industries is likely to drive more people into prostitution, and if we think prostitution is an acceptable form of human labour, we still have a case for the basic income guarantee: the failure to fully normalize sex work in countries in which it has been tried suggests that a more robust form of income protection is desirable.



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I am amused that depictions always show men lusting after sexy sex robots, that if it were the other way around it is a non-starter. Well, woman discovered the joys of sex robots long before men. Have you ever heard of the dildoe? It's a bare-bones, unsophisticated sex robot that women have been using for decades. And unlike men, we don't require an emotional relationship relationship with our electronic sex toys.What that means is that we would never fall for something that ridiculous when you think about it: an electronic dummy that speaks and obeys instructions. It might look more real than real but women aren't fooled by it like foolish men.
Responding to "I am amused." You don't get it. Men are a lot more visual than woman, that's why a soft surface with a lubricated hole in it (the equivalent of a dildoe) doesn't turn us on. We need the whole package -- and the sex robot offers that.
I enjoyed the video but I still prefer my wife after 30 years of marriage.
Anyone who wants to fuck a dummy-robot is hard up and fucked up.
We are a long way from Ex-Machina, like light years away. Until that happens, no thanks.


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