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From the 19th century to the incel crisis, sex robots have been as much about capitalism as misogyny.
It’s 2018 and everybody’s talking about sex robots.
It started last month, when a Toronto man intentionally drove his van into a crowd. His ideology? The incel movement — a politically radicalized form of misogyny in which “involuntarily celibate” men envision taking vengeance on the virile “Chads” and shallow “Stacys” they believe are contributing to their sexual poverty. (It’s the same movement, fomented on internet discussion forums like Reddit and 4chan, that inspired the 2014 Santa Barbara shooter, venerated in incel circles as the “Supreme Gentleman”). How, various media outlets wondered, could we combat such a radical, toxic ideology, one that had already racked up a high body count?
Out of this reaction came a modest proposal. George Mason University economist Robin Hanson published a blog post seemingly advocating for “sexual redistribution”: a subversion of the sexual marketplace in which sexual access was state-sanctioned and state-organized. The government, in other words, should intervene to provide incels with sex.
“One might plausibly argue that those with much less access to sex suffer to a similar degree as those with low income, and might similarly hope to gain from organizing around this identity, to lobby for redistribution along this axis and to at least implicitly threaten violence if their demands are not met,” he wrote.
Of course, Hanson noted, this didn’t necessarily mean mass state-sanctioned rape. Rather, he suggested, “individual cases may or may not be satisfied by sexbots or prostitutes.”
Now, Hanson was arguably making a point about economics, not sex. An extreme libertarian, Hanson seems to have been using his post to point out what he sees as the ridiculous nature of any form of government redistribution. (That said, he has a history of making comments that treat sex as a tradeable commodity owed largely to men, including askingwhy we are sympathetic to men who steal food to eat but not men who rape because they can’t get sex.)
But his words have prompted a wider conversation about sex, “sexual redistribution,” the danger presented by disaffected young man alienated from the predominant culture, and, yes, sex robots.
It’s not the first time the image of the sex robot has entered mainstream public discourse.
Now, as in the 19th century — the heyday of what we might call a “sex robot panic” — the image of the sex robot is a cultural specter of the way an increasingly capitalist, increasingly technologically advanced society tends to commodify human beings.
We’re all talking about sex robots now
The idea that “incels” might (or should) seek companionship from sex dolls is not a new one in incel discourse, particularly as sex robot technology gets increasingly advanced and sex dolls more lifelike. But it hit the mainstream on May 2 when New York Times columnist Ross Douthat published a controversial column called “The Redistribution of Sex.” The article concluded that “the logic of commerce and technology will be consciously harnessed, as already in pornography, to address the unhappiness of incel.”
Douthat wrote that “the left’s increasing zeal to transform prostitution into legalized and regulated ‘sex work’” combined with “the libertarian (and general male) fascination with virtual-reality porn and sex robots” will lead to people agreeing that there is a right to sexual access.
Douthat’s column has since pushed sex robots to the forefront of the conversation. The contrarian conservative UK magazine the Spectator, for example, published a piece directly advocating for sex robots for incels.
Now, contrary to some of the criticism of the article, Douthat was not advocating for “sexual redistribution” or for, well, sex robots. He was, however, predicting it — as a catastrophic conclusion to a deeply broken culture. Citing both Hanson and an essay by Oxford philosophy professor Amia Srinivasan in the center-left London Review, Douthat comes to the conclusion that while of course nobody has the “right” to sex, the way we, culturally, conceive of sexual desire is so deeply caught up in the fraught and unequal ethos of capitalism (what incels think they lack, after, all, is literally “social capital”) that sex robots are the (un)natural endpoint of our cultural trajectory.
While the backlash to Douthat’s article has been intense (and, in some respects, misplaced), his point — that we’re headed to a dystopia of sex robots — is worth engaging with.
Luckily, it’s not inevitable. Why? We’ve been here before.
The “sex robot” trope was born in 19th-century Paris
Sex dolls (or sex statues, or sex robots) have been around, as a trope, for millennia. The idea of a man falling in love with, and copulating with, a created woman dates back at least to Pygmalion’s Galatea, a narrative reproduced in the ancient Roman-era Metamorphoses by Ovid and elsewhere. European sailors in the 17th century made their dame du voyage: masturbatory aids for long naval journeys. But the origins of the sex robot as a cultural phenomenon date back more recently, to 19th-century Paris.
Paris in the 19th century was a chaotic place. Described by philosopher Walter Benjamin as the “capital of the 19th century,” Paris was a place of intense cultural change. The old city — a city of medieval alleyways and labyrinthine streets — was, from 1853 onward, gradually being bulldozed under Emperor Napoleon III’s chief architect Georges-Eugène Haussmann. This gave way to a city of wide boulevards, electric gas lights, and (a new invention), department store shopping.
Newly industrialized, with a burgeoning middle class who could, for the first time, afford the mass-produced luxury goods technology had made possible, Paris was also, for many, a source of existential anxiety. “Old Paris is no more,” lamented the poet Charles Baudelaire, “the form of a city changes more quickly, alas! than the human heart.”
Culturally, too, things were in flux. Increasingly secular, Paris’s cultural milieu was dominated by “positivists” like the writer Émile Zola and scientists like Jean-Marie Charcot, who believed not just in the supremacy of scientific progress, but also in the idea that human beings were fundamentally explicable. They believed that by, metaphorically speaking, taking them apart and analyzing them, you could understand everything about them. (In The Experimental Novel, Zola described his novelistic technique as being like a doctor at an operating table.)
It was in this heady atmosphere of competing and contradictory cultural influences that the sex robot became a popular recurring trope. Some of our first references are in the diaries of the novelists and social chronicles the Goncourt brothers. In May 1858, they reported going to a brothel where they heard a rumor about another brothel whose robots were indistinguishable from their humans.
These rumors remained in the seedy underbelly of Paris’s sex trade until 1884, when the eccentric novelist and dandy Louis-Auguste Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, published his bookL’Éve Future.
That Eve of the Future was not a flesh-and-blood woman but a robot (Villiers was the first to use the term Andreïde, or “android,” in fiction). Created by a not exactly fictionalized Thomas Edison as a replacement for the boring lover of his impassioned friend, Lord Ewald (it’s a very weird book), “Hadaly” is presented by Edison as an example of the triumph of the false, man-made, and scientific over the merely biological.
Throughout the novel, it becomes clear that Villiers, a reactionary ultra-Catholic monarchist, is using L’Éve Future not to praise but to critique this mentality. Villiers uses the robot woman not just as a misogynist device — fake women are “better” than real women — but as a critique of a culture that treats everything, even people, as commodities.
Robot women and doll characters abound in late-19th and early-20th-century media. There’s the living doll Olympia in the 1881 opera The Tales of Hoffmann. There’s the unnerving real-life case of poet Oskar Kokoschka, who — after his beloved Alma Mahler left him in 1918 — had a sex doll made that resembled her. There’s the false Maria, a robot designed in part to stave off a communist uprising, in Fritz Lang’s 1927 German expressionist film Metropolis.
In each of these fictional cases, the image of the robot woman or sex doll was used to explore wider ideas about the uncomfortable ways that capitalism, dehumanization, and sexual desire intersect. Later robot women stories have also tended to come during similar resurgences of the capitalist aesthetic, like Ira Levin’s 1975 novel The Stepford Wives.
“Sex robots,” therefore, have always been about more than sex. They’ve been a cultural repository for wider uncertainties in times of social change: a literalization of the fear that all human beings are fundamentally replaceable. They represent everything we most fear about what Walter Benjamin, writing about that era in Parisian history, called the “commodity-soul.”
Today’s “incels” represent the fusion of misogyny and toxic capitalism
Much has been written about the misogyny of the “incel” community and the way responses like Hanson’s dehumanize women by reducing them to objects, easily swapped out for robots or machines.
But it’s important not to forget another piece of the puzzle.
While Hanson’s proposal is both offensive and extreme, it (as Douthat points out) touches on something particularly insidious about the language of the incels and about how we as a culture talk about sex more generally.
The “sexual marketplace” is precisely that, and the language that we use to talk about sex — from the numerical scores that many men, not just incels, use to rate women’s attractiveness to the idea of sex as a reward for social capital — is inextricable from the language of commodity and capital. Hanson and Douthat aren’t wrong to make the case that there are parallels to be made between young men who are economically disenfranchised and those who see themselves as sexually disenfranchised, precisely because, culturally, we’re sending that exact message.
As a culture, we do, unfortunately, treat sex as a very specific form of, well, commodity fetishism. And the result is that among young, alienated, troubled men — the same demographic from which myriad forms of violent radicalism are drawn — that alienation curdles into violence.
Let me be clear: I am not condoning or excusing incels by calling them a product of a deeply flawed culture. Rather, I’m arguing that there are many different variations of toxic, violent misogyny in history, each rooted in different cultural problems, and that this particular strain of toxic, violent misogyny is deeply rooted in late capitalism.
And, just as in 19th-century Paris, the appearance of the image of the sex robot in front-page national media discourse is the canary in the coal mine.
That said, there’s some reason for optimism. The fact that sex robots recur as a kind of cultural signifier is itself a sign that cultural and sexual discourse are, to a degree, cyclical. That doesn’t mean that (as Douthat suggests is another possibility) we’re going to revert to some imagined preindustrial society of Catholic virtue ethics. (After all, it’s not like the medieval era — or any era — didn’t to some extent commodify women or sexuality).
But it does mean that the same cultural pressures — and sense of this isn’t working — that propel incels into nihilistic darkness may motivate others to seek more meaningful, mutual modes of conceiving of sexual interaction. In that, reactionary Catholic conservatives like Douthat and sex-positive feminists like Amia Srinivasan are actually on the same page.
At the same time, though, it’s easy to feel bleak about where we are as a culture right now, sex robots and all.
Even as Douthat and Hanson alike predict sex robots as an inevitable part of our future, incels are bringing a different kind of sex robot into discourse. The word “femoid” has become the preferred incel term for (human) women, on the grounds that all women are basically robots anyway.
Meanwhile, some of the Goncourt brothers’ 150-year-old anxieties are coming true. A sex doll brothel has, in fact, just opened in Paris.