It’s 2020, and Roger, a recent divorcé from New York, decides to pay for some female company. So he turns on his computer, connects a robotic vagina to it and starts having sex with Cinnamon, a college student in Sydney with a computer and a remotely controlled robotic penis.
Creeped out yet? Welcome to the future of prostitution.
The digital revolution is transforming all industries, and even the world’s oldest profession isn’t immune. Teledildonics and haptic technology — aka remote-controlled vibrators and tactile feedback — were designed for couples to physically stimulate each other in real time, over the Internet. Now, webcam models are joining in on the fun by adding “interactivity” to their shows and creating what might be a new type of prostitution. Sites like Vcams already offer clients the ability to use a — gasp — robo-penis to have “sex” with the women, while products like RealTouch allow the women to reciprocate the movement.
“The same way manufacturing has been turned upside down by automation, sex work will be turned upside down by automation,” says Seth, who goes by his first name only and is the founder of FriXion, a cutting-edge teledildonics company that’s planning to partner with adult webcam providers. Indeed, sex work is an economic activity. So maybe this is just the next logical step in the mechanization process, which already transformed the way car manufacturers, farmers and even surgeons work.
But as sex gadgets get more sophisticated, the line between porn and prostitution is becoming increasingly blurred. Now we’re all just a Google search and a couple of online payments away from being able to touch — and be touched — by a distant stranger in the comfort of our own home. Does that count as prostitution? Forget about the experts; even sex workers aren’t sure what the correct answer is. “It’s hard to tell,” says Luca Stevenson, who coordinates the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe, a network of sex workers and allies. “I’ve done paid online sex before, and it might not have been the same as in person, but it was definitely a sexual act.”
Haptic technology offers both parties a safe space to meet with no risk of physical abuse or STDs.
The law is not clear about it, either. Webcams are largely unregulated or typified as porn, and the definition of prostitution varies widely from the U.S. (where it is mostly against the law) to Germany (where it’s completely legal). In Canada, the law says purchasing “sexual services” is a crime, but it stops short of defining “sexual services,” leaving room for interpretation. “It is possible that sex work could be read expansively to include these new kinds of activities, but it’s still too early to tell,” explains Elin R.S. Sigurdson of JFK Law Corporation, who specializes in prostitution law.
Future law enforcement will depend on whether robotically enhanced virtual sex is seen as simply another avenue for sex work or as a way to discourage physical prostitution — or even make it safer. Paid online sex does present many advantages. Convenience aside — think no more cold, dark alleys or expensive hotel rooms — haptic technology offers both parties a safe space to meet with no risk of physical abuse or STDs. It could also help webcam “models” increase their rates and become more self-sufficient.
To be sure, technology alone is not going to remove crime or exploitation from the sex work equation. So while technology can make a difference, some experts say, it depends on the position of the sex worker to begin with. “The Internet is still out of reach for the most vulnerable, those who work on the streets,” says Samantha Majic, an assistant political science professor at the City University of New York who specializes in the politics of sex work. So, less than a democratizing tool, virtual sex may just evolve as the guilty pleasure of lonely, wealthy, sci-fi lovers. Working online also has its own risks. It can make it harder to detect abusive clients or undercover cops and isolate workers who would otherwise naturally share tips and advice.
Still, haptic robotics are here to stay. And while they may transform sex workers’ jobs now, they might one day replace them altogether. Human-size sexbots already exist — look no further than Roxxxy, a fembot with programmable personalities like “frigid Farrah,” “wild Wendy” and “S&M Susan.” For those without thousands of dollars to spare, though, apps could become escorts. “A really good sexbot software could be giving 10,000 hand jobs at the same time and make them all feel unique,” says Seth.
Technology is clearly moving faster than national legal systems, ethical codes and collective imaginations can handle. But whether it means a safer work environment for prostitutes or a scary post-Orwellian society, it’s unlikely to kill the world’s oldest profession anytime soon. As Stevenson sees it, a lot of what her industry does “is about being a warm body next to another human who wants to be held and allowed to feel vulnerable. I really don’t think even a robot with a thermostat can do that.”
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