First U.S. Sex Robot Brothel Proposed in Houston: Is This the World We Want?
By Dan Solomon. Originally published here, in Texas Monthly.
The future is a weird place. And as anxiety-producing fiction like Blade Runner, Westworld (the HBO show or the Yul Brynner original), and Black Mirror has shown us, it’s because of technology. If you’re not a sci-fi person, though, you may be unprepared for a reality that will soon be descending upon us, signified by three little words: Sex robot brothel.
Last month, Toronto-based company KinkySdollS announced that—following a successful launch in Canada’s most populous city—it would be expanding to the U.S. Specifically, the location of its first American sex robot brothel would be Houston. You have questions, we’re sure. We have (some) answers.
What is a sex robot brothel?
First, just take a moment and consider if you really want this information in your head before you proceed. Once you learn something, you can’t un-learn it. Are you certain that you want to know?
OK, here we go: A sex robot brothel is a place where people go to interact with sex toys that look like women and have parts that simulate the sexual characteristics one would associate with women. And this isn’t just a Fleshlight. They are fairly sophisticated—the people who make the robots claim that they’re so convincing, people are capable of falling in love with them.
They have some degree of AI, using the same basic voice recognition technology that’s in your phone or an Alexa device, and the advanced models can make facial expressionsto react to the things a person says to them. The field of teledildonics (which we swear to gosh is a real termand not something we just made up) is rapidly expanding its technological capacity too. The devices, which are covered in silicone, are built with heaters that can simulate body warmth, and newer models can be “seduced,”requiring stimulation to the parts you would probably expect in order to activate.
So that’s what a sex robot is. They’re in the vanguard of sex technology—a $30 billion a year industry—and they’re expected to become more common in the years to come. A sex robot brothel, meanwhile, is a facility in which there are a lot of these things, and people can pay a fee to, er, interact with them in a short-term, private, on-site rental. It’s like a video arcade, but for sex robots.
Is this legal?
Ehhhhh. We’ll go with “it’s not illegal.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, many civic leaders are not especially excited about being the home of a sex robot brothel! “This is not the kind of business I would like to see in Houston, and certainly this is not the kind of business the city is seeking to attract,” Mayor Sylvester Turner told the Houston Chronicle. In Italy, a robot sex brothel that opened in September lasted only two weeks before it was shut down by police. The business model is more widespread in Europe, with locations in cities as far-flung as Barcelonaand Moscow.
Currently, Houston is trying to slow down the construction of the KinkySdollS business through the permitting process, requiring the company to submit a demolition permit at the location at which it intends to build, and be approved by the city. The city may attempt to pass an ordinance that would restrict such businesses, but at the moment, there’s no such law in place. Texas law explicitly bans prostitution, but the ordinance in question requires two parties (even if one isn’t human) to engage in sexual behavior together for money. In Texas—and every other state except for Alabama, which bans sex toys—there’s no state ban that would prevent people from going into a private room to, um, enjoy themselves with whatever devices happen to be lying around.
(Update: Shortly after this story published, the Houston City Council voted to ban sex robot brothels within city limits.)
Is this sanitary?
Uh. It depends. If the patrons all use condoms, then the risk of sexually transmitted diseases is probably low. Stacey Townsend, CEO of Real Love Sex Dolls, the Austin-based company that leads the industry in human-shaped sex toys, told the Houston Chroniclethat the devices are meant to be used by one person, and one person only—though her business model does involve selling, and not renting, the devices. They “cannot be completely sterilized after use,” she told the paper.
How much do they cost?
The location in Toronto charges $80 for thirty minutes, or $120 for a full hour, according to Vice. (A deluxe package involving two dolls for four hours will run $960.) Guests who are so smitten with the experience that they want to re-create it at home can purchase the devices from the company starting at around $4,000.
Does the public find this troublesome?
A lot of people do! Some people think that they’re misogynistic wish fulfillment devices. Others believe that they’ll lead to the end of human relationshipsas we know them. Both Christianand Islamicleaders have condemned the use of the devices, saying that they go against God’s plan. Living, breathing sex workers consider them dehumanizing and dangerousto people in their line of work.
Reducing sexual interactions to the parts that get rubbed together is probably not great for us, if it becomes widespread in the way that futurists fear it might. The companies behind these devices are confident that they’re doing something good for the world—easing loneliness, providing comfort, offering an outlet for certain fantasies that are unacceptable to enact with another human being—but providing men with the simulacrum of an actual willing partner in which consent is entirely removed from the equation is probably not the absolute healthiest thing for a society. There are theorists who’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this—and it’s not all doom and gloom—but if you’re feeling squicked out by it, you’re not alone.