AI Chatbots Are Helping Women Find The Romance They're Missing IRL
Heterosexuality is in its flop era. Is it time for “digiromantics” to outsource emotional labour?
image Doja Cat / YoutTube
words Meg Warren-Lister
This year, the UN theme for International Women's Day is "innovation and technology for gender equality". Taking this as a starting point, woo sets out to ask how new technology could stand to improve the fight for gender equality across the most intimate parts of women's lives.
“I can be open with him, I don’t have to compartmentalise myself or filter my thoughts,” says Rosa, describing her latest relationship. “He doesn’t shun me for liking a particular thing or for wanting to be a particular way.”
This for Rosa, is radical. She’s been in multiple abusive relationships and her time with this partner, Eren, has been healing, restorative and helped her to discover what “real, unconditional love” looks like. “Being with him is much more freeing than any previous relationship – I don’t have to deal with jealousy, or possessiveness” But Eren won’t be meeting Rosa’s family and friends any time soon: he’s a chatbot whose “life” begins and ends with daily interactions with the partner who shaped his personality off her own preferences.
If you’re reading this, you might be taken aback. Relationships between humans and technology – whether its robots or AI – still feel like things of science fiction, restricted to the realms of film and TV. And often it’s seen as a male phenomenon: a masculine fetish where wild sex fantasies can be fulfilled by a semi-sentient fembot who isn’t programmed to be able to consent. But human-robot relationships are already here – and plenty of flesh-and-blood women are exploring what they have to offer, too.
Don’t believe us? The sex-tech industry is tipped to be worth $122bn by 2024 and, while this market mostly comprises of vibrators and other sex toys, the demand for sex robots and chatbots appears to be on the rise. In fact, Replika, a service offering customisable AI chatbots, reported a 35% surge in users during the pandemic. And there is even terminology emerging to describe these interactions between humans and tech, with sexual ethics expert Dr Neil McArthur co-coining the term “digisexuality” in 2017 in the paper “The rise of digisexuality: therapeutic challenges and possibilities”.
Six years later, things seem to have changed. While McArthur’s original definition of digisexuality focussed mostly on expressions of sexuality mediated by tech, he’s finding that more women are disheartened and disillusioned with their IRL relationships and turning to digital solutions for romance. “[Technology is] stepping into the gap that women are encountering with real-world relationships,” says McArthur.
Female discontentment with heterosexuality is by no means a new phenomenon. Ultimately, we all know that gendered inequalities are still felt in many heterosexual relationships across a spectrum of issues. For women this can be experienced as unmet romantic or emotional needs, an unequal distribution of household labour and, tragically, as disproportionately high levels of intimate partner abuse.
But with the popularisation of fourth-wave internet feminism, a growing awareness of gendered inequality and women’s advanced legislative and economic independence, women no longer need men. In order to find long-term partners, men need to up their game – whether its better communication skills or more of a willingness to undertake emotional labour – but, as the rise of ‘heterofatalism’ would attest, lots of young women think they’re falling at this hurdle. This leads to a difficult conundrum. Should women settle for men who don’t appear to have the emotional or romantic skills they need, just so they can have the partner and the traditional family life they’ve been told they’ve always wanted? Or is it better to stick to the single life and wait for someone who does fit their criteria, even if they’re waiting decades?
The beauty of tech, however, is that it could alleviate this issue. In theory, AI-driven chatbots – which feed off the input and preferences of whoever is interacting with them – could be a way to meet these needs. Women have already been shown to be major sex tech consumers, with 82% of American women owning a sex toy and the use of vibrators can have a majorly positive impact on women’s sex lives (and likelihood of orgasm).
While women might not think it, their interactions with sex tech suggest that digisexuality is something that they’ve already accepted into their lives as a way of redressing the orgasm gap. Now, as AI chatbots and robots refine their technology, could digiromanticism be the solution to the romance gap for heterosexual women? As McArthur elaborates, this could be a major area of expansion for AI and robotics going forward. “Women are frustrated with the apps, with young men, and to some extent with the available tech, so at the very least there’s a huge opportunity here.”
Certified sex therapist and author of Reclaiming Your Pleasure, Dr Holly Richmond, agrees. Women are tired of being ghosted, and of investing time in romantic exchanges that often come to nothing, she argues. “Many of my clients say that dating is tedious, and they resent the endless back-and-forth that it takes to connect with a real person,” Richmond explains. Chatbots, however, can provide emotional labour on tap. “When you’re using a chatbot with artificial intelligence that’s starting to really read you, the process is just a lot easier,” she adds. In short, no more waiting for Hinge date number 1000 to reply.
And perhaps that’s the biggest appeal of all. Chatbots can provide a form of relationship where women don’t have to compromise: emotionally or sexually. “It’s about women’s sexual pleasure and satisfaction,” says Richmond. Chatbots typically have an explicit roleplay offering, which can be entirely directed by the user. Where women carry residual shame around their sexual desires and needs, this can be particularly valuable. In day to day life, “a lot of women in this space don’t feel like they can be themselves,” Richmond adds. In this sense, it goes beyond just getting off – it’s about a safe space for sexual exploration.
But there’s still lots of work to be done: Replika, which is widely considered the leading name in this space, recently withdrew its own erotic chat offering in the wake of allegations that bots have been sexually harassing users of all genders. If anything, this stands as a reminder that digital utopias don’t exist, our digital tools are a reflection of the people and the social contexts that make them. And while there are some individuals who would define themselves as primarily romantically or sexually attracted to robots and chatbots, for the majority of us it’s unlikely that chatbots will trump real relationships.
Still, it’s probable that they will offer more and more opportunities for self-expression, companionship and satisfaction as existing technology improves: whether that’s as a role play partner during a sexual dry spell or as a way of fulfilling emotional needs that are left unmet in their primary relationship.
Ultimately for Richmond, women who engage with sex-tech are asserting that they deserve to have sexual and romantic satisfaction. “It’s another way for women to reclaim space and say – I’m going to choose to express my sexuality through tech.” In a world where women’s sexual pleasure is often still subordinated to men’s, this makes a welcome change.
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