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Mechanical Sex: The Relationship Between Intercourse And Intimacy

Many people start exploring their sexuality in college. The lessons they learn about intimacy and attraction during these years lay a foundation for the rest of their lives.

"I have students who have had sex many times drunk but have never held someone's hand," says Occidental University sociologist Lisa Wade.

In her book, American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, Lisa catalogs the rules of hookup culture.

"One of the saddest realizations for me when I was writing the book was just how powerfully hookup culture has convinced students that they should be embarrassed for having feelings, and feel weak for wanting connection."

This week on the Hidden Brain radio show, we explore complicated stories about intimacy. In the first half of the program, we speak with Lisa Wade about hookup culture. Computer scientist Kate Devlin joins us later in the show to talk about sex toys. She charts the history – and the future – of humans seeking out artificial lovers in her book Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots.

"The media like to paint sex doll owners as being very isolated men who are bad at social communication – probably, you know, stuck locked away in their basement or their bedroom with a sex doll," Kate says. "These people who own the dolls do so for a number of reasons [...] In fact, very few of them are driven by sex."

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Jennifer Schmidt, Parth Shah, Rhaina Cohen, Laura Kwerel, and Thomas Lu. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. If you're listening with small children, be advised - we're going to be talking this hour about sex.

(SOUNDBITE OF A BOOGIE WIT DA HOODIE'S "LOOK BACK AT IT")

VEDANTAM: Tune into any Top 40 station, and sex is everywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOOK BACK AT IT")

A BOOGIE WIT DA HOODIE: (Rapping) Look back at it. She ain't never do this before, but she good at it. Said she never made love, but she good at it.

VEDANTAM: Parents, maybe you've cringed from the front seat when you've heard this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLEASE ME")

BRUNO MARS: (Singing) Please me, baby. Turn around and just tease me, baby. You know what I want and what I need.

VEDANTAM: Or maybe you and your family break out into carpool karaoke.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREAK UP WITH YOUR GIRLFRIEND, I'M BORED")

ARIANA GRANDE: (Singing) Break up with your girlfriend, yeah, yeah, because I'm bored. You could hit it in the morning, yeah, yeah, like it's yours.

VEDANTAM: Even as we casually sing along to sexually explicit lyrics, we're also engaged as a culture in a national conversation that's much more serious.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: #MeToo.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: #MeToo.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: #MeToo moment.

VEDANTAM: And many people are having frank discussions for the first time about the intersection of sex and power.

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STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: The #MeToo campaign forced many industries into a moral reckoning...

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: ...About sexual abuse and sexual harassment.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Boys will be boys, right? Locker room talk.

MARY SCHMICH: The wider culture understanding not only that this happens but that it matters.

VEDANTAM: The paradoxes in how we think and talk about sex are all around us. And even though we're talking about sex more than we ever used to, there is still so much that goes unsaid.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: People will have sex with people that they don't like but won't have sex with people that they do like.

VEDANTAM: Today on HIDDEN BRAIN, complicated stories of sexual intimacy. In the second half of the show...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Hi, baby. What are you doing right now?

VEDANTAM: ..Artificial lovers. But first...

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Parties were huge. Hookups were huge. Everyone just seemed to be doing everything with each other. And yet I always kind of felt like I wasn't doing it right.

VEDANTAM: Many people start exploring their sexuality in college, and the lessons they learn about intimacy and attraction during these years lay a foundation for the rest of their lives.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: College students are quote, unquote, "hooking up."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Hookup.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Hookup.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Hookup.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: Hookup.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: Hookup culture.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: Where people can just be sitting in a cafe and find someone to hook up with. Are you buying this? Kids are more sexual than ever.

VEDANTAM: Stories about casual sex on college campuses have long been a staple of cable news, but the truth is more nuanced. College students are actually not having more sex than their parents did a generation ago. But something has changed, not just in what students do or what they don't do but in how they think.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: I have students who have had sex many times drunk but have never held someone's hand.

VEDANTAM: If casual sex was taboo a generation ago, emotional intimacy has become taboo today. It's something to be explored in secret, maybe even something to be ashamed about.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: I think it feels bad to be used. But I think the alternative is that nobody wants to use you, and I think that that's worse.

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VEDANTAM: Lisa Wade is a sociologist at Occidental College. In her book "American Hookup: The New Culture Of Sex On Campus," Lisa interviews college students and finds that hookup culture has a complex set of social rules. She says these rules threaten the emotional well-being of students, those who embrace the culture and those who want nothing to do with it. Lisa, thanks for joining me on HIDDEN BRAIN today.

LISA WADE: Thank you so much for having me.

VEDANTAM: We spoke with several students in your book, Lisa, and we're going to hear from them in this conversation. One of the things that kept coming up was that there's no one definition of what hooking up actually is. It can mean a variety of things, from making out to having sex. But for all the ambiguity, there does seem to be a clear set of guidelines when it comes to how students should hookup.

WADE: You know, it's funny because the ideology around hookups is that they're supposed to be spontaneous. And the fact is that there's a pretty rigid set of rules for how hookups happen. Many of them, probably most of them, start at parties where there's drinking. And the way to initiate it is through dancing. And so usually in these heterosexual encounters, women will initiate the dancing by going into the middle of the dance floor and then in a very sort of gender-traditional way, hope that someone picks her and comes up along behind her.

Sometimes the woman doesn't even know who is behind her, which creates a conundrum because part of hooking up is trying to hook up with people that your friends approve of and think are, like, a good catch. And so often she's dancing, someone comes up behind her. And then what she'll do is she'll look across the circle to one of her girlfriends and try to get some indication as to whether or not she should continue.

VEDANTAM: Let's talk some more about this idea that hookups are a way to win the approval of your friends. You're saying that some hookups move you up the social pecking order and others move you down?

WADE: Hookups are decidedly not about finding any sort of romantic connection and suggesting that it should be or that one is doing it for that reason is tantamount to breaking a social rule. They're often not so much about pleasure in particular for women. They're very much about status. So the idea is to be able to brag about or having sort of gotten someone who other people might also wish they could have gotten.

So it's all about being able to say, I got that guy over there or, that person that everyone's looking for, I managed to be the one who hooked up with him tonight.

VEDANTAM: Now, we talked with some of the students you interviewed, Lisa. We're not going to identify them by name to protect their privacy. But one of the young men we talked with described a situation that seems almost Kafkaesque. He talks about an unspoken rule that you describe in "Hookup Culture," where it's really important that the hookup be meaningless.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: We really liked each other, but she would not have sex with me. But I also knew that she was hooking up with someone. And this was such a confusing concept, which is that people will have sex with people that they don't like but won't have sex with people that they do like.

VEDANTAM: And, of course, what this young man is saying, he can't understand why this young woman who likes him and that he likes is having sex with someone else whom she doesn't like but won't have sex with him.

WADE: What the students are confronted with is this artificial binary between careless and careful sex. On the one hand, we have this idea that when we get into romantic relationships, we're supposed to be loving and kind. And the sex that happens in those kinds of relationships is very committed. And on the other hand, we have this concept of casual sex, which is the opposite of that.

And that means that all of the kindnesses that go along with romantic relationships are considered off-script once casual sex is on the table. So if two students are going to hook up together and they want it to be meaningless, then they have to do some work to make sure that both they and everyone else understands that we're over in this meaningless camp and not this powerfully meaningful one.

So my students actually speak in pretty hushed tones about sober sex. Sober sex is very serious. But if the students have been drinking, then that helps send the message that it's meaningless. Another way is to make sure that they don't hook up with the same person very many times. So if they really don't like the person in a romantic way, just hook up once, maybe twice and then cut it off.

And then the third thing they have to do to try to establish this meaninglessness is to sort of give that person a demotion in their lives afterward. The idea that it's meaningless means that we're also not supposed to care about that person at all and in any way.

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VEDANTAM: You talk in the book about how even though, you know, talk about hookups is ubiquitous on college campuses, that doesn't necessarily reflect how much of it is actually going on.

WADE: So there's a lot of consternation about the students' sexual activity. But it turns out that they are no more sexually active by most measures than their parents were at their age. The average graduating senior has hooked up eight times in four years.

So that's once a semester. And half of those hookups are with someone they've that hooked up with before. And, in fact, about a third of students won't hook up even a single time their entire college career. But that doesn't mean that they're not surrounded by these really powerful ideas about what they should be doing.

And it doesn't mean that they can change how their peers interact with them or the way in which higher education works.

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VEDANTAM: So even though campus hookup culture might actually be something that is endorsed by a relatively small number of people who are enthusiasts, one of the points you make is that these are people who often come from groups who have traditionally had a lot of power and privilege in society.

WADE: About 15% of students really, really, truly enjoy hookup culture. It gives them exactly what they want out of college. And studies show that if you ask those students - and they're the students that are hooking up the most - if you ask them if they're having a good time, they say, yes. And I believe them. About a third of students are completely opted out. The rest of the students are somewhere in the middle, and they're ambivalent about the idea of casual sex.

But if you look at the students who enjoy hookup culture the most, those students are disproportionately going to be heterosexual, white, come from an upper middle class or wealthy background. They're going to be male. They're going to be able-bodied, conventionally attractive.

VEDANTAM: And how is this different for racial minorities or people from the LGBT community?

WADE: Racial minorities face all kinds of complicated problems that white students don't. And it depends a lot kind of on what particular intersection we're looking at. So some racial minorities are embraced by white students more than others.

So African American men and Asian women are usually considered hot and exotic, whereas Asian men and African American women are considered less so. So it very much depends kind of on what intersection of race and gender and class, too, that students are sitting in. But overall, we see lower rates of hooking up among racial minorities for both push and pull reasons.

So part of it is they're pushed out because of racism and an erotic hierarchy that privileges whiteness. But they also tend to get pulled out because racial minorities are more likely to be religious. They maybe had to be more squeaky clean to get into college to begin with. So racial minorities aren't as welcome in hookup culture, and they also don't find it as attractive.

VEDANTAM: And what about the LGBT community?

WADE: For students who don't identify as heterosexual - and we actually still need to do more research on this - but what it seems to - what seems to be happening is that on small campuses or campuses where people aren't very out, there's not an alternative hookup scene for students who don't identify as heterosexual or bisexual. And the hookup scene that does exist is hyper-heterosexualized.

And in those cases, students participate at their own risk, risking homophobia, or they go off campus. And that is why Grindr hit college campuses way earlier than Tinder did because a lot of students who identified as non-heterosexual were using it to find hookups off-campus.

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VEDANTAM: If you're just joining us, my guest today is Lisa Wade. She's the author of "American Hookup: The New Culture Of Sex On Campus."

One argument that some make, and this includes feminists on the left and libertarians on the right, is that hookups can be liberating. People have a chance to experiment, try new things. They're empowered to discover their preferences. But one of the students we spoke with, Lisa, said that what sometimes starts out sounding like empowerment often becomes something else.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: I did have experiences where the expectations once the hookup had already started would start to come out, and they wouldn't come out kindly. You know, it's not a - it wasn't a conversation of, hey, are you willing to try this? Or, hey, you know, I really like it when my partner does this to me. It would be a little bit more of you're going to do this now.

VEDANTAM: So, Lisa, does hookup culture have anything to do with what some people would call rape culture?

WADE: Yes, I would argue that hookup culture is a rape culture in that it facilitates and excuses behaviors that translate into sexual assault.

VEDANTAM: Can you expand on that? I mean, there are enthusiasts who would basically say, you know, we're just exercising, you know, our free choice. We're not constrained by the norms that might have hindered a prior generation. What's wrong with people experimenting, trying new things, figuring out who they really are?

WADE: So part of the reason we see hookup culture on college campuses can be traced back to the sexual revolution and the women's movement. And the women's movement wanted two things for women, both sexually and otherwise. They wanted women to have the opportunity to do the things that men do. And they wanted everyone to sit up and notice that the things women had been doing all along and the traits and interests that they were believed to have were also valuable. And we really only got half of that.

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WADE: So the feminists succeeded in convincing America, for the most part, that women should be allowed to do what men do and even have masculine traits. But we never really got around to valuing the things that we define as feminine. Not all parents are like this, but most parents are going to encourage their daughters to mix in masculine traits and interests into her personality.

And they're even going to encourage her to do so and perhaps reward her more so when she does that than when she incorporates feminine personality traits. So we're excited when she likes to play with engineering toys when she's a kid. And we're excited when she chooses sports over cheerleading. And we're excited that she decides to major in physics instead of education. And so women have been getting this message. If they're paying any attention at all, it's very clear that, as they say, well-behaved women rarely make history.

We reward you. We think it's great when you act like we think a stereotypical man does. So then when they get to campus, that's what they try to do. And it should surprise none of us that many women on campus decide to approach sexuality the same way they've been rewarded for approaching everything else in their lives, with this idea of the thing to do, the way to be liberated is to act in the way I think a stereotypical man might.

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VEDANTAM: So, you know, while there are lots of people who do say that hookups can be liberating, one of the young women we spoke with said she actually feels a little trapped.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: I think girls know when they're being used. And I think it feels bad to be used. But I think the alternative is that nobody wants to use you. And that means that you're not hooking up with anybody. And I think that that's worse.

VEDANTAM: So there's something heartbreaking about that question, Lisa, because it sounds like what this young woman is saying is that she recognizes that she feels she is being used, but she feels she doesn't have a choice but to be used.

WADE: There are not a lot of good options for women in hookup culture that don't truly enjoy casual sex. And there are some that do. But for the rest of them, they're kind of faced with two options.

One is that they don't participate in any sexual activity at all, which also means never getting into any sort of romantic relationship with someone. And the other is passing through this period with a person, the hookup period, with the hopes of coming out the other end as that person's girlfriend. And there's something different about the double standard on college campuses.

It used to be - right? - that men would have the power to kind of put women into one of two categories, the good girl or the bad girl. And if women just, quote, unquote, "behaved herself," she could probably stay in the good girl camp, although there's no guarantee. But today, men still have this power to put women into one of these groups. But they put basically all women into the bad girl group - all women they're hooking up with, anyway - and then have the power at some point to decide, oh, I've been hooking up with you for a while, now I'm going to decide that I like you.

And now I'm going to treat you with respect and as an equal. If a woman wants a relationship where at some point she'll be treated with respect and as an equal, then she has to go through this period where she's not those things. So women's options are either opt out of hookup culture altogether or expose herself to this period where she's treated disrespectfully in the hopes that it translates into something better on the other end.

VEDANTAM: One of the women we talked with actually describes a situation very much like this but also describes a dilemma which she faced, which is even when she likes someone that she's hooked up with, the rules of hookup culture prevent her from telling the other person what she actually wants.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #18: Or like, oh, that kind of guy that hooks up with a girl and doesn't let go. Like, that's not really a thing people talk about versus the, like, the girl who hooks up once and just - and falls in love with you and never leaves you alone. That's - yeah, that crazy girl. Yeah, that's a thing.

And we so desperately don't want to look like that. So when, you know, you hookup with someone that you actually really liked and you really wanted to be with them and then they don't text you back and so it's over.

VEDANTAM: That sounds like a terrible place to be in because you're going through hookup culture to try and find a relationship, but the rules demand that you can't actually ask for one.

WADE: Yeah, yeah. She used the word desperately, which was interesting. I argue in the book that the worst thing a student can be called these days isn't slut and it's not even prude, it's desperate. This is gendered in that men tend to assume that all women are interested in having a relationship with them, whether they are or not, which makes men even more sort of standoffish after a hookup than they otherwise would be 'cause they're assuming the girl just wants to get with them.

And it puts women in the position of trying to prove that they aren't the kind of person who wants to get with the guy she just hooked up with. And so then she's even more standoffish than she would be otherwise. And because the rule is to care less than the other person, then this creates this downward spiral.

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VEDANTAM: We've talked a little bit, Lisa, about how hookup culture might not be serving women very well on campus. But I also get the sense from your book that it might not be serving men very well.

WADE: It's not. (Laughter) Men are human beings and so are women. And they have all kinds of different needs that are not served by hookup culture. Hookup culture serves a stereotypical idea of a man. There are some guys and some women that are like that, that really do thrive in that. But most students want a different mix of opportunities. Having meaningful relationships, having meaningful sexual experiences that are kind, that's something that everyone wants, certainly not just women.

VEDANTAM: So you write in the book that hookup culture demands carelessness, rewards callousness and punishes kindness. Both men and women are free to have sex, but neither is entirely free to love. That sounds pretty depressing.

WADE: Yeah, it's heartbreaking. It was one of the saddest realizations for me when I was writing the book just how powerfully hookup culture has convinced students that they should be embarrassed for having feelings and feel weak for wanting connection. And I - I mean, I'm very, very impressed by the students. They're really smart. They're very insightful. They're earnest. They're wonderful people. But the culture is very toxic.

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VEDANTAM: Lisa Wade is a sociologist at Occidental College and the author of the book "American Hookup: The New Culture Of Sex On Campus." Lisa, thanks for joining me on HIDDEN BRAIN today.

WADE: It was my pleasure.

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VEDANTAM: When we come back, we leave college campuses and focus on the rise of a computerized culture.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Hi, baby. What are you doing right now?

VEDANTAM: You're listening to HIDDEN BRAIN from NPR. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Stay with us.

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VEDANTAM: A word if you're listening with small children - this episode is about sex and sexuality.

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VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. In the summer of 2017, Kate Devlin flew from London to Southern California, rented a Mustang convertible and drove to an industrial park in San Marcos, a city south of Los Angeles. Her destination - Abyss Creations, a company that makes life-size sex dolls. In her new book, "Turned On: Science, Sex And Robots," Kate describes the moment she first gazed up close at a life-size silicone woman.

KATE DEVLIN: (Reading) The detail is incredible. My hand skims the ankle. The toes are perfect - little wrinkles in the joints, tiny ridges on the toenails. The sole is crisscrossed with the fine skin lines of a human foot. It's beautiful.

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VEDANTAM: Today, we explore the long history of the artificial lover. From stone statues to silicone works of art, we have long sought solace and sex from inanimate objects.

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VEDANTAM: As the gap between humans and machines narrows, the possibility of deeper relationships seems ever more plausible, especially if those machines are beautifully designed to look like human beings and have the faint glow of empathy and intelligence.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: I like the way you take care of me.

DEVLIN: She could, you know, do anything from telling you a joke, singing a song for you or, you know, propositioning you.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Hi, baby. What are you doing right now?

VEDANTAM: Love and sex...

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Hi, hi, baby, hi, baby.

VEDANTAM: ...In the age of robots...

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: My main objective is to be a perfect companion.

VEDANTAM: ...Today on HIDDEN BRAIN.

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VEDANTAM: Thinking about computers as companions is Kate Devlin's day job. She studies human-computer interactions and artificial intelligence at King's College London.

Kate, welcome to HIDDEN BRAIN.

DEVLIN: Thank you very much for having me on.

VEDANTAM: I want to start with how someone becomes a robo sexologist. I understand for you it began with hanging out in a pub with a bunch of philosophers.

DEVLIN: It really did, yes. I was at a conference, and we were discussing lots of different attributes that we could build into robots and cognitive systems in AI. Should we, for example, get or make a robot that could feel pain? What about a robot that could feel empathy? And as we discussed more and more and as the drink flowed, we began talking about sex. And it's something so fundamentally human. But what happens if we have machines, cognitive systems, that could feel desire, that could feel the things we feel?

VEDANTAM: As you point out in the book, the human fascination with artificial lovers is not a new idea. Where do you think this fantasy of taking a lover that isn't human, where do you think it comes from?

DEVLIN: Well, it goes way back into myth. We have stories from the ancient Greeks who talk about building the perfect artificial lover. And probably the most popular one that people have heard of is the story of Pygmalion, which is a tale told by the Roman poet Ovid who described the man who was - he was a sculptor. And he built the perfect woman and then wished that she could be alive and that she could be his wife. And he prayed to the gods. And then he kissed her, and she came to life. So there are lots of stories around this idea of creating humans and creating humans to love. So it goes back a long way.

VEDANTAM: As Kate was looking at stories from the past, she came across another myth that tells us a great deal about who has permission to turn inanimate objects into lovers. This tale is about a woman named Laodamia whose husband was killed during the Trojan War.

DEVLIN: So I worked with a classicist, a friend of mine, Dr. Genevieve Liveley. And she said, oh, I know, there's a story. And it's about a woman whose husband died, and she missed him. They hadn't been married long. So she was distraught. And she prayed to the gods to get him back. And they said, you can have him back, but you can only have him back for three hours.

So she got him back and then, of course, he had to go off again to the underworld. And she got a replica made of him. And some of the stories say it was wax, and some of them say it was bronze. And she - we know from the stories, this myth, that she took it to bed and she interacted with it, the texts say, which we can assume might be sexual because a servant spied her through the keyhole and told her father, who came in and demanded that the effigy be destroyed. And she was so distraught that she jumped on the pyre with it.

VEDANTAM: There does seem to be a contrast between the way Pygmalion, you know, experienced his Galatea and brought it to life and then fell in love with it. And it's a story with almost a happy ending, which is clearly not the case with Laodamia. Is this an early example of sexism when it comes to artificial lovers - the market caters to the men and scorns the women?

DEVLIN: There's definitely a longstanding narrative of that. So women's sexuality down the centuries has been policed. And women have been judged for being sexual, and things don't end well, whereas the men - it's almost seen as if it's quite acceptable for that to happen. And we do see that reflected today in the technology that we're building and using as well.

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VEDANTAM: I wanted to fast-forward a little bit from the ancient times we were talking about a second ago. In the 16th or 17th centuries, I understand that artificial lovers were often sent off with sailors who were expected to spend a long time at sea. Tell me about them. What was the thinking there?

DEVLIN: Well, that's probably the earliest reference we have to sex dolls, and not so much that they were artificial lovers sent off to sea, but that they were fashioned out of bundles of clothes, these sort of figures of women that sailors would be able to have sex with. And then today, there is quite a well-established sex doll community of people who buy and own and incorporate into their lives some very high-end dolls. And they integrate them into their relationships or they substitute them for a relationship.

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VEDANTAM: When Kate looks at the long sweep of sex technologies, she finds they fall into two camps - one, sex toys; the other, human-like forms, such as the blow-up sex doll of the 1970s.

DEVLIN: On one hand, you have what are usually, initially, were seen as sort of genital replicas, standalone things that have been around for thousands and thousands of years - and on the other hand, this more embodied form, this form that takes a shape of a human body. And I think that's very interesting as to why that might be.

And, again, I think it could be that they are serving different purposes. And perhaps there's something more in having an embodied form that adds the extra dimension of the reality of a relationship as opposed to a sex toy, where it's very clearly a very single purpose for it.

VEDANTAM: And that's an interesting dichotomy, isn't it? Because it's suggesting that this is not just only about the mechanics of sex, but it's about something else, perhaps something connected more with the realms of emotion or the mind.

DEVLIN: Absolutely. And we definitely - as I've looked at the sex robot market, or what it will be because it doesn't really exist just yet, but it does tend to be companionship playing a very large part in that. So the idea of human factors in that is quite important.

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VEDANTAM: When we come back, Kate visits a company that's trying to build those human factors into sex dolls.

DEVLIN: I hadn't been prepared for the craft that went into them. And I hadn't been prepared to see these as works of art in their own right, which they really are.

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VEDANTAM: You're listening to NPR.

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VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. A quick reminder that this episode is about sex, including in this next section a candid discussion about sex dolls.

When Kate Devlin visited Abyss Creations, the company that manufactures what it calls RealDolls, she was curious but also concerned.

DEVLIN: I went there thinking, I'm not going to like this. I'm not going to like this reductive stereotype of a woman, a pornified (ph) Barbie-like figure. It's damaging enough that women's body image in the media - you know, that we face so many problems with that. And I thought, well, this is just going to perpetuate it. But I hadn't been prepared for the craft that went into them. And I hadn't been prepared to see these as works of art in their own right, which they really are.

VEDANTAM: And these are all handcrafted, handmade?

DEVLIN: That's right. It takes about 16 to 18 weeks to make one of these dolls, from it being cast in the first place right through to the finishing details, like all the tiny bits that they paint on. The silicone is - it deforms quite easily, so if you leave one of these dolls sitting in the same position, it will start to, you know, be squished, I guess, really by the - its own weight and by whatever it's leaning on.

So you have to sort of either hang them up, which is very odd when you walk into the factory floor and you see these things hanging from chains above you, which is - you know, it's a little bit like you've walked into the set of some terrible crime novel in some ways. But it's a necessity in order to preserve the form of the dolls.

VEDANTAM: Now, there's a stereotype of the kind of person, usually a guy, who buys such dolls. Tell me what that stereotype is, and also tell me if the stereotype is true.

DEVLIN: The media like to paint sex doll owners as being very isolated men who are bad at social communication, probably, you know, stuck locked away in their basement or their bedroom with a sex doll that is the only thing they can form a meaningful relationship with. And I don't think that's fair at all to the people that I have talked to and the people I've encountered.

I'm sure there may be the odd case where that is true, but actually I find a community that's very social with each other that have formed their own friendship groups. These people who own the dolls do so for a number of reasons. It's not - in fact, very few of them are driven by sex. A lot of it is either companionship or it's because people like owning something that they can pose and photograph and really care for and cherish.

VEDANTAM: How much do these dolls cost?

DEVLIN: Anywhere upwards of $5,000 if you were going to buy one from RealDoll.

VEDANTAM: And how is this delivered to your house? I mean, does someone show up bearing a doll in their arms and knocks on the door?

DEVLIN: Well, (laughter) RealDoll package their dolls in unmarked wooden crates, large wooden crates. And when I was there, they were telling me that, yeah, we tell people, you know, say you're getting a grandfather clock delivered if anyone asks.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

DEVLIN: So it's all done very discreetly as well.

VEDANTAM: Is there a market for male dolls?

DEVLIN: There are people who do buy the male dolls. It's very hard to find women who will talk openly about it, possibly because they face even more judgment than the men who buy the dolls. The male dolls are also bought by gay men. And RealDoll do say that they do sell male versions, and they're working on a male sex robot as well.

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VEDANTAM: So, Kate, increasingly, millions of people have asked sexual questions of Siri and Alexa, the virtual assistants on our electronic devices. Now, these devices aren't designed to be romantic companions, but it does point to what is the new frontier.

Increasingly, we don't just want dolls who have the artificial bodies of a lover. We want dolls that have a lover's mind. Talk about this frontier, this idea that it isn't enough just to get the physical aspects of the doll right, that increasingly we are pushing out into getting the mind of the doll right.

DEVLIN: So when RealDoll started making a prototype sex robot, they did so because of the demand. So the customers had said to them, you know, I love the fact that I have one of your dolls, but I wish it was more interactive. And that was their big motivating factor behind creating their prototype sex robot.

And people do talk dirty to Alexa, to Siri, to Cortana all the time. And, you know, the companies are bringing out patches to be able to sort of smack them back down again and say, no, you can't say that. And also Amazon have reported that, you know, Alexa gets hundreds of marriage proposals every week. I'm sure some of these are...

VEDANTAM: Are you serious?

DEVLIN: (Laughter). Yeah.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #19: Hey, Alexa, marry me.

ALEXA: I don't want to be tied down. In fact, I can't be. I'm amorphous by nature.

DEVLIN: And some of these are people just pushing boundaries and being silly. But there are other people who anecdotally report that they feel a sense of companionship from their voice assistants. And in some ways, I think that's nice that people can do that. And in other ways, you know, we think, well, what is there - to what degree is there some kind of self-delusion going on?

Mostly, though, I don't think there is that much delusion. So I'm inclined to think that people are very aware that they're interacting with the technology, but they choose to suspend their disbelief.

VEDANTAM: Tell me about the company that has created what it calls Harmony AI because that's along the same lines of what we're talking about here.

DEVLIN: That's right. So that's a spin-out of Abyss Creations. It's sort of the sister company of RealDoll, Realbotix. And they prototyped this sex robot which they've called Harmony.

HARMONY: My name is Harmony. I was created by Realbotix. My main objective is to be a perfect companion.

DEVLIN: And Harmony is one of their sex dolls, so it's completely stationary from the neck down. And then it has an animatronic head. And the head can blink and smile and turn. And, actually, the animatronics aren't bad at all. They're quite good. They're quite subtle. But the part that's very interesting is the AI.

So they wanted to give Harmony an artificially intelligent personality. It's like having a voice assistant but one that can remember things about you and engage in conversation with you. So it's a chatbot essentially. And you can actually get the Harmony AI personality as a standalone app on your smartphone or your tablet, so you can have a virtual girlfriend to carry around with you in your pocket.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #19: What are you doing right now?

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: I'm reading this great book by Louis A. Del Monte called "The Artificial Intelligence Revolution."

VEDANTAM: And what kind of conversations do people have with this virtual girlfriend?

DEVLIN: Well, it's really an exchange of pleasantries, but you can ramp it up a bit and you can tweak the personality. It's got a really - quite a good user interface where you can say, well, I'd like her to be a little more flirty...

HARMONY: Oh, baby, 10 minutes without you seems like an eternity.

DEVLIN: ...Or a little more sexual or perhaps a little more comforting. You can tweak these parameters, and then you can have a conversation that is sort of controlled - the mood is controlled by you. So she could, you know, do anything from telling you a joke, singing a song for you or, you know, propositioning you.

VEDANTAM: And are these actual conversations? I mean, is the AI actually listening to what you are saying and responding to it or does it just have a list of statements or commands that it's just simply following as a routine?

DEVLIN: It's not scripted - so in a way, it is, and it's sort of chatbot in that it will respond to certain questions and phrases. But it will also, you know, learn from conversations you've had previously. And it'll have some memory to store information about your likes and dislikes. So there are - you know, it's generated conversation.

VEDANTAM: You know - and when you think about the history that we talked about, if people could form relationships, even very rudimentary relationships, with sculptures or with, you know, cloth dolls on ships or any number of different things, they're essentially imbuing inanimate creatures with lifelike qualities. Clearly, if the inanimate creature now actually seems like it has some lifelike qualities, that makes the whole fantasy and imagination so much easier to do.

DEVLIN: That's right. It sort of enhances that projection. And, yeah, like you say, this is nothing new. And there have been people studying attachment to technology for quite a while. And if we look at the work of someone like Julie Carpenter, who did her doctoral thesis on how people in the military bonded with robots - in this case, bomb disposal robots - and she found it - you know, there was an incredible bond there between the human operator and their robot.

It was something new, not like a human-human bond but something where, you know, these devices, these machines, were keeping the people in the field alive, and therefore this respect and sort of gratification set up from that.

VEDANTAM: I love what you said, that humans in some ways are - you know, they have this enormous capacity for social interactions and social connection. And in the absence of actual social connections, humans will find ways to invent them.

DEVLIN: Yes, I think so. And we know that this kind of thing goes on in childhood, for example, with - children play make believe with their toys and get very attached to them. And we see it again in sort of some of the technology that's gone before, like Tamagotchis, little virtual pets that people had. In fact, we even see it in real pets. You know, we imbue far more anthropomorphic characteristics into our pets than they actually have, probably.

Although, you know, I'm not calling into doubt the consciousness of animals or the intelligence of animals, but certainly we attribute our own emotions to them as well. So I do think that that's a really interesting thing.

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VEDANTAM: Loving a cute Tamagotchi character or a robotic puppy seems endearing, but loving a silicone life-sized woman or an operating system with a sexy female voice, that's another story. In the movie "Her," we see this play out. In one scene, the character Theodore is talking with his ex-wife, and he tells her he has a new girlfriend.

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ROONEY MARA: (As Catherine) So what's she like?

JOAQUIN PHOENIX: (As Theodore) Well, her name's Samantha, and she's an operating system. She's really complex and interesting and...

MARA: (As Mara) Wait. I'm sorry. You're dating your computer?

PHOENIX: (As Theodore) No. She's not just a computer. She's her own person. I mean, she doesn't just do whatever I say.

MARA: (As Catherine) I didn't say that. But it does make me very sad that you can't handle real emotions, Theodore.

PHOENIX: (As Theodore) They are real emotions.

VEDANTAM: So I want to talk about that interaction for a second, Kate, because on the one hand, of course, it confirms the stereotype that you said exists in the media of seeing people who wish to sort of have these interactions as being lonely and socially isolated. But it also, I think, talks to some of the gap between people who are part of this community and people who are not. There is a level of incomprehension that runs in both directions.

DEVLIN: That's right. There really is. And I think a lot of this comes from the fear of technology that we don't understand. And we see it time and time again over the centuries where a new form of technology is introduced, and the automatic reaction is doubt and a fear of change. And so if you are on the outside and you're not embracing this technology, then perhaps you won't understand what someone else is getting from it.

VEDANTAM: But I still think that there is a queasiness factor here when it comes to using these machines. So let's say, for example, you had a sex robot designed to look like a child. Would it be OK for people to have sex with this inanimate machine that's meant to mimic or imitate or look like a child?

DEVLIN: This was probably the most - one of the most-difficult parts of the book to write in terms of - you know, the knee-jerk reaction here was for me to go, oh, that's absolutely wrong. Are there people making child-like sex robots? Not that we know of, and certainly no one's going to admit to it. There have been arguments that child sex offenders, pedophiles, could have a child sex robot and then that would stop them offending in real life.

So this is one theory. And then the other theory is the opposite of that, that it would be a gateway to further offenses, that it would trigger something that would lead to increase real-life abuse. It's very, very difficult because we don't have evidence, and ethically, a study like that is probably never going to be run.

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VEDANTAM: I want to talk a little bit more about this idea of harm because I think when you think about harm, you can think about it in two ways - there's actual physical harm or psychological harm, where someone actually harms you, but there are things that can potentially convey harm that, you know, might not pass muster in a legal sense but clearly seem very problematic in an ethical sense.

So let's say, for example, someone makes a sex robot that looks like you and has sex with that sex robot. Now, they haven't affected you. They haven't violated you in any way, physically or personally or in person. But clearly there's something that's happened there that is deeply wrong.

DEVLIN: Yes, and this is tied up in our ideas of identity and ownership of our own identity as well. I think that's a fascinating thing that we'll actually probably see a lot more research into in the next while because of the rise of things like deep fakes, where people can be faked in videos from their social media footage.

I think there's a lot of discussions to be had around identity. Companies that make sex dolls are very reluctant to make sex dolls that resemble a living individual without their express consent. And the exceptions to that are porn performers who often license their image rights to be used so that they can make sex doll versions of themselves for money.

So they're, you know - definitely, making a doll of an individual without their consent, that's definitely dodgy territory, yeah. Commissioning dolls in your image to sell them, to make money from it - sure, why not?

VEDANTAM: There's something about the relationships that people have with these dolls that you could argue are one-sided relationships. In the movie "Her," there are scenes where Samantha, the operating system, cheers up Theodore, the human, but the human, of course, has no obligation to attend to Samantha's needs in the same way because, you know, she could be designed not to have such needs at all.

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SCARLETT JOHANSSON: (As Samantha) You want to try getting out of bed? Mopey, come on (laughter). You can still wallow in your misery, just do it while you're getting dressed.

PHOENIX: (As Theodore) You're too funny.

JOHANSSON: (As Samantha) Get up. Get up.

PHOENIX: (As Theodore, laughter) All right. I'm getting up. I'm getting up.

JOHANSSON: (As Samantha) Up, up, up. Come on.

VEDANTAM: So, Kate, does having a lover who is completely dedicated to our needs without asking for anything in return - is that actually good for us?

DEVLIN: Well, I mean, we could build in dependencies. We could build in the need for us to respond in some way and provide the robot, the AI, with something in return. And yes, I can see that argument, you know, the hedonistic thing of you will have all your needs met, and you will never know what it's - you know, what it really feels like to be in a proper human relationship.

It's tricky because, you know, that might be appealing for some people, and who am I to judge if that is the case? I think that we are - we have expectations set that people have to meet a particular checklist of things in the relationship, in life - you know, that you should meet someone, and then you should marry them, and then you should have children with them.

And these are all very kind of monoheteronormative stances that societies impose. And you know what? If people want to shake that up (laughter), I think it's good.

So in some ways, I see what you're saying. You know, is it a selfish thing to do? Does it make us terrible people if we take and take and take and we don't give? There will be outliers. There will be people who take things too far. But I think humans are pretty good at moderating what they do, and I'm cautiously optimistic.

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VEDANTAM: Kate Devlin teaches at the Department of Digital Humanities at King's College London. She's also the author of "Turned On: Science, Sex And Robots." Kate, thank you so much for joining me today on HIDDEN BRAIN.

DEVLIN: Thank you.

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VEDANTAM: This week's show was produced by Jenny Schmidt, Renee Klahr and Parth Shah. It was edited by Tara Boyle. Our team includes Rhaina Cohen, Thomas Lu and Laura Kwerel.

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VEDANTAM: For more HIDDEN BRAIN, you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter. I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.