Writing in The Atlantic, Kate Julian observed that we are in the midst of a sex recession. Her article, “Why Are Young People Have So Little Sex?” explored the paradox that despite the easing of taboos and the rise of hookup apps, young people are just not as interested in sex as they used to be.
From the standpoint of traditional morality this might seem like a victory, because less sex among young people presumably means less fornication. But when we stop to consider some of the reasons young people aren’t as interested in sex, the champions of Biblical morality hardly have grounds for taking a victory lap. Some of these reasons were explored by Caroline Kitchener in her article, “What’s Causing the Sex Recession? Young people are having less sex.”
One of the main factors is that real-world women just don’t appeal to men whose appetites have been forged in the fires of virtual worlds, populated by female avatars with exaggerated physical characteristics. Julian draws our attention to “a generation that found the imperfect or just unexpected demands of real-world relationships with women less enticing than the lure of the virtual libido.”
In Japan, which is on the cutting edge of these new attitudes towards sex, young people increasingly view sex as mendokusai or “tiresome.”
An industry is now developing to tap into these new attitudes with sociable robots, so young people who have grown bored with person-to-person intimacy can still find an outlet for their sexual cravings. From my earlier article about robots:
“We can begin to understand our imminent psychological readiness to begin marrying our machines when we appreciate how the rise in technologically-mediated relationships has been orienting us to look upon vulnerability as something to be avoided at all costs…. Through online interactions we have been primed for the type of disembodied and narcissistic relationships necessary for marriage to robots to seem normal…. We already have a metaphor for how romantic robots might work by considering how Google gives us search results. In 2007 Google imposed on the public something called personalized search, which gives us the search results Google thinks we want to see, based on all the information Google has collected about each one of us. As Nicholas Carr described it in The Big Switch, “We welcome personalization tools and algorithms because they let us get precisely what we want when we want it, with a minimum of fuss.” Google scientists are even working on something called “audio-fingerprinting” so that Google can eavesdrop on the background sounds in your room in order to collect even more data on your needs and desires.
Now imagine if Google’s algorithms became so fine-tuned to our needs that they could give us computerized relationships that also let us get precisely what we want when we want it, with a minimum of fuss. Imagine having a relationship with a humanoid that—perhaps because of being connected to your brain—knew exactly what you needed to hear and when; knew exactly what type of sex you wanted; knew just what to say and when to say it. Imagine “customized intimacy” where the apparent “needs” of the humanoid lover were simply a projection of your own.
That sounds like science fiction, but it is a future that will come quicker than you think. When that future arrives, it would be nice to think that most people would still prefer intimacy with a human. However, if Sherry Turkle’s research is anything to go by, large numbers of people may already be only too ready to exchange their flesh-and-blood relationships with sociable machines….
The problem, of course, is that without physical human presence there can be no true empathy. Various writers have observed that there has been a radical decline in empathy and social attentiveness that has directly corresponded with our social lives migrating to infrastructures that are machine-mediated. This should come as no surprise. In real-time interaction with other human beings, the physical dimension of being human (i.e., our embodiment in time and space) plays an important role in our ability to empathize with others, to attend sympathetically to another and to see things from other people’s perspectives. This type of true attentiveness is only something that can occur with embodied beings. After all, it is in the body that our face can say what words cannot. It is in the body that we smile. It is in the body that we cry. It is in the body that we blush. It is in the body that we offer a reassuring touch. But it is also in the body that we are confronted with each others’ vulnerability and fragility.
The lure of online relationships—or even real-world relationships in which the majority of communication occurs through texting—is that we can act as if we were disembodied and thereby suspend the vulnerability and fragility connected to our body. Through our digital devices we can act and respond to others as if we are not bounded by space. We can dispense with the physical element and still have our social cravings satisfied online.”