Future Tense

How Sex Robots Could Revolutionize Marriage—for the Better

With sexual needs outsourced to robots, marriages could become stronger than ever.

A family photo in a frame, with a man, woman, two children, and a robot.
Doris Liou

Adapted from “Sexbot-Induced Social Change: An Economic Perspective” by Marina Adshade in Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications edited by John Danaher and Neil McArthur. Out now from the MIT Press.

Technological change invariably brings social change. We know this to be true, but rarely can we make accurate predictions about how social behavior will evolve when new technologies are introduced. For example, no one should have been surprised that improvements in birth control technologies spawned more sexually permissive societies. But could anyone really have predicted that making it easier for women to control their fertility would lead to dramatic increases in births to unmarried women as a direct result of the loosening sexual mores that new birth control methods brought on? Likewise, early adopters probably knew that improvement in home production technologies would liberate women from household drudgery. But could they have known that the microwave oven would eventually contribute to societies’ more accepting attitudes toward same-sex marriage? Just as these technologies were catalysts for unintended social consequences, we should expect that the proliferation of robots designed specifically for human sexual gratification means that sexbot-induced social change is on the horizon.

Some elements of that social change might be easier to anticipate than others. For example, the share of the young adult population that chooses to remain single (with their sexual needs met by robots) is very likely to increase. Because social change is organic, however, adaptations in other social norms and behaviors are much more difficult to predict. But this is not virgin territory. New technologies completely transformed sexual behavior and marital norms over the second half of the 20th century. Although getting any of these predictions right will surely involve some luck, we have decades of technology-induced social change to guide our predictions about the future of a world confronted with wholesale access to sexbots.

The reality is that marriage has always evolved alongside changes in technology. Between the mid-1700s and the early 2000s, the role of marriage between a man and a woman was predominately to encourage the efficient production of market goods and services (by men) and household goods and services (by women), since the social capacity to earn a wage was almost always higher for husbands than it was for wives. But starting as early as the end of the 19th century, marriage began to evolve as electrification in the home made women’s work less time-consuming, and new technologies in the workplace started to decrease the gender wage gap. Between 1890 and 1940, the share of married women working in the labor force tripled, and over the course of the century, that share continued to grow as new technologies arrived that replaced the labor of women in the home. By the early 1970s, the arrival of microwave ovens and frozen foods meant that a family could easily be fed at the end of a long workday, even when the mother worked outside of the home.

As an unintended result of these new technologies, marriage stopped being about the efficient production of market and household goods, and started being about something else long before the close of the 20th century: companionship, love, and sex. Marriage stopped being about two people coming together because they were very different from one another, in terms of their ability to produce, and started being about two people coming together because they were very similar to each other. It thus became easier for societies to see (albeit very gradually) the irrelevance of rules that prohibited same-sex marriage.

We haven’t seen the end of technology-induced changes to the institution of marriage, or to social norms of sexual behavior. Understanding how these social changes have taken place gives us a kind of blueprint to think about how they will change in the future—once sexbot technology becomes an option for married and single people alike. Extrapolating from this historical trajectory, I predict that the adoption of sexbot technology could disentangle the association between sexual intimacy and marriage, but also lead to higher quality marriages on the whole.

There are those who argue that men only “assume the burden” of marriage because marriage allows men easy sexual access, and that if men can find sex elsewhere they won’t marry. We hear this prediction now being made in reference to sexbots, but the same argument was given a century ago when the invention of the latex condom (1912) and the intrauterine device (1909) significantly increased people’s freedom to have sex without risking pregnancy and (importantly, in an era in which syphilis was rampant) sexually transmitted disease. Cosmopolitan magazine ran a piece at the time by John B. Watson that asked the blunt question, will men marry 50 years from now? Watson’s answer was a resounding no, writing that “we don’t want helpmates anymore, we want playmates.” Social commentators warned that birth control technologies would destroy marriage by removing the incentives women had to remain chaste and encourage them to flood the market with nonmarital sex. Men would have no incentive to marry, and women, whose only asset is sexual access, would be left destitute.

By the late 1920s and the 1930s, it was apparent that these concerns were unfounded. Couples continued to marry and, in fact, married at higher rates than in previous decades. At that point, the conversation turned to how contraceptives were changing the nature of marriage itself. Whereas in the past, women might have acted as if they succumbed to their husband’s sexual desires only as a means to having children, technological advances in contraception meant that women were forced to admit to enjoying intimate relationships with their husbands. Social commentator Walter Lippmann in his 1929 Preface to Morals wrote: “[B]y an inevitable process the practice of contraception led husbands and wives to the conviction that they need not be in the least ashamed of their desires for each other.”

This technological change—early contraceptives—altered the way that society viewed marriage and, importantly, female sexuality. New and better contraceptives in the second half of the century only helped cement society’s realization that women are sexual beings and are just as entitled as men to sexual gratification within their relationships. This change in behavior eroded the conviction that the purpose of marriage was the exchange of sexual access for financial security. For the first time in history, sexual intimacy and marriage were seen to be intrinsically connected.

This change in the purpose of marriage was also encouraged by a secondary and unintended effect of access to contraceptives—increasing female economic independence. Armed with the confidence that they would be able to limit the number of children they would bear, women in the ’70s and ’80s increased their investment in post-secondary education and their attachment to the workforce. Thanks to birth control, women, for the most part, no longer depended on marriage for financial security.

And yet we still marry. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2012, 81 percent of 45-year-old men and 86 percent of 45-year-old women had been married at some point in their lifetime; down from the 1960s, certainly, but hardly a wholesale abandonment of marriage. We marry because, aside from the companionship it provides, marriage continues to be the most efficient way to arrange families, in that it minimizes the costs of household production. Individuals can live alone, and even have children, without the support of a partner. But marriage is still a lower-cost way to raise a family, since it allows for the division of labor in household tasks. And today, thanks in part to the legacy of contraceptive technology, we marry because marriage brings both partners relatively easy sexual access.

The question then is: What happens to marriage when sexbot technology provides a low-cost alternative to easy sexual access in marriage? One possibility is a reversal of the past century of societal change, which tied together marriage and sexual intimacy, and a return to the perception of marriage as a productive household unit.

Those who fear that sexbot technology will have a negative impact on marriage rates see sexbot technology as a substitute to sexual access in marriage. If they are correct, a decrease in the price of sexual access outside of marriage will decrease the demand for sexual access in marriage, and marriage rates will fall. It could just as easily be argued, however, that within marriage sexual access and household production are complements in consumption—in other words, goods or services that are often consumed together, like tea and sugar, or cellular data and phone apps. If that is the case, then, consumer theory predicts that easy access to sexbot technology will actually increase the rate of lifetime marriage, since a fall in the price of a good increases the demand for complements in consumption, just as a fall in the price of cellular data would likely increase demand for phone streaming services. Moreover, if sexual access through sexbot technology is a complement to household production, then we could observe an increase in the quality of marriages and, as a result, a reduction in rates of divorce.

There is an economic principle—named after French chemist Henry Louis Le Châtelier—that says that whenever a constraint on individual decision-making is removed, the outcome of that decision can be no worse than the outcome that would have existed with that constraint imposed. The need to find someone with whom you are mutually sexually compatible necessarily imposes a constraint on the decision of whom to marry. Removing that constraint on the choice of a marital partner cannot, by Le Châtelier’s principle, lead to marriages of lower quality, but it could very well make marriages that are of a higher quality.

Book cover of Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications.
The MIT Press

Access to sexbot technology will not change the biological imperative of individuals to want to share their lives, and raise their children, with another human being. But it would make it possible for individuals to choose that human being based on characteristics other than mutual sexual desire—to disentangle the association of sexual intimacy and life as a family. For example, it is not hard to imagine two heterosexual women seeing the value in forming a household and raising children together as a married couple, but with their needs for sexual companionship met by sexbot technology. Nor is it hard to imagine a homosexual man seeing the value in forming a household and raising children with a woman, since that arrangement could significantly reduce expenses associated with reproductive technologies. By disentangling the association between sexual intimacy and marriage, marriage may not end up as what we imagine it to be today. But that new form of marriage would be a socially optimal arrangement in the sense that it would encourage efficient household formation and, as a result, lead to marriages that are more likely to stand the test of time.

And once we disentangle the association between sexual intimacy and marriage, it is not hard to imagine the removal of barriers that currently prevent married individuals from forming arrangements in which one, or both, seek sexual gratification with other, nonrobotic, individuals outside of their marriage.

Monogamous marriage has, at least in industrialized societies, historically been the socially optimal marriage arrangement, in that it produces children with higher levels of human capital. Men have invested more in their children when they are assured that those children have not been fathered by other men, and if husbands were faithful, unmarried women were not left raising the children of married men who lack commitment to those children. Today, with access to reliable contraceptives, the incentives for marital fidelity are quite different and the social norms around monogamy have evolved as a result.

If access to sexbot technology encourages the creation of marriages without the constraint of mutual sexual intimacy and that focus on the production of household goods (and perhaps on providing nonsexual companionship), then any concern that these marriages will produce children with low levels of human capital would be unfounded. In fact, such marriages could provide superior environments for children, and as a result, we could expect that eventually these arrangements would be met with societal approval. In much the same way that improvements in birth control technology had both a direct and indirect effects on sexual behavior and marital norms, sexbot technology is likely to have both direct and indirect effects on extramarital sexuality.

For instance, the greater societal acceptance of nontraditional marriage arrangements could encourage others to enter into purely productive marriages, whether these couples outsource their extramarital sexual activity to sexbots or other human beings. These marriages would be formed not because sexbot technology is available, but because the social costs of such arrangements have been eliminated through the changing social norms that the technology ushered in.

Of course, many marriages might continue to be sexually monogamous, but with evolving social norms that approve of nonmonogamous marriages, monogamy within marriage will come to be seen as a personal preference rather than a socially imposed constraint. With sufficient numbers of married individuals choosing to seek sexual gratification outside of marriage, perhaps at even various stages of their lives, it is easy to imagine nonmonogamous marriage becoming the dominant marriage institution in the developed world.

Will there be downsides to this new world of hyperproductive, sexbot-liberated marriage? As has been the case with other technological advancements, sexbot technology will be decidedly less accessible to lower socio-ecomonic groups—and, correspondingly, these groups are much less likely to benefit from any changing social norms that result from the introduction of new technologies. There is also another caveat to all of this: In order for real social change to occur, there will have to be advanced, affordable, accessible, and most importantly, widespread sexbot technology. That element of this story is perhaps the most difficult to anticipate.

That said, it was growing demand for sex outside marriage that almost certainly drove the widespread adoption of birth control. Norms around promiscuity evolved rapidly as a result of the technology’s proliferation, but the change in attitudes was already underway, and this helped make the spread of the technology possible.

In much the same way, a change in attitudes toward marriage may already be underway and gearing up to drive the widespread adoption of sexbot technology. We can already see a small-scale revolution brought on by people demanding the acceptance of nonmonogamy in marriage and, more broadly, the abandonment of a universal concept of marriage. Access to sexbots cannot on its own transform society to encourage wide acceptance of these new attitudes. But it can certainly accelerate changes already in the making—perhaps quite dramatically. For those who believe in the concept of traditional marriage, access to sexbot technology could help usher in some very trying times.

Adapted from “Sexbot-Induced Social Change: An Economic Perspective” by Marina Adshade in Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications edited by John Danaher and Neil McArthur. © 2017 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reprinted courtesy of the MIT Press