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a robot hand holding a human hand, surrounded by hearts

Illustration: Kaitlin O'Toole

What the heck are digisexuals?

November 30, 2017 — 

The following is an op-ed written by Neil McArthur, associate professor of philosophy and director of the U of M’s Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics. Google his name and digisexual and you’ll note that the idea of digisexuals is being explored around the globe. 


Robot Sex book coverThis week I launched my co-edited volume Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications. I also published a study in the journal Sexual and Relationship Therapy, co-authored with Markie L.C. Twist from the University of Nevada, Los Vegas, on “The Rise of Digisexuals”. After the publication of our article on digisexuals, the media jumped on the story, to our surprise. It was covered across the spectrum, from the Independent to the New York Post to VICE to Breitbart. I have spent the last few days answering the question: what the heck are digisexuals?

The point of our study was first of all to identify a new generation of sexual technologies that are just beginning to emerge. We focus on the development of sexbots and virtual reality enivironments. These technologies will offer an immersive sexual experience that is qualitatively different from the one people get from existing sex toys or on-line pornography. How do we know this? Existing research on robots suggests that people anthropomorophise and form an intense connection with their robot companions. Sherry Turkle and others have done research on the intensity of the bond people tend to form with what she calls “relational artifacts”. Turkle defines relational artifacts as “non-living objects that are, or at least appear to be, sufficiently responsive that people naturally conceive themselves to be in a mutual relationship with them.”

Virtual reality is also a particularly intense form of experience. In a lecture at the Virtual Futures Forum, Dr Sylvia Xueni Pan explained the immersive nature of VR technology. It creates what she describes as a placement and plausibility illusion within the human brain. As a result of its real-time positioning, 3D stereo display, and its total field of view, the user’s brain comes to believe that the user is really present. As she says: “If situations and events that happen in VR actually correlates to your actions and relates personally to you, then you react towards these events as if they were real”. Once again, we can see that this creates the possibility for people to experience entirely new, immersive forms of sex. VR is not just being used for porn. Immersive virtual worlds and multi-player environments are already being created that offer people intense sexual experiences that the real world possibly never could. Emily Witt has written about her experience with some of these technologies.

a robot hand clamping on the a human bum in a playfully romantic way

Illustration: Kaitlin O’Toole

Secondly, we wanted to identify what we believe will be one of the most significant impacts: a new form of sexual identity that emerges as a result of these technologies. While the “first wave” technologies such as Snapchat and Tinder aim to connect us with human partners in new ways, these “second wave” technologies allow people, if they so choose, to forgo human interaction altogether. As these technologies develop, they will enable sexual experiences that many people will find just as satisfying as those with human partners, or in some cases more so. We believe that in the coming decades, as these technologies become more sophisticated and more widespread, there will be an increasing number of people who will choose to find sex and partnership entirely from artificial agents or in virtual environments. As they do, we will also see the emergence of a new form of sexual identity we call digisexuality. A digisexual is someone who, because of their use of immersive technologies such as sex robots or virtual reality pornography, feels no need to search for physical intimacy with human partners.

Marginal sexual identities are always stigmatized, and we are pretty sure digisexuals will be no exception. We felt like maybe we could play an important role in getting out in front of that resistance, to make people recognize the similarities between this and other marginalized identities. We should learn from the mistakes of the past. Gays and lesbians were stigmatized for decades as psychologically ‘abnormal’. We need only look at bisexuals, asexuals, consensually non-mongamous people, and practitioners of bondange/discipline-dominance/submission-sadomasochism (BDSM), to see that no one with a minority sexual identity has escaped the negative animus of the straight, heteronormative world. We should learn from the mistakes of the past. As immersive sexual technologies become more widespread, we should approach them, and their users, with an open mind.   

It is no accident that the idea of a new sexual identity provoked a strong reaction in the media. The other story I have written that has attracted that kind of attention was a piece I wrote on “ecosexuals” – people who take their sexual identity from their connexion to the environment. People on the right are very invested in the idea that we should take our identity from things like our race or our nation. Identities based around sexuality are a threat to that. But even people with no investment in racial or national identity, or who find such identities objectionable, can react strongly to new sexual identities. We wanted to make people reflect on these reactions, and hopefully try to move past them.

We don’t know where technology is going, and there are definitely concerns that need to be discussed. My book on robot sex addresses the issue from a variety of perspectives, and I presented some of my own thoughts in a recent piece I wrote for the Guardian and in an interview I did with the CBC. In our paper Markie and I wanted to address one specific piece of the puzzle: the question of how technology impacts sexual-identity formation, and how people with technologically-based sexual identities may face stigma and prejudice. Yes, there are dangers. But whips and chains can cause a lot of harm too. That doesn’t mean we should make kinky people feel like freaks.


Research at the University of Manitoba is partially supported by funding from the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.

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