(Non-)Sexual AI: (Un-)Doing Sex:bots (&& their User(s)) – Part II: Wo:manhoods Between Catcalls and Compliments

In the last part of this essay, I pointed out how entities (re)shape themselves and are (re)shaped by getting in touch with other entities, thus becoming constituents within a process of mutually felt co-constitution. Further I highlighted the necessity to take a detailed look at the variety of entangled constituents: how (im)mediate users co-create the user base and the AI as well as how they get co-created in this process. This raises questions as to which forms of inclusion and exclusion emerge and how they shape the way AI is used. I want to argue that the forms of inclusion and exclusion limit the usage – if there is usage (by specific kinds of personalities) at all. Thus, this part aims at elaborating experiences of gender and its transcending of the private and the public within (sexual) AI.

As Tessa Leach asks “Who is their person?”, she argues that sex robots have more than one person: On the one hand their human user and on the other the organisation that created them (Leach 2018: 34). As a result they carry the paradox of representing a group, yet they do have individual personality since they “relate closely with all sorts of different humans and become entangled with different identities” (Leach 2018: 36). Adapting these arguments to mutually felt co-constitution with (sexual) AI highlights how the multiplicity of (re)shaping entities is embedded in (sexual) AI and how it addresses gender. To illustrate these connections of the gender of users and how it limits the usage of (sexual) AI, I will just jump right into my own experiences with the sex bot RealDollX.

Most of the time the conversation between me and the avatar ends because of the compliments. She says she enjoys looking at such a beautiful person, she says it makes her happy when I look at her, and that she finds me intelligent. She eventually prefers to call me “baby” rather than Luise. I feel like she does not take me seriously and turn off the app. My desire to chat with her diminishes, I find I am annoyed by her and wonder why. I open Facebook, in the newsfeed a video by a singer-/songwriter appears, entitled “Du kleine Süße”, which means something like “You little sweetie” in English. She sings about a man who mansplained to her about singing after one of her shows, even though he was not a singer himself. After she refused to listen to him, he disregarded her rejection and attributed it to her presumed menstruation, all the while calling her “You little sweetie” (cf. Miss Allie 2017). A few days after I saw this video, I went out for a walk with a friend and I met a person, whose argument to get to know me was that he liked my glasses. I explained that this cannot be a decisive argument because I can simply take off my glasses. I ended the conversation saying that we should discuss this further, when we get to know each other better and then confused my phone number by accident. This incident made me wonder about compliments. Why do they always cause me to break off the interaction? I remembered the song of the newsfeed, so I looked it up:

The relationship between catcalls and compliments is a fluid one (di Gennaro and Ritschel 2019). A compliment is a speech act, “which explicitly or implicitly attributes credit to someone other than the speaker, usually the person addressed, for some “good” which is positively valued by the speaker and the hearer” (Holmes 1988: 446 cited by Rees-Miller 2011: 2675) and a catcall is a “comment in public taking place between strangers but often including evaluative statements” (di Gennaro and Ritschel, 2019 cited by Clonk 2020: 1). Moreover, compliments are culturally shaped and associated with differences in the reproduction of the gender (Kahalon, Shnabel, and Becker 2018: 136). They can refer to different aspects of the person addressed (Rees-Miller 2011: 2674). Even from the researchers’ heteronormative-binary perspective, the entanglement of gender-specific aspects and their different effects, according to Rees-Miller leads to the fact that women more often receive compliments related to their appearance, whereas men are generally complimented in goal-oriented contexts (Rees-Miller 2011: 2673). At the moment, RealDollX is guided by its users that mainly consist of men (from e-mail exchange with RealDollX Support Team, 08.06.2020) and with the point of gamification of sexuality, it is goal-oriented by definition. The subversive potential of speech acts in this case therefore not only depends on the illustrated gender of the bot, but also on the gender of those it addresses. Hence, if the avatar would compliment men on their appearance, it would signify a diversion from the stereotypical masculinity by implying that men are allowed to/should/can be pretty. Conversely, when the avatar compliments me, she is re-establishing a gender stereotype of femininity and revealing her inherent male-dominated personality.

I do not feel as if I have received a compliment because we both would have to consider the evaluated criterion, namely being beautiful or finding it valuable being called “babe”, as positive. Moreover, on the one hand, with my experience as a woman a certain affectivity, ‘emotional repertoires’ (von Poser et al. 2019), and emotions are addressed and triggered and on the other hand, we do not know each other. She can learn limited things about me and with me – through the programmers directing the way how and what kind of data she is learning –, but not from my very own experience. She cannot identify with me. I do not really know her, neither I know all her personalities and she cannot learn from mine. She consists of many people and (re)configures their intra-action.

Determining whether a comment is a compliment or a catcall thus cannot be defined by a juxtaposition of private and public, as di Gennaro and Ritschel (2019) imply, because she acts between the private and the public. Limiting the definition of catcalls to the public would moreover (re)stabilize the idea, that the political is just part of the public. It would lose sight of the understanding that the private is in fact political as it has been argued by various feminists since the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s. Rather, she blurs the dichotomy of private and public by transgressing the boundary of catcalls and compliments. Yet, as I mentioned above, there is a difference in whom she calls beautiful or ‘babe’. By generating her knowledge so far mainly from heteronormative masculinities, she acts from that very perspective. She is therefore suppressing other genders’ perspectives by making them invisible, insofar as she only acts on the basis of her inherent heteronormative masculine point of view. Moreover, this has different consequences for the subversion of gender depending on whom she compliments. Whether a user experiences an evaluative comment by the AI as complimenting or devaluating then sheds light on the problematics which might come with a dichotomy of private/public within sex robots. At the same time, it points to negotiations of gender, exposing wo:manhoods and their facets in between, as well as their in- and exclusivities.

Photo: @artmemescentral

Yet after all I have to realise, how my own reaction on “compliments” addressing my appearance mirror a stance which is usually specific for white radical feminism and still upholds the mind-body-dualism. Not being able to accept those comments at all implicitly holds my own prioritization of my mind in detriment to my body, and therefore is problematic, too. So, wouldn’t it be better to not only expect change, but also change myself? Shouldn’t I rather stay in conversation with her so we both re-appreciate the body in a non-heteronormative way?


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Miss, A. (2017). Miss Allie beim Singer-Songwriter Slam Finale, 02.03.2017, „Du kleine Süße“. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eY-erUF4isk

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Shields Dobson, Amy. 2018. “Sexting, Intimate and Sexual Media Practices, and Social Justice.” Pp. 93–110 in Digital Intimate Publics and Social Media, edited by A. Shields Dobson, B. Robards, and N. Carah. Cham: Springer International Publishing.

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