Interview of Meghan Murphy ― Resistance Radio

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Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen. This is Resistance Radio, on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is Meghan Murphy. She is a writer and journalist from Vancouver, B.C. She founded Feminist Current in 2012, which has since grown to be the leading feminist website in Canada, as well as a global presence. She is currently working on a book that critiques third wave feminism as a modern anti-feminist backlash.

So first off, thank you for your work, and thank you for being on the program.

MM: Thanks so much for having me on the show.

DJ: So, today I want to talk about … kind of a weird and disgusting topic, which is so-called “sex robots.” And before I ask you a question, I just want to say; I have to say “so-called” every time I say that, because they’re actually masturbation tools. They’re not actually sex-anything.

MM: Mm hmm, mm hmm.

DJ: But, having said that, what are so-called sex robots, and then, after that, what’s wrong with them?

MM: Well, they’re humanoids, as they’ve been called, by what’s sometimes also called the “sex-tech” industry. And right now – I recently had the opportunity to talk with Kathleen Richardson, who, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with her work, but she’s been working on a “no sex robot” campaign. So, she told me that, you know, in fact, sex robots aren’t really – I mean, there’s no sex robots for sale right now. It’s sort of more an idea and a conversation at this point, as opposed to a real-life product that we’re dealing with.

So, effectively, what we’re dealing with is an idea. And it’s this idea that men have sexual needs that must be met, i.e. they’re not desires, they’re needs – and if we are going to go so far as to say that men have sexual needs that need to be met, presumably there are consequences if those needs aren’t met. Either to the men personally, or, y’know, there’s some other consequences.

So, in essence, sex robots are discussed in the same way that prostitution is discussed, and pornography. Right? Like, it’s this idea that, again, any desire that a man has must be accommodated, and if those desires aren’t accommodated, something bad happens, whether that be the man is miserable and lonely and unhappy, or like, y’know, his balls explode, or, like, he starts raping women uncontrollably, or something like that.

So that’s what we’re dealing with. Not necessarily a technical product, at this point anyway. But this idea about what women are for, and how men work.

DJ: Well, let’s back up for a second. What is the relationship between the technology that is supposed to become a sex robot and the current existence of so-called “sex dolls?”

MM: Well, I’m not an expert on how robots work. But what they’ve done with these so-called “sex robots” is that they’ve given them sort of Siri-like capabilities. They’ve created a sex doll that can also retain information and communicate with you in a limited way. That it can sort of memorize information about its owner. So, you know, if you, if a man who has a sex robot wants to “converse” with his robot, he can feed her information about himself so that he can kind of pretend that this doll, this robot is interested in him, so she can, y’know, ask him a question about the kinds of movies he likes to watch. More likely, she can ask him if he wants to have sex with her, or something like that.

They also can do weird things like move their faces, things like that. It obviously doesn’t look realistic in the same way that a human appears, but that’s the idea. The idea is that they’re sort of trying to create a thing that emulates human behavior in a pretty limited way. And human behavior that’s obviously gendered; feminized and really pornified. Human behavior in terms of male fantasy.

DJ: So, before we really dive into what’s wrong with that – I was reading one article about this that said that there are chat bots, which is a computer program that people will “chat” with, and that seems a little bit strange to me, but then in addition, the thing that really got me was that there was this one Chinese chat bot that has had more than twenty million people say “I love you” to the chat bot. That seems very pathetic to me.

MM: Yeah. It is pathetic. It also speaks to where our culture is at, and how we think about relationships. I would guess that people who are telling the chat bot, saying “I love you” to the chat bot, were mostly men. Is that accurate, do you know?

DJ: The article I read did not specify, except it was in the context of these so-called “sex robots” and the paragraph after was about a Chinese man who, every night he likes to just chat with the bot before he goes to sleep because it makes him feel so comforted. So I can’t say – the article did not say, but the implication is yes.

MM: Yeah. I mean, I guess – I think that part of this has to do with male socialization. So, obviously, in our culture, and in patriarchy, or maybe not obviously to everyone; men are socialized in a way that teaches them that women are kind of for them. So in the same way that – I’ve had the experience a lot of times, way too many times, I would say; of being at a bar, and some man at the bar starts talking to me, which sometimes is okay and sometimes is annoying because I don’t want to talk to a stranger at a bar because I’m there with friends, so obviously I’m interested in having conversations with my friends, not a strange man at the bar. But, you know, what often happens is I end up fuming because this man will enter into a so-called conversation with me, but not ask me a single question about myself. So he’ll talk at me under the assumption that I am just going to be interested in anything and everything he has to say, and he doesn’t have to engage me in the conversation, and it doesn’t even occur to him to be interested in my life or me or what I might have to say about whatever he’s rambling on about.

And I find this is really common in male behavior. I think that men are kind of socialized not to think about other people’s interests and needs as much as women are. This is not to say that, of course, all men are like this, because I know, also, there are plenty of men in my life who do care about the feelings and thoughts of women. But I think that this is sort of an extension of that, this thing around sex robots, this thing where men are telling some chat bot that they love it. It’s like this warped idea of what a relationship with another person is, and specifically a relationship with a woman.

And we have so many examples of this in our culture, which reinforces this idea. Pornography is a really big one, obviously. Pornography is a kind of situation where a human man sits on one side of a screen and masturbates at what’s happening on the other side of the screen. And a lot of people seem not to want to differentiate. They don’t want to understand that what’s happening on the other side isn’t whatever their fantasy of that wants to be. They don’t want to imagine that the woman on the other side of the screen isn’t enjoying herself, isn’t super into it, isn’t turned on, etc. etc.

So, men sort of learn to live in a bit of a fantasy world, and they learn to see women not as full human beings, but as sort of partial human beings, like for example a robot that kind of exists to fill whatever fantasy that the man wants to have, and also to offer things like emotional support and nurturing, and sort of – there’s this expectation of one-way engagement. So the woman is to offer sexual pleasure, to be a good listener, that this man has somebody to talk at, and feel fulfilled, as though he’s having some kind of real, meaningful engagement with another human being. To support him, to emotionally nurture him, to take care of him in other ways in the home, through domestic work, cooking, taking care of his children, etc. etc.

So, y’know, it’s obviously a much wider problem than just these bots. This is just a new manifestation of that, I’d say.

DJ: So it sounds like some of what you’re saying is that a culture that didn’t perceive women as receptacles for men’s emotions, etc., could not conceptualize a sex bot. And it seems like the sex bot is almost the – from the pornographic perspective, the perfect woman.

MM: Exactly. She is the perfect woman. She has a kind of pornographic body, y’know; hairless, largely flawless, large breasts, full lips, etc. etc. She’s sexualized. She is that kind of literal object that pornography sells to men, that says women exist for them. They’re really just a series of holes to be fucked. That’s what a sex robot is. “I’m here for you to penetrate, I’m here for your sexual pleasure, I’m here for you to project your fantasies onto.”

And people, mostly men but not only men, because I’ve heard this argument from women as well, will say; “Oh, great. Let them have their sex robots. Keep them away from us.” Or, y’know, “Let them have their sex robots if it makes them feel better, what’s the harm?”

But of course people make that exact same argument about prostitution, and they make that exact same argument about pornography. They say, especially with pornography; “it’s just a fantasy, he’s not really doing anything to these women on the other side of the screen, he’s not harming them. So what’s the harm with him getting off in the privacy of his own home if that’s what he wants or needs?”

But of course there’s larger implications to these ideas, and there’s significance to these ideas, and they don’t exist within a cultural vacuum.

DJ: I agree with you, but it would seem to me that there was a difference between the arguments about pornography and prostitution and the arguments about so-called “sex dolls,” in that the woman who is having the videos or pictures taken of her is a real woman as opposed to, the doll is a piece of plastic, and so there’s not a woman being harmed in the production of that.

MM: Yeah, that’s true. There’s not a woman being directly harmed when we’re talking about sex robots. But I think that the harm happens in terms of the idea, and how that idea manifests itself in real life. The harm of pornography is definitely about what’s happening to those women who are in the porn films. But it’s also about the impact on all women. And the same thing is true for prostitution. The harm that happens to women in prostitution is horrific, so horrific that I think a lot of people don’t even want to think about it. Which is awful, because they really need to think about it.

But the system of prostitution, and the sex industry more broadly, has an enormous impact on all women, everywhere. The idea that a woman is a consumable object, the idea that a woman is a product that can be bought and sold, the idea that a woman is a thing to be fucked – these are ideas that were invented by patriarchy and also serve to prop up patriarchy. So it sort of reinforces the naturalness of male entitlement and male sexual desire and it naturalizes rape culture. It says that men have uncontrollable needs and sexual desires and that they need an outlet, and that if they don’t have that outlet then they’ll go and rape someone.

And the argument doesn’t fly. People use that argument in defense of prostitution. They have for a long, long time, said things like “Men need access to prostituted women so that they don’t rape other women.” And there’s obviously a lot of problems with that argument, because it’s saying that one class of women deserves to take that abuse, to protect another class of women.

And the other thing is that that doesn’t work. Because prostitution and pornography have been around for a long time now, and it hasn’t alleviated male violence against women. Men are violent towards women in prostitution. They rape and abuse and kill those women, in prostitution. They also rape and abuse and kill women outside of prostitution.

So the problem is larger than that. The problem is about what we condone, in terms of male behavior, and what we believe about male behavior. What we think is acceptable and normal and inherent. And, again, it says a lot about what we, as a culture, think women are for.

DJ: So, I know you’ve covered this some, but it has been in the news recently, and I want to talk about this just a bit, that there were recently some arrests in I think the United States and maybe Australia, where there is a company, or multiple companies, who are making so-called “sex dolls” that are of children. The argument was being made, again, the same argument that you’ve been refuting here, that this is all just fantasy and so someone should be allowed to purchase, some man should be allowed to purchase a doll that looks like a five-year-old child, and do whatever they want with it. And at least so far, governments are disagreeing. So do you want to talk about that at all?

MM: I don’t agree that fantasies are harmless, or what we call fantasies. Because they aren’t just fantasies. I mean, this is something – first of all, so long as something is a product, and it’s being sold to the public, that’s not a private fantasy. That’s a public issue, and that’s, again, speaking to what we as a culture condone, and what our values and ethics as a culture are. That same argument is made about sex robots, which is “who cares what these men want to do in the privacy of their own homes?”

The same argument is made in defense of pornography and things like BDSM. This is something that’s happening in people’s bedrooms, it’s none of our business, what people, let’s call them men (laughs) do in the privacy of their bedrooms.

But that’s a lie. That’s not a true argument, because these fantasies are not just private fantasies. They’re public issues and they have an impact on the public, and on women and children and our values as a culture.

The sexualization of children sexualizes children. And making child sex dolls sexualizes children. It says that children can be sexualized and that it’s okay for men to desire sex with children. So even if those men are not literally sexually abusing children, I think that these child sex dolls send a larger message, just like what we see in pornography sends a larger message.

So, for example, in pornography, the teen genre is one of the most popular genres. It’s always consistently one of the most searched genres. And those women who are, let’s say “performing,” in those “teen” porn movies, may well be adults. But the impact of that “teen” pornography is that it sexualizes teenage girls, and it encourages and condones men’s objectification and sexualization of teenage girls, which has a real impact on teenage girls, and contributes to men’s sexual abuse of teenage girls, sexual harassment of teenage girls, and, again, general objectification of teenage girls.

So, you know, pretending that these things exist inside a bubble is just dishonest.

DJ: Well I think those are all really great points. I want to go in a slightly different direction now, with a couple of headlines. “There’s now a sex robot with a g-spot so you can totally give it an orgasm.” (Headline) “Meet Harmony the sex robot, so realistic she orgasms.”

Okay, there’s the objectification of women, that we’ve talked about, that I completely agree with you on. And then, in addition, there’s the notion of calling a robot a “she.” There’s the notion also of attempting to make a person out of an inanimate object, and saying that a machine has an orgasm. That is really problematical on both the same and another level too. It’s simultaneously depersonalizing women and personalizing technology. That’s profoundly disturbing.

MM: Yeah, totally. Erasing the line between an actual object and a human being.

DJ: Which is the next line. There is a headline here from the Irish Times: “Sex robots: even better than the real thing.” I don’t even know how to respond to that.

MM: Well, I mean, again, it says a lot about what men want from women, and what men think about women. “Even better than the real thing.” I mean, if an object made out of metal parts and silicone that isn’t actually a human being with thoughts and feelings is “better” than a human woman, what does that say about what men think women are, and what they want women to be? And how does that impact the way – if they think that the ideal woman shouldn’t have thoughts and feelings? And we know – we know what the impact is. The impact is that men abuse and rape and otherwise sexually assault women.

DJ: This seems to be – and I don’t know if you want to go this direction or not, and if you don’t, we won’t – but this seems to be, really, the direction this culture’s been headed from the beginning. The patriarchy, by which I mean. What I mean by that, is that when we think of works of art, we think of works of art created by humans. We don’t think of birdsong, we don’t think of morning, we don’t think of evening, we don’t think of bats in flight. And basically, this is why this culture gets so excited when scientists can combine a couple of enzymes in a lab, and it’s like “oh my God, we’re about to create life.” It’s like, “yeah, you and every other rabbit, and every bird, and every bacteria.” Life creates life.

Or they go “Oh my gosh, we have to explore Mars to find out if we’re all alone,” as we kill life on this planet.

And so my point is that what men create, and I presume it’s mainly men who are making these dolls; what men create is of value, what nature creates is of no value whatsoever. And so of course “sex” with a robot created by men is going to be better than what nature gave us, nature gave all of us. I’m not saying that nature gave men women, I’m saying that nature gave all of us this wonderful, beautiful thing called sex. And so there’s this profound necrophilia in this culture, this hatred of what is real, and hatred of real relationship, and a valorization of that which is created by men wearing lab coats.

MM: Of course. We value consumer products more than we value life. Obviously, because of where our culture has gone, thanks to capitalism, and that idea – I think that’s a really good point that you made, that men are essentially saying that they can create a better version of women than real human women that already exist naturally.

And of course that speaks so much to male power. They seem to think that they’re kind of playing God. “We don’t need you, we can create our own version of a woman, and it will be this thing that exists to serve us. Screw you and your agency and your independence and liberation. We’re gonna do our own thing and we’re going to project our hate and our violent fantasies and our egos onto this thing. And we’re going to say ‘That’s what women are for, that’s the ideal woman.’”

DJ: So you can have, so they’re aiming toward having babies raised in a lab, or made in a lab, I should say; they’re going to basically outsource, not outsource, but technologize babies, technologize relationships, technologize sex, technologize everything. At that point, what the hell do men need women for? I’m being ironic, of course.

MM: (laughing) Well, I think that’s what they like to tell themselves.

DJ: Isn’t that kind of the thrust of this?

MM: Well, sort of, but I think again that says a lot about what they think women are for, because if their response is “we don’t need you anymore, you have no use,” then what they’re really saying is “you exist for us. So if you’re not doing things for us, then you’re irrelevant.”

Which of course isn’t true. The feminist movement has argued the opposite since its inception.

DJ: Well, that’s our attitude towards everything. That’s the resourcification of the entire world. “Things exist only insofar as I,” “I” being the dude, the white dude, “only insofar as I am able to use them. If I can’t use them, then they are useless.”

MM: Exactly. Totally. And we can see where that kind of attitude and outlook has taken us, in terms of the destruction of the earth, and the destruction of our fellow humans, and life on the planet, right? And capitalism has been such an enormously destructive force in this world, because it’s all about placing value on people and life and, you know, everything. Placing value on it only if it can be sold. Only if it’s salable, only if it’s marketable, only if someone’s willing to pay for it.

DJ: So one of the reasons that I wanted to interview you, I mean apart from all your great work, is that you said that these dolls are basically an MRA dream. You’ve addressed that, you’ve talked about that some, but you haven’t actually used the word “MRA.” Can you talk about how they would be an MRA dream? What is “MRA,” for the listeners?

MM: I said that sex robots kind of seemed like the dream of these kind of men’s rights, anti-feminist gamers who I come across online from time to time. And it’s not like it’s just, it’s not just about technical men’s rights activists, or all gamers, or whatever.

Anita Sarkeesian has obviously done a lot of work around this. There’s a lot of misogyny and pornification that happens in video games. So young men today spend a lot of time at home, on the computer, playing these video games that more and more frequently are designed to supposedly emulate “real life.” And the women in these games are often, again, sexualized and pornified, and in some of these games, the player can have sex with, or even rape, some of these video game women. So it sort of seems like an extension of this idea, that a player can, a player/man, can kind of create their own fantasy, and then project their fantasies onto that.

But more and more it seems like a lot of, kind of anger behind men who are fans of the sex robot or the sex doll, because they’re kind of saying like “fuck you” to women, like they’re these guys who are, like, so angry and so bitter, because they’ve grown up in this world that has taught them they’re entitled to women, that’s sold them porn culture, and said “You deserve access to this, hot, young, perfect woman. And she’s gonna have sex with you whenever you want, and she’s gonna big up your ego.”

And that’s what they see in the media, that’s what they see on their computers, that’s what they see in pornography. And all of a sudden, when they’re out in the world, they realize that women are human beings and they don’t have to do those things. They don’t have to have sex with them, and they don’t have to cater to their egos, and they’re not these half-baked fantasies that they’ve been sold online and elsewhere.

So it sort of seems like the response to these sex robots is like “screw you, women, we don’t need you anymore, we have this now.” And I guess they can kind of, or they think that they can kind of, have their fantasy, and they can have that thing they’ve been sold all their lives. And they can continue hating real life women who haven’t lived up to the standards that they learned women should be living up to.

DJ: The notion that this would not have effects in the real world seems to me to be absurd, in that what we take into our bodies, by which I mean what we view on television, what we look at on the Internet, affects us. What we read in books, affects us. That’s the point. And that’s the point of advertising.

And it seems to me, and you’ve been saying this a lot, I think; that in many ways, this new piece of technology is simply more advertising for the patriarchal, pornographied mindset.

MM: Yeah, exactly. I mean, that’s a comparison that I make quite often, what you mentioned earlier around advertising is that when people say things like pornography, or sex robots, or child sex dolls are just fantasies, they’re not real, and they have nothing to do with the real world; it doesn’t make sense, because we all know that the images that exist in our world have an enormous impact, and that’s how advertising works. And advertising can happen in really, really subtle ways. Advertising doesn’t work in the way that just says like “buy this thing.” It tries to sell you a fantasy, and it sells you a lifestyle, and it sells you an idea. And it sells you an idea about yourself. Like, “if you want this kind of life, if you see yourself as this kind of person, if you want other people to see you as this kind of person, then you have to have this product.”

And we know that images in film have an impact on the larger culture, and that’s why, for example, there are so many critiques of racist stereotypes on TV and in movies. Because we know that if we see racist stereotypes in the media, that shapes our ideas of what we think about various ethnic groups, and things like that.

So I think I’ve gotten a little bit off track of what you were asking.

DJ: No, no; it’s great. That’s perfect. Go ahead.

MM: I think that – it does, it functions as a kind of advertisement for porn culture. It sells us that idea, and it reinforces that idea that the sex industry sells us about – again, what women are for, what women should look like, what men should do with women.

DJ: It seems that if – there’s something I wrote in a book I wrote about zoos, which was that if you want to see wild animals, you shouldn’t – going to see a wild animal in a zoo is not really seeing a wild animal. You’re seeing a captive, and you’re seeing one who is not there by choice, and what I say in that book is that if you want to see bears, you shouldn’t go to a zoo. What you should do is you should live in such a manner that the bears want to hang around. And you should live such that you help make habitat for whatever creature this is.

And it seems that’s it too … And even when you do make the habitat, that doesn’t mean bears are going to show up. They’re their own beings, and they could show up or not. My point having to do with this is if you want to be – if you really want to be loved by someone, it seems that one of the things that one should do is to work hard to make one’s self lovable, as opposed to … In addition to everything else, it seems really pathetic, and really nasty, that instead of doing the work to make themselves such that they can possibly find decent relationships, that what they do is they buy a doll. That seems to me the essence of porn culture and also the essence of capitalism. That what I’m doing is “I am lonely, and I’m going to buy some damn piece of plastic that I can screw.” That seems as big an indictment of this culture as anything.

MM: Yeah, it’s turning love and relationships and emotional connection into a product, into a thing that can be bought. And it can’t be bought. But that’s what it tells these men. It’s like they sort of – they believe that they are entitled to love and entitled to relationships but they shouldn’t have to do anything in terms of their own personal lives and selves that would make them a good candidate for a relationship with a woman. I mean, “why would a woman be in a relationship with you? You seem really selfish and shitty and angry.”

DJ: Here’s a quote from an article you wrote. Not your quote, it’s a quote from a man writing in a sex doll forum. “If my real doll could cook, clean and screw whenever I wanted, I’d never date again.” And that’s pretty much it, isn’t it?

MM: Yeah, exactly. I mean, it says a lot about – he doesn’t see women as human beings. That’s not what a human being is. That’s a robot. So, yeah. I guess you do want a robot. But the fact that, like, you’re out there dating and that’s what you’re looking for is just so warped and gross and I mean, I can’t imagine that he’s getting very far with that attitude, because he sounds like a real asshole who doesn’t know how to engage with other – female – human beings, at all.

DJ: So we have about five minutes left, four or five minutes. What do you want people to take away from this interview, and also, if you can’t bring down capitalism and porn culture in one day, what would you want to do vis-a-vis this specific problem of these creations?

MM: I mean, like I said, sex robots are not for sale. A lot of men responded very angrily to my initial article about sex robots, saying, like; “You want to ban sex robots, you want to ban sex dolls.” And of course I hadn’t advocated to ban anything. I was just writing critically about these objects, these products, and thinking about what they represented.

And this is what Kathleen Richardson says as well, and I recommend people look up her campaign against sex robots online, she’s done a lot of really interesting work around this. But what’s important, I think, is that we have the larger conversation about the commercialization and the objectification of women’s bodies, and how that connects to violence against women, and how that connects to the sex industry, and that we stop compartmentalizing all these things and telling ourselves “it’s just a fantasy, it’s just a fantasy,” when these are real things that are happening in real life. Not just in real life in terms of the way that men are seeking out these products, or whatever, but the way that it impacts women in real life and the way that it impacts our ideas about relationships and sex with other human beings.

The way that we understand sex in this culture is so warped, and so harmful, and so often violent, and it’s because of these ideas that we see in porn, and these ideas that are represented by sex robots. Men think, even men who are so-called “nice men,” men who don’t go around, or don’t believe they go around raping women, nice men still see sex as a thing they want to, or should get from women, that is just kind of owed to them.

We talk about – there’s so many women who are in marriages, or long-term monogamous relationships with men, who talk about “maintenance sex.” Essentially that’s the idea that men are owed sex and that if you’re in a relationship with a man, you have an obligation to provide him with access to your body. And if you don’t, he might shrivel up and die, or he might cheat on you, or he might leave you. These ideas are so widespread, it goes so far beyond sex robots, it goes so far beyond even the sex trade.

And I think it has such a harmful impact on our relationships with other people, and it obviously has really a harmful and traumatic impact on women and girls, who just have been – I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say been traumatized so many times, not just through what we consider sexual violence, but just through the way that men have related to them, and behaved towards them, even in subtle ways, even in ways that much of the culture would view as normal and acceptable.

DJ: Well, thank you for all that. And I would like to thank listeners for listening, my guest today has been Meghan Murphy, this is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network.

Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen
No Responses — Written on August 13th — Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen

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