PRINT December 2015

The Year in Sex

Alex Garland, Ex Machina, 2015, digital video, color, sound, 108 minutes. Ava (Alicia Vikander).

AS ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE gets bodied, the question on everybody’s tech vertical this year is: Should humans and robots have sex? The answer would seem to be no—obviously not. Thousands of years of earth’s history suggest that unless robots envy a life of permanent and unnecessary drama with a two-thirds chance of (incurable) herpes, they should stay far away from human flesh. Not even a sitting president or a movie star married to another movie star is safe from the ramifications of screwing a mortal. Sex with humans wrecked the home of the Greek gods and obliterated that other Olympus, “New York in the 1970s,” via AIDS. If it weren’t for the musical output and influence of Prince, nothing at all would recommend it.

Under the headlines, what these stories are really opining after is what happens to us (humans) if we do have sex with them (robots—most of whom have yet to exist, so it’s odd that the Republicans aren’t making laws to protect them). For example, the roboticist Kathleen Richardson, a cofounder of the “Campaign Against Sex Robots,” believes that to make our bots femme and then fuckable, as in so many sci-fi fantasies–cum-life, is to dehumanize women. The fear is old: Femaleness got way too associated with nature, making the appearance of the “fake woman” a heresy for at least seven centuries, since the trial of Marguerite Porete. She who has sex for money, she who was first called “he,” she who is made of plastic or gets too much surgery, all these shes are posed as threats to the she who emerges fully fuckable from the womb. “That a man [sic] who goes to these lengths to [be] a woman will be a better woman than someone who is just born that way,” as Germaine Greer so newsily described Caitlyn Jenner, is to her and other feminist birthers both a proof of “misogyny” and a “delusion.” But the fear is also misguided: To me it seems obvious that the harder you work on your gender, the better you get at embodying it. Besides, if being a woman in relation to a man is on average harder or more complicated (if more appealing) than being a man, the fine ladies of our planet should hardly be threatened by the promise that anyone can do it: the prostitute by turning herself on and off, the trans girl by switching out certain parts, the “love doll” or “real doll” (never yet the “real love doll”) by existing in replica.

In the year’s sickest debut novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, Alexandra Kleeman imagines a televised game show in which contestants must find their long-term romantic partner among a choreographed parade of “clones,” identically undressed in wigs and flesh-toned shapewear under stage lights, or among a swirl of similar bodies all equally naked in the dark, the contestant fumbling toward what is hopefully the owner of his ecstasy. If he misses and picks a stranger, he’s stuck with her. Then again, if he picks her, isn’t she the one?

Love—romantic love—individuates like nothing else on earth except fame. Being loved is the closest I can get to being a star. No wonder we think of sex in terms of power! No wonder, either, that we assume our sex-derived power is irreparably diminished by the existence of replicated and/or multiplying love objects. The myth of Stepford haunts the cultural imagination so hard that we can’t have a show about housewives without aggressively calling them “The Real.” On shows about clones or “synths,” like BBC America’s Orphan Black or ABC’s Humans, the odds of being in bed with the wrong, identical body constitute an ever-renewed license to thrill. Yet the possibility of being in love with the wrong embodied person is a horror, an affront to the self.

It shouldn’t be. Wrong in conjunction with body, or with person, is a word that relates to the norm or the ideal and not to the accident that happens to be what I call love. Clones, synthetics, replicas, and bots can all be made to elicit a sexual desire in us that is indistinguishable from a desire for flesh, since although we want to believe that our outermost preferences are just that, ours, and not algorithmic, of course they’re algorithmic. (Other people who fucked your ex-boyfriend also liked your favorite porn star; a majority of users in your psychogeographic area found this height/weight/hair color/skin color attractive, and you do, too.) It’s where the algorithm breaks down, preferences giving way to slightly unpredictable choices, that lust is supplanted. When the love object goes or does wrong, the test of a true heart begins. (This is why we can actually love our iPhones. Sleek, intuitive, and astonishingly near perfect, they also crack, glitch, overheat, leak, run unexpectedly out of memory, run out of life. I used to think our handheld devices were just new tools to get the same old things, like food delivery, attention, and sex, but now I wonder whether, when we’re on our wee screens for hours, flicking endlessly through apps stocked with mimetically expressive and unoriginally made-up faces, we’re just trying to spend time with our loved one, the iPhone itself.)

Remember the year’s hottest sex machine? It wasn’t Ava (Alicia Vikander), the Miss Universe–looking android in Ex Machina, though that movie inspired much of the recent furor over bot fucking. For all her breakthrough technology, Ava as a character is patently unexciting, her tired type as old as Hollywood or the Bible: Eve from Adam’s rib, Mohini as a form of Vishnu, Karina in the form of a nude. The siren, the serpent priestess, the kitsune. The femme fatale whose every charm is a decoy and whose only real aim is to destroy from below the fools who want her. If machines are too widely feminized—and, at the same time, represent too narrow a definition of femininity—it isn’t to make men adore them. It’s to ensure men don’t trust them.

The hottest sex machine of 2015 was, in fact, the trustiest. Returning as Mike to Magic Mike XXL, the sequel to Steven Soderbergh’s summer ’12 tale of male dancing, Channing Tatum strips for your pleasure, especially if you = a woman who sleeps with men and prides herself on being respected. When Ginuwine’s “Pony” comes on, Mike’s an automaton. He snaps to attention and gyrates on command, fueled by the wetness of a thousand pussies, then spits out “empowering” lines as though programmed with a ladyblog-only text crawler. Yet he is also a machine who can say no. When Mike meets a girl who wants to fuck him, he demurs. When he and she meet again, his mission is the one thing no ordinary man apparently is capable of: making her smile. It’s cheesy and frustrating. We want to fuck him. We want to see him fuck her. So does she. When he doesn’t—when he disobeys her wish, even as he’s loyal to her—is when she comes to love him.

The problem with robots isn’t that they’re too sexy, but that they’re not purely physical enough—yet. To map cyborgian physicalities, which is also to map sexual orientation without gender as a compass, we could consult the pluralizing, specifying tags on the porn site—from “amsterdam” to “zebragirls,” from “asslick” to “asslicking” to “white-ass,” from “crazy” to “unique” to “wierdjapan” to “wierd” to “with”—as a guide to building robots that combine parts, abilities, and gestures in all different ways. Then we can relax, and wait till they get old enough to fuck with us.

Sarah Nicole Prickett is a writer living in New York.