From the 60s to the 90s, sex research pioneers William Masters and Virginia Johnson became famous for their groundbreaking study of human sexual responses and dysfunctions. Masters and Johnson not only used questionnaires and interviews to examine their participants’ erotic experiences. They also directly observed individuals engaging in solo and partnered sexual activities. They understood that the most efficient way to assess how the mind and body react during sex is to examine people engaging in sexual activities that approach real-world interactions, as closely as possible.
Today, however, such methods—and particularly those involving partnered sex—would hardly meet the standards of institutional research ethics boards due the inherent risks associated with interhuman intimacy and sexuality (e.g. physical or psychological harm, unwanted pregnancy, and sexually transmitted or blood-borne infections). Hence, researchers in sexology must find clever methods that meet those ethical standards. It is for making valuable scientific contributions.
Nowadays, sex researchers must rely on all kinds of indirect methods to explore human sexuality. For example, to examine our sexual lives and responses, researchers employ sexually explicit stimuli (e.g., pornography) in combination with measures, such as but not limited to: self-report questionnaires, eye-tracking, and electroencephalography (EEG). Researchers also employ penile and vaginal plethysmography, and more recently, thermal imaging—which is much less invasive—to examine genital responses to various stimuli.
But even though these methods are somewhat safer than Masters and Johnson’s, they fall short of the kind of partnered sex that people have in real life—e.g., at home.
For one, aside from being in a laboratory setting, participants are being subjected to the stimuli rather than interacting sexually with a partner. This means that important components of real-world sex—which contribute to arousal, desire, and pleasure—are missing. These may include but are not limited to: reciprocal touch, movement as well as the potential closeness and erotic intensity of being intimate with someone.
This also means that the results of such experiments may better reflect how we respond to pornography, for instance, rather than tell us something about our reactions to real-world sexual activities. In turn, this may limit the generalizability of empirical results—or the applicability of these results to broader groups and situations—as well as our ability to understand and predict human sexuality.
However, new technology opens novel methodological avenues for sexological research.
Advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and virtual/augmented reality (VR/AR) offer new possibilities for sex researchers. Their intersection in sex tech and erobots (erôs + bot)—or artificial erotic agents, such as virtual partners and sex robots—is progressively giving rise to evermore interactive products that can be employed as research tools.
Specifically, new sex tech products and emerging erobots could be designed and used as stimuli and recording instruments in sexological studies conducted both inside and outside of laboratory settings. As such, sex tech and erobots present several advantages for experimental designs in sexology.
For example, the numbers, forms, and behaviors of future human-like virtual partners or sex robots can be manipulated to isolate the effects of different variables on human sociosexual responses. These machines can also be on the giving and receiving end of intimate interactions, which, in turn, can facilitate our access to data that is otherwise difficult to obtain—like reciprocal touch and movements—from the comfort of one’s home.
Moreover, cloud-based erobots—such as artificial companions or erotic chatbots—can learn from multiple users simultaneously. They can manipulate their features on a large scale to rapidly test the influence of different parameters on human intimacy. And finally, while safely remaining under human control, erobots also eliminate the need for other human partners to take part in the experiment, which, incidentally, reduces the risks associated with interhuman intimacy.
Taken together, this can help scientists to explore the foundations of our intimate relationships and sexuality, while improving the safety of sexological experiments and the generalizability of the results gathered through them. Notably, some laboratories are already using virtual reality in combination with other measures to examine human sexual responses, as well as develop therapeutic tools and protocols. They are to help treat, for example, sexual difficulties, dysfunctions, and phobias.
To make this possible, we must encourage more partnerships between the private sector and academia, in order to design the necessary tools that will enable us to examine human sexuality in a better way, and, in turn, improve the science of sexology.
Importantly, we remark that these partnerships could not only benefit scholars and enhance human well-being. But it can also help businesses and entrepreneurs to test their products.
So, let’s give ourselves the means to explore the depths of human eroticism safely.
Note. To learn more, we encourage you to attend the 6th edition International Congress on Love & Sex with Robot (LSR 2021), including the presentation titled: “Erobots as Research Tools: Overcoming Ethical and Methodological Challenges in Sexology.”
Cover Image from Unsplash