Artificial Intelligence Won’t Replace Sex Workers — But It May Change The Digital Sex Economy

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The plot of the 2014 film Her seemed whimsical, if a little far-fetched, when it was released. The film, about a lonely divorced heterosexual man played by Joaquin Phoenix seeking companionship via an A.I. chatbot, was widely praised by critics. However, ten years later this scenario seems more and more likely. In a world surrounded by smart speakers like Amazon’s Alexa, dating apps, and the growing popularity of online sex work, are we that far off?

Sex, Loneliness, and the Age of The Internet

Researchers have identified that 61% of young people aged 18-25 experience loneliness “frequently” or “almost all the time or all the time” in the United States, according to a 2020 online survey conducted by Harvard Graduate School of Education. This health problem, coupled with new data that reveals that sexual activity amongst heterosexual men is declining (with one-third of men reporting no partnered sex over the last year), shows a potentially significant market opportunity for online sex work that never existed before. 

As tech advances in other professional settings, the business of sex will be no different. Like all sex work, online sex work is an agreed-upon transactional relationship. It goes beyond just eliciting a sexual response: it relies on emotional and aesthetic labor to attract and keep clientele. 

Although “[S]exual relations may be without equal when it comes to emotional intimacy,” posits Russel Belk, Ph.D. in his 2022 research artifice, “Artificial Emotions and Love and Sex Doll Service Workers,” Belk argues that A.I. could offer something comparable for users. 

The Next Generation of Love Dolls

Despite today’s interactive robots (sex dolls or “love dolls”) feeling nothing, they may “induce emotions in users that potentially surpass the pleasure of human-human sexual experiences.” These silicone sex dolls don’t have sentience, but they can provide users with a convincing illusion by engaging in racy chats. More advanced models can imitate the contractions of a vagina during intercourse. Dolls can cost anywhere from $2,575 upwards to $60,000 for more sophisticated designs. 

For example, future sex robots could be programmed to respond to human emotions and tailor their speech and sexual response to match up with the user. Although artifice and performance are very much a part of the tools used by human sex workers, A.I. is already changing the way people primarily perform thought-related labor tasks, so it’s safe to say that the sex industry is prime for disruption. We already see this algorithm technology implemented in dating apps like Tinder and E-harmony, so why wouldn’t sex be the next frontier?

Sex Work Will Change Again 

The increasingly sophisticated capabilities seen in “generative A.I.” could eventually change sex work as we know it, says Paul Armstrong, an emerging technologies advisor and A.I. futurist. There was a shift toward online sex work during the pandemic, but A.I. could create even more significant changes. 

We’ve already seen this take place in a simplistic form in the 2DFD or “anime findom” and clip creator space. In this space, creators will use anime avatars or clips of characters to turn on their audiences. These images can be commissioned or AI-generated, but real people prompt them. Now we are seeing A.I. take the reigns and create original content in the form of conversations and images.

Tools like Chat GPT and Dall-E “use machine learning to analyze and infer things from patterns in data,” explains Armstrong. These intelligent machines perform tasks by modeling and improving on samples, from understanding and responding to language prompts to generating images. 

It’s not unlikely that customers will eventually be able to create personalized language and image-based experiences tailored to their intimate desires. Just as Pornhub uses gathered data to gauge users’ likes and interests based on the images they watch, generative A.I. could conceivably create sexual scenarios based on a customer’s preference for appearance, persona, and experience. However, the technology isn’t quite there yet, explains Armstrong.

“People get catfished all the time, so why not take this a step further and you can see how this could be [both] an opportunity and a threat to online sex services. With improvement in voice Al and chatbot technology, …it would likely save time and money for companies to put this out en masse. The route to get here, though, is paved with issues; it’s not easy, and no one has yet cracked the Turing test [a test developed to measure a machine’s ability to match the intelligence of a human].”

Could A.I. Backed Sex Work Have A Negative Impact?

Despite the results today not being perfect, A.I. continuously improves its capabilities as it learns. Still, critics have also pointed out that A.I. currently expresses inappropriate language and depictions due to racially and sexually biased data it is trained on from the web. This hindrance has made everything from sexualized images of children in the ‘Magic Avatar’ app and inappropriate images that may promote sexual exploitation or violence, which is concerning and doesn’t have an easy fix. 

“Like all machine learning, you have to have a good set of data to learn from, an ethical framework, and a level of checking to make sure the experience is optimal,” says Armstrong. Unfortunately, A.I. picks up on all of the built-in biases and darker aspects of humanity, which has the potential to be reflected in the sex industry. 

While many have made a case for A.I. alleviating feelings of loneliness, this may not translate to good mental health for everyone. “I would say it could combat loneliness in an unhealthy way. Because you could have-if the A.I. [technology] is, there-you could have deep, sophisticated conversations, hopes, dreams, vulnerabilities, all the stuff I’m putting forward here. But deep down, you know it was constructed. And deep down, you know that the A.I., even if it was programmed to have hopes and dreams and vulnerability, so it takes away the messiness of being human, which is unpredictability and nuances, and change,” explains Dr. Cheryl Fraser, a clinical psychologist, and sex therapist who has treated many men helping them explore their sexual desires, kinks, and quirks. 

Dr. Fraser says that while there’s no issue with people turning to the internet to fulfill their sexual proclivities, regular use of sex tech can cause problems relating to people offline. “We know the central nervous system adapts to intense stimulation, and it becomes less impactful. So, of course, lots of porn desensitizes us to the pleasures of more regular sex, and it takes more to get us there. So we’re hooked, we’re all going to have A.I. girlfriends and boyfriends, and there will be no babies and no meaningful relationships,” she jokes.

Sex Work in the ‘Feeling Economy’

Humans are transitioning into an economy where employment and pay are determined by tasks that increasingly require feelings versus intelligence. A.I. and machines will do more physical labor and thinking roles while people will be responsible for feeling or using emotions in their work, according to an argument made by Min-Hui Huang and Roland Rust, in their 2021 book, The Feeling Economy: How Artificial Intelligence is Creating the Era of Empathy. This new economy has implications for how people will perform in service industry positions, which have historically relied on making customers feel seen and heard.

Naturally, this manner of relating to customers is ubiquitous in the sex industry. Sex workers perform emotional labor in addition to satisfying the sexual needs of their customers. It’s unlikely A.I. will be able to effectively take over for sex workers for this reason. The feeling economy still requires human workers for soft skills such as listening and communication with clients.

This is not to say that many companies won’t try to replace human sex workers (primarily online) with their A.I. counterparts to varying degrees of success. For example, there have already been reports of chatbots developed using Chat GPT to find customers for online sex. However, Armstrong estimates it will probably be another ten years before A.I. can effectively emulate the relationship we saw in the film Her.

“It’ll likely be cheap in the long run and clunky at the beginning… But, with the rise of A.I. chatbots, [sex] services may have an opportunity to raise prices if they are willing to prove they only have humans on the end of the keyboard,” says Armstrong.

Nevertheless, A.I. could provide helpful utility for the menial tasks that sex workers must do to advertise their business, such as creating promotional materials, scheduling, and discussing expectations of the service. This could allow sex workers to streamline their work. Since this work exists in a gray area for most of the United States and the rest of the world, where exchanging sexual services for pay is stigmatized and illegal many sex workers may find themselves in dangerous situations with clients since they often must operate in secrecy outside of the law.

Post-SESTA-FOSTA, sex workers who communicate with clients online may be vulnerable to high-risk individuals. Having A.I. communicate with customers and screen those who may be flagged for their behavior could potentially make the industry safer for sex workers. Sex tech could help connect providers and customers across the web and worldwide, according to some entrepreneurs like Toon Timmerman, the founder and CEO of sex tech company Kilroo.

“A.I. technology will enable sex workers to connect with clients wherever they are based, allowing more control over their work and lives. For example, we could see A.I. powered chatbots to help sex workers manage their online relationships with clients, as well as virtual reality technology to enable more authentic remote interactions between sex workers and clients,” says Timmerman.

A.I. Does Not Easily Replicate Sex Work

Since sex work is more complicated and nuanced than novices expect, it’s not something that can easily be replicated by A.I. 

While this may not be a deterrent for all clients, it’s likely, A.I. will first appeal to the outliers or individuals that have tastes outside of the mainstream, says Armstrong. The growing number of individuals who self-identify as “digisexuals”- people who are primarily attracted to sex robots or sexually aroused by technology will likely be early adopters. Still, bringing A.I. into the world of sex must be done carefully, given the potential long-standing ramifications.“There are massive considerations to take into account when using A.I. for sex purposes as well as long-term societal ones.”

This lack of human-human interaction is controversial. Opponents of AI (including some sex workers) believe human connection is necessary for maintaining better mental health and connecting with people in platonic relationships. Jessica*, a thirty-year-old queer sex worker who works with clients online, feels that allowing A.I. into sex work will create problems within the industry that outweigh the advantages.

 “I think it’s dangerous. I could see someone making the argument that this work’s degrading, so it should be a robot, but there [are] people who have specific fantasies that get told ‘no’ because it’s degrading to women. So y’know, why not let a robot do it? And I just think that these men need to have more interpersonal experiences with women,” Jessica tells Cashmere. “Most of them aren’t used to being told ‘no’ and have no idea what consent is…it’s so essential that they have those social skills with us, so turning it into a robot would take that all away,” she says. 

The Future of Sex Work is Boundless

The future of sex work is evolving in a manner that has never been seen before. Our technological advances and the changing attitudes in society, as more people accept sex work, are changing the industry. Marginalized sex workers (e.g., those who identify as disabled, persons of color, transgender, nonbinary, or don’t fit conventional expectations) are reclaiming their power within a capitalist society through activism and how they choose to market themselves. 

It’s important to remember that A.I. has neither a negative nor positive agenda. Like all tools, its ultimate impact on the sex industry will depend on the types of content used to edify it. For example, if A.I. is trained with sex-positive language, representations that convey consent, and tolerant and respectful images, future chatbots could provide better outcomes for prospective clients. 

For now, some people in the industry are optimistic about the possibilities of A.I. in sex work, while other sex workers remain wary about their livelihood. “It takes away our business. So why would that be good? It literally takes money out of our hands,” asks Jessica.