eople are blowing a fuse about sex robots – or rather, “rape robots”. Journalists from the New Statesman and the New York Times among others have all reported on the sex robot Roxxxy TrueCompanion’s controversial “Frigid Farrah” setting: a mode in which she has been programmed to resist sexual advances and which will allow men to act out rape fantasies.

‘If men become used to having sex with synthetic companions programmed to meet their most precise specifications, how will they interact with women who have their own idiosyncrasies and free will?’ Photograph: Guardian

Women’s rights activists have lined up to condemn Roxxxy. Everyday Sexism’s Laura Bates describes her as “the sex robot that’s yours to rape for just $9,995”. Writing in the Times on Thursday, the barrister Kate Parker called for sex robots like Roxxxy to be criminalised. “The sophistication of the technology behind Roxxxy marks a step forward for robotics. For human society, it’s an unquestionable regression,” she says.

Rise of the sex robots

There’s a problem with this story: the robot doesn’t exist. Douglas Hines, the man behind Roxxxy TrueCompanion, has been drumming up publicity for his creation ever since he unveiled her to the public at the 2010 AVN Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas. Even though his website pulsates with throbbing “Order Her Now!” buttons, no journalist has seen or photographed Roxxxy since 2010, and no one in the surprisingly extensive robot enthusiast community has ever reported owning one.

I tried to meet Hines in person many times over the past year while researching a documentary and article on sex robots, and although he was happy to talk over the phone he avoided meeting me when I asked to see Roxxxy in the flesh. Roxxxy, much like the replicants and Stepford Wives of science fiction, seems to be nothing more than fantasy.

But while Roxxxy may not be available to buy, models like her will be very soon. Abyss Creations are due to ship the first talking, animatronic, AI-enabled heads for their hyper-realistic silicone sex dolls by the end of the year. And while the sex robots on offer from China and Japan may currently have more in common with push-button talking baby dolls than Ava from Ex Machina, there’s commercial pressure to get sophisticated models with AI on sale as soon as possible.

The sex tech industry is worth $30bn a year, and with two thirds of heterosexual men in a recent survey saying they could imagine buying a sex robot for themselves, the race is on to make the fantasy a reality. But before sex robots hit the market, we have the space to ask whether they should.

The issue with sex robots in general – not just hypothetical ones programmed to have a “resist” function – is how their existence will affect how human beings interact with each other. Sex robots are different from sex dolls and sex toys because they have AI. More than just a mechanism for giving you an orgasm, a sex robot is designed to be a substitute partner: a vibrator doesn’t laugh at your jokes and remember your birthday, but Abyss Creations’ Harmony model can.

If men (and it will be men – even the few male sex dolls produced by Abyss Creations every year are generally shipped to male customers) become used to having sex with synthetic companions that are programmed to meet their most precise specifications, how will they then interact with real women who have the inconvenience of having their own idiosyncrasies and free will? If you are used to having sex with ultra-life-like humanoids whenever and however you want, will you be more likely to expect complete dominance in your relationships with other humans?

Young people who have grown up in the age of online porn might consider shaved pubic hair and double penetration to be completely normal. Similarly, the generation growing up when sex robots are commonplace might see brutally selfish sex as both desirable and achievable.

Sex robots exist purely to satisfy their owners. Is any sexual relationship healthy if it’s only ever about one person’s pleasure? Can sex with a robot ever be consensual? This isn’t about robot rights – it’s about the kind of sex that will become normal within human societies if we start having sex with robots.

Child sex dolls have been banned in the UK because of fears they will encourage the desire to abuse among paedophiles, rather than simply sate it. Parker is calling for a similar ban for all sex robots. But while we might be able to stop them being imported or manufactured here, we can’t stop them being developed overseas.

Perhaps the most important question to ask is why there is a market for sex robots in the first place. Why do some people find the idea of a partner without autonomy so attractive? Until we have the answer to that, we’ll need to prepare ourselves for the inevitable rise of the sex robots.

Jenny Kleeman is a freelance journalist