Bioethics Blogs

The Chinese pleasure room: ethics of technologically mediated interaction

The author of the webcomic Left Over Soup proposed a sexual equivalent (or parody?) of Searle’s Chinese Room argument, posing some interesting questions about what it means to have sex, consent and relationships if there is technological mediation:

Imagine a complex assembly of vibrators, hoses, and mechanical arms, designed to stimulate a human body in every conceivable fashion. A pornstar shows up, strips down, straps on a variety of sensors (pulse, temperature, skin capacitance, genital response) and grabs the control stick with three buttons labeled “I like this”, “I don’t like this” and “No, hard stop”. The pornstar assumes the position and gives us the thumbs up.

Now, in a separate room, a gamer is shown a series of controls and monitors, all displaying entirely arbitrary abstract symbols. As the gamer plays, despite not knowing what the various pings and gradually filling bars actually signify, they begin to become proficient – this sequence of commands followed by that sequence gives a good result! – and the game continues on and gets more and more fast-paced and complex until – fireworks! – a climax is reached.

Has the pornstar had sex with a human being, or was this merely a form of masturbation? Has the gamer – who never realized their game had a sexual connotation at all – had sex? If so, although the pornstar’s consent is obvious, the gamer never consented to be part of a sex act – was this a form of sexual assault on the gamer? If we record the inputs the gamer made and play them back again and again (assuming the human subject reacts the same way each time), is anything different about it?

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.