Is it possible to have a loving relationship with a robot? Is a machine capable of giving consent? And how do gender dynamics play out among beings made of metal and silicone?
These are questions that scholars and tech companies alike are increasingly asking as humanoid robots make the jump from science fiction to reality. They’re also the kind of questions that Virginia Tech doctoral student Sara Wenger is examining in her dissertation, “Synthetic Women: Gender, Power, and Humanoid Sex Robots.”
“I really want to get to the bottom of these emerging humanoid technologies,” Wenger said, “because they embody so much: our dreams, our fears, our desires, our anxieties.”
For that project, the American Council of Learned Societies has awarded Wenger an Andrew W. Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship. These prestigious fellowships support Ph.D. candidates in the humanities and social sciences in their final year of dissertation writing.
Wenger, a doctoral student in the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought, more commonly known as ASPECT, is an avid science fiction fan, listing Octavia E. Butler and Joanna Russ among her favorite authors. She has done past scholarly work on topics such as gender and race in sci-fi literature, but her current project focuses instead on how the ideas of science fiction migrate to the real world — in particular, the concept of humanoid robots.
“I became interested in how these futuristic technologies are portrayed in our contemporary world,” she said. “I wanted to know, what do they reveal about our present-day realities?”
In her dissertation, Wenger examines the controversial issue of humanoid sex robots and the questions of consent, gender roles, and interpersonal relationships they bring with them.
“Sex technology companies have framed sex robots as feminized solutions to masculine desires, offering humanlike companionship without the implications of consent,” Wenger said. “My project challenges this popular conception by reimagining feminist relationships to these futuristic humanoid technologies.”
The project came about through what Wenger calls a “feminist vexation” with how humanoid robots are designed and portrayed. When she started researching the topic, she would sometimes hear the makers of these technologies mention how their own love of science fiction inspired their latest feminized sex robots. Those statements perplexed her.
“I vividly remember thinking, hey, I’m a child of science fiction, too. But looking at what you’ve created, I’m wondering, what kind of science fiction are you reading and watching?” Wenger said. “Because my science fiction doesn’t look like this.”
Wenger was attracted to the Mellon/ACLS fellowship because it has a history of funding dissertation projects that challenge scholarly convention. She believed her project, which combines disciplines such as gender studies and science, technology, and society, would be a perfect fit.
When Wenger began her doctorate at Virginia Tech in 2018, it was because she was drawn to ASPECT for a similar reason.
“What attracted me to the program was there was so much unique work being done,” Wenger said. “It’s a haven for people who don’t fit disciplinary norms. A program that mixes humanities and social sciences is important to have at a Research I university like Virginia Tech.”
Wenger gives credit to her professors and colleagues in ASPECT for providing feedback on her dissertation and her fellowship application. She is especially thankful to her dissertation committee and her advisor, Christine Labuski, an associate professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society, for supporting her through the process.
“Sara’s project is critically important and so deserving of the ACLS’s support,” said Labuski. “Her work reminds us that technologies are always embedded within human value systems and that if we want a more just and equitable world, our technologies can and should reflect that. I couldn’t be more excited that this vital work is coming out of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.”
“For Sara to receive this fellowship is an amazing achievement, which speaks to the quality, the originality, and the broad critical impact of her work as well as to her unique skills as a researcher,” said François Debrix, a professor in the Department of Political Science and the director of ASPECT. “Emblematic of ASPECT students’ cutting-edge scholarship, Sara’s project is daring and sophisticated. It carves out new ways of thinking about the role and place of technology in gender and sexuality, and it will make key contributions to many fields of study, from women’s and gender studies and cultural theory to computer science, robotics, and data analysis.”
The Mellon/ACLS fellowship is not Wenger’s first time receiving an award in support of her work; the Roothbert Fund selected her as a fellow in 2020 and then as a renewal fellow a year later. While Wenger is proud of her work, she is also quick to offer encouragement to other students who are interested in applying for fellowships.
“Graduate students as a whole deserve to feel valued throughout their educational careers,” she said. “Writing a dissertation is a monumental task, and doing so without adequate financial support makes it even more challenging. Fellowships like these certainly help Virginia Tech graduate students feel supported in the final stages of their educational journey.”
Written by Mary Crawford