In-Depth

Is This The End for A Sex Robot Brothel in Houston?

The Houston City Council effectively banned a planned store that would let customers try out life-like sex dolls on site, but can Houston stop this kind of business permanently?

If you’ve followed our news coverage the past few weeks, you have heard about robot brothels.

In fact, it made national news, including on ABC’s The View:

 “Religious groups in Houston are protesting the opening of a brothel featuring sex robots,” co-host Whoopi Goldberg announced to laughter from the audience. And she added: “Why’re they worried about it?”

While Goldberg and others on the show laughed it off, the matter is serious for some here in Houston.

Mayor Sylvester Turner moved swiftly and presented an ordinance to City Council that expands the meaning of adult arcades to include “anthropomorphic devices” – in other words, humanlike sex dolls or… robots.

It passed unanimously, and some of the public comments before the vote at City Hall are telling about how the community feels – at least openly.

 “A business like this would continue to open up doors for sexual desires and cause confusion and destruction to our younger generation,” said Richard Vega, pastor at At His Feet Ministries.

 “As a woman, I am concerned and horrified to see where our society is taking us,” Virginia Morales said.

And Tex Christopher quoted the Bible: “In Ephesians 5:31, it says that a man shall leave this father and mother and shall be joined unto his wife and they shall become one. It doesn’t say that a man shall leave his mother and father and go and join a robot.”

The Harris County Commissioners Court also addressed the issue.

Leading the charge against KinkySDolls, the company that wants to open the sex doll business in Houston, is Elijah Rising.

It’s a Christian group dedicated to fighting prostitution and human trafficking in Houston.

They started an online petition demanding the city stop the business and collected more than 13,000 signatures.

To learn more about their effort, I visited Elijah Rising’s offices along the Southwest Freeway.

They have a little exhibition, which they call the “Museum of Modern-Day Slavery.” In one part of the building, they recreated a room of a brothel they found. It has a single, dirty mattress, a bedside table and a chair with condoms and KY on it. The floor is dirty with empty beer bottles and dead cockroaches.

“Girls were crammed into these little rooms,” Elijah Rising spokesman David Gamboa said. “This place had women as well as young girls.”

The Elijah Rising building itself is a former illicit massage parlor.

“We still have guys show up today thinking we’re a massage parlor and so they’ll come in asking us for women,” Gamboa said. “And we usually bring them back to the museum and we educate them, and a lot of times they just kind of run out the door.”

But here’s the thing: There’s one argument that says robot prostitutes might actually lower the demand for human sex workers.

Gamboa doesn’t buy it.

“At the end of the day, I don’t think they are going to always choose that over a woman,” he said. “I think it’s going to be an entry point for men who might be interested in purchasing sex.”

That theory is also held by some researchers, most prominently British professor of ethics and culture of robots Kathleen Richardson. She founded the organization “Campaign Against Sex Robots” and wrote a paper, which is also referenced in the Change.org petition.

But in the case of the Houston robot brothel, is it really about sex trafficking?

“That seems to me to be not really the reason people are against it,” Tamler Sommers, a philosophy professor at the University of Houston, said.

He often talks about human sexuality and morality in his twice-monthly podcast and will discuss sex robots in an upcoming episode.

Sommers said there just aren’t any empirical studies to prove a connection between robot brothels and real prostitution.

“So I think what people are really concerned with is, what does it say about our city?” he said. “What does it say about our city that we would be the first city to open a sex robot brothel?”

He points to comments like this by Mayor Turner and city council members:

“(I’m) certainly trying to encourage businesses but this is not the sort of business I’m seeking to attract.” (Turner)

“This type of enterprise degrades our city.” (Greg Travis)

“We don’t want to be known worldwide for these things. We don’t want these things happening here.” (Brenda Stardig)

With the updated ordinance, a company cannot let customers have sex with dolls or robots on site. It can still have a showroom and sell their products, but that’s about it – at least legally.

KinkySDolls, the sex robot company, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But its CEO Yuval Gavriel told the British tabloid Daily Mirror they are looking at legal options.

Jed Silverman, a Houston attorney who specializes in sexually oriented businesses, doesn’t think this issue will go away.

 “I would suspect that they’re going to continue to try to fight against this,” he said. The future will let us know what’s going to happen. But if there’s money to be made at doing this, I suspect the fight is far from over.”

He said even if sex robot companies lose the legal fight, there’s still a chance they could try to simply go around the new regulations.

Just like with adult video booths, which still exist in Houston, spending time with a device in the back of the store is not illegal – but it is if the customer engages in sexual activity. And the operator could deny knowledge of that.

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Florian Martin

Florian Martin

Business Reporter

Florian Martin is currently the News 88.7 business reporter. Florian’s stories can frequently be heard on other public radio stations throughout Texas and on NPR nationwide. Some of them have earned him awards from Texas AP Broadcasters and the Houston Press Club. Florian is a native of Germany. His studies...

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