Friday, May 31, 2013

Could sexbots one day give people longer life? Dream on!

Recently, I came across an article on a transhumanist website that made the amazing claim that in the not-so-distant future, people will improve their life expectancy by having sex with robots programmed to give them ‘super-orgasms.’ Transhumanists believe that it will one day be possible to vastly expand the human lifespan through technology. Various means of extending human longevity have been proposed but this seems like one of the wackier ones. The author of this article is not alone in the belief that human lifespan can be extended through sex. Celebrity medic Dr Mehmet Oz goes so far as to advise people that if they have 200 orgasms a year they will extend their life by six years. While there is some evidence linking more frequent orgasms to longer life, the claims by Dr Oz and (some) transhumanists extrapolate far beyond the available evidence.

Image courtesy of Victor Habbick at

There have been a number of research studies linking sexual activity with longevity, but these findings need to be interpreted with a certain amount of caution because a statistical association between sex and longevity does not necessarily prove that one leads to the other. Additionally, the relationship between sexual activity and longevity may be different for men and women. For example, there have been studies linking frequency of orgasm (Smith, Frankel, & Yarnell, 1997) and of sexual intercourse (Palmore, 1982) in men to longer life. The study by Smith et al. controlled for factors such as age, smoking, social class, and baseline coronary heart disease, and remarkably still found that men who had the most frequent orgasms (twice a week or more) had a 50% lower mortality rate compared to men with the lowest frequency of orgasm (less than once a month). However, this study did not take relationship status into account. Additionally, for women, frequency of intercourse did not predict longevity, but past enjoyment of intercourse did (Palmore, 1982). Palmore suggested that quantity of sexual activity may be more important for men’s health, whereas for women the quality is of more importance. The author admitted though that we cannot say for sure whether more frequent or better sex is what actually leads to longer life. An alternative possibility is that people who are in better health have more frequent sex and/or enjoy it more. If this is the case, better health might explain the association between sexual activity and longer life. It is worth noting that in Palmore’s study health ratings were the strongest predictors of how long people lived.

Although Palmore’s study found that in women frequency of intercourse generally was unrelated to longevity, another study found a relationship between frequency of orgasm during intercourse and longevity in women (Seldin, Friedman, & Martin, 2002). There is considerable variability among women in whether and how often they reach orgasm during intercourse. Some women reach orgasm regularly, others occasionally, and others not at all. (See this post for further discussion of these differences, and this post discussing possible reasons why this occurs.) Seldin et al. found that women who described themselves as less neurotic and those who tended to drink more alcohol had a somewhat higher frequency of orgasm during intercourse. In fact, the relationship between orgasm frequency and longevity only approached significance after taking neuroticism and alcohol use into account.[i] It is possible that individual differences in the ability of women to achieve orgasm during sex might be related to longevity. That is, women who are more orgasmic might be healthier in other ways that affect their life expectancy. 

According to Howard Friedman, one of the authors of the Seldin et al. paper, frequency of orgasm in women was linked to their sexual satisfaction, and sexual satisfaction was linked to marital satisfaction. Dr Friedman was careful to point that although all these factors were correlated we do not have enough information to know what was causing what. It might be that more orgasms lead to greater sexual satisfaction which in turn improves marital satisfaction. However, the converse could also be true. That is couples who are more satisfied with their marriages generally might have more frequent sex, leading to greater sexual satisfaction. Couples who are unhappy in their marriages, e.g. if they fight frequently, have little intimacy, poor communication, etc. will probably have less frequent sex and less sexual satisfaction. So there is probably a two-way relationship between sexual satisfaction and marital satisfaction. Therefore, marital satisfaction might be as important for longevity as orgasm frequency. People who are in stable loving supportive relationships may be healthier and live longer than those who are in disharmonious relationships. This seems applicable to the studies on male sexual frequency cited earlier, which did not address why some men are more sexually active than others. Men who have more frequent sex might be in better quality relationships (or in a relationship at all) than men who have infrequent sex.

Although there is evidence of a connection between orgasms and longer life, there is simply not enough information available to justify statements by Dr Oz to the effect that if one has a certain number of orgasms a year, one will increase one’s life expectancy by a certain number of years. Similarly, claims by transhumanists that using sex robots to induce “super-orgasms” will induce longer life overlook the human factors involved. Whilst it may be conceivable that people in the future may use robots to enhance sexual pleasure, similar to the way some people use sex toys, it hardly seems likely that people will use them as substitutes for marital partners. Without the element of marital satisfaction, it is debatable whether orgasms alone will produce the same benefit to life expectancy.

Another difference between robot and human partners that might be important is that of intentions. Robots are designed to just do what they are programmed to do, and do not have desires of their own. Humans on the other hand do have desires and intentions, and this affects how their behaviour is perceived by others. In particular, there is evidence that one’s perceptions about the intentions of another person can affect how physical pleasure is perceived. That is, an experience may be perceived as more enjoyable if one believes that the person providing the experience actually intends for one to experience pleasure than if they do not. This was tested in an experiment in which participants received a back massage from a specially designed chair (Gray, 2012). When participants believed that the chair was being controlled by another person who had freely chosen to give them a massage they perceived the experience as more pleasurable then when they thought it was being randomly administered by a computer. In actuality, in both cases, the decision to administer massage was determined by a computer, but the participants were led to believe otherwise. Although not yet tested it may be possible that people may perceive sexual activity as more pleasurable when it is performed with someone they believe is actually intending to give them pleasure, as compared with similar activity with a machine that has no feelings about the matter. Perhaps, the health benefits associated with sexual activity are tied up with the sense of being cared about by another person. Machines may not be able to provide this sense of caring. Of course, if it ever comes to pass that robots are invented that are indistinguishable from real human beings, much like in the film Blade Runner, machines might actually replace humans as both sexual and marital partners. Personally, I don’t think this will happen any time soon. In any case, before such an event does occur, people would need to decide if such a situation is even desirable. 

[1] For the statistically minded, this effect was described by the authors as “marginally significant” (p < .10) and hence did not actually reach a conventional level of statistical significance.

Post Script
It has come to my attention that some transhumanists consider that, the source of the article that inspired this post, is not a credible source of information about their views. Therefore, the remarks in my blog post should be taken as being in response to a specific article on that website, rather than a broader reflection on what transhumanists in general believe. 

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© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. 

This article also appears on Psychology Today on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else.

Other posts about sex and psychology
Gray, K. (2012). The Power of Good Intentions: Perceived Benevolence Soothes Pain, Increases Pleasure, and Improves Taste Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3 (5), 639-645 DOI: 10.1177/1948550611433470

Palmore, E. B. (1982). Predictors of the Longevity Difference: A 25-Year Follow-Up. The Gerontologist, 22(6), 513-518. doi: 10.1093/geront/22.6.513

Seldin, D. R., Friedman, H. S., & Martin, L. R. (2002). Sexual activity as a predictor of life-span mortality risk. Personality and Individual Differences, 33(3), 409-425. doi:

Smith, G., Frankel, S., & Yarnell, J. (1998). Sex and Death: Are They Related? Findings From the Caerphilly Cohort Study The Journal of Urology, 160 (2) DOI: 10.1016/S0022-5347(01)62990-2

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