Robots and Research: SIT Netherlands alum Audrey Pope

Audrey Pope

Vanderbilt junior Audrey Pope studied in Amsterdam with SIT Netherlands: International Perspectives on Sexuality and Gender in fall 2018, and researched something new and unusual: the sex robot industry.

Why did you choose SIT and this program?

I was initially looking at SIT just because some of the programs had already been approved for credit by my home university. I was actually pretty set on joining one of the SIT: Morocco programs, but thankfully, before I committed to anything, I spent some time just looking around the SIT website. It was there that I found the SIT: Netherlands program and, from the start, it was pretty much a perfect fit. I’m a women’s and gender studies and anthropology major, so the opportunity to study abroad with a program that focuses specifically on gender studies was really an amazing opportunity to spend a semester working on exactly what I’m most interested in. The curriculum and the chance to be in a city as incredible as Amsterdam made the program pretty much impossible to turn down! (And, as an added bonus, SIT: Netherlands spends two weeks in Morocco, so I got to have a taste of that experience, too!)

 What was your favorite part of the program?

I have a couple really solid highlights from the program (it’s too hard to pick a favorite!). One of the best parts of the program for me was my homestay. I loved my homestay family, and it was nice to come home to them every night. Another peak for me was definitely our trip to Morocco. I may have been partial to the experience because I had been thinking about spending my semester there, but it was just amazing to be in a place so different from Amsterdam. It’s such a beautiful country, and it was nice to have a change of pace from the everyday routine we’d established in the Netherlands. Lastly, ISP presentations ended up being one of the highlights of the entire program for me. It was amazing to see what everyone had been working on during our last month.

 What inspired you to choose to do an independent study project?

I’ve always been someone who enjoys research. I like the idea of being able to really dig deep into a topic. One of my friends said something while we were working on our ISPs that really stuck with me: If we don’t continue to graduate school, we’ll likely never have another opportunity to just spend a month learning everything we can about something that interests us. This idea, that I could just take an idea and run with it, is what ultimately inspired me to do an independent study project.

What was the subject of your ISP and how did it evolve?

My ISP ended up being called “A Robotic Reflection: An Exploration of Humanity Through the Bodies of Sex Robots.” It’s a mouthful, I know!

Essentially, I looked at the burgeoning industry of sex robots as an opportunity to make claims about our understandings of what it means to be human, more broadly. Getting to this point was a real rollercoaster, and I gave our academic director more than her fair share of migraines with my changing ISP topics every few days. When I first came to Amsterdam, I was planning to compare the prosecution of female criminals in the Netherlands to that in the United States and analyze the role of legalized sex work in prosecutorial rhetoric. I went from that to thinking about narratives of migrant motherhood, which was already a huge jump.

When I was finally getting around to choosing between those two ideas, though, I read an article about a sex robot brothel being tested in the Red Light District, and that’s when things really turned around. All of a sudden, sex robots were all I could think about (and to the misfortune of my peers and our Academic Director, I insisted on sharing my thoughts out loud, too!). As I got deeper and deeper into my research, I developed an even stronger interest – borderline obsession?? – with the industry, and my project evolved from there.

What did you want to achieve through your ISP?

I’m very much a theory-oriented student, and I’m passionate about finding ways to connect critical gender theory to real-world applications. By the time I got around to thinking about sex robots on a deeper level, I saw that I had a really fascinating opportunity to do this. What started as a pretty surface-level exploration of the sex robot industry turned into the chance for me to think about the theoretical aspect of this kind of technology and, ultimately, allowed me to achieve what I’d really been hoping for: the opportunity to create some theoretical work of my own.

What resources helped you develop your research? What research methods did you undertake?

Well, I think my ISP was sort of unique in that there weren’t many local experts I could talk to about my topic. Of course, my ISP still evolved in the Dutch context, as it was initially inspired by some work being done right in Amsterdam, but as I began to develop my research, I found that many of the experts and people really involved in the industry were countries, if not continents, away. Thankfully, I did get to Skype with a couple of really excellent professionals, and I spent a lot of time just reading the existing literature from many different perspectives. Since I couldn’t rely entirely on this material, I ended up doing some more quantitative research collection, too. I published an online survey and conducted some research that way to determine what kinds of behaviors people considered to constitute cheating on a partner, and that proved to be very interesting.

Less traditionally, however, my ISP ended up being really exciting because as it turns out, robots are VERY trendy. Everywhere I looked, it seemed, I saw a new advertisement for some kind of robot-themed event. I got to go to a couple of film screenings at the EYE film museum in Amsterdam, where they were hosting a really extensive film and lecture series centered around robots, and I included my analysis of those films in my final paper. Maybe the coolest bit of research I got to conduct, though, was my trip to the Robot Love expo in Eindhoven, a city a couple of hours from Amsterdam. It took place in an abandoned milk factory, and it was essentially an exhibition put together by artists and scientists who were interrogating whether or not love can exist between humans and machines. I mean, seriously – what are the odds that an event like this would be going on at the same time I was conducting my study? It was too perfect.

How did research shape your narrative?

Research shaped the narrative of my ISP in two big ways. First, the results I got from my survey allowed me to make claims about the importance of embodiment in actualizing sexuality, which was critical for my argument. Without that research, my argument would have been almost totally unsubstantiated. Almost more importantly, though, my research throughout the Netherlands proved to me that my work was actually worthwhile. It’s pretty easy to write sex robots off as a gag project – just something for laughs, you know? But as I was going around to all these events and talking to all these people, it became really clear that sex robots are the face of something that’s actually really important, and that realization made my project really personally fulfilling.

Did you use your fellow SIT students as a resource?

I don’t think it’s too big an exaggeration to say that I couldn’t have completed my project without my friends at SIT. They were really influential as I was first beginning to develop my ideas, and I can’t even begin to count how many conversations we had where they helped me flesh out my argument. Then, as our ISP period continued, they were always there to push me to work when I needed it and to support me when I needed a break, too. I really can’t thank them enough for all the help and inspiration they gave me.

Do you want to further your research on the topic?

I’m so, so excited to further my research. Since taking on this project, I’ve become really invested in sex tech, and I’m now looking for opportunities to work in the industry for the upcoming summer. I’m also taking my research back to my home university and using it as a foundation for my senior honors thesis, which is going to connect theory and sex tech in a different way. I hope to attend law school one day, too, and I’m now interested in pursuing a career working with the legal policy that’s going to come into question as this technology becomes more mainstream. My ISP really uncovered a passion for me, and I can’t wait to see how much farther I can take my work!

What was your big takeaway from the ISP?

Aside from the “what am I going to do with my life?” epiphany that it gave me, my ISP also taught me a lot about how to take initiative. The biggest thing I learned is that, for the most part, people are super willing to help you if you take the initiative to ask. I had really incredible conversations with quite a few people in and out of SIT that I never would have been able to if it hadn’t been for my ISP. I think it tends to seem pretty scary to reach out to strangers, especially when you’re just a student, but the ISP period really showed me how receptive people are to offering guidance.

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About the Author: James Heflin