Sexbots, slavery and The Salvation Army: The Daily Mail explains why it doesn't compute

I don't believe Isaac Asimov, the late science fiction author of the I, Robot series, ever imagined this scenario -- the Salvation Army getting involved in a debate about sex with robots.

The Salvation Army has a long tradition of getting involved in debates that link morality, politics and labor. However, in this case we are talking about a whole different kind of work and, to say the least, a different kind of worker -- "sexbots."

Let's turn to a predictable source of information, Britain's Daily Mail -- a populist source of news if there ever was one.

Headlined "Sexbots will encourage sex to be viewed as a ‘commodity’ and could increase objectification of women and children, warns Salvation Army," we read:

Last week, a report about sex robots warned about the 'dark side' of the technology, which could involve issues of rape and paedophilia.
And now The Salvation Army has had its say on the controversial sexbots.
The charity claims that sex robots could 'fuel demand for sex with people', and even lead traffickers to exploit more vulnerable individuals to meet this demand.

Unlike many of the hair-on-fire reports from this newspaper that have a religion angle, this time, the Daily Mail is relatively restrained, even kind, to the Army's viewpoint. (Disclosure: I was a Salvation Army church member, or "soldier," for 17 years before joining the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and retain a high regard for the organization and its people.)

However, there is a missing bit of journalism in the Daily Mail report, and we'll get to that in a moment.

The paper, which isn't afraid to reach for the most "exciting" and NSFW aspects of sex-related news items, offered a rather balanced presentation here:

In light of the report, The Salvation Army, a Christian church and charity, released a statement on the possible impact of sexbots.
Kathryn Taylor, who works in The Salvation Army's Anti Trafficking and Modern Slavery Unit, said: 'The Salvation Army's work with victims of sexual exploitation and modern slavery means we hear and see the impact on people first hand of the dreadful realities of sexual exploitation.
'The Salvation Army is concerned that by offering another option for purchasing sex though "a sexbot" (sex robot) it could fuel demand for sex with people and lead to traffickers exploiting more vulnerable individuals to meet this demand.'
The charity claims that sexbots won't fulfil the need for human interaction and for rewarding, loving relationships.

Imagine that! A news article in a "mainstream" media outlet about sex and, dare one say, spiritual concerns that isn't condescending or snide. Just one month ago, as George Conger of The Media Project noted, this same Daily Mail managed to discuss the question of teen sex and pregnancy without even approaching the moral and religious issues involved.

So, this new article, centered on The Salvation Army's viewpoint, represents a step forward.

Bravo, Daily Mail.

However, amidst the good reporting there was one thing missing: Yep, our old friend context.

After all, why would The Salvation Army -- best known in the U.S. for disaster relief and helping inebriates to dry out ("Put a nickel in the drum/save another drunken bum," was the old summer camp song refrain) -- jump into a fight about sexbots and raise the issue of human trafficking?

Turns out there is a backstory here -- going all the way back to 1885 and involving Bramwell Booth, son of Army founders William and Catherine Booth. It also involves a man named W.T. Stead, a reformed prostitute named Rebecca Jarrett and a London newspaper called the Pall Mall Gazette, which was one of the ancestors of today's Evening Standard.

The Gazette was positioned as a newspaper "written by gentlemen for gentlemen," but Stead was not afraid to turn its power loose on a great shame of the late Victorian era. It was the buying and selling of young women -- 13 years old and even younger -- for the use of predatory males. Once "ruined," the girls would often be placed in brothels on the European continent.

Many of the girls involved came from desperately poor families in the East End of London, the very neighborhood in which William Booth began preaching as a Methodist evangelist before splitting off into what became The Salvation Army.

Stead's epic investigative series, The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon, was written in a style unimaginable in today's 140-character-conscious society. But the impact of the articles in that time and place was as immediate as a tweet from CNN. Parliament raised the age of sexual consent from 13 to 16, which was a first step towards protecting some of Britain's most vulnerable.

For their roles, Stead, Jarrett, social reformer Josephine Butler and Bramwell Booth -- by then second-in-command under his father -- were all brought up on various criminal charges, even though the girl "procured" for Stead's investigation suffered no sexual abuse. (The newsman arranged the "purchase" to demonstrate it could, actually, be done.) Butler and Booth were acquitted, Jarret served six months at hard labor and Stead received a three-month sentence.

The details related here in the last five paragraphs suggest why The Salvation Army would be so concerned with anything that could spur a modern bout of sex trafficking. Because these "sexbots" could radically change the way society relates to that most intimate of relationships, it's imperative that same society considers all the ramifications.

It is helpful that the Daily Mail devoted some space to this, even with the massive, eye-catching headline. But just a dash of context would have helped readers understand why the Army is so deeply concerned about this question -- and perhaps why the rest of us should be as well.

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