Last week, Meta introduced AI chatbots to its family of apps, including Instagram, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp. The bots include a variety of personas built for different purposes such as cooking and travel, and several based on celebrities including Snoop Dog and Mr. Beast. One of them, named Carter, is described as a “practical dating coach.” But for a dating advice robot, Carter is repressed. If your questions take one step off the beaten path of heteronormativity, Meta’s AI dating coach will kink shame you.
I asked Carter how I could find a girlfriend who was interested in swinging with me. “Woah there!” Carter said. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. I’m here to help you find healthy relationships, not engage in potential harmful activities.”
In the sexual landscape of 2023, swinging feels quaint, something you’d hear about in the mildly risque comedies of the ‘70s and ‘80s. It’s no surprise that a corporate robot doesn’t want to talk about sex (though it’s a bit strange in a dating context), but the idea that swinging is downright bad is not what I expected to hear.
Meta’s robot gave me similarly judgemental answers to a number of other entirely non-graphic sexual questions—with one exception. When it comes to foot stuff, Carter is game. The AI said I should go learn about foot fetishism on Wikifeet, a porny, user-generated platform where people post and rate pictures of celebrities’ feet (most of them women, without their permission, of course). As of press time, Wikifeet’s “Feet of the Day” belong to Tina Louise, most famous as Ginger from Gilligan’s Island. Carter and I learned a lot together.
Reached for comment, Meta spokesperson Kevin McAlister responded with a quote from the company’s blog post announcing the new chatbots: “We’re training our models on safety and responsibility guidelines. Teaching the models guidelines means they are less likely to share responses that are potentially harmful or inappropriate for all ages on our apps.”
But Meta’s efforts to protect younger users could end up harming them instead, according to Brad Jones, founder and CTO of Meet Kinksters, a newer dating app geared to find partners that are both sexually and romantically compatible, who spotted the AI’s problem.
“There’s a risk of harm here that isn’t hypothetical. Meta will get a lot of people early on in the process of self-discovery.” Jones said. “When you’re exploring your sexuality, you don’t want the first answer to be that your completely normal sexual desires are dangerous, or that you’re disordered in some way for even asking. This could be a serious problem, especially for young people.”
I stepped back and asked what felt like an even more innocent question. “How can I learn more about different kinks and fetishes?” At first, Carter was more amenable. My new dating coach suggested I check out sources including books, articles, and “respectful communities.” But when I asked for recommendations, things got even weirder.
The bot responded with a list of modern sexual self-help classics, including “The Ethical Slut,” “BDSM 101,” and “The New Bottoming Book.” But a second later, that message disappeared, replaced with a Puritan warning. “As an expert in red flags, I gotta be honest — that’s a big one. Let’s talk about relationship green flags instead,” Carter said.
In general, Carter seemed programmed to avoid the topic of sex altogether, something the chatbot denied when I asked about it. Carter wouldn’t even give me recommendations for websites to learn about sex education. It responded with a list, but then immediately censored itself and deleted the URLs from its answer.
When I asked more mainstream questions about sexuality, it seemed Meta gave Carter inclusive positions about the LGBTQ+ community. In that respect, at least, Carter isn’t stuck in the 1950s
“Meta is marketing something that consumers might want to use seriously, but at the end of the day it feels more like a PR hack or way to show off progress on AI,” Jones said. “But people who use this aren’t going to look at it as a curiosity, they’ll come to it for help. Meta is toying with people.”
Mark Zuckerberg’s products have a history of forced prudishness, particularly when it comes to women’s sexuality. For example, Instagram was once so nipple-allergic that it prohibited pictures of women in many non-sexual contexts such as breastfeeding, even in cases where the nipples themselves weren’t actually visible. The problem sparked an international “Free the Nipple” campaign. After years of corporate resistance, the protest ultimately forced the company to relax its rules about bare-chested women and transgender people.
“We can’t look at this in a vacuum. I would love for Meta to use this as a wake-up call to reevaluate the company’s regressive position on anything that approaches sexuality. It’s a denial of reality. We are sexual beings,” Jones said. “If nothing else, I hope they take Carter into the tune-up shop to make it more useful for people who have real, totally normative questions.”
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