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In Defense of Sex Dolls

Sex dolls are part of the wonderous world of perversion. And likely less harmful than you think.

Not long ago I received an email from a friend linking me to The Guardian article by Tracy Clark-Flory titled, What I Learned About Male Desire in a Sex Doll Factory. She profiles the artificially intelligent, life-like silicone Real Dolls made in America. They start around $6,000 and can be custom-designed to one’s specifications: from hair color to facial piercings, breast size to labia shape. On the Real Doll website I discovered, “The mouth and vaginal orifice, when penetrated, form a vacuum, providing a powerful suction effect. The oral entry has soft, stretchy lips, an ultra soft tongue, soft silicone teeth, and a hinged jaw that opens and closes realistically. The tongue can be removed to allow for more space and easy cleaning.”

My friend wrote, “What do you think? I am not comfortable with the idea of sex dolls. Passive objectification.”

Since I’d gone to the Real Doll website before delving further into what the writer had to say about it, I also came to a hasty conclusion that sex doll owners were surely emotionally desiccated, perverted, and sad. As though men hadn’t already spent centuries making women do their bidding, now we’re watching them make a new breed of Fem-bots.

Then I remembered how often I listen wistfully to Melody Gardot croon “Our Love is Easy” and realize I’m possibly just as interested in a man who doesn’t exist; one who might fulfill all my sexual needs without having any of his own. One who isn’t passing judgement on my sags and errant chin hairs. Essentially, my vibrator. When I gazed at the photos of these alluring dolls, their sultry, knowing eyes seem to be saying: I’m so uncomplicated. Can you blame men for wanting me? Not really. Especially since my jaw is not hinged nor my tongue removable.

What Clark-Flory does so well is explore the motivations of men who buy sex dolls, challenge our assumptions of male sexuality, and ask us to take a more nuanced and curious look at what men want and what scares them. “If we look at it closely and with compassion, male desire is more complicated than most people assume it to be.” I can’t help but admire a writer who uses the word ‘compassion’ in a piece about sex dolls.

The history of sex dolls is a long one. Known as dame de voyage in French, dama de viaje in Spanish, or ‘Dutch wife’ in the 17th Century, sailors fashioned hand-sewn cloth or leather dolls to fornicate with on long voyages. But they weren’t just the proclivity of mariners. Perhaps most notably, the 20th Century painter Oskar Kokaschka had a life sized facsimile of his lover Alma Mahler constructed after she jilted him, stating he’d “lost all desire to go through the ordeal of love again.” And perhaps we have his rejection of real love to thank for his outstanding body of work.

Have these dolls always been stand-ins for companionship, physical release and avoidance of tricky human entanglements? In ‘Why Men Love to Fuck Dolls’ Dr Peter Kanaris says there are many reasons a man may be drawn to sex with an artificial woman. “…lack of access to others, shyness or social anxiety, inexperience and self-consciousness, or perhaps having a partner who is unwilling to participate in certain sexual preferences.” (And this predates the obvious current issues of pandemics and social isolation.)

It’s not difficult to find stories of gentle men in love with their sex dolls. Davecat, proudly opens up about his wife and two other live-in lovers, all of them synthetic. He is part of a community called iDollators who use dolls for sex, love, art and companionship. “Before I knew Dolls existed, I’d long identified as being a technosexual, someone who is attracted to robots.” But his attraction goes beyond the seductive cyborg. “A synthetic will never lie to you, cheat on you, criticize you, or be otherwise disagreeable. It’s rare enough to find organics who don’t have something going on with them. Being able to make a partner of one is rarer still.”

In ‘My Sex Doll is So Much Better Than My Real Wife ‘ a Japanese man admits he’s turned off by human relationships saying, “Japanese women are cold-hearted,” even as he continues to live with his wife and daughter, who have reluctantly accepted his synthetic companion. A growing number of men in Japan, known as ‘herbivores’, are turning their backs on marriage and traditional masculine values for less competitive lives. Says one doll owner, “People might think I’m weird, but it’s no different from collecting sports cars. I don’t know how much I’ve spent but [my doll] is cheaper than a Lamborghini.”

That sounds lighthearted, but these stories do suggest some men feel alienated from romantic and sexual relationships with women. They’ve felt rejected, judged or humiliated by women and have quit the effort it takes to accommodate another person’s psychic demons, when wrestling with one’s own is already work enough.

But not feeling desired is another reason men withdraw. In 2016, a study published in the Journal of Sex Research, straight men in long-term heterosexual relationships were asked what elicited their desire and found that key factors included ‘feeling desired’ themselves and ‘intimate communication’. The experience of rejection and a ‘lack of emotional connection’ notably decreased their interest in sexual intimacy. The researchers concluded that “men’s sexual desire may be more complex and relational” than previously thought. So, if I’m reading that correctly, men pretty much need the same thing women do in order to feel sexual. In their absence I guess we both turn to toys, some much larger than others.

Is there a dark side to sex dolls that doesn’t deserve our compassion? Objectification of dolls could lead men to think their sexual partners can be owned, manipulated and exist purely for their pleasure. But perhaps the growing industry of sex dolls can be viewed favorably as further evidence that real women are no longer subject to the will of men. The autonomous female has naturally become more particular about the kind of man with whom she will be intimate. We are, many of us, not beholden to the economic golden handcuffs of marriage. Perhaps men have lagged behind in their initiative to be good partners while women have rejected outdated assumptions that we will cook, clean and spread our legs upon command. Better a sex doll receive the violent sexual frustrations of an archaic man than an unsuspecting Tinder date. As the indomitable Margaret Atwood has so rightly pointed out, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

I’m not too worried about sex dolls becoming the standard by which women are objectified. There are plenty of real women in the world maintaining crazy levels of physical perfection, making my basic hygiene regimen feel like a lost cause. If women think men are objectifying us by fucking synthetic versions, then it’s only fair that we stop salivating over the Idris Elbas of the world and throw away our dildos, especially those outsized schlongs made to look like a freakishly endowed porn star (a man who probably aches to have a snuggle with someone who isn’t fixated on his penis.)

Objectification is part and parcel of exploring the vastness of sexuality, our fantasies, and our curiosities. If we feel anxiety over what other people are exploring, the problem is ours alone and not the person whose proclivities appear deviant. Owning a sex doll “is certainly a deviant sexual behavior from our norm,” says Sarah Valverde, a researcher and mental health therapist. “But unless it’s all-consuming and it impacts other areas of life, we really can’t define it as a disorder.”

There are subtle distinctions between deviance (a person or thing that departs markedly from the accepted norm) and disorder (a disturbance in physical or mental health or functions). While either becomes problematic if its practice infringes upon the rights of others, a disorder often requires treatment while a deviance may be tolerated and ultimately benign. In The Encyclopedia of Creativity, I found a generous interpretation of deviance which could certainly be applied to sex with dolls:

The role of deviance in creative individuals and creative work needs to be accepted for social progress. It needs to be tolerated or it will be lost which will result in losing an opportunity to enhance creative work and social progress. Steven Spielberg’s mother has observed that if she had known the typical means for dealing with her son’s frequently bizarre behavior, the arts would have lost a major creative talent. Instead, she simply tolerated her son’s deviant behavior and encouraged his creativity.” (I couldn’t find any reference to how Steven Spielberg might have been exhibiting ‘deviant behavior’, but I’ll trust his mother on this.)

Jesse Bering, author of Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us asks that we apply our widespread acceptance of homosexuality to the greater arena of ‘deviant’ behavior. “In the rush to redress the historical prejudice against gay people, we’re missing a key opportunity as a society to critically examine our uneasy relationship with sexual diversity as a whole.” He goes on to ask if there were an all-knowing scribe recording every moment and every thing that has ever moved our loins to tingle we would, every one of us, have to answer for an ‘abnormal’ arousal. “We’re all innately lewd organisms.” It follows then, that the question shouldn’t be if a sexual proclivity is “natural” or “unnatural” but whether it is harmful.

While we have adopted, overall, a tolerant view of sex for pleasure rather than for procreation, we’re still a bit hung up on emotional attachments that don’t appear to be socially productive. It’s “weird” that anyone could be in a romantic relationship with a doll who can’t consent, object or help pay the mortgage. But isn’t it also weird, looking back over all of human history, that we now commonly perform a rite of passage which involves an exchange of jewelry and the expectation we will then take on debt for a house and remain sexually monogamous to one person for the remainder of our long lives?

The sex therapist Peter Kanaris does show his bias by suggesting people who live with dolls are depriving themselves of “the richness and totality of what relationships with other people may offer.” That was my gut reaction as well. But is non-human love necessarily a bad thing? If the political strategist who figures out how to take down QAnon and halt the encroaching march of fascism across America wants to live with a sex doll in order to devote more energy to his work, then I say give that man a lifetime supply! Not everyone needs to pursue an intimate sexual relationship with another person and no one like me needs to make them feel guilty of being less than human if big love isn’t on their priority list.

I do object to the idea that we can learn to become more adept lovers of women through sex dolls. Real Doll company founder Matt McMullen claims these dolls can teach people to be better humans. “We want to be able to simulate the kindness and the legwork that goes into building a connection.” He believes this can happen through the increasingly sophisticated programming of sex dolls whose AI “love meter” rises if you give “her” compliments and express emotions.

This is a nice sentiment but a poor substitute for practicing with a real human. You may be verbally loving and tender with your AI sex doll – and she will do the same for you. But she’ll never have a bad day, will never carelessly criticize you. An AI sex doll will only ever be a cheerleader and not one who will force you to act like a grownup in the face of conflict or sorrow. She will not challenge you to give her the loving benefit of the doubt because she will never piss you off.

What I admire about some of these men who take delight in their sex dolls is their courage not to shrink from it. I could pathologize the lifestyle, but what does that matter to them and what does it say about me? Just because I put high value on the complications of sex with humans doesn’t mean we all need to. I challenge myself daily to look with openness and wonder at that which is alien, that reflexively might disturb me. This is the signal I’ve learned to pay attention to: what is your discomfort trying to tell you about yourself?

People who own sex dolls are part of the canvas of our humanity. They are living their lives decently, for the most part, and have chosen to purchase a very expensive tool for masturbation. So be it. We may judge them as hurting themselves emotionally, but I don’t see any evidence they are hurting real women. Which is more than I can say of Republicans.

Love, Karin

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