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the problem with sex dolls

Over at The Atlantic, Julie Beck has an interesting piece on the history of sex dolls, “A (Straight, Male) History of Sex Dolls.” This wasn’t actually the article I thought I was sighing up to read at first. Not Ms. Beck’s fault; for some reason my eyes simply skimmed over the word “Sex” in the title, and I thought it would be about men who collected doll-dolls. You know, porcelain and the like. Still, it was very interesting and I thought it might be worth discussing a bit.

Also, I get that this isn’t a topic everyone cares to read. I don’t think it got explicit or anything, but to be on the safe side, I’ll put the rest of this behind a cut.

The article makes the point repeatedly that people use sex dolls for a huge variety of reasons, and we need to be careful when talking about this that we don’t paint with too broad a brush stroke. For some people it’s just an effective way to masturbate, and I really don’t have any qualms with that. For others it provided a kind of surrogate in situations where acceptable partners aren’t acceptable. For example, the article refers to the “Dutch wives,” leather sex dolls that were used by sailors on long journeys, and also to the urban legends that the Nazi army distributed sex dolls to keep them from coupling up with the native, non-Aryan populations. That seems reasonable enough to me, and certainly no more wrong than any other kind of masturbation.

But there are two ways the article describes that people often use sex dolls that I did find troubling. Quite a bit, actually.

First, Beck describes people who prefer to have sex with dolls because they’re somehow less demanding or dynamic (and risky) than flesh-and-blood humans. As Davecat, one famous owner of sex dolls, puts it:

“Ninety-eight percent of the iDollators and technosexuals I know treat their Dolls like goddesses,” he insisted. A lot of men are lonely because they’re misogynist pricks, true, but a lot of other men are lonely because they don’t meet women’s expectations.” But then he went on: “Dolls don’t possess any of the unpleasant qualities that organic, flesh and blood humans have. A synthetic will never lie to you, cheat on you, criticize you, or be otherwise disagreeable.”

I’m trying hard to read that second bit in a positive way, a way that says technosexuals don’t prefer these dolls because they are quite literally objects – no personality, no need for an actual relationship. Even the first quote is iffy as far as I’m concerned. Most women (at least this woman) don’t want to be treated as goddesses any more than they want to be treated as chattel. The point is that we’re allowed to be equal partners, co-laborers as it were, and that means among other things that we’re allowed to have flaws and make demands. The idea is that relationships, even romantic relationships, should force you to engage and connect with another actual person.

Now, there may be some psychological conditions that make this difficult. Anxiety conditions, perhaps, or having an intense fear of rejection or a real sense of shame coming out of actual sex. There are also probably some people that want sex without a relationship. If this is coming from a healthy space, use of the dolls may not be problematic at all. (I can see certain varieties of people who are aromantic but not asexual finding them useful, for instance.) And even with the mental illnesses, it may well be a good way of coping with that disability. But if you read the articles there are quite a few quotes from the makers of these dolls that suggest there are men who would have liked a romantic relationship with an actual flesh-and-blood woman if she were more subservient and less of a threat, but not with women as they actually are. For instance,

The inventor of the Fleshlight, a popular masturbation toy for men, also submitted a patent in 1995 for a “female functioning mannequin.” (Within the mannequin’s “cavity,” as the patnet puts it, would have been a cartridge full of “oily elastomer.”) According to Smith’s book, the inventor cited “as the reasons for its invention the fact that women are cruel, venal, superficial; that they humiliate and break the hearts of men and that dolls on the contrary are reliable, compliant, companionable, and loving.”

It’s the same reason I’m uncomfortable with people buying mail-order brides from third world countries. Even if the woman has a better standard of living than she’d have back home, even if she’s not abused or exploited (and this is far from a given in the industry), what a lot of the clients seem to want is a woman who will serve them sexually and domestically without them having to enter into an equal relationship. And it seems like what these manufacturers are trying to offer isn’t just physical, sexual release; it’s actual relationship (compliant, companionable, loving) – but relationship without the need to take the other partner seriously. According to Smith, an academic working on this topic quoted by the piece, “There is genuine empathy here, what the Germans call Einfühlung, an entering into the feelings of an other.” The problem is the thing you’re empathizing with doesn’t actually have feelings to enter into. Oh, sure, you can create them or imagine them, but there’s no need to actually connect with another person, no risk of being rejected by something beyond your control. And that’s troubling for me.

The other issue was whether it might take away actual individual humans’ right of autonomy, the right to decide whether something that puppets them will be used by another person. The article talks about an early-twentieth century artist Oskar Kokoschka, who, when he

was jilted by his lover, the pianist and composer Alma Mahler, he wrote that he had “lost all desire to go through the ordeal of love again.” (This is a refrain that doll owners have repeated through the ages.) He still desired Mahler, though, so much so that he provided her dressmaker with incredibly detailed instructions for a life-sized replica of Mahler, specifying not only her appearance but everything down to how her skin should feel. Historians differ on what happened after Kokoschka received the doll. One thing s for sure – it was extremely furry, covered in “skin” more reminiscent of a plush stuffed animal than a human woman. One account says he was “enraptured” by it all the same; others say he was disappointed. He made several drawings of it, and, according to some reports, eventually destroyed it at a party, either burning it or burying it in his garden.

I’ve discussed topics along this line with a few people and I get that there’s some difference of opinion in how wrong this kind of behavior is and if so, just why it’s wrong. For instance, I once likened having Sherlock (when he was just flatmates or just friends with John) stealing photos of John in the army and using them as masturbatory aides to a kind of rape. The thought was it took away John’s right to consent to being thought of this way. I’m not saying we can always stop ourselves from fantasizing about an attractive neighbor, and at a certain level if they’re not aware of it the only harm you can do is to yourself.

Even so, I know a lot of women who object to being treated as sex objects by people they don’t know or by people they do know and haven’t given permission to use them that way. I’m reminded of “Meridian,” where Quark was hired to create a holographic dopelganger of Kira for a sexual holoprogram. He tried to first photograph her under false pretenses, then snuck into her medical file to get her physical dimensions. And this was for a man who had tried to flirt with Kira but she’d rebuffed him, so he essentially turned around and tried to buy a version of her that he could do whatever he liked with. Where she would no longer have the right to dictate the terms of what was done to it, even though (in the customer’s mind) it was supposed to be her.

There’s a reason I think Kira’s reaction was sympathetic, why it resonated with a lot of people, and it’s also pretty much a technologically more advanced version of what Kokoschka did to Mahler. It’s… icky, to put it mildly. At least to me.

I’m not saying there’s no way a sex doll can’t be used ethically. If all you want is something masturbatory, and you’re not taking away a specific woman’s right to consent, I suppose I have no real objection. But if you’re using this to have sex with a woman you want but she didn’t want to go along with, that’s very unsettling to me. And even in the broader sense, if you’re trying to get love or companionship from someone who’s not a challenge, who has no real personality you have to connect with but is just something you create on your own? I’d ask why that’s an attractive or good thing for you. There are some cases where it may well be, but I suspect in a lot of examples what you want isn’t really a very mature relationship.

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