What Do Sex Dolls And Cell Phones Have In Common?

Julie Beck's latest feature for The Atlantic is chock-full of all the salacious factoids one expects from an article titled "A (Straight, Male) History of Sex Dolls."

Above: "Sandy sex doll or poseable mannequin" | Photo Credit: Dollist | CC BY-SA 3.0

For instance:

  1. There is an urban legend that Hitler had sex dolls designed for German soldiers to discourage them from having sex with non-Aryan women.
  2. The more credible (albeit intriguingly timed, given the rumor of Führer-sanctioned love-dummies) observation that the first commercial sex doll originated in post-war Germany.
  3. That Germany's mid-century "Bild-Lilli doll" (a foot-tall, i.e. impenetrable, sexual effigy), while originally marketed to adult men, "is widely cited as the inspiration for Barbie."

But equally interesting is the feature's exploration of human nature. What do advances in the utility and realism of erotic dolls say about the male psyche that less comprehensive sex toys – vibrators, for example, or flesh lights – do not?

...realistic dolls often do inspire real affection, and even devotion... A love for one's own creation, though, is also, in a way, self-love, or narcissism. "This is why so much of it has to do with masturbation," [says Macquard Smith, author of The Erotic Doll]. "These things are not unconnected."

Narcissistic or not, that attachment can become isolating. Smith points out that, especially in the age of technology, intimate relationships with objects aren't so uncommon. "Think about the way you use your iPhone," he says. "You hold it, and you stroke it, and you scroll. You're holding it to your ear as we speak. It's kind of a part of you. It's an extension of you." But things are different when the object is human-shaped and the relationship is sexual. Owning a doll can have "social and psychological consequences for men who want to develop these intimate and erotic relationships with an inanimate human form. I don't want to pathologize anyone, but I think there's a danger around the way that processes like that objectify men's relationships with themselves in a way that restricts an authentic emotional intelligence."

In other words: It's understandable, in a way, that someone could develop a close relationship with a sex doll. What Smith is saying is that, unlike feeling attached to your smartphone, developing a closeness with a mannequin could lead to problems.

What kind of problems? That's less clear. Sarah Valverde, a researcher and mental health therapist, tells Beck that while many men are ashamed of owning sex dolls, they tend to be as satisfied with their lives, and experience the same rates of depression and mental illness as the rest of the population. "Unless it's all-consuming and it impacts other areas of life," says Valverde, "we really can't define it as a disorder." And as Beck notes, "there are many understandable, even sympathetic, reasons for owning sex dolls,"

Still, there's a clear stigma attached to sex dolls that is bound to raise suspicions, no matter what research has shown. Realistic dolls may inspire devotion, but in the end, a doll can be a dark, unsettling reminder of unequal power dynamics in the real-world. "The doll-lover's frequent lament," writes Beck, is that "Women are unpredictable and dolls are steadfast; women will leave you and dolls are loyal; women demand things and dolls accept you for who you are. Women are human and dolls are not."

And it gets darker:

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 patent 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."

More on this fascinating intersection of sex, power, and the uncanny valley at The Atlantic.