ARTICLE
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By: Elysia Brenner

Photos: Various

The lovebots are coming

The loneliness of lockdown has given an unexpected boost to makers of sex dolls. And cutting-edge robotics means they can now talk back to you. We meet the men, women and couples who are crazy about their dolls.

Takeaways

  • Sales of sex dolls and robots are up, partly due to coronavirus lockdowns.
  • The latest models have realistic robotic features and AI personalities.
  • Owners say the appeal is much more than just physical. It’s about companionship.
  • Dolls have helped people deal with loss, loneliness and mental illness.
  • Some fear that using sex dolls harms people’s capacity for empathy.

For most businesses, 2020 has been a tough year. But not for all.

Realbotix, a US maker of sex robots, says it has seen a 50% increase in sales during this year’s Covid-19 pandemic. In Australia, too, sellers of sex dolls report big increases, with some saying sales have doubled. Canada’s Green Earth Robotics also says its business has doubled – maybe even tripled.

Realbotix CEO Matt McMullen works on a Harmony sex robot.
Photo: Graham Walzer/New York Times/Ritzau Scanpix

With people around the world stuck at home and feeling down, the appeal of these lifesize dolls – including ones with robotic capabilities – has skyrocketed, to the point that they’re on the brink of the mainstream.

5 set out to talk to the owners of these synthetic companions, and find out why they choose to share their life with a doll.

“The day my doll arrived was one of the happiest in a long time”

A Doll Forum member

Modern love

The Doll Forum, which has been running since 2001, is the largest online community for owners of “love dolls and erotic dolls for adults”. Members chat and share tips on things like maintenance, cleaning and transport (some dolls can weigh nearly as much as a person). Sometimes they post in character as their dolls.

Discussions on the forum are about 15% sex, 85% everything else, one user estimates. Owners of dolls insist it’s not all about sex, and some avoid the term ‘sex dolls’ completely in favour of ‘love dolls’.

Doll owners love to dress up their dolls and photograph them.
Photo: Nescio50 / The Doll Forum

Louise, photographed by her owner.
Photo: Nescio50 / The Doll Forum

Doll Forum members love to share photos of their dolls. Some are sexy. More are not. Dolls might be costumed in anything from elaborate period gowns to modern winterwear, with miniature dolls occasionally featured as well as lifesize ones. “We enjoy dressing them up, photographing them, and having them around,” says forum member Mr Franz. “Not everyone uses their dolls for sex. Some of us just like dolls.” AtomicPunk says: “I enjoy taking and sharing pictures of [my doll] Alita, but I refuse to do sex poses or nudes. I wouldn’t do that to a girlfriend or wife, and that has translated to Alita.”

“I didn’t buy [my doll] Xiel necessarily for sex,” says another user, Muesky6969. “With the pandemic, my anxiety and depression have been overwhelming because of the isolation. The day Xiel arrived was one of the happiest days I have had in a very, very long time. Having him makes the house feel less empty.”

“Dolls won’t badmouth us or put us down. They are always there for us”

A Doll Forum member

According to the companies that make sex dolls, the typical owner is an older, divorced man. Members of the Doll Forum include both men and women, and come from all over the world and every professional background. Extroverts, introverts, lovers of music, science, football – they’re all here.

“When I first joined, I found it creepy, [I] thought that most people here must be weird,” says forum member Curiousswede. “My mind changed. You can read about people who have lost partners and found solace in having a doll wear their past partner’s clothes, people who found new spice in their marriage, and the list goes on.”

Other reasons that owners give for loving dolls include that “they are functional pieces of art”, “they listen to me talk about my PTSD”, “he makes me feel needed again” and “she’s giving me the confidence I need to go out and find her real-life twin”. One user says: “For people with depression, anxiety, panic attacks, the dolls give comfort, support. They won’t badmouth us or put us down. They are always there for us.”

But can there really be a healthy relationship between a doll and its owner? And what role do lifesize dolls play in a world that’s supposed to be fighting the objectification of women?

Until now the market for sex dolls has been heavily male-dominated – 90% of customers are straight men, according to doll maker Abyss. But there are signs this may be changing. Some sellers are reporting rising sales among women, who are already bigger users of sex toys than men. Sexologist Dr Michelle Mars believes that by 2050, sex with robots will be the norm – and that it will be women who drive the revolution. Couples are getting into dolls too. “It takes away the moral element of having sex with more than one person whilst still providing the thrill of the new in a sexual encounter,” explains Michelle.

Stories about adults and their dolls are also getting more mainstream attention. In the 2007 film Lars and the Real Girl, Ryan Gosling plays a loner who orders a doll, names her Bianca and begins introducing her around town. Their relationship is entirely platonic. Along the way Lars finds the confidence to reconnect with the world. In the words of film critic Roger Ebert: “The film wisely never goes for even one moment that could be interpreted as smutty or mocking.” This year’s TV show Dummy tells the story of a woman who discovers her boyfriend owns a sex doll – based on the real-life experience of the show’s creator, Cody Heller.

In the TV show Dummy, a woman discovers her partner owns a sex doll
Photo courtesy of Quibi.

Almost alive

If you’re in the market for a sex doll, there’s no shortage of choice. Dolls with often cartoonish proportions are available starting at US$2,500. At the more expensive end of the market are products like RealDoll from Abyss (such as Bianca from Lars and the Real Girl), which begin at US$6,000. These are highly detailed and come with long lists of customisation options: freckles, tattoos, custom nipples, tan lines …

“Advances in robotics and AI are bringing inanimate dolls to life”

But now, advances in AI and robotics are bringing these inanimate dolls to life. The most advanced commercially available sex robot is Harmony, made by Realbotix, Abyss’s robotic subsidiary.

The robotics are limited to Harmony’s head, which can move, blink and form different expressions. She talks, too – in a Scottish accent. In addition to Harmony’s physical features, you can customise her voice and personality. A quiet intellectual, a brassy sexpot, or any other combination of 18 character traits – it’s up to you. Even without a physical doll, these AI personalities are available to chat with via an app. She’ll remember your likes and dislikes, details about your family, and so on. However, with conversation skills only a step above those of Alexa or Siri, Harmony won’t be passing the Turing test any time soon.

So far, hardly anyone actually owns a Harmony. Prices start at US$12,000 and extras such as “sensory upgrades to react to your every touch” add up quickly. But as the technology advances, we can expect the cost of robotic sex partners to go down and the quality to go up. Realbotix says future sex robots will provide an even more realistic experience: with self-warming and lubricating capabilities, torsos that move and hips that thrust. One day soon, they may even be able to walk.

Artificial people, real concerns

Not everyone is pleased about the rise of the sexbots. The Campaign Against Sex Robots warns that they could harm people’s capacity for empathy, as well as contributing to the objectification of women, especially sex workers. As the organisation’s founder Kathleen Richardson writes in a 2016 paper, “if the practices that inspire sex robots are not ethical for humans, they are not ethical for extending into machines”.

There is particular concern about the potential for sex dolls with childlike proportions, which some say encourage the predilections of paedophiles, and others argue provide a safe outlet for them. (The Doll Forum bans all images and discussion of childlike dolls.) One company – now defunct – offered a doll with a choice of personalities, including Young Yoko, described as “barely 18”, and Frigid Farrah, who would respond negatively to being touched – indulging users’ rape fantasies.

Users themselves face risks too. They could sustain injuries, for which they might be reluctant to seek treatment, and AI sex robots introduce a new threat of cybersecurity. So-called ‘smart’ cameras, speakers and even sex toys have all already been hacked. What if it happened to a robot?

Robo-therapists

But the growing use of love dolls could also bring real benefits, including psychological support. NormalHuman says her doll Maho has had a positive effect on her. “I have spoken more words out loud in my house since her arrival than I did in the last three years,” she says. “I have also been more motivated to take better care of myself and the house. I have lost two stone [13 kilos] in the last couple months.”

Robots could even play a part in therapy. Michelle Mars sees the potential for a more tangible way for patients to reap the benefits of virtual reality counseling, which she says “has proven very effective”. Others see the bots’ sexual function playing a therapeutic role, for example for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities who may have trouble forming intimate relationships.

In a small survey about the use of such robots in sexual therapy, conducted by researchers at Austria’s Sigmund Freud University, around nine in ten therapists and physicians said they would not completely rule out the possibility, with nearly half saying they could imagine recommending it.

“I know the stigma of owning one of these dolls”

A Doll Forum member

It’s still too early to say whether the Covid-19 outbreak has provided the boost that sex dolls need to break through to the mainstream. But with sales up, it’s clear that attitudes are gradually changing, even if many clearly still see the use of these products as strange – or worse. As Muesky6969says, “I know the stigma of owning one of these dolls.”

Doll enthusiasts are optimistic that as owning dolls becomes more common, the world will learn to better understand them. Haremlover, a Doll Forum member, points 5 to a news report from the UK about a man named Dean, who owns 12 dolls. “What’s really encouraging are the comments”, says Haremlover.

The top comment reads: “People say he’s crazy. He’s just ahead of his time. This is the future.”