Single people are often pressured to find a new partner in our “couple culture,” where the idea that some people might want to be single seems, to many, unthinkable. The benefits to (and limits of) monogamous relationships have long been critiqued by feminist scholars asserting that heteronormative coupling lacks mutual respect, desire, intimacy, and pleasure. Embedded in these critiques of human relationships is the notion that people want to be in relationships with one another. Perhaps, but for some people, after a second, third, or fourth divorce, they decide to single lives. How many major breakups would it take for you to decide that human relationships simply just aren’t for you?

In my research, I wanted to know why some people own what are usually called “sex dolls” (e.g., life-sized sex toys resembling a human person) and better understand how doll owners compare their sex practice to human sexual relationships. I conducted digital ethnographic fieldwork among the online love and sex doll subculture—a group of people who gather online to share with one another about the highs and lows of synthetic companionship. For 14 months spanning 2020 and 2021, I posted on message boards, hung out in chatrooms, followed dolls, doll owners, and doll companies on social media, and conducted interviews with 41 people. I met people living with synthetic companions living in North America, Europe, and Australia. My goal was to interview a diverse sample of doll community members, so I purposefully sampled men, women, and queer doll owners, the partners of doll owners, and people who work in the adult industry.

A common thread among doll owners is dissatisfaction with human relationships. Few doll owners are young and inexperienced. Rather, most doll owners are 40 years or older, have been in one or multiple long-term relationships, and after experiencing a particularly bad breakup, have chosen to move on from human relationships. It’s also true that the typical doll owner is a heterosexual man. These commonalities result in a culture that centers men’s experiences and desires. Some men expressly blame feminism and liberalism for their relationship woes and suggest that modern relationship expectations are unrealistic. Other men within the community actively resist this framing and do not blame women for their predicament. They simply prefer to be single. Nonetheless, what connects doll owners is desire for intimacy and sexual pleasure, just not with a human.

By no means do heterosexual men have a monopoly on intimate hardship. Women, queer, and trans people can also become tired of trying to find a relationship that meets their wants and needs. Although most dolls cater to heterosexual men, doll companies pride themselves on customizability and variety. As such, single people spanning a diverse spectrum of gender and sexual identities are beginning to find synthetic companionship attractive. For marginalized doll owners, the default masculine discourse of the doll community is off-putting, especially so for women, many of whom hope that the stigma associated with sex dolls will erode as more people chose synthetic companionship. One woman who is a content moderator for a prominent doll forum named Helen compared the stigma of synthetic companionship to the rights of sexual minorities. She said, “I think as more people buy dolls and more dolls are out there in the public eye, it will become more accepted. It’s a generational thing. Compare it to Stonewall, you know? Who would, who would imagine that after Stonewall, 30 years later, they would legalize gay marriage nationwide? I mean, that would be, that would have been unthinkable.”

Importantly, synthetic companionship is not restricted to single people. Dispersed among the community I also met people using dolls in ways that challenge heteronormative monogamy. Some couples use dolls to fulfill extramarital desires, while others leverage the customizable aspect of dolls to have sex in transgressive ways. Because genital configurations can be swapped with ease, queer doll owners use their dolls in ways that challenge normative understandings of gendered bodies and desires. For example, Sean, who is in a polyamorous marriage with his AFAB non-binary wife, purchased a doll to have a girlfriend. Additionally, since Sean also enjoys being anally penetrated during sex, he also bought a penis attachment that he can put onto his doll Gracie to change her sexual functionality.

As we advance further into the 21st century it is likely that technology will continue to play an increasing role in sexuality and intimate relationships. Research on dating apps has exploded in recent years as more and more people use online dating to find partners. And while some attention has been paid to sex dolls, most of this research has been theoretical rather than empirical. Perhaps this is because few acknowledge that people are already living synthetic lives. But they are, and understanding how social forces shape the decision to forgo human relationships will be crucial in understanding this controversial sex practice.

Kenneth R. Hanson is a Doctoral Candidate in the University of Oregon Department of Sociology. He researches how and why people use technology to fulfill sexual and emotional desires, cultural narratives about sexual transgressions, and gendered sex practices. You can find him on Twitter @Ken_R_Hanson

Funding acknowledgements:

Lawrence Carter Graduate Student Research Award, University of Oregon Department of Sociology

Research Award for Data Collection and Presentation, University of Oregon Department of Sociology