Photo of the entrance door to a robot art cooperative gallery, with robot scupltures displayed through the glass. Via CC Search.

In the last few weeks, we’ve been asked to comply with social distancing measures that intend to protect our bodies from the bodies of others. For many of us, that has meant that physical companionship and intimacy have also been quarantined. We have been asked to refuse hugs, touch, daps, high-fives, and kisses. Entire industries are shut down as unemployment skyrockets. But, porn companies have seen a significant growth in traffic, and coronavirus-themed content now includes performers dressed in masks and gloves.

Traditional modes of sex work exist at the intersection of all of the things that Coronavirus has taken away from us: touch, physical proximity, financial security, disposable income. For some sex workers, Coronavirus has made earning a living nearly impossible—one can’t collect unemployment for a job still categorized as criminal. Other services have moved to webcams and tip-based digital payments. But in an age where we can’t touch other people, sex doll and sex robot companies are also prepared to fill the intimacy gaps left by social distancing.

Most scholarly discussions about the inclusion of sex dolls and sexbots (AI and robotic versions of sex dolls) fall into one of two camps. Either sex dolls are meaningless, manmade pieces of merchandise that, at best, can be repurposed and used as a social good, or they are problematic products carrying “symbolic consequences.” This distinction shapes the debate over how and whether to regulate the market. Some suggest that injecting more of these artificial bodies into society may serve as a release valve for the types of violence typically directed toward human women and children. KinkySdolls, for example, frames their products as a way to prevent human trafficking, reduce prostitution, and help those who find connection with others difficult. During this public health crisis, sex dolls could be seen as a safe way to address the mental health consequences of extreme isolation.

Yet, it’s worth thinking sociologically about who the major sex doll and sexbot stakeholders are and how they shape consumer behavior. The production and use of sexbots is largely unregulated, and there’s been little discussion of how the way we treat dolls might translate into the way we treat other humans in sexual encounters. Dolls were not designed by advocates striving to find innovative solutions to social harms. These sex-toys-for-hire originate instead, at the intersection of eroticism, technology, and consumerism.

Sex-tech industry design

Unlike the lifeless, cartoon versions of generations past, today’s sex dolls are built with lifelike material and features like warming “skin,” “moaning” censors, “jiggle” material in the breasts and butt, smiling capability and eyes that blink. Customers can build-a-doll through most company websites, customizing details down to the doll’s nail polish color. Some companies advertise that they can make dolls of your favorite actress, or can customize a doll to match an uploaded photo (consent not needed). At least one company launched services to create dolls that replicate the deceased. An “emotional database” is on the horizon, as are AI-powered sexbots, where the product can “learn” customer preferences through repeated data intakes.

Doll companies now also curate a social identity and personality for many products, creating digital narratives, dating profiles and social media accounts for dolls so that customers can interact with their product and create an illusion of communication. Lumidolls for instance, provides textual histories for several of their dolls, interweaving fictional dating experiences with sexual content and details about what the doll is looking for in their purchaser:

Janna:” I am a 26-year-old lady who works in the car industry. I sell cars like no one in my job. Could it be because of my explosive body? Probably yes. The thing is that I see a man coming in, looking at the cars and then to me, and in few seconds I know what he is thinking about: Just me naked at the front of the car waiting for him to take me. Do you think I am wrong? I do not think so! If you choose for me in this ocean of ladies I can take you to a baseball game and then we can go for a beer and a hamburger. At home I can wear this sexy baseball player outfit for you.

With the addition of these interactive features, sex dolls are not just material goods nor visual fantasies; modern versions break down the fourth wall. These products can be touched and tortured just as easily as they can “listen” to your feelings and “text” you goodnight.

Constructing Digital Identities

By both physically and digitally constructing a particular type of sexual identity, sex-tech companies have incredible power to dictate what kinds of imagery and text is privileged and bypassed. Most of the race, gender, and sexuality contours that shape human existence have been erased and replaced with privileged “ideal-types.” At best, sex dolls and sexbots play out the stereotypical, gendered and racialized constructions of sexuality that their human counterparts have endured and fought against for centuries. “Momoka” is Japanese and  “…like most Japanese women, she decided to stay at home to handle all the household chores and take good care of her husband.”  The Latina sex dolls, “do not complain and retain their spicy, ethnic features and tan skin for the longest time…” Rarely are there any “Sharonda” or “LaKeisha,” sex dolls. Dark brown and black bodies are almost entirely deleted from plastic sexual fantasy. Male-presenting dolls are rarer still, with faces that look just like the female-presenting ones; the newly launched trans dolls are just female dolls with penis inserts. Unsurprisingly, scrolling through the inventory shows a plethora of models that resemble white, cis women with intangible body dimensions—signaling again, what kinds of bodies are valued and desirable.

Though companies are working hard to normalize sex doll consumerism, in the meantime these products still come with public scripts about what our partners, sex, and “companionship” should look and act like. Sex doll bodies appeal to a gaze that largely dismisses sexual equity or equitable desire, bolstered further by how the doll is programmed. Sex doll companies overlook questions of whether a doll could ever say no,  or if a doll could report that “she” did not, in fact, enjoy the user. How many times must the doll be hit before it shuts down? If strangled too tightly, will there be some tilt in “her” voice to indicate fright or anger?

In the United States, body subjugation has always laid at the feet of a categorization system that determines that only some bodies are “human” enough to count. And as history should have taught us, it is advantaged bodies who draw the legal, political, and cultural definitions in order to dehumanize the body that is not their own. These structural-sexual inequities have allowed for the bodies of “others” to serve as host for sexual experimentation for centuries—sex dolls and sexbots  may re-create this classification system a hundred-fold.

Purchasing an artificial body may provide a quick fix to navigating society’s complicated ideas about sex work, companionship, body autonomy, sexual fantasy, exploitation or empowerment. But mainstream inclusion of sex dolls may also influence our collective “training” in other important ways. In the midst of a critical moment (by way of the #metoo movement), where a surge of attention, public pressure, and improved accountability has pushed conversations about sexual harassment and violence forward, the mainstream incorporation of sex dolls and sexbots seems to lean closer to a lowered bar for sexual equality. Here, we learn that consent is whatever the programmer coded it to be. Here, consent is whatever the customer paid for.

Sex Dolls, Social Distancing–and Social Science

We have a small window to think critically about how these replacement “companions” might affect the way we think about and interact with those that sex dolls are designed to replace. While it’s easy to dismiss these products as non-threatening and an altogether silly byproduct of our more progressive sexual lives, there is danger in ignoring the ways in which these symbolic objects capture all the racialized, gendered, and heteronormative biases of those who design and profit from their “bodies.” Consider debates over whether the wide access and exposure to graphic internet porn has influenced sexual behavior and sexual violence.  Sext-tech innovation doesn’t wait for society to grapple with the impacts of its newest creations, but perhaps, we can use this moment and our power as consumers to demand better products—before these companies go mainstream.  And “mainstream” is probably not as far off as we think—KinkySdolls tried to open sex doll brothels in Houston and New York, and Anna Kendrick is starring in a new online series about the blossoming friendship between a girl and her boyfriend’s sex doll.

If it’s inevitable that sexbots are the next iteration of commercial sex, social scientists and consumers ought to think about how their inclusion might affect interactions between living bodies. While criminal and civil laws have been enacted to protect society from sexual and labor violations, these laws don’t apply to artificial bodies—consent is not required from the majority of models, not even from the “child” sex dolls, and sex dolls don’t need to rest in between shifts, they don’t ask for time off, they don’t need food or water to survive. They don’t need air. Yet, focusing on these distinctions, the ones where the legal and symbolic boundaries of public policy are drawn around the type of “body,” rather than the act itself, is an argument that has been used to justify violence and ownership of marginalized bodies time and time again.

In a process that defines right and wrong with our definitions of “human,” instead of definitions about the legality of the act, sex dolls and sexbots will potentially, just be the newest version of acceptable space-holders for behaviors that we would not perform, or be allowed to perform, on other humans—at least, the humans whose advantaged bodies have deemed legitimate and worthy of protection. As technological improvements continue to blur the once-obvious tells between genetic and manmade versions of “life,” thinking through these implications and pushing for responsible production may become more necessary.

For example, could sex dolls be designed with more attention to reality and equitable representation? Could they be programmed to teach users about affirming sexual practices? What if dolls were programmed to send the police data and recordings of any purchaser engaged in “lethal” sexual practices? What if instead of making dolls always available for sex, they were programmed to occasionally refuse? Could we decide as a community, to not have sex doll brothels be a thing? What if the next model chopped your fingers off if you tried to grope it without consent?  What if… it chopped something else off?

It makes sense that as a society, we are searching for new ways to address the very basic and human need for touch, connection, and intimacy right now.  During this public health crisis, it’s true that sex doll companies are well positioned to support us by creating products that replicate the bodies that we so desperately miss. In theory, these bodies cannot hurt us the way human bodies can during a global pandemic. But before we reach for this balm, it’s important to question and – and as social scientists, empirically analyze – the potential impacts of incorporating and using bodies that can be bought, curated, controlled and stuffed into the closet whenever human company is allowed back in.

Recommended Readings

David Levy. 2008. Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships. Harper.

Kate Devlin. 2018. Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots. Bloomsbury.

John Danaher. 2017. Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications. MIT Press.

Kathleen Richardson. 2016. “The Asymmetrical ‘Relationship’: Parallels between Prostitution and the Development of Sex Robots.” ACM SIGCAS Computers and Society.

Katherine Bright is a PhD student at Rutgers University-Newark’s School of Criminal Justice.  Her research interests include commercial sex, technology, and victimization.