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What Kind of Men Buy Sex Dolls?

"Unlucky in love," or seeing women as unknowable.

Key points

  • People have been making sex dolls for centuries, but today’s silicone models are uncannily realistic.
  • Men who own sex dolls aren’t especially different from those who don’t, other than that they’ve been “unlucky at love."
  • Despite worries that sex dolls will encourage sexual aggression, research finds the opposite is true.

The “uncanny valley” is an observation in robotics that describes how people respond to humanoid robots. People generally respond well to robots that are roughly humanoid in shape—a head atop a torso with two arms and two legs. But when robots begin to look more like real humans, people often report an “eerie” or “uncanny” feeling. This is because the looks and behaviors, while close, are just not quite right.

In contrast, human audiences respond well to fictional humanoid robots who look and act just like humans—because in fact they’re played by human actors. Consider, for example, the humanoid robots in the Star Trek or West World universes.

The uncanny valley crops up in other representations of humans as well. For instance, computer animation has become incredibly realistic, but “animated” humans can still have a creepy or “uncanny” feeling to them.

The construction of sex dolls is another enterprise in which the uncanny valley occurs. Although they’ve been in the news a lot lately, there’s in fact nothing new about sex dolls. For centuries, sailors have made use of life-sized rag dolls known as dames de voyage or “Dutch wives” as a sexual outlet during long passages.

Likewise, when I was a young adult in the early 1980s, a blow-up sex doll wasn’t an uncommon gag gift for the guy-without-a-girlfriend. Neither a Dutch wife nor a blow-up sex doll looked or felt anything like a real woman.

Sex and Love in the Uncanny Valley

However, today’s silicone sex dolls have, to a certain extent, traversed the uncanny valley. In fact, they’re used not only as masturbatory aids but also as models by some photographers. With the right photographic techniques, these life-sized dolls are virtually indistinguishable from real human models.

If you’re feeling uncomfortable right now reading about life-sized sex dolls that look and feel like real women, you’re not alone. Feminist and legal scholars alike have been incensed by this supposedly egregious use of modern technology. The fear is that sex dolls will teach men to treat real women as nothing more than sex objects whose sole purpose is to provide them with sexual pleasure. Some of these scholars have even called for a legal ban on lifelike sex dolls.

Given the uncanny valley of life-sized sex dolls that look and feel almost real as well as the considerable social stigma surrounding them, it's reasonable to ask: What kind of man would purchase a sex doll, anyway? This is exactly the question that Nottingham Trent University (United Kingdom) psychologist Craig Harper and colleagues explored in an article they recently published in the Journal of Sex Research.

As Harper and colleagues point out, researchers who have considered the role of sex dolls in modern society take one of three positions:

  • Positive: Sex dolls reduce sexual aggression by giving unpartnered men an outlet for their sexual urges.
  • Negative: Sex dolls increase sexual aggression by encouraging men to think of women as objects to be used in any way they like.
  • Neutral: Sex dolls have no influence on sexual aggression in society but rather are a form of paraphilia or specialized sexual interest.

To develop a personality profile of the typical sex-doll owner, Harper and colleagues recruited 158 men who owned sex dolls and a similar number of those who did not. All participants responded to a battery of questionnaires intended to measure their tendency toward sexual aggression, their sexual fantasies, and their personality style. They also answered questions about their sexual self-esteem (“I am a good lover”) and their attachment style.

The Personality Profile of a Sex-Doll Owner

An analysis of the data showed that there were very few differences between men who own sex dolls and those who don’t. Among these, the researchers found that men who own sex dolls were more likely to be older and separated or divorced. They were also more likely to see women as unknowable or difficult to understand.

Furthermore, sex-doll owners were more likely than their counterparts to feel sexual entitlement and to see women as sex objects. At the same time, they also reported less desire to act aggressively toward women, and in general, they were more emotionally stable than non-owners.

Harper and colleagues point out that these personality differences between owners and non-owners were quite small. Rather, what seemed to differentiate these two groups was their romantic experiences. Sex-doll owners tended to be “unlucky at love.” They’d had difficulty finding or keeping a romantic partner, or else they’d been hurt by the loss of one. So, they’d turned to sex dolls as a safer alternative instead.

Overall, these data support a positive attitude toward sex-doll ownership, in that it gives unpartnered men a sexual release. While it’s true that sex-doll owners were more likely to feel entitled to get their sexual needs met, they weren’t doing so by coercing women, but rather by turning to dolls instead.

How Sex Dolls Can Benefit Society

What this particular study doesn’t answer is the question of whether sex-doll owners would treat a future human lover as a sex object because they had become accustomed to not needing to accommodate their partner’s needs. At the same time, we need to point out that there are plenty of men who are selfish lovers, caring only about their own sexual gratification, even though they’ve never had an experience with a sex doll.

The handwringing about sex-doll ownership mirrors that over pornography—namely, that either one will lead men to think of women as sex objects that can be used however they please. Despite the dire warnings about the social ills of pornography, sociological research has generally found that the incidence of sexual assault decreases in a particular country or locale when pornography is made legally available.

The same seems to be true for sex-doll ownership. That is, sex dolls provide a safe outlet for men who’ve been “unlucky at love”—or have recently lost a loved one and are not yet ready to move on. The only notable difference then between these men and others in similar circumstances who haven’t purchased sex dolls is that they believe they have a right to sexual fulfillment in their lives, even if they currently don’t have a human partner to help them meet their needs.

Facebook image: seeshooteatrepeat/Shutterstock

References

Harper, C. A., Lievesley, R., & Wanless, K. (2022). Exploring the psychological characteristics and risk-related cognitions of individuals who own sex dolls. The Journal of Sex Research. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2022.2031848

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