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Would You Get It On With A Robot? The Ethics of Sex Dolls

Entirely personalised, a sex doll is the perfect invention for many seeking a companion. Yet, what values do they uphold, and, is it ethical?

Robot Dancing With A Disco Ball Head
Pexels / Mason McCall

If someone told you it was possible to create the ‘perfect’ sexual partner, would you? From eye color to height to personality type, everything is personalized for you and by you. There’s just one catch … they’re not real, it’s a sex doll.

The Modern Sex Doll

Since 1996, ‘True Companion’: the most renowned U.S. sex doll company, had sold over 3,500 dolls worldwide. The dolls are made of silicone to imitate the feeling of the flesh, and prices range from $3,500-$10,000. They are hyper-realistic and can be customized to an individual’s aesthetic preferences.

One of the more visible creators of the modern sex doll is Davecat. He works within a community of sex-doll owners called iDollators. All of these owners have invested in high-end, anatomically correct dolls for both sex and companionship.

The most well-known commercially available robot is ‘Roxxxy’ or ‘Rocky’. Made by ‘True Companion’, the doll can take on a personality chosen from a range of pre-programmed types. Artist Matt McMullen created the first doll sold by ‘True Companion’. In the late 90s, McMullen began work on a lifelike silicone female mannequin and documented his progress on his website.

Matt McCullen and RealDoll
Matt McCullen demonstrating the design of a ‘True Companion’ doll
YouTube / @RealDoll

The site accumulated a number of primarily male followers, who found they had an attraction to the robotic. This has since been coined as ‘technofetishism’: sexual attraction to mannequins or dolls, being hypnotised, turned into statues, or frozen.

A Brief History Of The Sex Doll

The Greeks

Although the modern sex doll is only around 15 years old, the history of sex dolls dates back to Ancient Greece. The Greeks described a phenomenon referred to as agalmatophilia: statue love.

It is in Greek Literature where we find the first artificial woman, Pandora. Hephaestus molded her from clay, and the Gods endowed her with desirable attributes. She is referred to with the epithet ‘kalon kakon, meaning ‘sheer guile’ or ‘artifice’. Pandora’s ultimate act is to release pain and suffering into the world with the opening of ‘Pandora’s box’.

In a comment upon the myth of Pandora, Laura Mulvey categorizes her as a ‘femme-fatale android’. Mulvey defines this as:

‘A beautiful surface that is appealing and charming to man masks either an interior that is mechanical or an outside that is deceitful; this inside/outside topography connotes mystery and is only readable in death’

Mulvey, Laura qtd. in De Fren, Allison, ‘Technofetishism and the Uncanny Desires of ASFR’

Ovid’s Pygmalion

A further early insight into the desire for sex dolls is Ovid’s story of Pygmalion in Book X of Metamorphoses. The goddess Venus, awe-struck by the resemblance that a statue Pygmalion has sculpted bears to her, brings it to life. For this reason, it is ‘Pygmalionism’ which terms the desire among those with technofetishism for their sexual partner to enact the animation of a statue.

The Evolution of the Sex-Doll

Despite there being a lack of evidence, many have theorized that the earliest sex dolls belonged to sailors. In the 17th century, it is thought that Dutch sailors hand-sewed leather puppets to stand in for women whilst at sea. However, it wasn’t until the 1850s that sex dolls were available to buy commercially.

These dolls were vastly different from the modern sex doll, made en masse following the invention of vulcanized rubber. This meant that manufacturers could stretch, expand, and blow up the material. The dolls began to appear at the World’s Fairs in the 1850s. However, the dolls were perceived as ‘seedy’ and immoral, and they were often filled with alcohol for the sole purpose of illegal transportation.

It was not until the mannequin-based art of Surrealists such as Salvador Dali’s ‘Mannequin Street’, that sex dolls were first advertised in porn magazines in the 1960s.

Are Sex Dolls Ethical?

In ‘A (Straight, Male) History of Sex Dolls’, senior editor of The Atlantic, Julie Beck, interviews ‘Davecat’, who states that:

‘98% of the iDollators and technosexuals I know treat their Dolls like goddesses  A lot of men are lonely because they’re misogynists, true, but a lot of other men are lonely because they don’t meet women’s expectations’

Davecat, The Atlantic

Here, Davecat alludes to the rising epidemic of loneliness one sees in modern society. Hence, robots could provide a connection that may work to address the declining mental health of American citizens.

However, robot ethicist Kate Darling theorizes that people tend to ‘project intent and sentiment’ onto ‘embodied objects with autonomous behavior’, something which is more likely to occur if the individual is already lacking in companionship. Darling also notes that in observations with robots, people have been known to cause them physical harm, acting ‘as if they are alive.’

Once transported into the realm of sexual relations, this becomes even more concerning. Cybersecurity lawyer Sinzianan Gutiu highlights how ‘the programmable nature of sex robots allows for their owners to in essence practice the act of rape’. For this reason, Gutiu concludes that the use of sex robots results in:

‘the dehumanization of sex and intimacy by allowing users to physically act out rape fantasies and confirm rape myths.’

Gutiu, Sinzianan

Gayle Rubin, a theorist of sex and gender, questions why it is necessary to obtain consent for a robot, comparing its ‘social significance’ to that of a ‘shoe’. Though the act of sex may be non-consensual, Rubin argues that it seems unnecessary to ask for consent, since we ‘do not ask permission of our shoes to wear them.’

Yet, unlike a shoe, a sex doll can display signals of both pain and pleasure. This thereby evokes emotional responses in the human user, which would not occur in the case of an inert object. Jeannie Suk Gersen’s ‘Sex Lex Machina: Intimacy and Artificial Intelligence’ points out that:

‘If the same robot also sits at the table to converse about the day, gives hugs, and goes to the bedroom to have sex – like a spouse – suddenly even the vacuuming may feel exploitative.’ 

Suk Gersen, Jeannie.


In 2016, Alison Burr-Miller investigated ‘RealDolls’, life-size sex dolls manufactured by ‘Abyss Creations’. Burr-Miller found the site to be a place ‘where heteronormativity may be constructed and displayed.’ Out of the 96 ‘RealDolls’ sold, 87 are women and only 9 are male. ‘RealDolls’ continues to conform to the current societal beauty standards.

Krizia Puig, a non-binary activist, commented that the female-like sex dolls represent a form of synthetic hyper-femininity. Puig highlights how this reinforces:

‘whiteness, thinness, being cis-gender and being heterosexual as what is considered desirable and beautiful.’

Puig, Krizia

This information supports Allison de Fren’s conclusion that ‘gender remains one of the more resilient markers of difference in the portrayal of technologically enhanced bodies’. It is a boundary that ‘remains heavily guarded despite new technologized ways to rewrite the physical body in the flesh’.

Despite being a technological step forward, in many respects, the ‘modern’ sex doll is a return to a heteronormative and binary mindset. The question of consent will only become more pressing as these robots are programmed to imitate human attributes with uncanny accuracy. With all of these ethical dilemmas at play, it makes the continued development of the sex doll increasingly difficult to justify.

Written By

Hi, my name is Mads Brown (they/them). I'm a third-year English Literature student at University College London. I write for the Culture board at Trill Mag, and my favourite topics to cover are literature and the arts. Alongside writing, I really enjoy theatre, playing guitar, and walks in nature.

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