The logic of toxic masculinity: Pornography and Sex Dolls, by Florence Gildea

The silence of sex dolls has been considered one of their main appeals for male owners. Sex dolls, unlike human partners, cannot answer back, criticise or scorn.

For instance, author Anthony Ferguson writes that a sex doll ‘will never tell you to take the garbage out or criticize your sexual performance […]it doesn’t talk back or reprove. This lack of discourse is important for a man who desires total control’. The sex doll, he adds, ‘signifies woman in her most voiceless, powerless, commoditized form’.

For all the arguments by the pro commercial sex industry about ‘free speech’ – what they really protect is toxic male speech and acts of sexual violence against on human bodies. The speech of toxic men over and above women, and the total control they have over dolls in the form of women. In the minds of toxic masculinity, pornography and sex dolls mirror each other.

civilrights

Andrea Dworkin and Catherine A. Mackinnon –

Pornography and Civil Rights.

Yet, for men who do seek total control, one can go beyond the silence of the sex doll: one can put words in her mouth. Or rather, put them at his fingertips, as several sex doll owners have created Twitter and other social media accounts for their dolls.

But the personalities and voices that doll owners project onto their dolls is pertinent for how sex robots may develop given that sex doll companies like RealDoll are working on installing increasing AI capacities in their dolls, and the expectation that owners will be able to customise their robots’ personalities.

These Twitter accounts may, in particular, offer a glimpse of the mode of female sexuality that many sex robots will manifest.

The fact that some owners take objects and present them as “subjects” supports Susan Bordo’s connection of pornography use (and the desire to control female sexuality therein) to men’s feelings of weakness and vulnerability:

‘the fact that women’s bodies are fetishized does not entail that what is going on in their minds is therefore unimplicated or unimportant. Rather, an essential ingredient in porn […] is the depiction of a subjectivity (or personality) that willingly contracts its possibilities and pleasures to one—the acceptance and gratification of the male’.

This is exactly what can be seen in the twitter accounts given to dolls: the creation of a subjectivity in order for it to take on whatever form the owner desires. The same can be said of those involved in developing sex robots.

loving a robot

A cursory survey of these Twitter feeds, to give the reader a sense of what they are used for, shows several modes of communication. Through these accounts, the dolls appear to narrate their own lives, with tweets about:

  • what they enjoy doing (‘who loves coconut milk? I’m addicted to the stuff!’),
  • what they are frustrated with (‘i feel so behind on everything, ever since our Christmas vacation I’ve kinda feel out of touch… sorry :()
  • what they have been ‘doing’- often with accompanying photos to sustain the illusion (‘here’s our spoils from our little shopping excursions…. [owner’s name] is soooo good to us’)
  • different ‘sides’ to their personality as they appear to engage in self-reflection (‘I really enjoyed doing this photo shoot, being able to show my darker side in a true pegan form, being completely nude under my robe’)
  • their regrets (‘I kind of regret not going for bigger hair when I was younger’)
  • their past (‘This was taken a year ago. I have not changed at all’; ‘I couldn’t wait for throwback Thursday, so here’s a pic from back when I had brown hair… lol’)
  • their jobs (for instance, one presented as a counsellor tweeted ‘‘heartfelt conversation can benefit everyone, and dolls are no exception. Please sit on the chair to talk. By appointment only’.)
  • their relationships with other dolls- familial and sexual (‘and now for her first time ever on social media, my little sister Amanda Miller’; ’ ‘one of the fun things about @[owner’s name] going out for the evening is that I can spend more time with [another doll’s account] ;)’)
  • identity politics (‘I don’t like being referred to as “not real” maybe not living but I am most definitely real, maybe more real than some organics’- here the doll appears to resist being assigned a label against her will, even though her entire voice is the product of someone else’s will.

The tweets apparently expressing the doll’s sexual desires especially point to the male owner’s desire for control, and how dolls bolster the male ego. For instance, the owner regularly makes the doll express feelings for him. For example:

doll tweet 1

Tweets like this work to suggest that the doll’s life and feelings go on without the owner’s co-presence and actively deny the owner’s involvement: the tweet suggests the owner, despite being its actual author, will not see it.

It appears important to some doll owners, then, to anthropomorphise their dolls to sustain the fantasy that they have feelings for the owner. The Twitter accounts seemingly manifest the dolls’ independent existence so that their dependence on their owners can seem to signify their emotional attachment, rather than it following inevitable from their status as objects. Immobility, then, can be misread as fidelity and devotion.

doll tweet 2The dolls’ tweets also explicitly point to the owners’ control over them (as well as the tweets themselves being a product of that control), but always with the implication that the dolls enjoy being dominated. For instance, ‘My heart is yours. I submit to you, my love’, and one account always referred to the doll-owner as ‘Master’.

This echoes how ‘Jiajia’, a humanoid robot modelled on a woman, developed at The University of Science and Technology of China, was programmed to refer to her male inventors as ‘lords’ and ask how she could serve them.

Since robots are built and programmed by humans, they literally must be ‘obedient’. But programming humanoid robots to verbalise that obedience, especially if applied to sex robots, threatens to reinforce problematic sexual stereotypes. Again, by suggesting that sex dolls willingly accepted their owners’ control over them, the owner can reimagine the doll’s submission as a sign of their adoration, rather than an inevitable corollary of the fact that they are objects with no will of their own.

Through these online accounts, the owner also gets to perform his sexual domination of the doll in front of an audience. Instead of simply exerting total control over the doll in private, by positioning it, dressing it, using it for masturbation, and projecting whatever personality and feelings he wishes onto it, this control can be publicised and affirmed by other doll owners. This is most clearly seen in pictures of a doll about to be penetrated by its owner- this allows the owner to broadcast his sexuality, to make public a sexual relationship which otherwise would be hidden by the fact the doll is an immobile object, not a subject.

puppet

Nevertheless, many sex dolls’ tweets imply sexual desire for other female sex dolls- most often for those with the same owner.

tweet 3

These tweets (e.g. ‘so despite our little arguments from time to time we all ways end up kissing and making up [with three photos attached of two female sexual dolls appearing to kiss in bed]’ provide the backstory to the doll-on-doll pornographic images produced by users and shared over social media.

tweet 4

In using these accounts to share images of the dolls in sexual poses, including positioned with other dolls, the doll user turns pornographer.

Yet he does so in a way which echoes the myth behind much of pornography and rape: that women always want sex. For he presents the dolls themselves as the distributors of the pornography that they star in. He makes her appear self-aware about her sexual desirability; he makes her appear to want and invite sex (e.g. ‘well I guess my seductive pose worked, Master finished his work and I myself on my legs, back and…’).

As in lesbian porn produced for a male audience, the fact that the male owner is always present- he is the choreographer, the photographer and the intended audience, means that, despite being visually absent, these images do not suggest men’s irrelevance.

For the only desire present and being acted upon is the heterosexual male desire: these images are produced by male users, with male consumption and pleasure in mind.

It is real women who are the only physical absence; despite the image appearing to depict woman-woman sexual action, it is women themselves who are irrelevant.

Just as in porn, a woman’s ‘no’ is ‘’seen through’ and ‘revealed’ to be a ‘yes’, so these Twitter accounts ‘reveal’ the dolls’ silence to be a permanent state of consent to sex.

Seemingly filling the ‘missing discourse of female desire’ (Fine, 1988), they appear to enjoy playing with their own sexual power, are sexually knowledgeable, conversant with, and unabashed about, their own sexual appeal and desires (e.g. ‘I could be more discreet today, but I don’t fucking care. I’m going to flaunt my tits like a tart! if you’re out there voyeur, now’s the time to get your penis out.’).

They are always ‘up for it’. Yet, of course, it is all myth: for the dolls have no desires, no agency, no subjectivity.

They are objects, commercially produced, bought, sold and exchanged, and made to appear complicit in their control by their manufacturers and buyers.

A toxic male narrative of women’s objectification, transferred to dolls – narratives that need to be challenged and rejected!

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References:

Anthony Ferguson. (2010) The sex doll: A history. London: McFarland.

Michelle, Fine, (1988). Sexuality, schooling, and adolescent females: The missing discourse of desire. Harvard educational review, 58(1), 29-54.

Susan Bordo, (1994) “Reading the Male Body.” The Male Body: Features, Destinies, Exposures. Ed. Laurence Goldstein. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, pp.265–306.

Each Other , New York: Basic Books.

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Florence Gildea is a contributor and is studying for a Masters in Sociology at the University of Cambridge, and has a B.A in History from Cambridge.

Florence Gildea is studying for a Masters in Sociology at the University of Cambridge, and has a B.A in History from Cambridge.