A Brief History of Sex Dolls, From Leather Dummies to Sexbots

Will lifelike sex dolls be the solution for the loneliness of millions – or an extreme manifestation of the objectification of women?

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A “Realbotix” doll in a virtual-reality lab in California.
A “Realbotix” doll in a virtual-reality lab in California.Credit: Graham Walzer / The New York Tim
Noa Manheim
Noa Manheim

A year before his death, French philosopher Rene Descartes was invited by Queen Christina of Sweden to be her private tutor. In 1649, he boarded a Stockholm-bound ship in the company of a young woman whom he presented as his daughter, Francine. No one saw her again after the start of the voyage, and the suspicions of the crass, superstition-ridden sailors rose to such heights that they broke into Descartes’ cabin in order to see her for themselves. There they found a life-sized female doll made of leather and metal, whose resemblance to a real girl was so perfect that they were terrified and threw it overboard.

Anthony Ferguson, who recounts this peculiar story in his 2010 book “The Sex Doll: A History,” admits that it may be apocryphal (as well as creepy). Still, Descartes is known to have experimented with the creation of various automatons, and also to have had a daughter, although he was never married. The daughter’s name was indeed Francine, but she died nine years before the journey to Sweden, at the age of 5.

There’s no knowing exactly what the master of logic was planning to do with his doll, but the sailors who tossed it into the sea knew of at least one possibility: In the 17th century, the great age of exploration, when ocean-crossing vessels were embarking on ever-longer journeys, sailors began taking with them a prototype of the inflatable doll. Termed by the French “dames de voyage,” these were indeed devices that resembled a human female, made of fabric attached to bamboo poles, wearing a dress and available to those seeking to vent their lust.

A French catalog from 1904 boasts of dolls regarding which 'there is no fear of blackmail, jealousy, argument or disease. They are always available, always obedient.'

Seafarers from the Low Countries fashioned these dolls from leather stretched on rattan, and in the course of trading with the Japanese empire in the 18th century, left a few of them behind. They became known in Japanese as “Dutch wives,” an epithet that clung to dolls of inferior workmanship.

But these artificial partners possess far more ancient poetic and mythic origins. According to Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” the relationship of the Cypriot sculptor Pygmalion with Galatea, the perfect female statue he had carved, was assuredly not platonic. Despairing of his unsatisfying relations with flesh-and-blood women, he set about making her his helpmeet. “He would often move his hands to test and touch it, / Could this be flesh, or was it ivory only?... His kisses, / He fancies, she returns / all [her adornments] become her, but she seems / Even more lovely naked, and he spreads / A crimson coverlet for her to lie on, / Takes her to bed, puts a soft pillow under / Her head, as if she felt it, calls her Darling, / My darling love!” And when Venus answers his prayers and breathes life into the sculpture, “Pygmalion came / Back where the maiden lay, and lay beside her, / And kissed her, and she seemed to glow, and he kissed her, / And stroked her breast” (translation by Rolfe Humphries, 1955).

But not everyone can count on divine assistance, and in its absence, technology steps in. The protagonist of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tale “The Sandman” is Nathaniel, a young student with an artistic nature and a proclivity to melancholy, and a fiancée, Clara, who is not especially sympathetic to either of these tendencies. Nathaniel is haunted by the memory of his father’s violent death at the hands of an associate, whom he believes to be “the Sandman” – a mythical figure that throws sand into children’s eyes and then plucks them out.

Nathaniel meets Olympia, his teacher’s daughter, who is “tall, very slim, perfectly proportioned and gorgeously dressed,” though “I could almost say she was sightless, as if she was sleeping with her eyes open.” Nathaniel is besotted with her. “He had never before had so marvelous an auditor [For hours] she sat motionless, her gaze fixed on the eyes of her beloved with a look that grew ever more animated and more passionate. Only when Nathaniel finally rose and kissed her hand – and no doubt her mouth, too – did she say: ‘Ah, ah!’”

His friend Siegmund tries to understand his attraction to the mute woman, “whose every movement seems as if controlled by clockwork the unpleasant soulless regularity of a machine.” Olympia frightens Siegmund and Nathaniel’s other friends: “We would like to have nothing to do with her,” he tells Nathaniel. And indeed, as Nathaniel watches while Olympia’s “father,” Prof. Spalanzani, quarrels about her with Coppelius – a merchant whom Nathaniel identifies as the Sandman of his childhood – he witnesses as Olympia falls apart in their hands, turning out to be a “lifeless doll” (translation by R.J. Hollingdale, 1982).

A worker preparing a silicone doll at a factory of EXDOLL, a firm based in the northeastern Chinese port city of Dalian.Credit: FRED DUFOUR / AFP / Getty Images

Hoffmann, one of the leading figures of the German Romantic movement, published “The Sandman” in 1816. In 1881, Jacques Offenbach turned the story, along with two other Hoffmann works, into an opera. In 1891, Tchaikovsky wrote music for a ballet based on another of Hoffman’s stories, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” But Hoffmann himself did not live to see these trans-medium successes; he died in 1822, at age 46, of syphilis, with which he had been infected in his youth.

In 1906, German psychiatrist Ernest Jentsch mentioned “The Sandman” in a short article he wrote, “On the Psychology of the Uncanny.” The German word unheimlich – literally “unhomely,” but rendered in English as “uncanny” – is the threatening feeling that arises when something familiar and well known becomes foreign and alien, different, wrong. It’s the anxiety that is stirred in us by, for example, “doubt as to whether an apparently living being really is animate and, conversely, doubt as to whether a lifeless object may not in fact be animate,” Jentsch wrote.

In the wake of Jentsch, Sigmund Freud decided to investigate this phenomenon and its connection to Hoffmann’s story. He analyzed it in great depth in his well-known 1919 article “The Uncanny,” where he argues that it’s not the doll Olympia that arouses anxiety in Nathaniel, but rather that the plucked-out eyes the Sandman craves and which are described in the story as taking different forms, embody, for the protagonist, the Oedipal complex and attendant fear of castration. This is what undermines Nathaniel’s prospect of forming a full and healthy relationship with a flesh-and-blood woman such as Clara, Freud suggests, and sends him into the arms of the mechanical Olympia – a perfect object of desire, a tabula rasa on which he can project his yearnings without fear of rejection, refusal or castration. “The doll’s absolute attentiveness leaves him the entire stage. He populates her emptiness with imaginings and feelings of his own,” writer Marit Ben Israel observes in her Hebrew-language blog.

‘True to nature’

There have been rumors that inflatable sex doll were first manufactured on Hitler's instructions, so that Aryan soldiers could achieve sexual satisfaction.

Two years before Jentsch published his article, industrious entrepreneurs had already found a more direct way than psychoanalysis to deal with the fear of castration. A French catalog from 1904 boasts of dolls regarding which “there is no fear of blackmail, jealousy, argument or disease. They are always available, always obedient.” The sexologist Iwan Bloch elaborates about these “fornicatory dolls” made of “rubber and other plastic materials” with “genital organs represented in a manner true to nature.” Thus, “even the secretion of Bartholin’s glands is imitated, by means of a ‘pneumatic tube’ filled with oil,” he wrote, in his 1909 “The Sexual Life of Our Time in Its Relations to Modern Civilization.”

It’s not known whether the doll commissioned by Austrian-Czech painter and writer Oskar Kokoschka in 1915 was equipped with sophisticated features like those, but in contrast to his relations with his real and frustrating beloved, Alma Mahler, widow of the distinguished composer, he experienced no scenes of envy or quarrels with the doll. At his demand, she was fashioned in the very image of Alma – Kokoschka even ordered her clothes, both undergarments and other attire – from Mahler’s own seamstress. He took the doll with him to the opera (did they watch “The Tales of Hoffmann” together?) and for rides in a carriage.

But her fate resembled that of Olympia: She was beheaded and destroyed in a drunken fit. Freud may have been aware of the scandal, which perhaps influenced his article – after all, he had treated Gustav Mahler, who was trying to cope with his wife’s adultery. But one person who was definitely familiar with Kokoschka’s doll and inspired by it was German surrealist artist Hans Bellmer. Like Kokoschka, Bellmer sought to oppose the rising tide of Nazism in his life and work: The disturbing, erotic, disassembled and reassembled dolls that he began to create in 1933 were influenced by his opposition to fascism and its approach to individual human beings, as well as by his powerful, though apparently unconsummated, attraction to a 15-year-old female cousin.

According to Anthony Ferguson, Bellmer was the forefather of the modern sex doll. “The uncanny, eroticized models created by Bellmer in the 1930s differed from the functional sex doll only in that they lacked the necessary orifices for penetration,” he notes. Those orifices came into being at the end of World War II, with the invention of the inflatable sex doll. There have been rumors to the effect that these dolls were first manufactured on the instructions of Hitler, so that Aryan soldiers could achieve sexual satisfaction without contaminating their purity through contact with inferior races. However, there are no reliable sources to authenticate this. These inflatable creations were unreliable, since they were made of low-quality vinyl that often popped or tore at the seams when subjected to strenuous use. It wasn’t until the development of latex, silicon and similar materials that it became possible for the first time to create a durable mannequin for purposes of sexual satisfaction.

An unfinished silicone RealDoll, manufactured by Abyss Creations.Credit: David McNew / Getty Images / AFP

The ongoing effort to create sex dolls that are simulacra of male fantasies involving female “availability,” “obedience,” big breasts, smooth skin, youthfulness and immortality can be seen as an attempt to achieve the ultimate objectification of women. In contrast to the “use” of flesh-and-blood women, in certain brothels an additional deposit is required from those using the dolls. They’re very expensive and require handling and maintenance, the owner of one such “house of dolls,” which allows occasional use of sex mannequins, told the BBC in a recent TV documentary (“The Future of Sex: Sex Robots and Us).

But all this might soon change. Pornography, as is its wont, snaps up every technological advance that can be prostituted to suit its own purposes. Manufacturers of “real” dolls, as these state-of-the-art sex mannequins are called, are caught up in their own kind of “Pygmalion project,” aimed at creating a sex doll that will not only move autonomously but also sense movement, respond to it and use its mouth for verbal purposes, too – i.e., to make a convincing show of life and even of desire.

Some people already spend their sexual and emotional existence in the company of such dolls, treating them not only as sex objects but as objects for love and relationships. In 2014, David Levy, an expert in artificial intelligence and author of the book “Love and Sex with Robots,” told Newsweek, “I believe that loving sex robots will be a great boon to society. There are millions of people out there who, for one reason or another, cannot establish good relationships.” One of those millions is author David Mills, the happy owner of a RealDoll, which Vanity Fair – to whom Mills spoke in 2015 – called “the Rolls-Royce of sex dolls.”

Mills told the magazine: “My fundamental personality conflict is that I really like women but I don’t like to be around people.” He also described his traumatic first encounter with his doll, how he ripped open the plastic, thrilled – and then screamed in horror. The appallingly human-like doll looked straight at Mills with a glazed, dead stare. The RealDoll is the product of the feverish imagination of Matt McMullen, an artist and entrepreneur who founded a company called Abyss Creations.

Threatening uncanniness

'Sex robots will be a great boon to society. There are millions of people out there who cannot establish good relationships.'

An abyss is not, however, what McMullen and his competitors need to cross in order to create the perfect sexbot. Their obstacle is a valley, more precisely the “uncanny valley.” At some point in the 1970s, when pornographic technology was still focused on the realm of cinema, a Japanese roboticist named Masahiro Mori was working on a hypothesis in the field of computer sciences. The professor claimed that when we come into contact with an almost perfect humanoid, we are seized by the kind of nightmarish feeling that made Mills scream when he was first exposed to the staring eyes of “his” doll – and the way Siegmund, Nathaniel’s friend, reacted in the presence of Olympia.

When a robot is completely different from a person, there is no problem in communicating with it, Mori maintained, and alternately, if the imitation is perfect, the uncomfortable feeling will disappear, but anything in between generates the anxiety that Jentsch described in his article and that Hoffmann depicted in “The Sandman” – the fear of something that is neither alive nor dead. The phenomenon of threatening uncanniness, distorted oddness, is what experts in robotics, computerized animation and artificial intelligence are trying to overcome on the road to the holy grail in this field, which computer scientist Alan Turing described in 1950 as an artificial being that will be able to make us believe that it’s real.

These days, in contrast, a series of printed answers [as proposed by Turing in his eponymous test intended to demonstrate the effectiveness of AI] are not enough to persuade us of a computer’s “humanity.” It must also come packaged in an equally persuasive body. At the same time, it’s possible that there’s an easier way for a female sex robot to pass Turing’s test: She can simply open her legs.

Ryan Gosling in a scene from "Lars and the Real Girl."

Will sex dolls be the bridge to the far side of Mori’s “uncanny valley”? Or are they the very embodiment of the abyss? Is it easier to ignore the fright that their quasi-human nature arouses because they fulfill a sexual function? The answer, at least from the viewpoint of half the world’s human population, might well be positive. The reason for the fact that almost all sex dolls are manufactured with a hypersexual feminine look, are intended for men, advertised for men and purchased by men can be found not only in biology and in women’s different sexual psychology and in the way they achieve arousal and satisfaction – but also in women’s attitude toward the uncanny.

Studies like one conducted at the University of Montana and described in an article titled “Familiar and Strange: Gender, Sex and Love in the Uncanny Valley” (published in 2017 in the journal Multimodal Technologies and Interaction), examine the gender biases entailed in the integration of androids in the human domain. The results showed that women are more sensitive to uncanny phenomena, respond negatively to them and are quicker to identify images of “artificial” humanity.

The reason for this disparity has not yet been fully investigated and explained. Like the “uncanny valley” concept itself, it may have ancient biological origins. According to Claude Draude, head of gender studies at the University of Kassel in Germany, the reason may lie in the characteristics of the uncanny itself. In her probing article, “Intermediaries – Reflections on Virtual Humans, Gender, and the Uncanny Valley,” published in 2011 in the journal AI & Society, she hypothesizes that the home is perceived as a feminine sociological-metaphorical territory, and accordingly “the uncanny” – that which is not homelike, and nullifies and threatens the home – is also the “unfeminine.”

The differences between the genders are also reflected in the modes by which popular culture represents intimate relationships with sex dolls or robots. Whether it’s dramas or romantic comedies such as “Lars and the Real Girl” or “Her,” the weird Japanese porn of “Doll Inflatable,” the film noir of “Blade Runner,” the Western genre of “Westworld” or the parody of “Austin Powers,” the robot doll will always enjoy saliently feminine features, pointy breasts and a velvety voice, or represent a traditional stylized “feminine” role like that of the model housewife, the devoted nurse, the French maid or the damsel in distress. There are exceptions, of course, such as the robot that has intercourse with its owner in order not to hurt him, which would violate one of the science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics in “The Naked Sun,” or the robot commander Data in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” But most of these imagined relationships take place between men – loving, desiring, exploiting or subjugating – and images of artificial womanhood.

By around 2050, David Levy predicts in his book “Love and Sex with Robots,” robots “will have the capacity to fall in love with humans.” But until, and if, that happens, the “real dolls” are raising moral and ethical quandaries, but also garnering enthusiastic support. Their advocates – psychologists, manufacturers and users alike – see them as a cure for sexual and emotional ills, and a solution, as one of their manufacturers claims, for men in old-age homes, the disabled and others. An army of sensual, advanced robot women, their fans say, will do away with prostitution, human trafficking, rape, even pedophilia.

But opponents maintain that the widespread existence of these robots will intensify the grim objectification of women, encourage inter-gender alienation and facilitate dangerous escapism. They see supporters of these sex machines as encouraging a range of weird paraphilias, from necrophilia and somnophilia (being sexually aroused by someone who is unconscious) to algamatophilia (sexual attraction to statues). These views are countered by the robosexuals, who say these creations are not hurting anyone, male or female, whatever their preferences. On the contrary: People can find a release for their urges in the realm of this “hot” technology.

The warning inherent in Hoffman’s “The Sandman” is more relevant than ever. Even though it seems initially that Nathaniel recovers from the loss of Olympia and the discovery of her true essence, and succeeds in returning to Clara and his former life – the trauma eventually pushes him across the threshold of insanity to his death. Falling in love with the uncanny, with what is neither alive nor dead, will always be barren, one-sided and incomplete. And when the object of desire is revealed in the fullness of its artificiality, the loneliness becomes more bitter and horrible than ever. The price for yielding to anxiety – of castration, of intimacy, of a bond, of the gaze or the blindness of the other – and turning one’s back on what is human, all too human, is loss of the self.



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