Sex Robots: Poison or Medicine?

Allegedly, sex robots can cure immoral fetishes in adult men and they can also end loneliness and provide companionship. In contrast, most sex robot pornography shows acts of humiliation, non-consensual sex, and violence. Sex doll sellers, amongst others, are pleading for the therapeutic use of sex dolls while some researchers warn us for the risks, like an increase of sexual violence against women.

It’s a sunny spring morning when I walk through the door of ‘Eroticaland’ on the Deurningerstraat in Enschede. The blinded windows keep out the warmth and curious eyes from any passers-by. In this sex shop, I start my journey into the world of sex dolls and sex robots. Despite the wide selection of sex toys, leather outfits, and porn DVDs, they don’t sell sex dolls. Jeroen Bos, the shopkeeper, explains to me: “I think people often opt for online stores for sex dolls, since the topic can still be a bit taboo.”

Sexual and emotional support

Jeroen was right, as my search has plenty of hits online and the ‘Sexpop Webshop’ is one of them. The web shop has both a Dutch and international reach, which makes them one of the biggest in the Netherlands. I speak with one of the co-founders over the phone, Bern Ebbink. “Sex dolls can start very simple, at around 150 euros for a very simple model. However, if you want to customize your doll you can spend between 1400 and 7000 euros. These dolls can weigh around 50kg and have movable limbs or heads and come in all shapes and sizes.” Bern also explains that there are male, female, and even transgender sex dolls.

Robotic sex dolls, or sex robots, are also becoming more accessible. These can have parts that move on their own, the robots can hold a conversation and even have personalities. These robots are usually even more expensive, ranging up to 100.000 euros.

There has been a huge increase in demand for sex dolls. Forbes reports that one company, Sex Doll Genie, has had an increase of sex doll sales of 33.2% in the year 2020. This is also a trend at Sexpop Webshop because Bern estimates they have experienced a 300 to 400% growth in the past four years. “It used to be a big taboo but that is no longer the case.” This also gives them an incentive to innovate. “From a self-lubricating sex doll to a talking sex doll with an ‘Achterhoeks’ Dutch dialect, we are always looking to improve the experience for our buyers.”

The 130 to 140 sex dolls the Sexpop Webshop sells weekly are used for diverse purposes. Apart from sexual pleasure they are also used to battle loneliness or for nude portrait posing. They can even be used for shop windows! “Around 60% of our dolls are used for sexual pleasure but as many as 40% are used to treat loneliness,” Bern says. He also explains that there are quite some customers who can’t be intimate with their partner anymore, so they come in to find a sex doll. One husband explained that his wife was terminally ill. He doesn’t want to leave his wife or be intimate with another woman, so he would much rather use a sex doll instead.

Sex doll sellers and some therapists argue that the dolls and robots can help people with loneliness, treat paedophiles or protect sex workers. One can see the normalisation of sex dolls in their use in the military and monasteries and in newly opened sex doll brothels in Barcelona, Berlin, and Moscow.

Dangers lurking in the dark

In the book ‘Man-Made Women’, the writers Kathleen Richardson and Charlotta Odlind state that they see sex dolls as the steppingstone for sex robots. They also argue that the history and use of both sex dolls and sex robots is so interconnected, we could use the terms interchangeably.

Richardson and Odlind are not as enthusiastic about sex dolls as the supporters seem to be. “This book is an urgent response to the rise of ‘sex’ robots and the uncritical responses to them by academics in the ethics of technology,” they write in the introduction of the book. The problems lie with the thoughtless acceptance of sex robots and the normalisation of their (mis)use.

The word ‘sex’ is also a point of discussion. Sex is something between consenting adults, but sex dolls are objects and can’t give consent. According to the authors, looking at sex dolls as people instead of objects is what makes it so dangerous. Sex dolls are objects and comparing them to real women can lead to objectification of women. This supports the idea that women are just objects for men to use and abuse sexually.

In general, sexual abuse against women is already a very relevant problem. The Central Bureau of Statistics in the Netherlands, or CBS, states that the past three years reports of rape have continued to rise. They also find that less than 1 out of 10 victims actually report the crime. In the Netherlands this seems a bigger issue for younger women, as CBS reports that half of young women, between 16 and 24 years old, indicate they have suffered through sexual assault. The abuse of sex dolls could contribute to these trends in hostility towards women.

Trends in pornography give a dark view on what sex dolls are used for. Non-consensual sex with women, or rape, is a normal topic to find on adult content platforms. Ranging from brutal rapes to non-consensual sex with unconscious bodies, one can find porn of men abusing women but also staging the abuse using sex dolls. According to Lydia Delicado-Moratalla, one of the co-authors of ‘Man-made women’, staging this kind of abuse is very dangerous. While the act of rape is of course illegal and above all completely unethical, staging rape with dolls is not against the law but it consequently contributes to the glorification of rape.

Settling the argument

Researchers have investigated the effect of sex doll use to see if it really impacts peoples’ behaviour towards women. In a paper from 2022, Jeanne Desbuleux, a psychologist at the institute for forensic psychiatry and sexual abuse, studied how people see sex dolls. Jeanne found that if people tend to treat their sex dolls as humans, they can be more hostile towards women or see women as objects rather than people. However, she says that the effect is not as bad as some literature makes it seem.

Sometimes people can interpret an object or animal as if it was a human. They interpret the behaviour of an animal as a human emotion or can see faces and expressions in objects that don’t have a face. This is called anthropomorphism and we tend to do this with dogs for example. When a dog shows its teeth, we can say it is smiling but this often means that the dog is irritated or angry.

In the case of sex dolls, this means users can start to give the dolls real emotions and compare them to real women. Desbuleux explains that the relationship between sex doll use and hostility towards women can also work in two directions. Men might already be aggressive towards women, making it harder to find a partner and instead opting for a sex doll. But the usage of a sex doll can also lead to development of an aggressive attitude.

Alternatively, Desbuleux describes a more positive effect in a 2023 study, where sex doll users reported that they were less likely to watch porn or visit sexworkers. They also saw that, for paedophiles, acting out sexual fantasies with sex dolls made them fantasize less about sexual intimacy with real children. Although the results were self-reported and may be biased because of this, it gives a positive outlook on sex doll use.

This all challenges the idea that sex doll use is dangerous and even suggests that sex dolls can have a therapeutic use. In the last section of the paper, however, she does make a final remark on the morality of this practice. Even if it can help people act out harmful fantasies without a victim, we should ask ourselves “whether we want people to be able to experience the satisfaction of their fantasies when those fantasies test our morality or when those fantasies, when acted out with other people, are morally wrong and highly harmful”.

Some academics come to a more neutral conclusion rather than a negative one. Craig Harper, a social scientist at Nottingham Trent University, compared character traits and the tendency towards sexual violence within sex doll owners with non sex doll owners. In this study from 2023, Craig and his team didn’t find large enough differences to conclude that sex doll owners pose a bigger risk.

You can compare this to gun violence in the United States of America and the use of toy guns. The normalisation of guns has a great impact on the nation in the form of mass shootings and school shootings. Yet this doesn’t mean that kids using toy guns to play will necessarily become more violent or more likely to commit these crimes. Both the book ‘The Marketing of Children’s toys’ from 2021, and a 2008 paper by Jay Mechling cannot find a relationship between playing with toy guns and gun violence.

As with all new subjects, especially as futuristic as sex robots, there is a lot of research that researchers should do. In multiple reviews of all the research that already exists we can see that experts suggest that there is still a long way to go.

Social robotics, anthropomorphism, and misogyny are some topics that still need some exploration according to a 2022 review called ‘A thing like a human’ by Lasse Peschka and Marius Raab from the University of Bamberg Germany. In a paper from 2020 by Nicola Döring and another paper from 2022 by Kenneth Hanson and Chloé Locatelli, the researchers plead for more number-based data and instead of qualitative data like stories and interviews.

And now what?

Academics plea for more research and more data. But for Bern, co-founder of the Sexpop Webshop, the current trend is more than fine. People are more open about their sex dolls and their sexuality, and this only has a positive effect on the sales of his company. The custom requests he receives are often not a problem, but Bern does notice some requests become more and more extreme. “People are less prudish when it comes to the topic, but this also means they become more daring.” The idea for his company started as a joke with a friend and he would like to keep it light and decent. “If the demand becomes too extreme, we quit. People sometimes ask for BDSM related sex dolls or child-like dolls. I have a daughter myself and we refuse to do those child-like dolls. We are very strict in what we do and don’t make, and this goes too far.”