08/30/2018 16:44 EDT | Updated 09/03/2018 22:04 EDT

Sex Dolls May Be 'Emotionally Divisive' But Business Is Booming

Toronto might not be getting a "brothel" anytime soon, but sex dolls aren't going away.

Aly Song / Reuters
A worker takes a photo of a sex doll at the WMDOLL factory in Guangdong, China, on July 11, 2018.
  • Helps men with sexual dysfunction issues
  • Some suggest that sex dolls provide an outlet for people with violent sexual desires
  • Using sex dolls could impact learning about consent: sex educator
  • Would sex dolls in a "brothel" have more agency than human sex workers?

We truly live in a dystopia, because you can now file this story under old news: Toronto is not, in fact, getting a new "sex doll brothel."

Aura Dolls' plan to open such a facility in the city's North York area next month predictably brought serious backlash, and it was shut down over a licensing issue.

"If there is any good place for people to pay to have sex with plastic dolls — and I'm not sure there is — it is certainly not here," city councillor John Filion said in a statement to HuffPost Canada. "Among other things, this business literally objectifies women and sends a very unhealthy message, to young men in particular."

Even though patrons won't be able to pay $120/hour with one of the Aura dolls (or $240/hour with two of them), the sex doll industry isn't going away anytime soon. Such items come in both standard and fetish iterations, at price points ranging from "entry-level" (in the $500-$1,000 range) to "luxury high-end" (up to $10,000).

It's normal for many to have a knee-jerk reaction of disgust at a plastic doll built like a human that someone buys to have sex with, says Dr. Philip Jai Johnson, a psychologist and researcher at the Toronto Sexuality Centre.

He attributes this in part to the "uncanny valley," an effect where something becomes disturbing when it approaches human likeness, but falls slightly short. "On some level, it is kind of a moral view, which is just the sense that anything that deviates from the real thing is not appropriate."

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Michelle Shnaidman, CEO of feminist sex and porn platform Bellesa, says that using a sex doll isn't wildly different from using other devices.

"Eradicating the shame around people using — or even requiring — sex toys to find sexual satisfaction is an ongoing battle," she says. "Their humanoid resemblance gives us — non-sex doll users — pause. But just because these dolls have a face doesn't make them any more threatening than the vibrators in our nightstands."

Vincent Kessler / Reuters
An employee at the Dreamdoll company displays a pair of ears at their workshop near Strasbourg on Dec. 2, 2014.

"Niche" sex toys, a group with sex dolls at the forefront, is a nearly $20-billion industry, according to Forbes. And analysts have forecast that the global sex toy market will grow nearly seven per cent between 2016 and 2020.

Johnson say there's been very little academic research on sex dolls, probably because they are so "emotionally divisive." Based on the small amount of research that's out there, he says the demographic most likely to seek out sex dolls are single men in the 30-40 range.

Lonely stereotype

There's a stereotype that such dolls exist solely for lonely and desperate men, but one of the few studies that did examine people who used sex robots — which are slightly higher on the uncanny valley scale than dolls — found that wasn't true. It suggested that fear and rejection were in fact the biggest motivators.

Johnson would like to see more academic research on the use of sex dolls, because he does think that in some rare cases, there's a possibility they could be a safe, stress-free way for certain men to work out sexual dysfunction issues.

"For men with sexual functioning difficulty, they do go on dates, and if they can't perform, they will get rejected very often. It does put some men in a catch-22 position. And for that reason I think sex dolls could be — and I don't want to say for sure, but they could be a good treatment approach."

Aly Song / Reuters
Various doll heads covered with dust bags are seen on shelves at the WMDOLL factory in Guangdong, China on July 11, 2018.

Others have suggested that sex dolls could provide an outlet for men with violent sexual desires to keep them from taking that anger out on real women. A representative from Aura Dolls allegedly told Vice that the use of sex dolls may have prevented the Toronto van attack, which killed 10 people and injured 16 others in April.

The suspect, Alek Minassian, is believed to have been part of the "incel" online community of men who react with hostility and violence to women who won't have sex with them.

No research backs up the claim that sex with a doll can prevented "incel" violence, an idea women's rights advocate Julie Lalonde called "dangerous." In fact, many people — Johnson included — say that just as there's a theoretical risk sex dolls may help some men, there's also the possibility that they could feed into unhealthy attitudes towards women and sex.

Aly Song / Reuters
A worker assembles a sex doll at the WMDOLL factory in Guangdong, China, on July 11, 2018.

The discussion is not a new one. Trottla, a Japanese company, has been marketing child sex dolls as a "safe" way for pedophiles to fulfill their urges since the early 2000s. In 2016, The Atlantic profiled the company's founder Shin Takagi, who self-identifies as someone with pedophilic impulses he has never acted on.

Takagi said the dolls help people like him — although many psychologists expressed reservations. A strategy that could help some pedophiles control their desires might exacerbate them in others, said Michael Seto, a University of Toronto psychologist who examines pedophilia. For some, "having these substitutes might only aggravate their sense of frustration," he told the magazine.

Dolls obviously cannot consent, but the person using them is also not learning about consent.Lyba Spring, sex educator

Sex educator Lyba Spring says she fears a dependence on sex dolls could make it harder for someone to develop a relationship with a real person — someone who voices opinions, and whose body isn't built for male fantasy.

"In the same way that there are adolescent and young adult men who complain that their use of pornography has made it increasingly difficult for them to have sexual and intimate relationships with women, I think that the use of these dolls may continue to prevent men with intimacy issues from learning how to be intimate," she says.

She also worries that younger men who get used to sex with dolls are not factoring consent into the equation, which can potentially be dangerous later on.

"Dolls obviously cannot consent, but the person using them is also not learning about consent," she told HuffPost Canada.

Albert Gea / Reuters
Catalan nanotechnology engineer Sergi Santos holds the head of Samantha, a sex doll packed with artificial intelligence, on March 31, 2017 in Barcelona.

Operating a "brothel" could also be problematic: sex dolls would have more agency than human sex workers. "I find it irritating to use the word 'brothel' given the human context of our current laws, which continue to put sex workers at risk," Spring says.

Terri-Jean Bedford, a professional dominatrix who has been instrumental in challenging the Canadian government's stance on sex work, says prostitution laws enacted under Stephen Harper in 2014 didn't give much more consideration to real sex workers than is given to the dolls.

"Even living women, under his law, could not be paid for sex," she said in an email to HuffPost Canada. "The dolls probably meant more to him."

Johnson hopes to see more research on sex dolls happen soon. "Some of the questions I certainly would be interested in seeing are: How do sex dolls influence the attitudes of people who use them, be they attitudes towards women, towards sex, towards themselves?" he says. "We don't have the answers we need."

CORRECTION: Michael Seto is a psychologist, and not a psychiatrist as described in an earlier version of this story.

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