David Kordahl


In Ethics, Internet, Pop Culture on 2011/01/17 at 4:06 am

There are things in heaven and on earth that many of us wouldn’t dream of, alone, without some outside help from news reports and smutty comedians. As an example, I offer up the phenomena that is the ultra-realistic sex doll. If (by some miracle) you haven’t followed the reports of such things at all, I hope not to predispose you to one position or another before you have a chance to view the thing in itself. Hence, a video:

This clip is from Reuters.com, so I think the account is at least factually reliable. The reputable source is important, because the story is so photogenically weird that were it dredged up from a sleazier corner of the Internet, I might suspect it to be made up. It is, after all, a nearly perfect news story. It has the threat of a public menace—i.e., the creepy engineer w/ 100+ dolls crammed everywhere in his apartment (sample quote: “A human girl can cheat on you or betray you sometimes, but these dolls never do those things. They belong to me 100%”); flashes of unexpected humor—e.g., the reporter’s verbal praise of the doll’s simulated humanity resulting from a complexly articulated skeleton, juxtaposed against an image of a Koyuki’s well-oiled but obviously very dead, very creepy, flopping arm (“Koyuki”? “just like a real woman”?); and, most importantly, that WTF quality of an instantiated nightmare…the quality, in my experience, that is the surest thing to keep the choice-deluged viewer’s finger from tapping the remote. The story portrays an oddball niche of hedonistic weirdos who the viewer can be at once repulsed and fascinated by, and this combo, in journalistic terms, is one that often parlays out into easy money [1].

Now, I should reveal an audience expectation: I don’t expect that this is the first time you’ve ever seen an ultra-realistic sex doll. I’m basing this expectation on a fairly reliable barometer for edginess, the Have My Parents Heard of It? Test. And since we’re living in the post-2007 world, after the release of the PG-13 comedy Lars and the Real Girl (a film that my parents mercilessly forced me to watch [2]), I guess that this topic has been about as mainstreamed as it’s likely to be. What this means, in terms of a blog entry, is that I don’t have to spend any space telling you explicitly about the possibilities of ultra-realistic sex dolls. There are plenty of good articles that cover that, and I can throw them down in a footnote [3]. What I’m instead interested to address are two questions that might arise when we’re thinking about this—two questions that might at first seem related, but in fact aren’t. They are: 1. Is the use of URSDs for sex perverse? and 2. Is the use of URSDs for sex wrong? Both of these questions, of course, should technically be followed by another question—the classic, If so, why?

How about we look at perversion first.

On the face of it, the question of whether having an emotional and sexual relationship with a hunk of silicone is perverse is pretty dumb. Yes, being the answer, followed by duh. I’d wager that if you don’t think that URSDs fall somewhere under the umbrella term of ‘perversity,’ then you’d also more than likely disagree that the term applies to any licit sex act. There’s probably not too much to discuss there. I’m going to stay neutral on this subject for a bit, however, long enough to present two engaging (though, I’ll soon argue, also incorrect) views on the why of sexual perversity.

The first of these views I’m going to blame on the formerly redoubtable provocateur [6], Camille Paglia. The Paglian view of history, broadly characterized, seems to be that is that there is a way of life that Nature intended—viz., probably something close to a vanilla view of the heterosexual Darwinian struggle—and that the grandeur of humankind is that we’ve gone against Nature. In her view, the awesome thing about Culture and Science is not that they’re an expected outgrowth of the way things have to be, but instead that they’re a powerful response to Nature, an aggressive subversion of existent processes to our own decadent ends. For this reason, a lot of the stuff she’s written has been engaged with new interpretations of old works as expressions of ‘un-Natural’ modes of sexuality and being. In her view, sexual personas like the homosexual and the androgyne are to be celebrated as societally dangerous, deliberately un-Natural developments (the science here is pretty dubious, we admit), and the history of art shows the ends of such artistic perversion and conventional society in constant struggle.

I’m bringing this up because it offers us one possible explanation for why sex with URSDs may be ‘perverse’. Maybe it merits such a designation because of the way that it’s taken elements of Nature out of an evolutionary context (things like: normal het men’s excitement at certain body types; the need for a physical presence to quell feelings of loneliness; the periodic desire for ejaculatory release) and treats them not as a signal that a guy should take on a lover, but as symptoms that can be each filled by a scientific fix, contra Nature’s expectations. This is not to say if it’s bad or not—so far, I’ve only neutrally suggested that it could be ‘perverse’ by dint of its deliberate short-circuiting of evolutionary demands.

What about a drier, more carefully rational view? For that, we turn to the analytic philosopher Thomas Nagel, who took on the concept of sexual perversion in his directly entitled essay, “Sexual Perversion” [7]. The strategy he used was to outline a theory of how ‘unperverted’ (a.k.a. ‘normal’) sex works, and then to package the stuff that doesn’t fit this framework as perverse. Which begs the question: how does sex work, normally? Nagel seems to think that there’s a “reflexive mutual recognition” that occurs in mature sexual relationships. He gets this across via a little story of a hypothetical Romeo and Juliet in which Romeo “senses” (stronger than mere “noticing”—there’s a tinge of arousal running through this) Juliet, whereby Juliet senses Romeo sensing Juliet, whereby Romeo senses Juliet sensing Romeo sensing Juliet…and this can go on recursively as many cycles as one might like. Says Nagel, “[S]exual desire leads to spontaneous interactions with other persons whose bodies are asserting their sovereignty in the same way, producing involuntary reactions and spontaneous impulses in them.” And in this picture, it is just this sort of a reciprocity that makes a sexual interaction possibly non-perverted: he asserts that “physical possession must eventuate in creation of the sexual object in the image of one’s desire, and not merely in the object’s recognition of that desire, or in his or her own private arousal.”

It’s the “own private arousal” bit that’ll allow us to winnow out URSD sex as perverse. Nagel hedges here, realizing that private fantasies are at a usual part of everyday thought, but he’s adamant that the thing that makes voyeurism, exhibitionism, and (at the extreme) rape ‘perverse’ is that they aren’t “complete”; they involve only one aroused party. If a person has incomplete sex as his preferred mode of expression, I guess that such an individual would be one that he’d label a perv…and, since a Real Doll, however pretty, can’t herself be aroused, all sex with URSDs exactly fits the bill of Nagelian Perversity [8].

Huh. Do these explanations make any sense? Both, even if they turn out to be wrong about perversity, make intriguing suggestions about the nature of sex and society. But if we’re judging them strictly on their accounts of what ‘perversity’ is, I suppose the first thing to do is to see if they fit the facts. And (naively) it looks like this simple test immediately disqualifies the Paglian account. The problem with classifying all ‘un-Natural’ sex as ‘perverse’ is that suddenly the large majority of all sex becomes perverse—any sex, really, that doesn’t fit the strictest 19th-Century Roman Catholic criteria. This seems way too prudish to be reasonable. In fact, this prudishness (dickishness? douchiness?—it’s hard to come up with a punchy term) seems to infect both of the offered theories. Around where I live, most people tend not to be too judgmental about masturbation, and that would seem to be classed as a perversion by both theories presented here.

I suspect that the thing we’re running up against is that a word like ‘perversion’ is utterly malleable and has no meaning without reference to an embedded culture; when I hear it, it sounds like it’s somewhere between ‘icky’ and ‘evil’—two words that probably shouldn’t be intimately intertwined—and it’s easy to find examples of how it’s varied. Less than a paragraph ago, I used masturbation as a counterexample to perversity, but this isn’t anywhere near a historical absolute…as everyone knows. My attraction to theories like the ones I’ve listed above is that they give some sort of argument, at least, for what’s being discussed. What I believe, however, is closer to an ultra-lazy form of empiricism. The entire issue of perversion can be dissolved easily—trivially, even—by recourse to claims about definitions, along with a little inferential trick. I.e., instead of saying, “Sadism, zoophilia, and necrophilia are forms of sexual perversity” and trying to show why by proposing a thorny metaphysics, it’s easier to use a reformatted ‘Socrates is a man’ argument to get rid of the problem, like this:

‘Sexual Perversity’ is a term that we use to designate sexual acts that we don’t approve of, culturally;

Sadism, zoophilia, necrophilia, et al., are sexual acts that we don’t approve of, culturally;

Ergo, Sadism, zoophilia, necrophilia, et al., are forms of sexual perversity. Q.e.d.

Fine. So URSDs are perverse if we (collectively) don’t approve of them. But notice that this definitional gambit doesn’t get us anywhere closer to pinning down the moral status of the ultra-realistic sex doll sex. And despite the fact that this post is already too long and has gotten kinda pedantic, I think that there’s something intriguing to learn from such an attempt.

I’ve already lamented in an earlier post that I don’t have any steady rubric for moral judgments (other than maybe the Golden Rule and “You Should Give a Shit”), but I can nonetheless make a few fuzzy remarks. One of the basic mantras I learned from my sister’s sermons on feminist doctrine, growing up, was thou shalt not objectify women—a dictum that I always agreed with, guiltily, often w/o having the slightest clue as to what the verb ‘objectify’ might even mean. Agreeing with this statement, however, didn’t stop me, in those pre-Internet days [9], from carefully scouring all the magazines and books in our house for whatever informative/titillating images I could find. I did this, I emphasize, even though it was locked in my head that such an action was horribly, terribly wrong, an offense against both Women and God. This isn’t a ‘proof’ of anything per se, but to me, as an individual, it’s a powerful indicator that the urge to totemize women, disconnected from their personalities and souls, is an inborn characteristic of men like me, not just a imposition of a lady-hating society. And while the attempted trying-to-be-sincere tone of this paragraph might make it seem like I’m wretched with anxiety about this, I’m really not. At this point, it feels like another neutral fact of life that adulthood forces me to admit, like it or not.

Why this personal psychodrama might be passingly relevant to the URSD thing is that it’s probably the indirect cause of my notions about them. One thing—the thing that’s immediately obvious, just looking at a Real Doll—is that no more direct objectification of women has ever existed. This marks a kind of low point for men [10], w/r/t the ‘objectification’ charge, and if you read the sociological article referenced in ftnote 3, it’s hard to avoid the impression that at least some of the men who end up purchasing URSDs are also men who can’t stand women. When Ms. Laslocksy lobbed one man the double-headed query of a) how the dolls changed his life and b) if they made him more confident, he replied, “I don’t like being around people at all now…the less human contact I have the happier I am. Yes, I do feel more confident. I realized not long after I got Ginger that I don’t really need anybody…I feel safer and more secure knowing that I will never waste my time and money on another human female that just wants to use me.”

It’s hard for me to gauge a priori what reaction such quotes (the one directly supra paired w/ that of the menacing engineer) might bring, but I have a feeling that the response may be sex-dependent. When I discussed this with Holly (my wife), her immediate reaction hewed toward the ‘these guys are awful people’ stance, which certainly makes sense; were I to fall into a group of people with an implied penchant for misandary, I doubt that I’d be overly geared toward sympathy. But the thing that sticks out most plaintively in these conversations is that these men are scared and angry—men who have decided, for whatever reason, that an engagement with the outer darkness is too horrifying to continue, when there’s any other available option.

And, you know, I get that. This makes sense. Sure, there are undoubtedly dark insights about male psychology to be gained from the fact that men exist who prefer emotional help-mates over whom they exercise complete, dominant control, but that’s probably not the main story. The big story here seems to be something about despair and almost unimaginable loneliness, and we can discuss the ideas of Paglia or Nagel or Kordahl all night w/o touching on the that psychically heavy problem—a problem, I fear, that I haven’t even nearly earned the right to discuss.

Have I posed any answer to whether the use of URSDs for sex is wrong? Let me put it this way: if by ‘wrong,’ we mean ‘not such a super idea’—then fine. Let it be wrong. Not genocide-wrong or rapeage-wrong or even embezzlement-wrong, but I’m willing to put it somewhere way farther over into the pale spectral end, near the petty crimes of self-destruction: the sorts of crimes that, given a consistent temptation and a chance to burn, a lot of us would fall into. For once, I don’t even want to judge…because I’m pretty sure that were a Real Doll sitting helplessly in my living room, patiently waiting day after day, it would probably be only a matter of time.

[1] This is known as the Real World Effect among the cognoscenti, though some modern scholars have taken to calling it (alternatively) the Tila Tequila, Flava Flav, or Jersey Shore Effect, dependent on the periodical’s particular focus. Up.

[2] My parents often make me watch unpredictably awful films (Fireproof and Obsessed being perhaps the most heinous recent offenders), but I’ve hated none of them more than Lars. Allow me to spell out some of the subtle suspensions of disbelief that must occur before a person can enjoy this film: 1. Lars, a guy who lives in his brother’s garage, has enough money to order a Real Doll (which cost several thousands of $); 2. And even though he’s the sort of guy who would order a Real Doll, he commences to think completely non-sexually about it; 3. Furthermore, Lars would go so far as to make his Real Doll a wheelchair-bound Brazilian/Danish missionary; 4. And furthermore still, the entire Midwestern town decides, out of kindness and mercy, that this is totally OK and that Lars’s delusional fantasies should be supported; 5. So by the end, when finally Lars is getting sick of the whole ‘I have a sex doll in the house but refuse to use it’ thing and imagines that the doll is dying, this town of kind, pious neighbors decides that it’s totally a cool way to end the drama to give the sex doll a religious burial. Right.

I hesitate to make value judgments based solely on the types of movies that a person enjoys, but in this case, I have to wonder if those defenders of LatRG might themselves be suffering from various degrees of a delusional disorder that I’m none too apt to condone. Up.

[3] The best of the informative Sex Doll Articles, IYI, deal only with Real Dolls, the supposed crème de la crème of the URSD market. Meghan Laslocky’s long sociological report, “Real Dolls: Love in the Age of Silicone” [4], gives a detailed portrait of the damaged dudes who use them, while Grant Stoddard’s article gives an account of…ahem…a rather more personal Real Doll interaction [5]. Up.

[4] For those of you lacking the interest or fortitude to read a 28 pg. report on the lives of sex-doll aficionados, there’s a radically condensed version of that article here, along with a picture gallery. Up.

[5] I have once before discussed Grant Stoddard’s incredible American sexploits. For his Nerve.com column ‘I Did It For Science,’ he reported (as an increasingly unbelievable sexual naïf) his reactions to successive, completed sexual challenges. It should not be a surprise, then, that he eventually tackled a Real Doll; one of the reasons his column had to end was that he’d eventually performed nearly every legal sex act known to man. Up.

[6] If ‘formerly’ sounds like a diss, I guess it is; I’ve tried to read Paglia’s books after Sexual Personae, her bizarre but also dazzlingly well-researched first, but by now she’s devolved into a repetitive sort of self-parody. Not that that doesn’t have its own charms; if she were still presenting fresh opinions and changing her mind on various issues, after all, I wouldn’t have such an easy time of characterizing a set vision as ‘Paglian’—which is what I’m about to do. (Although for the purposes of this essay, it doesn’t really matter what the Real Paglia thinks about anything. I’m indulging a rhetorical weakness for Straw Men, again.) Up.

[7] I read this in a copy of Mortal Questions, one of Nagel’s essay collections. Up.

[8] A digression, to break of the tedium of an argument that’s veering uncomfortably toward abstraction. What might not be obvious from my account is that Paglia and Nagel are both quite funny writers. Paglia needs no particular quotation to support this—most statements of hers are designed to exude the crazed-Amazon-bitch-goddess vibe, and if you want to find something outrageous she’s said, it’s merely a Google away. Nagel’s work is much more subdued and requires out-of-context samples…and here we go, with samples from the scrutinized article. “Sartre too stresses the fact that the penis is not a prehensile organ.” AND “Hardly anyone can be found these days to inveigh against oral-genital contact, and the merits of buggery are urged by such respectable figures as D. H. Lawrence and Norman Mailer.” AND “Finally, even if perverted sex is to that extent not so good as it might be, bad sex is generally better than none at all.” Up.

[9] Pre-Internet for me, that is—not for the World. Up.

[10] For whatever reason, it does seem to be almost exclusively men who are interested in this product. The Real Doll company is outfitted to sell male versions of its product, but they have sold only a handful of these (so far). Up.

Sidenote: the BBC made a documentary about some of the sad souls who love Real Dolls, and I’ve embedded it below.

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