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Fleshing It Out

18 July 2017

Sex robots? In your vagina? It’s more likely than you think.

Or at least, sex robots with vaginas seem to be just on the horizon if reports on the developments in the industry are true. Robotic sex dolls with artificial intelligence (AI) allowing them to speak, display facial expressions and potentially respond to touch will be on the market soon. The frontrunner, named ‘Harmony’, is expected to sell for $15000 USD. The majority of the prototypes in development are female and aimed towards heterosexual men, though a couple of male robot dolls are also in development.

Technological achievements aside, the reports surrounding these sex robots have been disturbing. From comments about creating the perfect woman – docile, submissive and always sexually available – to assertions that they’re not just a replacement for sex but they’re potentially also a replacement for a real partner and that us women better watch out. In response, many women (and men) have pointed out that the men who were hoping to replace us with robots probably weren’t at the top of our list of potential partners. Also that AI sex robots were fucking creepy (no pun intended) and weird.

While the discussion around sex robots has clearly just begun, the varying responses so far – from excitement to derision – foregrounds another discussion on the differing social attitudes and levels of acceptability which currently exist towards different types of sex toys.

 Men’s Rights Activist movements have gone the other way and pushed for male liberation through the further objectification of women.

At a quick glance, sex toys marketed towards cisgender women, or people with vaginas, have reached a stage of unabashed acceptability if not outright popularity. Discussion within many female friendship circles about owning sex toys is pretty ordinary. Meanwhile, filtered through Tumblr blogs and cool artsy Instagrams, pastel or gemstone dildos and sparkly vibrators have become part of a subculture for young women. A quick search on Etsy yields items such as cute vibrator stickers (captioned ‘Good Vibes’) to vibrator enamel pins, earrings as well as dildo cross-stich crafts.

In comparison, fleshlights and other variations of fake vaginas and blow up dolls have not gained the same cultural traction. In speaking to a few male friends, the common consensus was that, while there may be some exceptions depending on the friendship group, men – especially heterosexual men – are typically not open about owning sex toys. While there are further discussions to be had about different types of sex toys and different social expectations in non-heterosexual or cisgender contexts, the general observation is that toys for people with vaginas seem to have reached a greater level of cultural acceptance than toys for people with penises.

Most obviously, there is the common stereotype that heterosexual, cisgender men are simply bad at sex. For example, a recent study showed that heterosexual women have the least amount of orgasms. It follows then that it’s perfectly acceptable for women to use sex toys.  An accompanying stereotype for cisgender men is that despite being bad at sex, they are also expected to be able to have A LOT of sex, to demonstrate their masculine dominance and social status. Hence, owning any kind of vagina substitute can be interpreted as a sign of failure to fulfil the expected social expectations.

The rising acceptance of sex toys for cisgender women can also be linked to certain brands of feminism which emphasise the female body as a source of empowerment and freedom. Alongside the campaign for women’s autonomy and sexual liberation, sex toys such as vibrators and dildos became associated with independence and progressive attitudes.

However, this link between sex toys and feminism runs deeper. Under capitalism (sorry I’m an Arts student), we are encouraged to express identity through ownership of objects, where our personal value and values are derived from the objects we purchase. The commodification and commercialisation of feminism under capitalism means that owning a sex toy is now a way of demonstrating sexual independence, progressiveness and a feminist philosophy.

In contrast, there hasn’t been a comparable push for men to achieve sexual autonomy via this path.  If anything, Men’s Rights Activist movements have gone the other way and pushed for male liberation through the further objectification of women. Rather than challenge traditional heteronormative and masculine stereotypes, from their perspective, sexual autonomy and self-identity for men can be derived from the objectification of women rather than the use of sexual objects.

It is possible that women using dildos is considered acceptable because in a culture of phallic worship, it is expected that phallic objects fulfil female desire.

This is further complicated because the acceptance of women using sex toys doesn’t just stem from other women, in a sign of feminist solidarity, but also from men. Women using penetrative sex toys play a large role in pornography aimed at men, and is a vision for male desire and gratification.

Dildos are a key example. Given that we live in what is, and has been, a patriarchal society, phallic symbolism has long been admired and desired. It is possible that women using dildos is considered acceptable because in a culture of phallic worship, it is expected that phallic objects fulfil female desire. The perception of vaginas as gross and dirty has equal historical and cultural precedent. In a subconscious way, perhaps we view owning a penis substitute as a normal, even noble, desire while the derision of vagina substitutes stems from the perception of it being inferior genitalia.

The argument that the acceptability of women owning dildos stems from male titillation can be historically accounted for. An early cultural example of the ‘dildo’ can be found in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. In this comedic Ancient Greek play, Lysistrata laments that they can’t find their  ‘dildos’ or  ‘six-inch Ladies’ Comforters’ (depending on your translation). Though this refers to female desire, women in Ancient Greece were not allowed to perform in theatre. The roles would have been filled by men and the audience would likely have been predominantly men. Historically, women using dildos has been as much the subject of male sexual fantasy.

The vibrator was also invented by men to fulfil a purpose constructed by men. It was initially used as a medical device to treat hysteria in women – a made-up medical condition which was used to explain a plethora of real and non-existent symptoms from insomnia to general irritability. The vibrator fell out of medical use when male doctors realised they had been accidentally giving women orgasms all along, but emerged in popular culture again from the late twentieth century onwards alongside sexual liberation movements.  Despite more recent developments, the original promotion of vibrators by a group of boring misguided dudes probably normalised them earlier.

In contrast, sex toys aimed at cisgender men have had much less cultural traction. While early sex dolls were used by Dutch sailors in the seventeenth century on long voyages, they often caused the spread of syphilis as sailors shared the same doll. Hardly sexy or liberating, and certainly not something you would write home about. Meanwhile, the fleshlight remains relatively new, not invented until 1998, and has never been promoted by the medical community.

Evidently, there are a number of historical and contemporary cultural factors at play when it comes to the varying attitudes towards sex toys. Ultimately, people shouldn’t be shamed for exploring their sexuality and more open discussions around why we hold certain attitudes would break down taboos. But don’t spend $15000 on a creepy inanimate fuck toy. Please, just don’t.


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