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A.I. Artificial Intelligence, 2001(Film still)

The women whose boyfriends are made out of plastic

Since their inception, sex dolls have been targeted toward men. But as an increasing number of women are sharing peaceful, intimacy-filled lives with their male equivalents, it’s clear there’s a gap in the market

When Karley met Gabriel, her eyes were instantly drawn to his chiselled jaw. With just the right amount of stubble and piercing blue eyes, the attraction was instant – something helped by the two glasses of red wine she’d downed earlier to ease her nerves.

With Gabriel, Karley didn’t have the same worries she’s had with past sexual encounters. “One of my anxieties when having sex with a guy can be like, ‘Oh my god, I'm taking too long’ or ‘they’re bored,’” she explains. She wouldn’t classify Gabriel as a “giver” – but “he’s “definitely not a taker,” either. “He’s extremely patient and he never gets soft,” she says. Gabriel stands at 5”9, has a six-pack that’d get him a casting call for Love Island and sun-kissed freckles dotting his nose. He’s also made entirely out of silicone. 

Sex dolls were first advertised in US porn magazines in the late 1960s when it became legal to sell sexual devices in the mail, but a German commercial equivalent existed at least 10 years earlier. Unsurprisingly, men are thought to have been fucking statues long before that, something recorded in 1877 when a gardener was reportedly found attempting to get it on with a replica of the Venus de Milo. Today, these dolls have real human hair strands on their heads, body and genitals. They look and feel almost unnervingly lifelike.

“The silicone is indistinguishable from real skin,” Karley says. But the penis is the truly impressive part: “It’s hard on the inside and then a soft skin-like texture on the outside,” she explains. “It’s not like a regular plastic dildo at all. It feels exactly like a boner.” What did feel different during their one-night stand, however, was how cold Gabriel’s body was. “Part of the sensation of sex is getting worked up and sweaty,” she explains. “There’s a heat, literally and figuratively, to the moment. I hadn’t realised how much that impacted the experience until it wasn’t there.” 

Women make up over 60 per cent of all purchases in the ever-growing £25.5 million sex toy industry. But since their inception, sex dolls have almost exclusively been targeted toward men. This is a missed opportunity, says Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics director Neil McArthur, who co-wrote a paper on Digisexuality. Recent statistics indicate the same thing: a 2018 YouGov survey conducted in Italy found 20 per cent of women surveyed would like to try a sex doll, while another found 40 per cent of Americans would have sex with the next iteration, a robot.

Karley’s silicon hookup, Gabriel, was created by Los Angeles company Sinthetics, which began making male dolls in 2016. When their expanded portfolio was posted on Reddit, they instantly sold out. Initially, it was men purchasing the male dolls, but slowly they began seeing an increase in women buyers, too. Another distributor XR Brands currently offers three male dolls. Asher, who looks slightly older, is by far the most popular with women, says XR Brands President Rebecca Weinberg. She puts this down to his “slightly older look with a 5 o’clock shadow, stronger jawline and tan skin, which women seem to favour more”.

For many women, doll ownership is about far more than just sex. They offer comfort, support and can even be a means of healing trauma. Four years ago, Lily*, who lives in Texas, made a fabric doll in the likeness of her favourite fictional character. It quickly became her best friend. She now has seven dolls in total: four are fabric, two are made of TPE and one is silicone. Lily is married, but it hasn’t been a happy union: “I’m bereaved by my eldest child, who was killed in a terrible accident at a young age and my other child is now a teenager,” she explains. “My husband is very emotionally unavailable. I’ve felt isolated and very lonely.” Her companion dolls, which she says are her “own little emotional support therapy group,” provide her with the unwavering stability she’s craved her whole life. “The emotional intimacy is very strong. I love my dolls, even if they are inanimate objects unable to love me in return.”

Since bringing her first doll home, Lily hasn’t engaged in the self-harm she’d resort to in the past. “They’ve helped me work through the traumas I’ve faced in life. Unlike people, they’re always available. I can vent to them, cry on their shoulders, cuddle and hug them any time I need.” Lily’s husband is “OK” with her having dolls, but her teenager isn’t. She knows she can’t take them around in public “out of fear of someone hurting them, or me, or potentially destroying them.” She says she wishes people “knew and understood that dolls are not merely just a sex-driven thing, because it isn’t for all of us.”

Just because it isn’t only about sex, however, doesn’t mean that sex isn’t involved. Lily says the number of women interested in dolls is higher than you’d think as they increasingly feel empowered to take their pleasure into their own hands. It’s not too surprising, considering heterosexual women are having the least number of orgasms of any demographic. “Men, from my experience and from listening to others, are selfish when it comes to a woman’s pleasure and don’t listen or take the time to help her achieve orgasm,” she says. “A lot of women are fed up with the behaviours of men and having sexual and companionship needs met by a sex doll is becoming more desirable. A sex doll won’t leave you, judge, criticise or shame you.”

A ‘robotic sex panic,’ wherein campaigners suggest those who engage with AI and robots may be unable to form human connections, surrounds the future of sex tech. But McArthur thinks these fears are unfounded: “There are fears that are valid, but this specific one, I don’t worry about,” he says. The intimacy inequality gap in society is very real and “technology is one of the many ways people can work through various loneliness or relationship issues.” It can also be as simple as dolls being fun. “Ultimately, they bring people a lot of happiness, both to singles and those in relationships,” McArthur explains. “I think the future of sex tech is going to improve relationships.” 

Char and Callum are real-world examples of this. They initially bought their doll Dee, an $1,800 USD (£1,492) silicon lookalike of Char, to introduce the concept of a threesome into their marriage, minus the jealousy a living, breathing woman could entail. Dee soon became a key feature in Char’s OnlyFans and TikTok content. 

But her positive impact quickly surpassed the bedroom: “Dee is a big part of our relationship now,” Char says. “She’s made our relationship so much stronger overall. We talk to each other about sex a lot more now, about our limits and what we are willing to explore more of. It’s really opened our eyes and we’ve become more transparent as a result.” Char says she and Callum will hopefully soon add a male doll to the fold. “There’s already been a huge demand for it from our subscribers so I think it’ll be a massive hit,” she says. “And of course, it’s only fair!” 

As for Karley, she says Gabriel was better than a lot of her other human one-night stands, and she’s looking forward to seeing where the relationship goes – though she’s technically still waiting for him to call her back.