Sex dolls won't stop rape and assault
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OPINION

Sex dolls won’t stop rape and assault – that’s not how sex and abuse works

The claim that sex dolls and robots provide safe outlets for men’s sexual desires crops up frequently. But the evidence doesn’t back it up, says Rachel Hewitt

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By Rachel Hewitt on

Last week, the owner of a Gateshead sex-doll business started offering customers a “try before you buy” service. Customers pay to test a doll in a stark industrial unit, furnished only with a double bed – turning the shop into what some have called the UK’s “first sex doll ‘brothel’”. Its owner, Graham, described how “many of his customers are women who make purchases in a bid to keep their husbands from cheating”. He also celebrated how sex dolls offer a “safe” way for men to explore voyeuristic fantasies, in which “no one was scared or hurt”.  

This claim – that sex dolls and robots provide safe outlets for men’s sexual desires – crops up frequently. Noel Sharkey, professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield, acknowledges that “some people say it’s better [that men] rape robots than rape real people”. Shin Takagi, founder of a Japanese child-sex-dolls company, is adamant that “there is no way to change someone’s fetishes”, and claims his dolls provide men with a ‘“safer” outlet for their paedophilic desires, and ultimately “save children”. Similarly, the roboticist, Sergi Santos, owner of the Barcelona-based sex doll manufacturing company Synthea Amatus, sees his dolls as a more palatable alternative to prostitution, and argues that diverting men’s sexual desires in this way will “reduce sex trafficking”.  

These arguments for the apparent virtues of sex dolls are based on a specific idea, or theory, about how men’s sexual desires operate. They suggest that men’s libido can be diverted from its original object (for example, raping a colleague or child) towards another safer “outlet” (acting out those fantasies with a sex doll) – after which the original desire simply evaporates, no longer posing a threat. Sexual desire works according to something like the hydraulic laws governing the motion of a jet of water, they say. Shin Takagi argues that complete obstruction of men’s sexual desires isn’t possible, just as a river cannot remain blocked forever. But, according to him, the libido can be channelled into an alternative path, through which it can be safely expressed and harmlessly dissipated.

In 1992, a man who had pleaded guilty to aggravated rape and attempted murder was given a lenient sentence on the basis that the judge considered “pent-up lust” a mitigating factor

But where does this belief come from? Why do we think that men’s desires operate like this? The notion that certain desires, feelings, and emotions must be expressed at all costs – like a torrent of water hellbent on gushing past a temporary dam – has an ancient history in medical ideas about what causes desire. The concept of “the humours” dominated European medicine, from ancient Greece to the 19th century, and linked people’s emotional states to their bodily fluids: for example, excess black bile in the body was thought to create a state of “melancholia”. In the 18th century, reputable doctors built on humoral theory by focusing on how blocked bodily fluids caused disease. But, at the same time, less reputable quack doctors were becoming interested in how the same principle might apply to male sexual fluids and desires. A doctor, astrologer and occultist called Ebenezer Sibly thought that “spermatic liquor” was not only the principle of life and health, but that its “expulsive force” around the male body created men’s uniquely strong emotions and desires. Obstruction to the seminal flow, Sibly reasoned, would lead to haemorrhages and violent explosions of temper.

Fast forward a century or two, and these 18th century ideas have become entrenched in the way that we think about male sexual desire. Sigmund Freud wrote of how men’s libido “behaves like a stream”: when blocked, it “proceeds to fill up collateral channels” and finds alternative outlets. Urban Dictionary warns of blue-ball syndrome and the dangers of male sexual frustration – testicles swelling “to the size of coconuts”. Some argue that prostituted women are necessary outlets for “the fires of male passion in order to keep them from becoming dangerous conflagrations”, and preventing male desire erupting into rape. In 1992, a man who had pleaded guilty to aggravated rape and attempted murder was given a lenient sentence on the basis that the judge considered “pent-up lust” a mitigating factor.

But modern medicine has declared this theory of male sexual desire to be incorrect and obsolete. The sexologist Alfred Kinsey rejected the existence of blue-ball syndrome, pointing out that it derives only from “muscular tensions” and that women experience something similar, too. Contemporary sex researchers deny that libido is even a basic bodily drive, like hunger or thirst – unlike those genuine drives, lack of sex results in no damage to the body. Most present-day neuroscientists and psychiatrists agree that emotions and desires are not created by fluids moving around the body, but by a complex combination of factors, many of them rooted in the brain. And the psychologist, Susan Aylwin, also points out that we cannot compare how the mind works to an act of nature; unlike the brain, the mind is not a physical mechanism.     

If it feels like common sense to think of male sexual desire as an unstoppable tide, that’s largely because the English language encourages it. It is very hard to describe emotion, energy or desire without employing words like “erupting” or “outbursts”, passion needs to be "channelled" and not "bottled up". But there is no medical or psychiatric evidence to support claims that sexual desire works according to the laws of hydraulics, that men’s repression of harmful sexual desires is dangerous or that the deflection of those desires to an alternative outlet works like a safety valve. Instead, sociological research points to the opposite: that the consumption of media in which women are objectified and the display of misogynistic behaviour with sex dolls and prostitutes reinforces men’s misogynistic behaviour elsewhere, increasing men’s propensity to rape. When we discount the deeply entrenched idea that men’s libido works hydraulically, sex dolls and robots no longer seem like safety valves for harmful and misogynistic sexual practices but, instead, more chillingly, as opportunities for rehearsal.

A Revolution of Feeling: The Decade that Forged the Modern Mind by Rachel Hewitt is published by Granta Books

@drrachelhewitt

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