The Origins of Sex Dolls

Thinking about sex dolls throughout history is an interesting, changing subject.  We begin with myths, rumours and tales, then sail through to industrialisation and a world of associated stigmas that come with the new proliferation of the doll.  Lately, we’ve moved into the modern world, with modern and real dolls, and the questions our passion for dolls pose intersect with some very deep societal ones.  There’s a long and varied story to chart!   We’ve come a long way.  But we should start by going back.

Pygmalion's Love for Galatea 

Where and When did Sex Dolls Begin? 

Just how far back we can go, however, is hard to distinguish.  The way is fraught with potential red herrins, hoaxes and myths. 

The ancient Roman poet Ovid, as early as the year 8 AD (!), wrote his epic the Metamorphoses.  One myth in the epic tells the story of a doll made of ivory, named Galatea.  Beautiful Galatea becomes the subject of her sculptor’s obsession, and he comes to live with and care for her in a way that many modern doll customers would identify with!  In the myth, the Roman goddess of love, Aphrodite, takes pity on Galatea and her owner, and gives Galatea the power of life, transforming her from ivory into flesh.  (It seems doll enthusiasts have support up there in Olympus.)  But does this stem from reality?  Ancient Roman poets were keen-eyed social commentators, so we are right to assume that Ovid was getting his stories from… somewhere.

There’s the suggestion that in the 1600s, Dutch sailors were said to have constructed leather-made ‘sex puppets’ nicknamed ‘Dutch wives’ to assist with those long and lonely voyages.  They traded these with the Japanese.  To this day, some Japanese people still call them ’Dutchi-waifu’.  These old ‘puppets’ may have shared a little more in common with the body pillows of today.

There’s persistent – if unproven – rumours that the SS were tasked with fashioning sex dolls for sating the desires of Nazi troops during World War II.  Likely untrue, but we do see the first commercialised sex dolls first begin to appear in Germany from the 50s, and not long after that, they begin to be sold via mail-order in porn magazines in the late 1960’s.  These were mostly cheap inflatable models.  Throughout the 70’s and 80’s, these cheap models began to receive the occasional spots of mainstream attention as the source of mirth and mockery.  Stigmatising stereotypes regarding sex dolls and their owners began to take shape.

Consider the humble dildo and vibrator around the same era.  They were experiencing a journey of their own regarding societal perception.  Second-wave feminists in the 70’s and 80’s questioned gender roles and limitations for women.  They interrogated stigmas, and boundaries - including a woman’s rights to explore her sexual freedoms.  Consequentially, women’s sex toys saw an enormous commercial boom as we progressed into the 70’s and 80’s, as women began to feel empowered to explore their own sexuality in an independent fashion.  If we pause to consider these inanimate companions of ours as perhaps being part of one greater pursuit, how far can we now back with these through human history?

Much further!  How does 30,000 years sound? 

That’s what ‘Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy’ by Hallie Lieberman suggests, given archaeologists’ discovery of relatively to-scale, carefully-crafted siltstone dildos.  Objects of worship?  They were a little too purpose-built for that, it would seem.  There’s also a wealth of evidence of these toys appearing on art – on ancient Greek vases, on dated Japanese art scrolls, and so on. 

I regard the history of sex dolls as being inseparable from the history of women’s pleasure toys.  In fact, I believe they are best considered this way.  I think it is right to do this, because it lets us understand the fuller history of human fashioning of tools for sexual pleasure and even companionship.  Why should this remain a separate, gendered history?  There is no discernable reason to continue to understand the history of sex dolls as being any different to the history of other toys.  Sex toys are evidenced human companions throughout history.  They please us.  They make us happy.  Love and pleasure on display throughout the ages?  We should be no more surprised to see it than evidence in human history of any other of our primal, driving urges on display.

It’s no surprise that the progress of industrialization, and the successful commercialisation of all sex toys, would eventually extend the possibilities of dolls as realistic companions.  After a couple of decades of increasing commercial success behind dolls, Real Doll’s Matt McMullen created an anatomically correct doll that had a PVC skeleton, steel joints, and silicone flesh.  This led to the first high-end, designer dolls.  It wasn’t long until customization of these dolls began to be similarly designer, with realistic hair, features and so on becoming something people would gladly pay extra for.  No more than one year after Matt’s first high-end doll was rolled out, the Ryan Gosling film Lars and the Real Girl was released, which in one sense felt like an update to the mainstream on the progress of love doll tech lumped in with several decades’ worth of predictable doll-owner stereotype and stigma.  (We’ll do a more thorough interrogation of Lars and the Real Girl in future, because there’s real strengths in there as well as weaknesses.) 

From the late 2000s to now, we’ve seen massive leaps ahead in the skin, hair and overall customisation features of high-end love dolls, but the most intriguing improvements come when we consider the leaps in AI.  Responsive voice came about in around 2007, but it was at a 2010 Adult Entertainment Expo that dolls who respond to our conversational commands first began to appear.

AI moves forward in leaps and bounds with every passing year.  It’s put doll lovers into a curious position, because many of the broader community and the mainstream media appear to now be considering our community already has for some time: our emotional attachment and relationship to something non-human, or technological.

Speaking at Melbourne’s recent Broadside conference, writer Zadie Smith recently reflected on the popular fear as reflected in science-fiction narratives that we, the human race, would eventually come to be taken over by AI.  Interestingly, she reflected, this does not appear to be what’s happening at all: that rather than machines enslaving us to their will, what real AI tech is getting better at is making machines out of us.  We are taught to be algorithmically predictable.  We are encouraged by social media to individuate ourselves more and more, so that we plug more of our personal beliefs and behaviours into our social media presence – making us easier to sell things to.  Ever-improving behavior modification AI tools are used throughout social media to make us buy, behave and even vote in a certain way.

And yet, the doll community has dwelled on questions of love and companionship with the non-human and the technological for years.  In a world increasingly manipulated by AI and it’s bad-faith developers, it’s arguable that the beautiful, real, high-end doll now represents a more wholesome relationship with technology than almost anything on offer in the modern world.  One day, far from repeating only the tiresome old stigmas and stereotypes that have plagued doll owners, do you think the rest of the world might come to learn from our various communities about a new kind of relationship with the inanimate?  One that’s more positive than the toxic relationships most of us have with our smartphones in 2019?  Only time will tell!