Model two: Dolls as risky. On the opposite end of the risk spectrum, a common theme within the existing literature on sex doll ownership focuses on the effects that the commercial availability of realistic sex dolls has on broad-scale social attitudes toward women (Carvalho Nascimento et al., 2018; Cassidy, 2016; Danaher, 2017a, 2017b, 2019a; Kubes, 2019; Puig, 2017; Richardson, 2019; Shokri & Asl, 2015). Such claims relate to the process by which sex dolls reinforce the objectification of women, and bolsters a culturally-constructed sexual beauty standard (Cassidy, 2016; Ciambrone et al., 2017; Danaher, 2017b; Puig, 2017; Ray, 2016; Richardson, 2019). This was the basis for the claim that we should abandon the “unsophisticated” porn star design of sex dolls and robots, and to instead create “robots that are more realistic in their representations (both physical and behavioral) of women” (Danaher, 2019a, p. 142). However, the physical features of popular sex doll models (e.g., larger breasts, combined with a waist-to-hip ratio of approximately 0.70; Kock et al., 2008; Valverde, 2012) correspond to evolutionary cues that men find sexually attractive across a range of cultures and measurement approaches (Brooks et al., 2010; Buss, 2021; Del Zotto & Pegna, 2017; Dixson et al., 2011; Griffith et al., 2016; Saad, 2008, 2017; Singh et al., 2010).
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Irrespective of the origins of perceptions of female sexual attractiveness (evolution or social construction), there is a wealth of evidence that viewing women as sexual objects is associated with sexual aggression. For instance, this has been identified as one of five implicit theories that underpin thought patterns and post-offense justifications among individuals with sexual convictions (Polaschek & Gannon, 2004; Polaschek & Ward, 2002; for reviews of offense-supportive cognition, see Helmus et al., 2013; Szumski et al., 2018). Other implicit theories include sexual entitlement (viewing sexual access as a right), viewing the male sex drive as uncontrollable (i.e., arousal inevitably needing to lead to orgasm), judging women as unknowable (i.e., the view that women are manipulative or dangerous to men), and viewing the world as a generally dangerous, threatening, or hostile place. It might also be that the on-demand nature of sex with dolls increases a sense of sexual entitlement, with a subsequent effect being an increase in the view that male sexual arousal should always result in orgasm, enhancing the presence of the aforementioned implicit theories among sex doll owners. Sexual entitlement is also linked to a preference for sadistic and/or coercive sex, which is also referred to as biastophilia in sexuality research (Richardson et al., 2017; Seto et al., 2012). Recent work has also found an association between biastophilic fantasizing and a proclivity for engaging in sexual activity with submissive (i.e., sleeping) partners (Deehan & Bartels, 2021), for which sex dolls could act as a surrogate. As a collective of findings, a network of relationships thus begins to develop that might suggest a self-fulfilling cycle of implicit theories supportive of rape, preferences for coercive sex, and a proclivity for passive sexual partners which, at least theoretically, could apply to sex doll ownership.
Implicit theories are considered under the umbrella of offense-supportive attitudes and cognitions, with such beliefs being empirically established as meaningful predictors of recidivism among those convicted of sexual offenses (Brankley et al., 2021; Mann et al., 2010). In community settings, sexual objectification has been associated with higher levels of rape myth acceptance (Samji & Vasquez, 2020), lenient attitudes about rape (Bernard et al., 2015), and a proclivity toward violence toward women (Vasquez et al., 2018). Relatedly, having a lifelike doll on-hand for sexual activity and gratification can plausibly be linked to (or said to serve) a sense of sexual entitlement, which in turn is predictive of recidivism (Brankley et al., 2021; Pemberton & Wakeling, 2009). With these past empirical data in mind, it is important to explore whether moralistic claims about sex doll ownership are borne out in responses provided by this population to test the validity of broad-scale policy recommendations related to doll bans and criminalization. Here we do not use ‘moralistic’ in a pejorative sense, but rather use this to highlight the non-empirical and rhetorical nature of publications emerging from legal and sociological spheres in relation to sex doll owners. In doing so, we wish to highlight that these publications typically contain no data but rely on a form of legal argumentation that sets out a potential for sexual aggression stemming from sex doll ownership. Nonetheless, the framework for exploring whether doll ownership contributes to negative attitudes toward women, sexualization, and thus increased propensities for sexual aggression is theoretically plausible and deserving of empirical evaluation.
Model three: Dolls as functional, motivations as interactive. Although not widely studied, there are a range of non-coercive paraphilias that are seemingly neither risk-enhancing nor risk-reducing, but are simply related to the function of sexual (or related) gratification. The etiological origins of such paraphilias are debated, but recent commentaries have appeared to favor conditioning-based accounts. That is, sexual interests in non-human objects can emerge through their pairing with normatively sexually arousing stimuli (for a review, see Pfaus et al., 2020; for a contradictory view, see Hsu & Bailey, 2020). Our concern here is not to engage, per se, with the academic debate about whether paraphilias are conditioned or not, but rather to highlight that some individuals are interested in engaging with ostensibly nonsexual objects for sexual gratification.
Early exposure to media, particularly pornography, might set a template for the types of bodies, objects, and activities an individual finds sexually exciting, with such templates acting as an implicit guide in partnered sexual activity (Bridges et al., 2016; Riemersma & Sytsma, 2013). Where partners are able (or willing) to live out paraphilic fantasies, there exists no discordance, meaning that individuals can appear to have normative relationship experiences even in the presence of paraphilic sexual interests. However, when partners are unable (or unwilling) to indulge paraphilic fantasies, discordance may arise, leading to relationship dissatisfaction and dissolution. It is in this theoretical place that we might see some application to the ownership of sex dolls that is unrelated to sexual risk, and more related to sexual and romantic gratification. That is, given that sex dolls typically embody a ‘porn star’ female appearance (Danaher, 2019a), and doll owners report both sexual and nonsexual reasons (Ferguson, 2014; Langcaster-James & Bentley, 2018; Su et al., 2019; Valverde, 2012), it could be that those who own dolls are seeking a surrogate relationship that they are craving, but cannot achieve due to unrealistic expectations or a lack of relational ability. Within this model we might expect doll owners to have a series of unsuccessful relationships in their histories, or perhaps specific sexual interests that could be off-putting to potential intimate partners.
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