Book Review: The Sex Doll: A History, Anthony Ferguson (2010)

July 11th, 2011 11:59 pm by Kelly Garbato

More accurately titled “The Sex Doll: Its Origins and Functions”

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free advanced review copy of this book through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

Upon requesting this title from Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program, I was nervous that author Anthony Ferguson’s discussion of sex dolls would present a view largely uncritical of these increasingly popular sexual aids and, more importantly, their owners/users. (So much so that I was actually relieved when the first copy was lost in the mail!) Happily, Ferguson (a member of the Australian Horror Writers Association – a detail that seems only slightly less odd in light of chapter eleven, which turns to dolls as a common trope in the horror genre!) manages to outline the potential anti-feminist implications of sex dolls while retaining empathy for (at least some of) their users. All in all, the book manages to find middle ground, even if it is at times shaky.

THE SEX DOLL: A HISTORY might be more accurately titled “The Sex Doll: Its Origins and Functions,” as there’s more theory than fact in this volume. By Ferguson’s own admission, the history of sex dolls is somewhat sketchy – which is wholly unsurprising given society’s conservative and oftentimes oppressive attitudes toward sex and sexuality. Sex dolls present an added complication, as Western religions have historically regarded lifelike representations of the human form (i.e. dolls) with suspicion and distrust. Thus, Ferguson relies less on the historical record and more on the theories and conjectures of philosophers, psychologists, sociologists and ethicists, seemingly indiscriminately and with mixed results.

While some of the views represented are intriguing (in particular, I’m keen to read David Levy’s LOVE + SEX WITH ROBOTS after seeing several excerpts in THE SEX DOLL), others are nonsensical, offensive, and downright misogynistic. Colin Wilson, for example, is paraphrased as saying that “a subverted worship of women” drives men to rape (WTF!); elsewhere, Ferguson himself extols the “value of war in pre-technological societies as a means of channeling masculine aggression” (never you mind that physical and sexual violence against women is nearly universal, or that rape is commonly used as a weapon of war; also, gender essentialism much?). Naturally, erstwhile misogynist Sigmund Freud and his sex-obsessed, woman-hating theories litter every chapter.

Likewise, the words Ferguson chooses are sometimes problematic. For example, he uses the terms “transgender” and “she-male” interchangeably, the latter being widely regarded as a derogatory slur within the trans community. Additionally, instances of rape are often referred to using variations on the phrase “had sex with,” implying consent where there is none. (“With” suggests that the sex is a mutually shared experience, which is not the case in rape. In this vein, it’s erroneous to say that one “has sex with” a sex doll, since a doll as an inanimate object cannot consent to the experience. In this case, “masturbate with” is more accurate.)

In chapter seven, “Sex Doll Stereotypes,” Ferguson analyzes sex dolls – objectified, silent and subservient (representations of) women, the “perfect” partners, if you will – in relation to their human counterparts, namely sex workers such as prostitutes and pornographic actors, as well as other sexually exploitable women, including mail order brides and mistresses. Since each of these topics could easily fill its own volume, the discussion is necessarily brief and lacking in nuance. Rather than add to my understanding of sex dolls, I found this chapter in particular a distraction.

Perhaps the greatest missed opportunity comes in chapter eight, “The Vagaries of Masculine Desire,” in which Ferguson lets “doll users speak.” Whereas a demographic/psychological survey of doll users would have been incredibly enlightening – who are these people and why and how do they choose to use sex dolls? – Ferguson instead presents us with a Q&A involving just five respondents. It’s rather obvious that Ferguson hand-picked these individuals in order to represent the spectrum of users: they run the gamut, from a single, older disabled man who’s heavily emotionally invested in his dolls, to a sexually active younger man who regards them as just one of many sexual outlets at his disposal. Curiously, two of the subjects – or a full 40% – of the respondents are women, which must surely be out of whack with the actual statistics. (Although we’ll never know, as Ferguson doesn’t offer any such numbers.) Since women are otherwise absent his discussion (Ferguson almost solely focuses on male users of female dolls), their inclusion here is doubly puzzling.

Ferguson is at his best when looking at representations of sex dolls in popular culture, as he does in chapters ten and eleven (“Do Androids Dream of Electric Orgasm?” and “Revulsion, Lust and Love,” respectively). His discussion of sex dolls and gynoids (female robots) in literature, film, television, music and art is by far the most engaging section of THE SEX DOLL – although his omission of the Cylons in the BATTLESTAR GALACTICA reboot is disappointing at best. (Particularly since it’s in these chapters that Ferguson introduces the question of human-robot love and marriage. Caprica Six! Athena! Hera!) Additionally, while the Terminator franchise is mentioned in brief, Ferguson fails to examine the evolving representations of the cyborgs in this realm; i.e., the possibility of a romantic and sexual relationship with a terminator is only raised when the female cyborg Cameron is introduced in THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES. This observation might have provided a nice window into the gender dynamics of sex dolls, and how they’re reflected in popular culture.

Ultimately, THE SEX DOLL concludes that the uses and functions of sex dolls are as varied as are the men who utilize them. For some men, a sex doll represents the “perfect” partner: silent, non-responsive, subservient, powerless, never aging, changing or evolving. For others, a doll is merely a sexual outlet: safe, both physically and psychologically, affordable (perhaps), convenient. It might be just one of many sex toys a man utilizes, or it could be more: a willing companion to socially isolated men. Whatever the case, the fact that feminized sex dolls are visual representations of women – real, flesh and blood women – cannot be escaped:

“Given that sex dolls are as of now still inanimate objects, they are understandably treated as lacking autonomy, and yet they represent real women and are utilized as substitutes for real women. Despite the fact that some sex doll owners seem to treat their dolls with affection and anthropomorphize them, it is the dolls’ inability to respond, react or reject which most attracts men. This objectification is mirrored historically in the treatment of women, the ‘thing’ most dolls represent.” (Chapter six, page 81, “Consumable Women”)

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

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