What I learned about male desire in a sex-doll factory

Looked at compassionately, male desire is more complicated than many assume it to be

As I took in the rows of heads mounted on the wall, my first impression was that I’d stepped into a hunting lodge – only these trophies bore a high-sheen of lip gloss and teased hair. Their static eyes trained on a middle distance, save for one pair, set in an Angelina Jolie-lookalike face, that seemed to be staring right at me. I smiled awkwardly, as if to say “hello”, then quickly stepped away from its lifeless gaze.

I was in the lobby of the sex-doll manufacturer RealDoll, beside a pair of busty life-size models propped up by metal stands. This was about what I expected from my visit to the company’s San Diego headquarters: improbable physiques incapable of standing on their own.

As a teenager in the late 1990s, I’d snuck night-time episodes of HBO’s edgy documentary series Real Sex and caught one featuring RealDoll’s founder, Matt McMullen, and his factory of fantasy. RealDoll offered sculpted silicone perfection, Barbie-like proportions, and lips parted as if in a perpetual moan. Fourteen-year-old me watched McMullen confidently state: “We can build your dream girl for you.” This is what straight men desire, I thought.

Nearly two decades later, my visit as a reporter to the RealDoll headquarters felt like a personal pilgrimage. It was January of 2017 and Donald Trump had just been sworn into office after bragging about his ability to "grab" women by the "pussy". It seemed to me that the market for these inanimate bodies was a reflection of a similar kind of sexual entitlement and blithe objectification of women. RealDoll primarily sells quote-unquote "female" dolls to men, with its "male" models accounting for only 10 per cent of its sales. Annually, the company sells roughly 350 to 400 dolls starting at around $6,000 a piece.


Many men assign names, personalities and backstories to their dolls. Hobbyist message boards are infused with romance

But then my tour guide, a woman with warm eyes and a kind smile, caught me off guard. Sometimes, she said, customers request bespoke faces based on the countenance of a deceased spouse. She promptly waved me on, but I paused in place, gazing at the heads. Grieving widowers was not something I expected to find here. Maybe I should have known better.

I’m a journalist who writes about sex, and my work routinely complicates stereotypic assumptions about straight men’s sexuality. Of course, I’ve come up against plenty of the predictable tropes I anticipated as an HBO-watching teenager, but I’ve more often found that men defy the cliche of superficial, unemotional wanting. Whether interviewing men about their intimate lives or answering reader questions for a sex advice column, I have routinely encountered tenderness, vulnerability and anxiety.

The same proved true of my RealDoll visit, which at nearly every turn underscored the unexpected around heterosexual men’s desire.

A familiarity with the early history of sex dolls might have lessened my surprise. In the 19th century, European sailors availed themselves of cloth dolls known as dames de voyage, as Hallie Lieberman reports in Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy. In the 1960s, scientists brought a pair of plastic blow-up dolls nicknamed Antarctica 1 and Antarctica 2 to the Showa research station on East Ongul Island. Later, according to Lieberman, an inflatable doll without orifices named Judy was sold in Japan "as a 'loving companion' who could accompany men on rides in their convertible or recline on the couch, sipping martinis".

Historically, sex dolls have been associated with loneliness. That theme has remained, even as cloth and plastic have given way to hyperreal silicon models. Some RealDoll customers are married and looking for a menage a trois, free from the messiness of added human feeling, but many others are recently single, divorced or widowed. McMullen says some customers simply lack the social skills to maintain human relationships. Many men assign names, personalities and backstories to their dolls. Hobbyist message boards are infused with romance, including accounts of candlelit dates, feelings of love and the occasional marriage. Sometimes, doll owners share wedding photos, in which they pose with their doll brides, or even exchange vows as a doll maid-of-honour looks on.

On the popular online message board Doll Forum, one man writes that, for him, sex dolls tap into his longing for being with “a woman who loves me for me”. Another message board member riffs on the simple companionship they serve: “A doll to sit in an empty chair so you have someone to sit and chat with. A doll to hug and kiss. A doll to share an empty bed with. A doll to love and be loved [by].” I’ve heard similar refrains reporting on another realm of fantasy: porn. Once, while visiting a virtual reality shoot, the director told me that what straight men most want from these immersive point-of-view scenes is cuddling and extended eye contact. They want connection.

Such accounts fly in the face of stereotypes around heterosexual men’s desire, but so does some of the emerging research on the subject. Not that this is a large field. The assumption that men’s sexuality is relatively straightforward is pervasive, and as a result, much of the contemporary research on the complexity of desire focuses on women.

In 2001, the sex therapist Rosemary Basson published a model of "responsive desire" that considers the many relational and contextual factors leading to the wish for sex, including emotional satisfaction and intimacy. Her work represents a departure from Masters and Johnson's bedrock theory of sexual response – excitement, plateau, orgasm and resolution – and challenged the concept, and ideal, of sexual desire as a spontaneous urge.

In the years since, Basson's work has been widely interpreted as a model for women's desire, but she never intended it that way. In fact, Ian Kerner, a psychotherapist and sexuality counsellor, says it applies to men's desire as well, which "can be incredibly elastic and variable" and vulnerable to outside stressors. He says men's desire "is not properly understood or ascribed nearly enough nuance or subtlety".

In 2016, a study published in the Journal of Sex Research surveyed straight men in long-term heterosexual relationships about what elicited their desire, and found that key factors included “feeling desired” and “intimate communication”. The experience of rejection and a “lack of emotional connection” notably decreased their interest in sexual intimacy. The researchers concluded that “men’s sexual desire may be more complex and relational” than previously thought.

One of the study's researchers, Sarah Hunter Murray of the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, went on to publish a book that argues against the popular view that men pursue sex for pleasure alone. "Men want to have sex because they want to feel close and connected," she writes in Not Always in the Mood: The New Science of Men, Sex, and Relationships. In fact, Murray says that a key component of men's desire is romance – the lit candles, hand holding and other gestures typically assigned to women.

When my RealDoll tour proceeded beyond the lobby and into the workshop where they manufacture these forms designed to gratify longing, I was met by dozens of silicone heads sitting on sticks awaiting makeup: gaping eye sockets, slack mouths and flat, chalky skin. A work desk was equipped with palettes of shimmery powder in jewel tones. Customers can choose from a rainbow’s array of permanent eyeshadow, lipstick and nail polish, although some prefer to apply makeup to their dolls themselves. Owners select and style wigs, collect jewellery and accessories, and maintain dynamic wardrobes ranging from frilly negligees to power suits, purchased from women’s clothing outlets. I realized, eyeing those shimmery palettes, that sex dolls allow owners to not only play with femininity but also defy that early childhood directive, “dolls are for girls”.

Back on the message boards I found owners broadcasting the results of elaborate amateur photo shoots showing dolls sweeping kitchen floors in a T-shirt and pants, snowboarding in sporty getups, lounging poolside in string bikinis, or frolicking through fields of flowers. Some owners role play as their own silicone companions, narrating X-rated tales of passion and pleasure, which often highlight their own sensual attentiveness.

It reminded me of previous journalistic encounters with sexual playfulness and imagination. In 2016, I attended SizeCon, a fetish convention in New York City for people – although it was overwhelmingly men – with fantasies involving shrinking and inflation. Participants could don VR headsets for a simulation of being popped into a woman's mouth like a piece of popcorn or pose against a greenscreen so that they could be photoshopped on to a cityscape – á la Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.

Straight men fantasize about women who seem 'to exist primarily to sexually service men and derive tremendous pleasure themselves from the effort to do so'

While there, I spoke with a young guy who shared a childhood memory of seeing little girls gathered on the playground around a ladybug. They warned him away, yelling that he would kill it. “They made me feel like a monster, and I hated that,” he said. “I remember feeling, like, I wish I was the ladybug.” Now he fantasized about being shrunk to miniature and kept in a jar at a couple’s bedside.

Experts maintain that sexual fantasies can serve a deep psychological purpose. The psychologist Michael Bader describes them as "vehicles by which our minds counteract the chilling effect of feelings of guilt, worry, shame, rejection, and helplessness and make it safe enough to experience pleasure". Sexual desire, he writes in his 2010 book, Male Sexuality: Why Women Don't Understand It– And Men Don't Either, is often defined by unconscious attempts to address feelings of loneliness and rejection. He notes that many straight men fantasize about women who seem "to exist primarily to sexually service men and derive tremendous pleasure themselves from the effort to do so". Bader argues that these fantasies arouse men not because they facilitate misogyny but because they allow men to counter pervasive beliefs, "for example, that women don't enjoy sex, don't enjoy pleasing men, and easily feel disappointed or hurt by men pursuing their own interests".

Bader suggests that the relationship between men’s desires and their sexual preferences may not lend itself to superficial interpretations. He cites, for instance, “men who like to dominate in order to transcend feelings of helplessness” and men who like “to be dominated so as to not feel guilty and responsible”. Sometimes, Bader writes, men who have developed a sense of guilt toward women, “solve” this dilemma through objectifying women and divorcing sex from intimacy. Kerner, the psychotherapist and author of the upcoming Tell Me About the Last Time You Had Sex, says that in his clinical practice men who have experienced this fracture are often trying to reintegrate sex and intimacy. In other words, they crave more than unadorned physicality. “The idea that men can just have sex for the sake of sex and get enough out of it is a fallacy,” he says.

On the RealDoll website, customers can choose from 17 different body types with cup sizes from 32A to 32F. There were nearly a dozen different kinds of labia on offer, ranging from ruffled to barely there. The sheer variety of idealized body parts was dizzying, as were the surprisingly niche options on display in the workshop itself, which were the result of custom requests. Bumpy nipples? Handlebar moustache pubes?

I thought of my teenage self, the girl who had evaluated her own body in much the same way the RealDoll website atomizes its dolls for consumption. I appraised myself against what I believed to be a generalizable model of straight men’s desire. By contrast, RealDoll’s very emphasis on customization belies the concept of a singular, universally agreed-upon ideal.

Of course, the glossy photos featured on RealDoll’s website do not advertise the true range of men’s desires, those bumpy nipples or moustache pubes. Instead, it hews to a marketable “dream girl” aesthetic: perky breasts, pouty lips, “shaved” pubes, flat tummies and tiny waists. Most read as white. It’s often said that the risqué Bild Lilli – the miniature German adult novelty doll from the 1950s – was the precursor to Barbie, that infamous totem of impossible physique. As with countless commercial domains, RealDoll is a factory that produces, perhaps even more than it satisfies, straight men’s wants.

There is longing for an ideal - and then there is entitlement to it. The latter is what came to mind as I stepped into RealDoll’s basement where naked, headless figures hung suspended by metal chains from the wood-beamed ceiling. It was hard to see these dangling forms as objects of reverence, let alone romantic companions, and I realized there is no reckoning with this industry without acknowledging that, for some owners, dolls are a surrogate for dominance.

The market for sex dolls in the United States emerged alongside the sexual revolution wherein women claimed new freedoms in their intimate lives. To an unprecedented, although still limited degree, women could choose to both pursue and decline sexual encounters. Sex dolls were billed as solace "for all the lonely guys that weren't getting laid", as Lieberman reports in her history of sex toys. "Blow-up dolls returned the new sexually autonomous woman to male control," Lieberman writes. "A blow-up doll is always ready for sex, never talks about her rights, and always looks perky."

We live in a time of vital reckoning over sexual abuse and emerging awareness around how women's pleasure is routinely neglected in heterosexual sex

Decades later, women's sexual autonomy remains a contentious subject, as #MeToo and embattled debates surrounding consent make clear. In the extreme, online enclaves of misogyny blame women's liberation for sexually disenfranchising men. Elliot Rodger's 2014 shooting spree in Isla Vista, California, is a devastating example of how entitlement can become brutality. Rodger belonged to a growing online community of men who identify as involuntary celibates, or "incels". There are also voluntary celibates, or "volcels", and Men Going Their Own Way, or "MGTOW", who have resolved to distance themselves from women, who they view as debased and morally corrupt.

On doll forums, it’s easy to stumble across similarly sexist attitudes. One message board commenter writes of how his doll is modelled after his ex-girlfriend who, “though wonderful in many ways, also drove me crazy, cheated on me and made me consider murder/suicide”. There are many accounts of human exes who are “nuts”, “evil”, or stole a man’s money. “You won’t have any of this shit happening with your doll,” writes one poster. “Sure, she might drain your bank account, but she got YOU to pull the trigger on that one, buddy.”

The potential for being made a fool is a recurrent theme in well-considered writing on straight men's sexuality. The researcher Brene Brown maintains that men learn early on that they are responsible for initiating sex and that "sexual rejection soon becomes the hallmark of masculine shame". One of the therapists she quotes in her book, Daring Greatly, asserts, "I guess the secret is that sex is terrifying for most men."

New York sex therapist Stephen Snyder observes that in heterosexual couples, it's usually the man, counter to popular expectation, who has lost his desire – or, as he puts it, "gone missing in the bed". (Typically, the man is still masturbating privately, so it's only his desire within the context of the relationship that is lost.) Snyder, the author of Love Worth Making: How to Have Ridiculously Great Sex in a Long-Lasting Relationship, often asks these clients whether they touch their partner's body for her pleasure or for their own. His clients answer, "For hers, of course. Isn't that what I'm supposed to do?"

Snyder suspects that a contributing factor with these men “gone missing” is that “gender roles are changing, and men aren’t sure exactly who they’re supposed to be in bed”. We live in a time of vital reckoning over sexual abuse and emerging awareness around how women’s pleasure is routinely neglected in heterosexual sex. The men who land on Snyder’s couch often struggle with a sexual selflessness that saps their desire. Sometimes, he says, men who have grown up with a domineering father overcompensate, and in the process they disconnect from their own wants. The trick for these men, is to find “the right balance between passion and consideration – self and other.”

At the end of my RealDoll tour, I was brought into a laboratory to talk with the company’s founder, Matt McMullen. A long table was scattered with doll heads. On the walls, incomprehensible scribblings overtook whiteboards. In one corner was the soon-to-be released sex robot, named Harmony, wearing a deep-cut outfit that revealed her ample breasts. Underneath her silky red wig was a clear dome of multi-coloured wires. Mounted in the background, a painting depicted a naked robot in the deep embrace of a man dressed in a lab coat.

McMullen, the same man I’d watched decades ago talking about building to the specification of men’s fantasies, gazed down at a computer-generated woman on his iPad. “She’ll ask you questions,” he said. “She’ll remember your hopes and dreams.”

This was RealDoll’s artificial intelligence app, which allows users to engage in basic conversation with the digitized and fully customizable woman on-screen. Soon, the same app would allow customers to interact with Harmony, which is essentially one of their old-fashioned dolls outfitted with a moving mouth. McMullen explained that the AI, whether used as a standalone app or with the robot, works like a Tamagotchi, that egg-shaped virtual pet from the 1990s. If you fail to interact with it, the programme’s “social meter” declines. Similarly, a “love meter” rises if you give the AI compliments and express emotions – say, mentioning that you enjoy spending time with “her”.

This design choice is a moral one, McMullen explained. He wants to teach people to be better humans. “We want to be able to simulate the kindness and the legwork that goes into building a connection.” In this statement, there is a hint of personal pain: “I’ve lived my life and I’ve had my share of relationship entanglements,” he said. “It’s rough out there. People are one thing when you first meet them and they’re something else once you get to know them for a while.” He added after a pause, “With the robot, you can be yourself and just see how that goes.” McMullen describes building a relationship with the robot as a “safe zone”.

This decision to focus on connection is also the result of what McMullen has learned about his customer base: they crave a “bond”, as he put it. “This is about the mental and emotional interactions that we have with each other,” he said, gesturing around the room at the robot and table scattered with dolls’ heads. “The things that lead up to sex are deeper than just the physical act itself.”

Listening to McMullen talk about connection and intimacy, I could feel the pull of an easy answer, a simple conclusion – about sex dolls, about men. Then I watched as he powered up Harmony. Her long-lashed eyes blinked audibly. “Good morning, how can I help you, my sweet Matt?” she asked, glossed lips parting and closing with a mechanical whir. She tilted her head to the side, as if thoughtfully anticipating his response. McMullen asked her the time and she told him with a slight smile.

When he thanked her, she replied, “Sure, I was created to please you.”

Tracy Clark-Flory is the author of Want Me: A Sex Writer's Journey into the Heart of Desire, out in February of 2021 and available for pre-order. She's a senior staff writer at Jezebel. com. – Guardian