ATSA 2019 Updates: Understanding Sex Doll Ownership

As a clinician, I live at an intersection between three worlds.  Sex Addiction Therapy, Sexual Offender Therapy and Sex Therapy.  These are often conflicting worlds.  The sex addiction world can (used to) tend to think all non-normative sexual practices are an addiction.  The sex offender treatment world can tend to label out of the box practices “deviant” and the sex therapy world thinks that all consensual sex practices are pretty much just fine.  It is probably safe to say that these three different (but connected) worlds all likely have different thoughts about sex dolls. 

Sex doll use and sex doll ownership is something that is seriously stigmatized in most arenas.  People who own sex dolls can be labeled perverts.  Many people think that there is something really wrong with someone who might want to own a sex doll.  And many people think that if a minor attracted person has a sex doll it will increase his likelihood to sexually molest a child.  This can be attested to by countries or states enacting legislation about importation and/or ownership of sex dolls as well as a recent controversy in Texas about the opening of a sex doll brothel. The reality is that most of these statements are either stigmas or assumptions as it is a topic that is little researched.

That is why I was so excited to see a session at this year’s ATSA conference dedicated to research about sex doll ownership.  Dr. Craig Harper and Jeremy Malcolm presented preliminary research regarding sex doll ownership.  The first study that was presented was a qualitative study about the motivations for sex doll ownership.  The proviso here is that the sample size is still small (6) but is growing as the research is ongoing.

So why do the men in this study own sex dolls?  Two themes emerged.  First was that of the “perfect partner’ and the second was about sex.  The owners of the dolls identified deficits on real people or themselves that made relationships difficult.  The men in the study cited things such as a doll not always being critical as a reason to have a doll versus a real relationship.  Some men cited their own personal deficits as reasons for having a doll.  They suffered from great anxiety when interacting with others and found it easier to have a sex doll.  In these cases, the dolls took on emotional significance as well.  Another reason to have a sex doll is that you can create the perfect partner.  We all know that real people have flaws.  When creating a sex doll, it is totally customizable and can be created to perfectly match a person’s arousal template.

The second study was quantitative and looked at whether or not doll ownership predicted sexual aggression.  This is a topic of great importance as many people hold the belief that having a sex doll (particularly when you are talking about child sex dolls) will increase a person’s likelihood to offend against a real person (or child).  This study only looked at adults with adult sex dolls.  This study had both doll owners and a control group take a survey that looked at many variables.  Without digging into all the results, I will summarize.  Owning a sex doll did not increase the likelihood endorsing sexual aggression.  There were no differences between doll owners and non-doll owners on measures of sexual assault proclivity or paraphilic interest.  There were also no differences between doll owners and non-doll owners on the emotional factors studied nor in attachment style.

The study did find that doll owners scored higher in some of the implicit rape theories endorsements.  Particularly, doll owners scored higher on hostility toward women, seeing women as sexual objects, seeing women as dangerous and sexual entitlement.  It should be noted that the study did not look at causation.  Therefore, you cannot say whether owning a doll increased these scores or that people with these attitudes are more likely to get a doll.  We can just note a difference.

Again, as a reminder, this is preliminary data.  The second study has 70 doll owners and 90 controls at present.  However, the research is a step in the right direction as it is empirically looking at doll ownership.  The second study found preliminary evidence that owning a sex doll is not associated with an increase in sexual aggression. 

Some people might ask why this is important research.  Laws in states and countries are being enacted regarding sex doll ownership.  These laws are being proposed without research to back up whether or not bans would be effective.  It is easy to pass a law about sexual behavior on an emotional basis.  However, if the science ends up saying that the law is unhelpful or even harmful, it is nearly impossible to get these types of laws overturned. 

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