The problem wasn’t his bald head, though that contrasted rather unexpectedly with the full head of hair I’d seen in his profile picture. Nick, a beautiful man with a firm jawline, hard abs and bright blue eyes. A man with whom, according to the bio text on the website where I rented him, I shared not only the age but also a hobby: rock climbing.
The problem wasn’t that Nick was already completely undressed and in starfish pose on the bed when I entered the dim room. His arms and legs spread out to the sides, his gaze fixed on the ceiling.
The biggest problem wasn’t even that there were metal screws glistening in his palms and soles, so that he reminded me more of a modern, energetic Jesus than of the sex worker of the future – and as such he had really been introduced to me by his owner.
Admittedly, the little problem was that Nick had an erection that had to be as long as my forearm and was certainly as thick. An image I tried to look at enthusiastically, not so much because of Nick, as so as not to disappoint its owner. He had just opened the door for me and now placed the room key next to a tube of lubricant on the bedside table, beaming at his co-worker: “Nick has a very big cock!”
But while I nervously wondered how previous renters could have ever accommodated that “very big cock” in their bodies, it wasn’t Nick’s sex or other body parts that kept me clad in his arms during our afternoon together. .
The problem was his missing soul, recognizable by the eyes staring straight past me, palpable by the heavy weight of his doll’s body. I yanked his torso to prop him up against the cushions, but couldn’t. Despondent, I finally settled into his chest, which was smooth and cold to the touch—as was the rest of my bed partner’s body.
Earlier that week, I had confidently defended my upcoming anthropological fieldwork in the sex doll brothel in front of my real, human love partner. This time I was going to travel to Austria for it, previously I went to Spain for an adventure with a red-haired female sex doll, but once I got there the ‘brothel of the future’ turned out to be closed again. The neighborhood had protested, I later learned, they weren’t quite as ready for the future as the owners had hoped.
Sex doll Nick offered me a new investigative opportunity. It was absolutely necessary, I told my love, to experience for myself how the rapid rise of sex dolls and sex robots could change the human experience of sexuality and love.
No, I waved away his doubting look, that’s not cheating, nothing unappetizing about it either, that’s called participatory observation, that’s just part of my job. And those dolls, they are the future of sex and sex work, more and more futurists and sociologists are certainly saying that themselves. By 2050, one in ten young people will have sex with a robot, there are already men who are married to or live with sex dolls, there are several online sex doll forums where proud owners share pictures of their plastic partners, and in Japan, where a large proportion of sex dolls are produced, more and more young men seem to be to have such a doll at home. No more real people in their bed for them: these dolls always make sense, never a headache, and their buttocks stay tight forever.
The protesting residents of the former Spanish brothel feared a clientele of “freaks,” the defeated owner told me. But, he argued, they weren’t paying enough attention to the potential benefits of sex dolls for humanity. Prisoners, who would otherwise become sexually frustrated, can indulge their fantasy and lust on a sex doll. Extremely shy people, who simply do not dare to make contact with human species, can still have a sexual experience. Women who have a clumsy or lazy bed partner at home can still get their sexual comfort in this way. With a fake human, yes, but with an increasingly human-looking fake: hard work is underway to bring lifelike sex dolls to the market that will feel warmer in temperature than my Nick and whose chest rises and falls as if they were breathing. Sex robots already exist that can pronounce sentences, and the hope of their producers is that their successors will soon not only sound smarter than Alexa or Siri on your phone, but also have stored in their algorithmic brain which erotic position you prefer.
And then there was the argument of some feminists, as shared in academic articles and on activist blogs: the rise of sex dolls has reduced the number of people having to do sex work. Soon we can leave that to robot slaves, they exulted, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether the current sex workers are also so enthusiastic about the predicted, imminent loss of their jobs.
I had transferred part of the amount to be paid (60 euros per hour) to Nick’s owner in advance – the rest had to be paid in cash, on the spot. Only after I arrived at Vienna airport did I receive instructions about the address. The brothel turned out to be in a fairly upscale residential area, inconspicuous between stately front doors and tall windows. The curtains closed, next to the doorbell a small sign with the company name.
The owner welcomed me kindly from behind a counter, counted my money, led me towards Nick, down a corridor with closed doors on either side. Behind those doors are female sex dolls, the owner told me – some of them had customers over. Nick was his only male employee and especially popular among homosexuals. “They come back again and again, because of his…” That big cock, yes, yes.
A moment later I lay next to it and looked at it, shivering in the cold room despite my warm sweater. Nick really looked Madame Tussauds-esque, I concluded. After a minute or two, I stabbed a finger into his silicone chest. It bounced slightly, underneath it felt unbending hard. His penis felt the same, I noticed afterwards.
Encouraged by his silent assent to anything I would say, I began to muttering to Nick. That I realized that the academic discussion of his ilk was currently focusing on the wrong aspect of their existence. In preparation for this meeting, I read dozens of academic articles about robots behaving and appearing increasingly humane. Just wait until they get smarter than us, scientists in those pieces warn — after all, the World Economic Forum was already predicting “empathetic robots” that will act autonomously and be empathetic! “Now that I’ve met you, Nick, I realize that we have to prioritize a very different question,” I said. “Not: how human can robots look and behave? But: what effect do such dolls and robots have on our humanity?”
I taught Nick about a theory from historian Jacob Burckhardt, which states that as a society’s material conditions become more complex, its social relations become coarser. Perhaps you could even argue, I thought aloud, that the more complicated technology gets, the simpler humans become. “Just think about it, Nick: I used to know all the phone numbers of girlfriends by heart, now I know zero, because I no longer have to train that memory particle – they are all in my phone anyway. Before I wanted to have a chance at a relationship, I had to dare to speak to an attractive person in the bar or supermarket, now I wait for someone to swipe my photo in the right direction. In the past, if I was lost, I had to ask a stranger on the street for help, nowadays I rely blindly on my GPS.”
Since I paid for him anyway, I forced Nick to listen further for examples of how modern technology can influence and change our behavior. The contraceptive pill led to freer sex, the washing machine to more free time. The plane made us citizens of the world, the language suggestion option in mail programs like Gmail makes language uniformity – one with a striking number of exclamation marks: “Great, thanks! Looking forward!”
It seemed plausible to me that Nick and his ilk would influence our behavior again and profoundly. But how? “Suppose, eh, Nick, in the future you looked a little less like a corpse—yes, sorry, and a little more like a human. Suppose you whisper sweet or exciting things to me and become more attractive to me than in your current role of oversized dildo, and suppose someone like me would trade my living bed partner for someone like you as a result. What would we humans learn or unlearn in the field of love and intimacy?”
As I put my coat and boots back on – our time together was almost up – I suggested such things as dealing with the discomfort that human partners tend to become more unattractive or petulant over the years, exercising ourselves in awkward communication about various intimate wishes, dealing with the risk of rejection. In other words, I was referring to all those things that make human love and lust so complicated and vulnerable – and so wonderful.
Nick watched me in silence.