It's Sunday so you know what that means — time to talk about sex robots and the creepy, socially-stunted people (men) who love them. No judgment or anything. Technosexuals — those individuals (men) who like to get off with robotic sex dolls approaching various degrees of realism — are the subject of a new documentary called The Mechanical Bride. Directed by the superhumanly tolerant and patient Allison de Fren, the film explores the culture of artificial companionship as well as the ways in which the male gaze has pushed advertising and pop culture to sexualize the female body and break it down into its component parts.
Underwire's Scott Thill interviewed De Fren, who, in addition to her work as a professor of media culture at Occidental College, worked at Microsoft scion Paul Allen's future-tech think tank Interval Research and Starwave. She traces the rise in technosexual culture to the ways in which advertising manipulates the female body, drawing a distinction between the robot fetish A.S.F.R. (alt.sex.fetish.robots) and doll owners, many of whom De Fren would not consider to be technosexual. New innovations in synthetic sex partners include hyper-idealized, life-sized mannequins such as the RealDoll, which, with posable limbs and silicone skin, represent the deepest yearning of sex doll owners — to create a synthetic woman so realistic that it obliterates the lingering desire for real human women. "Advertising's ideal woman," De Fren explains,
is a fragmented body of replaceable parts, whose origin is the assembly-line logic of consumer capitalism. The RealDoll is the culmination of that kind of logic. It's ordered in the exact same way as a car, with detailed customization including head and body type, hair and eye color, breast size and lips.
With an almost admirable open-mindedness, De Fren investigates the various technosexual subcultures, talking to some guy named Davecat who has an artificial companion, members of Japanese gynoid culture, and a RealDoll repair technician(?) who talks all about how Europe really took pleasure sexbots to a whole new level of weirdness. These people (men), De Fren concludes, are all fairly intelligent if socially maladapted individuals who have become attracted to the "tension and transformation between the human and the robotic." She continues, explaining that the technosexuals are drawn to
those moments when what looks like a human is revealed to be a robot shutting down or malfunctioning, its faceplate opening to reveal wiring and circuitry. Many love the original The Stepford Wives for scenes where the wives break down, which throws their artificiality into relief. These are often very smart but socially awkward men who find navigating the inconsistent rules of human interaction confusing. It's an attempt, however circuitous, at connecting.
De Fren investigated technosexual culture armed with a curiosity so strong it overpowered any urge to hold her subjects accountable for the strong undercurrent of misogyny running through their desire to make love to an inanimate object, an unreal, stylized woman doll that behaves according to the whim of its owner. She explains that, although she had a "Spock-like curiosity" to learn about her subjects, that isn't to say that "there weren't some people I interviewed who put me off, but I am one of those people who likes to shine lights into dark corners and see what's squirming around."
Even the non-judgmental De Fren realizes that there's something a little icky about elements of technosexuality, most glaring of which is the fact that technosexual culture is a male-dominated culture whose greatest desire is to objectify a de-animate women. With her critiques of advertising culture, De Fren also acknowledges that the corners aren't so poorly illuminated as they may at first seem — though the likelihood is low that a completely realistic synthetic person (like in Alien) could be created anytime in the near future, a realistic and affordable sex doll is the super gross technosexual wet dream. De Fren is a professional investigator and therefore her dispassion, relative objectivity, and tolerance are completely appropriate, necessary, in fact, for her to dig through all the strange fantasies of technosexuality. But make no mistake — this is not the average sexual fetish or proclivity that merits the "as long as it's not illegal, occurring between two consenting adults, no judgment" response. The (male) desire to have (own) a sexbot is a fantasy in which a man can dehumanize the female and render it a mere tool that makes his penis hiccup in the most realistically sexual way possible.
If you're still thinking, "Hey, maybe it's none of my business that some people (men) like to do it with dolls. Who am I to judge, anyway? I had one of those Silver Bullet vibrators until I accidentally left it on one night and wore out the motor — I can dig sex toys," then perhaps a spooky Halloween anecdote will change your credulous worldview. My human girlfriend and I decided to stay in during the Halloween of 2010 (which inconveniently fell on a Sunday) so we could binge on scary movies, but after watching all of the Halloweens (even the one without Michael Myers, if anyone knows the title without cheating), we started casting around for something new to watch and found something infinitely scarier than any low-rent slasher flick — a Discovery Health documentary about technosexuals and were like, "Oh fuck yeah are we totally watching all of this."
The hour-long doc featured four dudes who like robot ladies — a guy who'd had some bad luck with real women and wanted to reinvigorate his manhood by having a robot lady friend who would perform all the weird sex-acts he'd seen in anime porn, a guy who wanted to hypnotize his girlfriend so she'd act like a robot, a guy on a countrywide search for the perfectly realistic sexbot, and a guy in West Virginia who'd sunk his life-savings into making a perfectly realistic sexbot (the result was a life-sized woman doll that could moan like broken record player and writhe haltingly on the ground). Hijinks ensued and basically at the end — once our faith in humanity totally evaporated — the latter two gentlemen meet up, the searcher jaded and no longer expecting much from this last stop on his sexbot search, the sexbot maker eager to show off his merchandise.
The guys meet awkwardly, the searcher says, "Let's see it," or something creepy like that, and the West Virginian tinkerer takes him into a woodshed (I am not making this up) and shows him what half a million dollars and little American prurience and elbow grease can do. The cameraman shows us the writhing, sputtering doll, then quickly swings up to the searcher's face and we're totally sure that he's going to be disappointed because what he's looking at is a really weird, sad excuse for realism. Then, unexpectedly, he smiles. He says he's really happy about what he's seeing. One of the filmmakers asks tentatively, "Would you have sex with that robot?" And to our utter horror, the man, smiling even wider, answers, "Yes, I would definitely have sex with that robot."
That's where the investigation into technosexual culture ends, both literally and metaphorically — with two guys alone in a woodshed in West Virginia, ogling what might pass for someone trying to recover from electroshock treatments. This is not a healthy thing, people, not even a little bit.
Correction: De Fren worked for two Paul Allen companies, Starwave and Interval Research, not "Starware" or "Research." She also distinguishes between people with robot fetish (A.S.F.R.) and doll owners, many of whom she does not consider to be technosexual.