A sex doll “brothel” in Dortmund, Germany.
Image: Getty

The Toronto-based company KinkySdollS has announced plans to open an “Adult Love Dolls Brothel” in Houston, Texas—and, holy shit, are people losing their goddamn minds over it.

The proposed business would allow customers to rent the anatomically-correct dolls by the half-hour or hour. To attribute artificial intelligence to the dolls—which run anywhere from $2,199 to $3,500 each—would be quite a leap, as they are simply able to moan, according to the Toronto Sun. Which is to say, they are less advanced than a Teddy Ruxpin. (The company does have a $10,000 sex doll with advanced AI, but it’s display-only.) Somehow, however, the media narrative has been transformed into a battle against a “sex robot brothel.”

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Last week, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said during a press conference that, while he’s “not trying to be the moral police or anything,” the brothel was “not the sort of business I’m looking for in the city of Houston.” The City Council is considering the “expansion of an existing ordinance on ‘sexual arcades’ to include businesses that carry ‘anthropomorphic devices and objects utilized for entertainment,’” reports The Daily Beast. The city has also halted construction on the planned storefront amid questions over a permit.

But, most entertaining of all, the “sex robot brothel” is being attacked by Elijah Rising, a Christian nonprofit seeking to end sex trafficking, in part “through prayer.” The group—which explicitly blames pornography for the sexual abuse cases “sweeping through churches around the world”—offers free two-hour van tours of “high-probability trafficking areas” in Houston, which it calls “a rolling Human Trafficking 101 class with visuals.” (I am sure that those “high probability” trafficking victims really appreciate being gawked at as though they were a tourist attraction.)

The group has launched a Change.org petition titled, “Keep Robot Brothels Out Of Houston,” that currently has nearly 13,000 signatures. It reads, “As a nonprofit whose mission is to end sex trafficking we have seen the progression as sex buyers go from pornography to strip clubs to purchasing sex—robot brothels will ultimately harm men, their understanding of healthy sexuality, and increase the demand for the prostitution and sexual exploitation of women and children.” There is no causative proof attached to that particular statement—but, rest assured, they have seen it.

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Here we have the slow creep of anti-trafficking rhetoric on normal, healthy sexual expression. Is a person lured into sex trafficking by having sexual thoughts? By masturbating with a hand? By jerking it with a Tenga egg? What about a Fleshlight? Diddling with a dildo? Riding a Sybian? Doing any of the above while having phone sex? While watching porn? What is the original sex-trafficking gateway drug?

On the petition’s companion site, it reads, “As long as we further reduce the female body as an object for masturbation free from the ‘inconvenience’ of consent, women will not be seen as equals.” Do life-like dildos dehumanize men—or does a faux torso need to be attached? Is a head required? Should we go after sex shops that sell various objects that can be put on, around, or in one’s genitals? I actually would very much like to know the thinking here!

By all means, let us please—now more than ever—have nuanced, thoughtful conversations about consent, gender, power, and all aspects of our sexual culture. But what a thing to occupy a worldview in which it’s even remotely possible to boil down the complex reality of human sexual fantasy and entertainment into a grave and inevitably escalating threat—whether it’s around porn or stripping or sex dolls or sex work.

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That is to say nothing of the routine conflation of sex trafficking with sex work—it is the total erasure of the consensual sex trade.

The fear around things like this is so often a religiously-motivated one centered around the specter of detaching sex from love and marriage. The fear is sex, and sexual pleasure, outside of a procreative context. It’s a fear that motivates so many political attacks on everything from reproductive rights to sex education. And it’s a fear so profoundly and sadly blinding that it makes one see an immobile doll that can moan as a, in Elijah Rising’s words, “humanoid” robot.