Sunday, 8 June 2008

Erotic Machines: Automata and Love Dolls

“I was now about to form another being of whose disposition I was alike ignorant; she might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate and delight, for its own sake, in murder and wretchedness…and she…might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation…She might also turn with disgust from him to the superior beauty of man…trembling with passion, tore to pieces the thing on which I was engaged… I left the room, and locking the door, made a solemn vow in my own heart to never resume my labours” (Mary Shelley, 1818, p. 158-159).


The image of the erotic artificially created woman has deep cultural and historical roots. Her significance has been, above all, anchored and shaped by cautionary narratives about the unintended consequences of knowledge transgression. Artificial woman appears in Greek mythology through the story of Prometheus as the ‘beautifully evil’ Pandora. Fashioned upon the anvil of Hepheastos, Pandora stands as the prototype for all mechanical women who follow her, as well as the punishment against Prometheus for stealing fire (knowledge) from the gods. The erotic artificial female also appears within fifteenth century Jewish golem mythology, although unlike her male counterpart, the female golem is strictly a concubine. Substituting a ‘real’ woman, the female golem’s primary purpose was to fulfill the sexual desire of her creator. Mechanical women, as erotic objects of desire, appear in literary works as well, perhaps most famously in the stories of Villiers’ Tomorrow’s Eve and Hoffman’s Der Sandman from which theories of the uncanny was worked through. Although referred to only briefly in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the threat implied by the creation of the artificial woman (i.e. the destruction of the entire human race) stands as a central, familiarly Pandoran, warning in the novel.

The use of sexual surrogates has a long history which, for women, includes the electromechanical vibrator. It was invented in the early 1880s and used to treat a range of female sex related ailments which collectively came under the heading of hysteria for which orgasm was taken to be the most effective treatment (Levy, 2007, p. 220; see also Maines, 1999). Sexual surrogates for men, often take the form of love dolls utilized for sexual pleasure among men were first written about in Japanese literature in the late seventeenth century. The mechanism described was an artificial vulva, called azumagata, Japanese for woman substitute. Formed out of tortoiseshell or leather with an entrance lined with velvet or silk, this mechanism replicated a woman’s labia major. Some versions of the azumagata were of entire female bodies. These versions were sometimes called doningyo, meaning doll body (Levy, 2007, p. 237). Paul Tabori describes the doningyo, “A man who is forced to sleep alone can obtain pleasure with a doningyo. This is the body of a female doll, the image of a girl of thirteen or fourteen with a velvet vulva. But these dolls are only for people of high rank. Another name of the doll body is even more outspoken: tahi-joro – ‘traveling whore’” (Tabori, 1969 in Levy, 2007, p. 237, italics in orginal). These dolls, sometimes referred to as Dutch Wives, are believed to have originated with the leather dolls brought aboard Dutch merchant ships starting at around the seventeenth century. The Japanese interacted with Dutch merchants on the trade island of Deshima, established by the Dutch East India Company in 1641. Through the relationship between traders the Japanese became familiar with this sexual practice (Pate, 2005; see also Levy, 2007, p. 249).

During the Golden Age of the Automaton (1750-1850), erotic mechanisms flourished, evident in popular and expensive erotic watches, naked dancers, and sexually explicit clockwork women destined for private showrooms and the Orient (Landes, 1983). Together, these automata constitute the covert and fetishist side of the eighteenth century automaton even as they were proclaimed to be the very symbol of the Enlightenment. The Silver Dancer was one such erotic automaton. Although she was not used for sexual pleasure in the same way the azumagata or the tahi-joro were, that is to say in a physical sense; her function was primarily to provide erotic visual entertainment for her observer.

Love dolls were used extensively among sailors while they travelled during the late nineteenth century. These dolls were referred to as dames des voyage (traveling women) by the French. In Austro-Germany they were referred to as sailors’ sweethearts. These dolls were created in a woman’s form and most often made out of cloth or straw. In Europe during the early 1920s, lady travellers continued to be marketed toward naval officers. These replicas of female vaginas were inflatable to a desired ‘tightness’ and then could be deflated for discreet storage. Alternatively, these dolls could be custom ordered in life size dimensions based upon a submitted photograph or in accordance with directions as to preferred height, weight, hair color and so on (Levy, 2007, p. 238).

Infamous stories from the early 1920s include a love doll owned by avant-garde artist Oskar Kokoschka in the exact image of his former married lover, Alma Mahler. Kokoschka attended to every detail of his doll, shopping and dressing her in the latest Parisian fashion, but ultimately the doll failed to fulfill his erotic desire and he decapitated her one night during a garden party (Roos, 2005). Similarly, Hedy Lamarr speaks of an ex-lover in her memoir, named Sam, who had a love doll fashioned in her exact likeness. Sam is said to have fallen into deep emotional despair after their love affair ended. Lamarr describes witnessing Sam having sex with his Hedy-the-Inferior, as he called her, and submitted that it did seem to bring him a measure of comfort (Levy, p. 240-241).

Advances in materials science have enabled sex doll manufacturers to improve significantly on the inflatable products of the preceding decades. This has resulted in the creation of such life like dolls as the RealDoll which currently costs approximately $5,000-$7,000 CAN. Today, Japan leads the way in high priced sex dolls with its first all doll escort agency opening in 2004. Called Doll no Mori (Forest of Dolls), this brothel features love dolls rather than organic sex trade workers. Citing cheaper labour costs and low initial overhead, the company boasts that it made its initial start up costs back within the first month of operation (Connell, 2004).