Sex Doll Brothels

I guess “used sex toy library” isn’t as appealing

A closeup of a sex doll’s foot holding a vibrator between her toes. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The headline of this article might be seen as kink shaming, sex negative or radical feminist, but I don’t necessarily want to deride the idea of visiting a sex doll brothel, but rather give it some context within a zeitgeist of sex worker stigma.

Within sex work spaces, accounts of sex doll brothels are often shared with nervous bewilderment. I feel depending on our own hustle, and our own relationship with internalized whorephobia, we might have varying and complex feelings. Some of us feel replaced, while to others it’s a joke. Coming from a labour background, I sometimes quip, “yet another blue collar job lost to automation.”

I feel that the crux of the issue is the fact that these dolls are essentially extremely expensive masturbatory toys. I feel that this message can’t be understated enough. You aren’t having sex with a partner, you are masturbating. With that in mind, these sex toys are being marketed and reported in ways that humanize them by using the language that sex workers use to refer to our work, and specifically our work spaces. The marketing of these dolls seems to simultaneously cash in on the taboo nature of sex work while also throwing sex workers under the bus by promising a “less exploitative” sex work experience. The issue with this line of thinking, humanizing sex dolls as stand ins for actual sex workers, is that it also runs the risk of dehumanizing sex workers; devaluing our work as “on par” with a silicone masturbatory tool and easily replaceable.

If you are a sex worker who has a lot of internalized whorephobia, or a sex worker who is unhappy with her job, then that sort of message, the message of being replaceable by a sex toy, could be seen as having merit. I certainly don’t want to mitigate the validity of those feelings. There are a lot of forces on sex workers telling us to feel ashamed of the work that we do, and I feel that those feelings can often manifest in us devaluing our own work, although I feel it’s equally valid to state that those feelings of being replaceable by a masturbatory device are also a manifestation of sex worker stigma.

While those of us in the sex work community grapple with the marketing of these dolls, and how they might make us feel uncomfortable or undervalued due to our own internalized whorephobia, similar discussions are happening in “sex worker exclusionary radical feminist” (SWERF) spaces. You would think that an activist group wishing to prohibit the sex work industry would welcome sex dolls, as they offer the orgasms one can get with sex work, while taking out the actual sex worker. This is certainly a line of thinking that the marketers of sex doll rental companies are cashing in on, as they claim their service lacks the exploitation of sex work, yet several prominent SWERFs have appeared in media deriding sex doll brothels as dehumanizing. Sex workers and allies might see this message and feel confused. At first glance, it appears to be a message deriding the dehumanization of sex workers as easily replaceable by masturbatory toys. If you value the work of sex workers, seeing a message like this would seem to be one that supports sex workers and advances us as skilled workers offering a service that can’t be replaced by a sex toy. However, the message is coming from a place, and is delivered to a society ingrained with sex worker stigma and whorephobia. Coming from that place, and being disseminated in this culture, the message assumes sex workers are already disposable and replaceable as a given, and attempts to attack sex work, casual sex, and even masturbation as synonymous, interchangeable and harmful. This sort of subtle wordplay to shift the narrative is common in the sex work prohibitionist movement, which is why sex positive feminists are uncomfortable with any message coming from SWERFs that appears to be supportive, we know there’s something we’re not meant to see. In a world that already views sex workers as overpriced and disposable, the marketing of an expensive sex toy as a brothel worker gives SWERFs ammunition to dehumanize sex workers by conflating us with sex toys.

The idea that sex dolls will cause men to dehumanize women more than they already would isn’t an idea that should resonate with anyone who supports sex workers. These brothels are offering a very specific service, they’re renting a piece of equipment that is out of reach to most people, a piece of equipment comparable in price to a brand new economy car. There are certainly men who want that experience, and to them I would say, “go for it.” In that regard, the title of this article, a quote taken directly from a local sex worker who asked to remain anonymous, is inaccurate. Calling it a ‘used sex toy library’ is about as much as a spin as it is to call it a brothel. ‘Used sex toy library’ devalues the nature of the equipment rental these spaces will offer, in the same way that calling these spaces brothels devalues the work that sex workers provide.

I know that some clients who would normally see sex workers will probably give rental sex dolls a try. I imagine most clients who see us because we’re human, and we are able to give feedback, provide spontaneity, offer our expertise and provide a skilled service will likely feel that the experience we provide is worth the additional cost. At the end of the day, these brothels offer a pricey sex toy for you to masturbate with, and sex workers provide a unique, skilled and interactive experience.