The story of Pygmalion goes like this: A sculptor carves a statue in the shape of a beautiful woman. It’s so beautiful that he falls in love with her, prays that she could become real, has his wish granted, and lives happily ever after. The tale has been reimagined countless times since its initial publication as part of Ovid’s epic poem Metamorphoses in 8 A.D. Pinocchio, Frankenstein, My Fair Lady, and 90s makeover movie She’s All That all have their origins in that myth.

But Pygmalion’s true modern heir might be Davecat, a man who lives in southeastern Michigan with three high-end sex dolls. His first purchase, which he named Sidore Kuroneko, he considers his wife; the other two—named Elena and Muriel—are just intimate friends. Though he didn’t sculpt them, they are his creations. He designed their bodies before they were manufactured and their personalities after they arrived. “There was never a moment when [Sidore]—or any doll, for that matter—was merely an object to me,” he told me when we spoke last year.

Though Davecat may be one of the most visible modern sex doll owners—with an active blog and appearances in articles, documentaries, and TV spots—he’s part of a community called iDollators. These owners of high-end, anatomically correct dolls use them for sex, love, art, and companionship.

If Pygmalion lived in today’s world, none of this would be too foreign to him. In Ovid’s original story, there is some implication that the sculptor was not only in love with the statue but that he had sex with it before it came to life, according to The Erotic Doll, a book by Dr. Marquard Smith, the head of doctoral studies and the research leader at the Royal College of Art’s School of Humanities. Other tales of statue-love can be found throughout classical antiquity. For example, the Greek rhetorician Athenaeus wrote of a man who had a physical love affair with a statue of Cupid. In a somewhat more recent example, a gardener was reportedly found attempting to get it on with a replica of the Venus de Milo in 1877.

Throughout history, men without access to beautiful statues—but with an inclination to make love to women-shaped things—have made do in various ways. Sailors often used cloth to fashion fornicatory dolls known as dame de voyage in French, or dama de viaje in Spanish. In modern-day Japan, sex dolls are sometimes known as “Dutch wives”—a reference to the hand-sewn leather masturbation puppets made by the 17th-century Dutch sailors who traded with the Japanese.

Though sailors’ dolls were just generic substitutes for the female form—any female form—there are some instances of men creating dolls as stand-ins for specific women. In 1916, after the Austro-Hungarian artist Oskar Kokoschka was jilted by his lover, the pianist and composer Alma Mahler, he wrote that he had “lost all desire to go through the ordeal of love again.” (This is a refrain that doll owners have repeated through the ages.) He still desired Mahler, though, so much so that he provided her dressmaker with incredibly detailed instructions for a life-sized replica of Mahler, specifying not only her appearance but everything down to how her skin should feel. Historians differ on what happened after Kokoschka received the doll. One thing is for sure—it was extremely furry, covered in “skin” more reminiscent of a plush stuffed animal than a human woman. One account says he was “enraptured” by it all the same; others say he was disappointed. He made several drawings of it, and, according to some reports, eventually destroyed it at a party, either burning it or burying it in his garden.

But the most public prelude to the modern sex doll was the mannequin-based art created by Surrealists like Man Ray and Salvador Dalí. A work called “Mannequin Street,” featured at the Exposition International du Surréalisme at the Galerie des Beaux-Arts in 1938, included 16 mannequins outfitted by different artists, while Dalí’s “Rainy Taxi” centered on a female mannequin whose half-undressed body was crawling with live snails. Man Ray once claimed that the Surrealists not only infused these works with eroticism but personally “violated” their mannequins.

A persistent urban legend holds that Adolf Hitler charged one of his SS commanders to design sex dolls for German soldiers during World War II, to prevent them from slaking their lust with non-Aryan women. Whether or not this is true, the commercial sex doll does find its origins in Germany.  The Bild Lilli doll—invented in the 1950s and modeled on a sexy, outspoken comic-strip character called Lilli—was an 11.5 inch plastic model, not a penetrable sex doll. In his book The Sex Doll: A History, Anthony Ferguson calls the Bild Lilli “a pornographic caricature.” Although it was marketed to adult men, the doll is widely cited as the inspiration for Barbie, so, you know, take that and run with it.

Custom-designed heads are mounted on a display at the RealDolls showroom in San Marcos, California. (AP)

In the United States, sex dolls were first advertised in porn magazines around 1968, when it became legal to sell sexual devices through the mail. By the 1980s, they could be found in most sex shops—though they were the inflatable kind, more suited to be gag gifts at a frat party than to actually withstand sex with a person. “Most of the attention and craftsmanship was focused on the penetration areas, the mouth, vagina and the anus,” Ferguson writes, but “the inflatable can only support a certain amount of weight or repeat usage before the seams in the material deteriorate.”

The realism and utility of sex dolls took a giant leap forward in the late 90s, when  artist Matt McMullen started working on a lifelike silicone female mannequin and documenting its progress on his website. Before long, he began getting emails asking if it was … anatomically correct. At the time, it wasn’t. But the demand was there, and so McMullen provided the supply. Hence, the eerily lifelike RealDoll was born. After shock jock Howard Stern got hold of one and seemingly had sex with it on his radio show, McMullen’s company grew quickly, and he now sells anywhere from 200 to 300 high-end customizable sex dolls per year.

Most of McMullen’s dolls are female; he makes a small number of male ones, but there are fewer options for customizing them, and they account for just 10 percent of his sales. “As an artist, I was always drawn to the female form, so that’s what my subject matter was,” McMullen says. “The female form was my muse.” He insists that actual women have nothing to fear from his dolls. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Do I think the dolls will replace women or threaten to replace women? Absolutely not.”

Two female RealDolls wait to be shipped as an employee puts the finishing touches on a male doll. The company’s founder, Matt McMullen, says female dolls account for 90 percent of his sales. (AP)

Throughout history—from Pygmalion and his marble bride to Oskar Kokoschka and his fuzzy companion—the creators and users of sex dolls have been overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, straight men. “In the content analysis I did of magazines and books, I don’t think any of [the examples] involved women,” says Cynthia Ann Moya, vice-president of the erotica database Alta-Glamour.com Book Gallery, who wrote her Ph.D. dissertation at the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco on artificial vaginas and sex dolls from the late 19th century through the 1980s. “This is not to say that it never happened. But the mythologies that people tell each other about these sex dolls all involved men.”

The twin questions this raises are: “Why aren’t more women using sex dolls?” and “Why are so many men drawn to them?”

Some answers are purely practical. For instance, only 25 percent of women can consistently orgasm from vaginal sex alone, which makes a doll far from the most efficient sex toy. Also, when it comes to RealDolls and their ilk, everyone I spoke with told me how heavy they are. (Female RealDolls weigh between 75 and 115 pounds.) Some mentioned it sheepishly, others matter-of-factly, but there was a general consensus that the dolls are difficult for many women to move around.

There’s also plenty of speculation about the difference between men and women’s masturbation styles. In his 1936 book Studies in the Psychology of Sex, the English psychologist Henry Havelock Ellis wrote that men are more visual, while women are more imaginative and rely more on their sense of touch. Both Smith and McMullen reiterated this conventional wisdom, and, allowing for individual differences, it seems like a plausible enough explanation for why most dolls, like most porn, are made with men’s interests in mind. Most women care mainly about the actual tactile sensation, while men like things to look real, the thinking goes. When a man is getting it on with a doll, especially a modern one with its silicone skin and almost-human expression, it’s easier for him to pretend it wants him back.

There are some women who buy female dolls. But McMullen says many of them purchase the dolls with a male partner—or with the intention of dressing them up and enjoying them as fashion dolls. “A lot of women like the dolls because they’re like life-size Barbies,” he says.

Barbara, a 61-year-old small business owner from California, is one of the few women involved in the iDollator community. She says she first heard about the dolls through a news story about people who were using them to cheat their way into carpool lanes. Then she saw Davecat on the TLC show My Strange Addiction, got in touch, and found him “extremely welcoming.” The community as a whole embraces female members, despite being mostly male, she says.

Barbara and her husband own four dolls, which she says they use only for photography, though she has “not the slightest objection to people who use them for their ‘intended purpose.’”

“Feminists seem to be totally horrified by these dolls, which puzzles me, as I am a feminist,” Barbara told me in an email. “They say that the dolls ‘objectify’ women because they are so beautiful that real women cannot hope to compete with them on the basis of looks.”

Most feminists, however, probably aren’t objecting because they’re worried about entering into a beauty competition with the dolls. Complaints about objectification centered on men who treat women as objects—disregarding their agency or feelings and viewing them as mere tools to be used for selfish ends. Sex dolls are objects; they’re also, critically, objects you can own. And these objects you can own are shaped, almost all of the time, like women.

A worker assembles sex dolls at a factory in China. (Reuters)

In her Ph.D. dissertation, Moya questions why there is something uniquely perverse about owning a sex doll. As she puts it, “A better spatula does not inspire lengthy monologues about human alienation and the reifying effects of technological mechanization on our lifestyles.” Sexuality is an appetite, not unlike hunger, but we treat the devices used to satisfy that appetite differently. If the doll owners aren’t hurting anyone, why should we condemn something that is basically just fancy masturbation?

But sex dolls do retain something of an ick-factor, even as vibrators and other sex toys have become more mainstream. That’s because the dolls are tied up with questions about gender and power in a way that spatulas (and even vibrators) are not.

According to Smith, any sort of non-reproductive sexual behavior has historically been seen as perverse. These days, though, many people are okay with sex that isn’t reproductive. We’re less okay with emotional attachments that aren’t socially productive, and so it seems the distaste is strongest for the small subset of men who consider themselves to be in romantic relationships with their dolls, rather than just using them for sex. We expect a relationship to involve mutual consent, a kind of equality and reciprocity that is impossible with a doll. By its very nature, the relationship is one-sided—a teeter-totter with only one person sitting on it.

But realistic dolls often do inspire real affection, and even devotion. Some men assign personalities and preferences to the dolls they design (Davecat’s dolls even have Twitter accounts), and they talk about them as one would a live partner. “There is genuine empathy here,” Smith writes, “what the Germans call Einfühlung, an entering into the feelings of an other.”*

A love for one’s own creation, though, is also, in a way, self-love, or narcissism. “This is why so much of it has to do with masturbation,” Smith says. “These things are not unconnected.”

Narcissistic or not, that attachment can become isolating.  Smith points out that, especially in the age of technology, intimate relationships with objects aren’t so uncommon. “Think about the way you use your iPhone,” he says. “You hold it, and you stroke it, and you scroll. You’re holding it to your ear as we speak. It’s kind of a part of you. It’s an extension of you.” But things are different when the object is human-shaped and the relationship is sexual. Owning a doll can have “social and psychological consequences for men who want to develop these intimate and erotic relationships with an inanimate human form. I don’t want to pathologize anyone, but I think there’s a danger around the way that processes like that objectify men’s relationships with themselves in a way that restricts an authentic emotional intelligence.”

Sarah Valverde, a researcher and mental health therapist, did her masters thesis in psychology on the demographics and psychological characteristics of sex doll owners. She says that many of the men she surveyed for her research felt shame or embarrassment about owning sex dolls. But contrary to popular stereotypes, they were just as satisfied with their lives, on average, as the general population, and didn’t suffer higher-than-normal rates of depression or other mental illness. Owning a sex doll “is certainly a deviant sexual behavior from our norm,” she says. “But unless it’s all-consuming and it impacts other areas of life, we really can’t define it as a disorder.”

A sex doll named Koyuki on display at the showroom of Orient Industry, a high-end manufacturer based in Tokyo (Reuters)

There are many understandable, even sympathetic, reasons for owning sex dolls. Some doll owners are just having fun. Some suffer from social anxiety or even disabilities that might make human relationships difficult. Some people just want to take arty photographs. The whole phenomenon is surprisingly hard to nail down.

“You want a quote, don’t you?” Smith asks at the end of our wide-ranging conversation, when I ask if he can summarize all we’ve discussed. “I’ll try and make one up for you. It would have something to do with narcissism, something to do with fantasy, something to do with creativity, something to do with persons and things. It has to do with struggles over questions of intimacy. I think that’s really quite key.”

These questions of intimacy inevitably come back to the relationship between the genders. We may not be able to extrapolate much from one person’s motives for buying a sex doll. But the phenomenon as a whole is like a funhouse mirror—it may show a skewed reflection of male-female relationships, but it emphasizes some aspects we’d rather not see. These woman-shaped things, which can be whatever their owners want them to be, represent the far end of a spectrum of social attitudes. Plenty of men would like real women to be a little more like dolls.

When I spoke to Davecat last year, he was offended by this idea. “Ninety-eight percent of the iDollators and technosexuals I know treat their Dolls like goddesses,” he insisted. “A lot of men are lonely because they’re misogynist pricks, true, but a lot of other men are lonely because they don’t meet women’s expectations.” But then he went on: “Dolls don’t possess any of the unpleasant qualities that organic, flesh and blood humans have. A synthetic will never lie to you, cheat on you, criticize you, or be otherwise disagreeable.”

This is the doll-lover’s frequent lament: Women are unpredictable and dolls are steadfast; women will leave you and dolls are loyal; women demand things and dolls accept you for who you are. Women are human and dolls are not.

The inventor of the Fleshlight, a popular masturbation toy for men, also submitted a patent in 1995 for a “female functioning mannequin.” (Within the mannequin’s “cavity,” as the patent puts it, would have been a cartridge full of “oily elastomer.”) According to Smith’s book, the inventor cited “as the reasons for its invention the fact that women are cruel, venal, superficial, that they humiliate and break the hearts of men and that dolls on the contrary are reliable, compliant, companionable, and loving.”

Valverde’s research (along with plenty of anecdotal evidence) suggests that the dolls do provide comfort, and a sexual outlet, for some men who can’t find or don’t want a human romantic relationship. But in the grand history of time, women and gay men have surely felt rejected and lonely—straight men don’t have a monopoly on those feelings.

Valverde has her own explanation for why many men use the “women are cruel” argument to explain their attraction to dolls. “Margaret Atwood’s quote: ‘Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.’ I think that’s true.”

Owning a sex doll is not a violent act. But as these creations come to look more and more realistic, their lifeless, prone silicone bodies are reminders of unequal gender power dynamics that play out in the real world. And as human women become more empowered, sex dolls offer a way for men to retreat into relationships where they are still in control. A doll is a woman-shaped thing that may bring a man comfort, may inspire devotion in him, and may drive away his loneliness. It will never challenge him, and it will certainly never do anything to make him feel ridiculous.


* This post originally quoted the German word for empathy as "Einfurlung." We regret the error.