Asexual Self-Love (Queering SF #30)
“I bought you mail order
My plain wrapper baby
Your skin is like vinyl
The perfect companion” (Bryan Ferry)
Sex dolls are not new. Roxy Music sang of the mind-blowing pleasures of a blow-up sex doll in “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” (1973). In 1996, Abyss Creations began offering RealDoll sex dolls, which feature life-like, customize-able dolls that do not require inflation. Anna Kendrick stars in Dummy (2020), a delightful comedy in which she steals her boyfriend’s sex doll. They take a road trip, talk about personal and professional matters, but have no sex. The RealDoll has been upgraded to Realdollx which offers an AI-driven modular head that allows movement and verbal interaction. In a more recent competition, Robot Companion AI offers similar features. The company claims that their sex dolls feature “integrate internet technology, voice interactive system, sensing technology, mechanical and electrical integration technology.” They “aim to bring you conversations that you enjoy whilst having the ability to be more intimate that you have before with a human.” Indeed.
But one of the things about sex dolls is that they have tended to be pretty heteronormative. Who buys them? What are their aesthetics? For what purposes? RealDoll, for example, offers 33 interchangeable faces for its female dolls, all of which conform to social norms of attractiveness. It offers 11 body types, in 5 different heights, and in 5 skin tones. RealDoll used to offer a male doll, but he seems to have disappeared from the site. They do, however, offer a number of lifelike penises.
So, what would a queer sex doll look like? Or, more to the point, what would a queer take on sex dolls be?
Sarah Kanning (she/her) wrote 5 SF stories between 2008 and 2012. Her short story “Sex with Ghosts” first appeared in Strange Horizons in August of 2008 (you can still read it here). It was reprinted in Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction (ed. Brit Mandelo, Lethe Press).
Imagine a future in which the RealDoll and the Robot Companion have been upgraded. Imagine that the sex dolls can look exactly like anyone: celebrity, entertainer, politician, historical figure. Imagine that the services of these devices could be purchased from a reputable establishment. Imagine having a line of credit sufficient to get you into the door of The Boutique.
Carla works as a receptionist at The Boutique. She greets customers, takes down the details of clients’ fantasies and fetishes. She’s paid handsomely, in part because not everyone would be comfortable fielding such questions. Plus, Carla is asexual.
For decades, people spoke of heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual. Rarely did they mention asexual. Not asexual as in the reproductive strategy of an amoeba. Rather, as in having no desire for sex with anyone of any sex or gender. In the past decade, though, more attention has been paid to asexuality. One key difficulty is finding a way to define and talk about asexuality without describing it as a lack. A lack of desire. The absence of desire. Not hetero- or homo-. All of those options assume that having sexual desire is the norm, in all three options, and that asexual is somehow a failure of desire.
And, yet, Carla works happily enough in The Boutique, with no temptations to sample any of the goods. And she deftly and wittily fends off all advances by her smitten co-worker. However, Carla does undermine and challenge the heteronormative nature of the sex industry. She pooh-poohs the sex with exes, the sex with celebrities, and the sex with minors. It’s all sort of ho-hum for her. She notes that she has no idea what it would be like to exist for “physical, sexual pleasure.”
Until, one day, a customer walks in and is more nervous than usual, especially for a returning customer. When he asks to speak to someone else, a red flag goes up in Carla’s head. Later that day, a bot asks to speak to Carla. She turns and faces herself. The spitting image of Carla. Apparently, customers have been asking for sex with the hot receptionist. The owner of the Boutique, Jones, capitalist that he is, is only too happy to oblige.
Carla challenges him and raises the ethical questions. How can this be a thing? How can he simply usurp her likeness and sell it for sex? For Carla, Jones has crossed a line. But what does it mean to create a bot in someone’s likeness? Do they own their likeness? Perhaps if they are a celebrity. Unlikely if they are a receptionist. If the robot only shares an appearance, but not memories or personality, then is it more legitimate? Should Carla have some reasonable sense of privacy at work? She argues that any and every customer can have sex with her likeness and then walk in the front door and leer at her. Jones suggest that they all already look at her that way.
Carla steals the bot and drives to a motel in Indiana (and some motel-like activities occur). She learns that the bot’s name is Narcisse. The feminine form of Narcissus, the mythological lad who was so beautiful that he fell in love with his own reflection. The nymph Echo could not entice him away from his own image. Narcisse has many skills, including massage, counseling, and 18th and 18th century English literature. While making tea, Narcisse recites a W. B. Yeats poem, “A Coat.”
The poem itself is a meta-reflection on Yeats’s own process: he patches poems together from bits of this and that, from “old mythologies,” but people misappropriate his work, so he lets them have it. Better to walk away naked. In the story, the Boutique has misappropriated Carla’s shape. Perhaps she would be better off to let them have it. To walk away naked.
Carla takes a hot shower to unwind, and emerges from the bathroom to see Narcisse, on the bed, enthusiastically engaged in what sex bots do. Carla mutters, “You aren’t Narcisse . . . just the reflection.” Carla is the original, the unutterably beautiful original, full of self-love. The sex bot, Narcisse, is merely a reflection of Carla.
First, Kanning offers a representation of an asexual individual. Very few asexual characters appear in SF/F, and representation matters. Second, Kanning treats asexuality as a legit sexuality, not as a temporary phase or a lack waiting for fulfillment. Carla remains asexual in the midst of all the sexual activity. Jones can misappropriate her form, but Carla remains who and what she is. But she is far from a narcissist. The clients enter the Boutique looking for something: a sexual fantasy, a desire, a fetish, a wish fulfillment, a connection to another. Something is misisng. Carla offers a representation of asexuality as something whole in itself. Carla does not need the reflection, does not need Narcisse.
And she certainly does not need a RealDoll or a Robot Companion AI.
Ritch Calvin (he/him) is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. He is the author of Feminist Epistemology and Feminist Science Fiction (Palgrave), editor of “The Merril Theory of Lit’ry Criticism” (Aqueduct), and editor of a collection of essays on Gilmore Girls (McFarland).