When Did Sex Dolls Get Realistic?

For nearly a century, one of the biggest challenges for sex dolls was the pursuit of realism both in how they looked and how they felt.

For decades, limited to materials such as vulcanised rubber, manufacturers and artisans struggled to make these dolls lifelike and it would take until the development of materials such as vinyl, latex and especially silicone for this to change.

However, alongside the technological issue surrounding making the dolls look closer to reality, there was also a psychological concept that meant they would not be appreciated until they reached a level of sophistication closer to the dolls we see on the market today.


Voyage Through The Uncanny Valley

Devised by roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970, the uncanny valley is the idea that people like objects that look stylistically human-like up until a certain level of realism that is not quite total.

That initial feeling of empathy is replaced instead with an uncanny feeling towards something that looks almost but not quite human and was a particularly difficult problem for roboticists to solve when creating automata that were meant to look and act like people.

As soon as the illusion was broken it became thoroughly disturbing, and Mr Mori described it as a “bukami no tani”, a Japanese expression that roughly translates to uncanny valley.

This is part of the reason why successful dolls from the initial use of silicone in the 1960s until the rise of more realistic dolls in the 1990s tended to look more stylised and distinctly unrealistic, more blow-up novelty inflatable than silicone companion. 

In Japan, there was an underground market of life-sized dolls made of plastic, but they only tended to look realistic from a distance.

This would start to change in 1997.


A Modern Pygmalion

Matt McMullen was an art student who whilst working odd jobs and playing bands would start to sculpt an accurate, fully articulated and highly realistic mannequin, which in turn became the first RealDoll.

Whilst initially considered an art piece and largely a one-off, it started to develop considerable interest and he began to receive considerable attention initially locally and later internationally.

At the time, there was no doll that was anything close to it, and it attracted a lot of reactions, especially after radio DJ Howard Stern ordered one and waxed lyrical about how much he loved it.

This, combined with an episode of HBO’s Real Sex that has since become a cultural touchstone, changed the perception of sex dolls from low-priced novelty inflatable gifts to a companion for lonely people, regardless of their reasons for buying one.

One of the most fascinating examinations of this period of realistic dolls was the 2007 film Lars and the Real Girl, starring Ryan Gosling decades before he would star as a doll himself alongside Margot Robbie in 2023’s Barbie.

The film, later nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, was not a success, but it has since developed a cult following for its sincerity and for being one of the first works of fiction to explore the relationship a person has with a doll without being overly judgemental.

August 08, 2023


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