Are ‘real dolls’ more than a toy?: Debate over lifelike sex objects stirs controversy

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Are ‘real dolls’ more than a toy?: Debate over lifelike sex objects stirs controversy



On Valentine’s Day, Japanese adult product company Tenga opened its first pop-up store in Hongdae, a western Seoul neighborhood, bustling with couples holding hands and peeking inside the store to look at the cup-shaped sex toys of all colors and designs. The store was decorated in light colors without even a hint of obscenity. The staff was trained to leave customers alone and not speak to them unless they requested help. The shop closed on Sunday.

Just five years ago, it would have been impossible to see a sex toy shop in Seoul unless you really looked hard, never mind seeing a sex toy pop-up store in the middle of one of Seoul’s busiest neighborhoods. They were usually hidden in the basement floors of buildings or completely covered up from the outside. The younger generation of Korea has opened up, perhaps at a faster rate than many people had anticipated.

Yet, even after accepting the existence of people’s sexual desires and needs, the idea of sex dolls - or as they’re referred to in Korea, real dolls - seemed to be tough for people to digest when the Supreme Court ruled that sex dolls could be imported into Korea last June. The ruling stated that the government should not interfere with people’s personal or private lives. Contrary to the sex toys now sold in shops with open doors and windows, sex dolls became a hot issue last summer, stirring heated arguments.

On the one side of the issue, people argued that these dolls were nothing more than sex toys, citing the court’s decision as support. In fact, a sex doll is “the boss of all sex toys,” according to Park Chan-woo, a sex doll dealer and also a YouTuber who posts reviews on sex toys. He recently opened up a “trial service” in Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi, allowing visitors to “try out” sex dolls for an hour or two within the privacy of a closed-off room.

At the other end of the argument is Professor Yun Ji-yeong of the Body and Culture Institute at Konkuk University, who teaches feminist philosophy and was the first person to write a thesis on dolls in Korea, publishing her paper “Real doll, Eroticism of Domination” in October 2019. According to the professor, these dolls are “nothing but vessels of men’s desire to dominate and oppress women,” and should be banned - not just from these “brothels,” as she referred to them.

The real doll argument had recently quietened down, but the news of “trial services” across the country reignited the discussion, putting the human-like silicone figures at the center of controversy. The Korea JoongAng Daily met with Park and Yun, to understand their sides of the divide. The following are edited excerpts from the interviews, conducted on separate occasions.

"Real dolls are very well-made, high-quality sex toys" - Park Chan-woo

Q. You created a stir when you held a protest in Gangnam with a doll in a wheelchair. What was the message you wanted to send to people?

The people who oppose these dolls argue that they damage human dignity. I thought that people thought the way they did because they hadn’t seen these dolls in real life. I wanted to take a doll somewhere with the most amount of people. Did the people who came across the doll that day have their human dignity damaged? Did anyone feel like they were being damaged in any way? I wanted to show people that a doll is just a doll - but a doll that could be very valuable to someone.

Did you read the online chatter after your demonstration?

I did. And just as I expected, no one talked about human dignity. A lot of people just got obsessed with my usage of the word “family” - saying, “Who would treat their family sexually?” But I only used the word in the sense that some people keep those dolls close and cherish them. I did get some useful feedback as well, so it was meaningful in some way. If I was to go out and do it again, I would write, “Touch me.” Because if you do, then you realize that it’s actually nothing. If you touch it, then you’d know what it’s like and find out that it doesn’t harm you in any way.

What do you think are the positive aspects of these dolls?

These dolls work as a way to fulfill the sexual desires of people who are left out of society, such as the elderly or the disabled. But I don’t want to bring that into the argument, because that’s really not the reason why the dolls should be allowed. At its core, real dolls are very well-made, high-quality sex toys, and sex toys are good if it fulfills its role - to allow me to satisfy my desires when I want. Ultimately, they should be there because there’s no reason for them not to be. That’s what the Supreme Court said. The people who oppose it are never going to change, but I do believe that the overall atmosphere is changing. If you look into it, you will realize there is no reason to oppose it.

People who oppose these dolls say that your “trial services” are illegal sex trafficking. What are your thoughts?

If you Google the meaning of prostitution, you will see that it involves the trafficking of sex between a person and another person. To bring a doll into the picture is just nonsense. Why would they put themselves into the dolls’ shoes and talk like they are the ones being damaged? They could just be frank and say, “I don’t like it.”

You can’t help being repulsed by something. And yes, these dolls look like humans, and something that looks similar could repulse you. The fact that they help men fulfill their sexual fantasies doesn’t help much, either. But there’s nothing in this world that satisfies everybody. For instance, take drunk driving. It kills people daily, but that doesn’t mean that we should ban alcohol altogether.

What do you think needs to be changed for dolls to be accepted in Korea?

If you go to other countries, especially Japan and the United States, sex toy shops are so playful and humorous. In Korea, it’s often the case that sex toys only satisfy people’s sexual desires in the most basic sense. But for them, the toys are cute and funny and it allows for people to approach the idea of sex as something light and fun. I don’t think that sex should be hidden in the dark. It can be humorous and we should be able to talk about it whenever we want.

"Basically, they are the embodiment of pornography" - Yun Ji-yeong

Q. After the Supreme Court allowed the import of these dolls, you were the first person to write a thesis on it. Explain to us, what is the paper about?

What differentiates real dolls from other sex toys is that it mimics every feature of the female body to the closest detail. Simply put, it’s a synthetic reenactment of the female body. Through these dolls, men get to express their desire to dominate and control the female body and assert their masculine violence on them. And because these dolls never say no or fight back, it teaches men that it’s okay for them to do so whenever they want. This ultimately allows a real-life simulation of how far they can push a female body.

Those who are for dolls say that women should not put themselves in the position of these dolls, but view them only as toys. Why do you believe this argument is not valid?

Although their initial interaction is with the dolls, they ultimately take their repeated experience with the dolls and apply it to women. The reason men want to buy or experience these dolls is because they don’t need to make an effort with the dolls. They don’t have to talk them into having sex or buy gifts to make them like you. They’re there to let you excrete your desires whenever you want, however you like it. And through that, men are taught to think of sexual intercourse not as an interaction between men and women, but a unilateral action that doesn’t require permission or approval from the other party.

Does that mean it’s okay for men to masturbate using other toys?

Even if they’re not the whole body, sex toys take on the form of parts of women’s body in the most perverted way - like a vagina on a hand or a foot. What this does is it limits the existence of women to mere “holes” instead of people. And the way the vendors promote their products by using phrases like “more like women than real women” gives the message that these are the true qualities of women. Basically, they are the embodiment of pornography in reality.

What do you mean by “the embodiment of pornography?”

People say that real love-making is different from pornography, but the way most people first learn about sex and get their information about sexuality is through pornography. We may learn about sex in school, but the information that people want to know is in pornography, not school textbooks. They learn how sex begins, how to touch each other, how one reaches climax and how it ends all through pornography. Then men take that information and apply it to women in real life, as if they know what they are doing, even though they’re imitating the images from pornography. Men already behave this way with just visual pornography. The question is, will they stop doing it if they have pornography that’s tangible and multi-sensory?

The Supreme Court concluded that sex dolls should be allowed in Korea. Do you oppose this decision?

If you read the court’s decision on the pros and positive effects it has on people psychologically, sexually and socially, their definition of “people” only refers to men. It fails to discuss the psychological, sexual and physical threat it could pose to women in any way. It does not factor that by respecting men’s sexual freedom, it limits women’s freedom and human rights. Even when some people say that these dolls can help people who have limited access to sex, it is limited to men - old men, disabled men and men who need therapy.

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