Sex Robots – on Buzzfeed’s Internet Explorer

Last month, Buzzfeed’s podcast Internet Explorer invited me to speak about future sex technologies.

Listen in here!



The Little Dildo That Queered

Check out my latest essay, that was posted yesterday on Harvard’s LGBTQ Policy Journal blog.

still from Broad City

still from Broad City, the awesome Comedy Central show.

The Little Dildo that Queered

By Shelly Ronen

On February 4th the TV show Broad City aired an episode about pegging that sent delighted shock waves throughout the interwebz. “Pegging,” for the uninitiated, is the term coined in 2001 on Dan Savage’s show, “Savage Love” for a woman anally penetrating a man using a strap-on dildo.

Gleeful commentary briefly basked in joy: the episode portrayed pegging as empowering for women! Moreover, the episode seemed to indicate that the act is becoming mainstream. This is no small feat, of course. Aspiring pegees – men who like to be pegged – often struggle with the fear that enjoying this act is a gay thing. In Cosmopolitan’s feature, real talk with women who have pegged, one woman says her partner asked afterward if it was “weird” how much he liked it. She says she knew he was asking, “am I gay?”

So indeed, this is an exciting moment. Could it be that this televised ‘coming out’ of pegging countered once-and-for-all the claim that straight men who enjoy pegging are actually gay? But the episode in question didn’t touch on that issue. In Broad City, the one who is hesitant about pegging is our heroine Abbi, not her hunky neighbor-turned-hookup, Jeremy. In a bit of comic scripting, Abbi merely suggests switching positions and the Jeremy misunderstands the intended meaning of “switch it up” and eagerly pulls out the harness and strap-on dildo.

To be fair, of course Jeremy wants to be pegged! Because – newsflash – men have their own G-spot, and it’s called the prostate. So, why would enjoying prostate stimulation from a silicone member bring up the fear that a man may be gay? Within our reigning ideals of sexual orientation, “straight” or “gay” are immutable traits. We are “born this way,” whatever way we’re born. It’s not about how we’re bedded it’s about who we like to bed, right?

At other moments in human history, this was not the case. In ancient Rome, sexual orientation didn’t map onto our modern dichotomy of “straight” and “gay.” They had their own dichotomy. What mattered most was the sexual role as “active” penetrator or “passive” penetrated. Today’s act of pegging, had it been a thing, would literally have put ancient Roman women into a different category of sexual role – in with the straight men.

But we’re not in ancient Rome. And even if ideas of sexual orientation have varied over time and in different social and geographic locations, the fear is still real. What is that fear? Let’s take it seriously, and hold it up to the light. Men worry that they may be perceived as gay if they enjoy being pegged. And we learn two things, two interlocked cultural truths. First, the fear is really homophobia. “Is it weird?” means ‘is it gay?’ and thus gay is weird. That’s not so surprising (though still painful). But interwoven with this first unsurprising aspect is a second revelation about masculine heterosexuality. Far from being strong and macho and impenetrable, it is vulnerable. Straight manliness is so delicate that new and unfamiliar sex acts can destabilize it. Any deviation from penis-in-vagina intercourse begins to threaten a man’s credentials as masculine and straight.

That threat, of course, is what many have celebrating as “queering,” or a destabilizing of constraining dichotomies (male/female, man/woman, straight/gay). These dichotomies are also a reason why we have such a terrible time with bisexuals and why they are more likely to experience stigma for their category straddling. But notice this: the attribute that’s doing this queering is a mere seven inches of silicone! The dildo. The dildo is the thing forcing the issue; it’s the main figure at the center of this crisis of heterosexuality cum potential for queering.

The dildo has played a similar threatening role before (and I use “threat” here to mean destabilizing). During the famous “dildo debates” of the late 1970s, lesbians argued over whether the dildo was a substitute penis that discredited their same-sex desire. Could the dildo undo their lesbian identities? If they were really into women, why would they need a phallic member?

At that time, the dildo represented the potential to undermine the legitimacy of those with same-sex desire, and all the political responsibility that it brought. Both then as now, the dildo represents the potential to discredit sexual orientation identities, unmasking ‘truer’ desires. Forty years ago, lesbians feared that the reinsertion of the penis-substitute revealed their true desire for a man, just because they liked the feeling of a fake phallus. For today’s pegees, the novel insertion of a penis-substitute among heterosexuals enables them to engage in a gay-coded sex act, and this risks queering their gendered sexuality.

Notice how the sex-act is itself coded as “gay” or “straight.” Sounds familiar, sounds ancient roman. When sex with a dildo is marked as “gay” sex, then the dildo suddenly complicates (again, queers) the born-this-way straightness of those in the bed. The dildo, safely strapped into its harness, reminds us of the limits of our born-this-way logic. Is it who we bed or how we bed? As a society, we’re not quite sure.

The encounter in Broad City, and the rising prevalence of pegging suggests we are no longer so afraid of that object that queers. While men welcome anal play at the micro level of the intimate interpersonal, a correlate change happens at the macro level of the cultures of (gendered) sexuality. That change is the queering of sex acts – with the result that constrained categories like “straight” or “lesbian” might lose their meaning.

So, let’s return to that fear, that’s now out in the light. What should we do about this fear? Should we coo gently and stroke away men’s fearful expressions and tell them that they aren’t gay and that everyone has a prostate and of course they should enjoy that feeling and anyone can do that regardless of their objects of desire? Yes, something like that, and we should push the fear to its logical conclusion—that the rigid binaries of our sex culture should be unseated by those pleasure-giving inches of silicone. Let’s champion the queering potential of the dildo!

Coverage for GSOC-UAW’s first contract in The Nation

From the Nation

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The First Contract

After being decertified in 2005, New York University’s graduate student union, GSOC-UAW,received recognition as the first and only graduate student union at a private university in the country in 2013. On March 10 at 2 AM, following a year of grueling contract negotiations and on the day of our deadline to strike, NYU agreed to a settlement with remarkable material gains for workers and significant concessions in every unresolved area—including immediate 50 percent wage increases for the lowest paid workers, guaranteed wage increases for the rest, 90 percent healthcare coverage for the majority of the workforce without it and the establishment of family healthcare and childcare funds. This victory reflects the power of democratic, rank-and-file-led unionism. Under the leadership of NYU Academic Workers for a Democratic Union, we grew an active base of graduate workers with ties to the broaderNYU community. With this structure in place, an eleventh-hour university-wide anti-union e-mail sent by an NYU provost was met with protests and petitions from undergraduates and ridicule from the university community at large. On the night of bargaining, dozens waited outside negotiations with “GSOC on strike” flags, manifesting a credible strike threat that ultimately forced the administration to cave in.

—Shelly Ronen and Ella Wind

Review Essay in Public Books, “The Erotic Doll: A Modern Fetish”

This mannequin in Marcel Duchamp’s 1966 piece, Étant donnés (“Given”), took over ten years of casting and molding with layers of wood, plaster, calfskin, and paint. Critics commented on the doll’s odd lack of labia, and her surprisingly shallow—unfuckable—groin. Composite, almost Frankenstein-esque in assembly, this doll is one of many specimens in Marquard Smith’s intriguing book, The Erotic Doll: A Modern Fetish. Smith teases out the history of these sex objects to provide a thorough genealogy of today’s erotic mannequins. Duchamp’s piece crafts a visual synecdoche for the work of Smith’s book, which invites readers to look as though through a peephole upon the history of sex with inanimate things.

Duchamp’s mannequin is a painstakingly constructed blend of anatomical accuracy and sly distortion. The product looks quite real, yet is marred by unnatural genitals and perpetual facelessness. She is positioned stiffly in the foreground while the background glitters with lively trompe l’oeil. Photographs render the distant scenery of trees and sky; the waterfall is made of hardened glue and shimmers as if with flowing water; and the clutched lamp gives off light. The erotic doll is clearly not alive, yet her similarity to a living being, what Smith refers to as “verisimilitude,” is compelling and uncanny. This example, like others throughout the book, presents erotic objects as assertive and demanding, confusing boundaries between the agency of dolls and lovers. Are these objects insistent? Even if lifeless, do they require some response or direct their lovers’ replies? Smith insists that we must think with andthrough things in order to see how inanimate objects constitute us as animate agents.

<i>Mannequins</i> (2008). Photograph by Franck Chicot / Flickr

Mannequins (2008). Photograph by Franck Chicot / Flickr

The book begins with the Greek myth of Pygmalion. The sculptor, desperate for a wife but fearful of unfaithful women, carves a statue, embellishes it, and falls in love with it. Through his sexual idolatry, the statue, Galatea, comes alive. The story, an apt origin myth for the erotic doll, also influenced scientific ideas of sexual pathology. Early sexologists Iwan Bloch, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, and Havelock Ellis incorporated the myth into scientific terms such as “Pygmalionism” to refer to the pathological urge for autoerotic frottage (genital rubbing and non-penetrative sex) with statues.

The mythos of the Pygmalion character—the desperate, desirous maker enchanted by his inanimate love-object—echoes throughout Smith’s history. She is inorganic and therefore static; she is made by the master and brought to life by his love for her. In this sense, her thingness troubles some contemporary notions that consider ideal sex to be incompatible with powerless submission. This normative sex is thought to be be the product of consent and the source of mutual pleasure with an equal partner—or at least an equally living one. But the Galatean doll offers physical pleasure in the allure of creation, domination, and possession.

Marcel Duchamp spent years crafting and re-crafting his limp and loveless mannequin, using both his lover and his second wife as models for various parts of the body. He wasn’t the first: some 50 years earlier, the artist Oskar Kokoschka commissioned a dress- and doll-maker, Hermione Moos, to create a life-size mannequin in the likeness of his former paramour, Alma Mahler. He spent roughly a year in correspondence, accompanying his letters with numerous paintings to instruct Moos on how to properly render his beloved. As Smith details, Kokoschka’s obsessional descriptions were filled with repeated, neurotic requests to make the mannequin more voluptuous and furry. Kokoschka celebrated the monstrous final product in 1919 with a party for its arrival and unveiling. He was so troubled by its failure to mimic his lover, however, that he ended the event with the unceremonious beating and beheading of the doll.1 A neighbor is said to have called the police to report the savage torture and murder of a woman.

At first glance, the failure seems to have been one of verisimilitude: doppel-Mahler just wasn’t realistic enough to substitute for the original. Indeed, Kokoschka wrote to Moos to give an “account of deficiencies,” complaining, for example, that “the outer shell is a polar bear pelt, suitable for a shaggy imitation bedside rug rather than the soft and pliable skin of a woman.” In this light, the doll seemed to be an unequivocal erotic failure. Yet we need not rely too heavily on a psychoanalytic approach of the sort that Smith encourages to recognize that the doll was in fact a success as an erotic fetish. Spurned by his former lover, the artist commissioned a substitute for Alma with which to ritualistically enact his domination and ownership of her. He exorcised his desire through her destruction.


In a more contemporary account of erotic perversity, Smith discusses RealDolls, a brand of bespoke sex dolls that start at $5,499. More specifically, Smith emphasizes the conundrum of how to appropriately treat these objects. Some employees of Abyss Creations, the company that makes RealDolls, have expressed concerns about the misuse of their products. So-called iDollators (those who buy, use, and sometimes marry RealDolls) have customized dolls for pedophilic fantasies or subjected dolls to sadistic sexual violence. This might sensibly provoke a moralizing reaction: who would treat a sex doll with such disrespect? But Smith gently chides us that the “sex doll is, an object [sic], I repeat not, a woman.” So why does it matter if she is used to satisfy pedophilic fantasies or subjected to violence? The doll’s indifference to cruel treatment contrasts with the doll’s obvious attempt to look “real,” what Smith calls her “will-to-verisimilitude.” These dolls present a paradox for us, namely “that there is both more to a sex doll than sex and nothing more to a sex doll than sex.”

Thinking of RealDolls as entitled to the same respectful treatment we might wish for organic women is somewhat absurd. It does not change the dolls’ “absolute object-ness,” but it does allow Smith to illustrate his argument that dolls have the potential to distort logics of desire because objects come to act upon us through our action upon them. iDollators and RealDoll users report that this “high form of masturbation” is nevertheless “very life-like.” As one user has it, “I’m pushing on it and all of a sudden it pushes back.” Some users imagine their dolls to have rich inner worlds and even marry them, so great their sense of intimacy despite the fact that the dolls “provide zero companionship.”

Following Smith’s lead in this book-as-peephole, I return to Duchamp’s imagery with one last observation. Duchamp’s pale, freaky mannequin with legs forever spread-eagled is not uncanny and disturbing because her will-to-verisimilitude succeeds. Indeed, she is obviously fake. Rather, the mannequin disturbs because her limited realism betrays a widespread Pygmalionist fantasy that goes far beyond the pathological desire for frottage with statues. It is a common perversity: a male, heterosexual fantasy of creating, dominating, and erotically possessing a sex object—even to the point of violent destruction.