Sex doll brothels are now a thing. What will happen to real-life sex workers?

Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution (or, at the very least, since the dawn of The Jetsons), Americans have been seized by the anxiety of being replaced by robots. In some service industries, these concerns have proven prophetic. But the technology is still far from perfect (see: the massive temper tantrums on social media over CVS’s automated self-checkout), and even though one report has predicted that robots could replace human workers by 2030, most people can rest assured that their jobs are safe for the time being. Most people, that is, but sex workers.

In Rolling Stone, writer Breena Kerr profiles Aura Dolls, a sex doll brothel in Toronto where clients can pay $120 an hour and an additional $90 per half-hour to do whatever they want to the six dolls on staff (provided they do not “make any extra holes” in them, though one wonders what would be the occasion for doing so). Brothel employees clean up the dolls between appointments to prepare them for the next customer.


NurPhoto via Getty Images

Due to their high cost (a customizable Real Doll, for instance, starts at $5,999), sex dolls in general are still considered expensive novelty items. Legally speaking, they also exist in a somewhat gray area: Though they don’t technically violate most state prostitution laws, the moral opposition to sex work in the United States is so intense that it would inevitably serve as a barrier. Plans to open a brothel in Houston, for instance, were scrapped after the city council amended an existing ordinance to forbid business patrons from engaging in sexual congress with inanimate objects.

For these reasons, sex doll brothels are far from commonplace. Nonetheless, there’s been major outcry over the mere prospect of sex doll brothels, particularly in the legal sex industry in the United States. (Prostitution is illegal in the US except in a select number of counties in Nevada, where it is highly regulated.)

Allissa, a sex worker at the legal brothel Sheri’s Ranch in Nevada, is outraged that unlike legal brothels, which cannot openly advertise for fear of violating solicitation laws, sex doll brothels would ostensibly be able to openly advertise on billboards (as one recently did in Vancouver). She also believes they would pose a serious safety threat.

“If any guys start using these brothels, the dolls can’t consent and they have no limitations,” Allissa told Vox. “We’re very clear about what can happen and not happen during a party. And if sex dolls were to become popular, clients would think that [a lack of limitations] was normal.”

On the surface, this seems like an obvious concern: When presented with the choice between a flesh-and-blood woman who can consent to sex and a $6,000 hunk of silicone who can’t, logic would seemingly dictate that any man who opts for the latter is more likely to harbor some problematic views of women.

But this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. Sex doll brothels could potentially serve as a viable option for clients who may lack the social skills necessary to form meaningful relationships with humans. “Patrons [who] may have some sort of social anxiety or perhaps are disabled, who might not be comfortable with the social interactions of a human sex worker, would benefit greatly due to this service,” an Aura spokesperson said, adding that the brothel has received a number of inquiries from visually impaired people and the hard of hearing.

Sex dolls could also potentially serve as outlets for people with non-normative sexual preferences (think a taste for violent or nonconsensual sex) who don’t wish to harm a living person, or people in monogamous relationships who want to sexually experiment without actually committing infidelity. It would be unfair to characterize all of these people as misogynists eager to enact their twisted rape fantasies on unsuspecting hunks of plastic, just as it is unfair to characterize everyone who buys sex (an estimated 14 percent of American men) as brutal and exploitative.

It’s safe to say that many sex workers’ primary objection to sex doll brothels isn’t moral or philosophical, but economic.

It is true that it costs less to masturbate into a rented hunk of silicone than it does to have sex with a legal prostitute. Allissa wouldn’t tell Vox how much she charged for a party, citing solicitation laws, but generally speaking, while sex workers’ rates vary widely according to many factors, a typical “Girlfriend Experience,” or more intimate sexual encounter, costs about $1,000 per hour at Sheri’s Ranch competitor the Moonlite BunnyRanch, and it’s not unheard of for an in-demand sex worker to charge far more than that.

That’s a far cry from the $120 an hour quoted by Aura Dolls, but brothels also tend to take a hefty commission from their workers (at Sheri’s Ranch, it’s 50 percent). They also aren’t responsible for the bulk of employee costs, which saves quite a bit of money on the management end: Allissa says she pays for room and board when she works at the ranch, as well as her own drinks, condoms, sex toys, and her hair and nails.

When you consider the level of cleanup involved in ensuring that sex dolls are up to hygiene standards for repeated use, it makes sense that the maintenance costs for a sex doll brothel would be fairly high.

“Due to the costs of hiring cleaning staff and employees to make sure the dolls are in tip-top condition every single use and making sure they are thoroughly cleaned along with the maintenance of the products and facility, [running a sex doll brothel] is not as cheap as one would imagine,” the Aura spokesperson said.


NurPhoto via Getty Images

Of course, sex workers provide a service that has far more value than any provided by sex dolls. In a world that encourages men to suppress and tamp down their emotions, it’s not uncommon for sex workers often act as impromptu therapists for their clients. “A lot of my job has to do with nonsexual intimacy. I’m creating a connection with them,” says Allissa. “They talk to me about their troubles … it’s a lot of genuine human connection. I do have clients who don’t have sex at all and they just want to cuddle and talk to me.”

A sex doll could not perform emotional labor on that level, or provide any of the other less tangible benefits of flesh-and-blood companionship — but at the same time, neither can your iPhone, or any of the other myriad technological advances that make our lives both infinitely easier and a lot lonelier.

It’s going to be a long time before sex doll brothels become mainstream, if they ever do. Still, as technology around AI improves and brands start developing sex dolls that are able to convincingly replicate human sexual response, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that sex dolls could one day join the ranks of vibrators and other sex toys, which now enjoy a certain mainstream respectability and are considered supplements of, rather than threats to, a healthy and safe sex life. Even Allissa says they could potentially be used as a training tool during parties, or a way to school male clients on how to give women pleasure.

Prostitution is called “the oldest profession” for good reason: There’s always been high demand for paid sex, and there likely always will be. But that doesn’t mean the industry is totally impervious to change. So far, we’ve seen strip clubs and porn movie theaters shut their doors due to the ubiquity of free internet porn. If sex dolls and robots ever become sophisticated enough to convincingly replicate IRL sex, who’s to say that a handful of brothels in rural Nevada won’t suffer the same fate?

Time and again, when confronted with the choice between convenience and affordability and the less tangible benefits of emotional intimacy, humans have opted for the former. There’s no reason to think that the sex industry will prove the exception to the rule.

Perhaps surprisingly, however, that’s not what Aura Dolls says. “We believe that there will always be a demand and market for human sex workers as it is considered one of the world’s oldest professions,” the spokesperson told Vox, perhaps unwittingly echoing other mega-corporations’ arguments in favor of automated workers. “We do not foresee it to be replaced anytime soon.”