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On April 19th Dr. Bo Ruberg presented “Imagined Histories of Sexual Technologies” at the Games Institute to an audience of internal and external researchers. Dr. Ruberg is an associate professor at the University of California, Irvine, whose research explores gender and sexuality in digital media and digital cultures.
The talk focused on the journey of writing their newest book, Sex Dolls at Sea: Imagined Histories of Sexual Technologies, which Ruberg describes as a “feminist historiography that looks to the past to understand the present” and is available now.
Sex Dolls at Sea explores the flawed history of sexual technologies and commercial “sex tech,” including how this history was frequently incorrectly quoted and cited by historians. Ruberg noted that the controversial nature of these technologies means that their histories are often “not archived and not preserved.” Therefore, while writing the book, they had to do plenty of archival digging, saying that they searched “far and wide for scraps of ephemera” for the project.
While much of Dr. Ruberg’s previous work has focused on queerness and games, Sex Dolls at Sea has moved them into an even more interdisciplinary space as it combines methods and research from the history of technology, media studies, cultural studies, sexuality studies, haptics, literature, pornography studies, and sexology (sex science). The cross-disciplinary nature of the book made it especially interesting for the GI’s multidisciplinary researchers.
Ruberg began their talk by mediating on the connections between this work and their work in games, saying, “the technologies that have been key to videogames and continue to be key to videogames going forward are themselves deeply tied to the history of sexual technologies.” Beyond the technology itself, Ruberg explained that there are “parallels in the cultures” surrounding games and sex tech as well as “similar fantasies and technologies.” In addition to cultural issues with gender and race, there are more positive parallels, such as how both video games and the internet were ways to explore and “understand our own sexuality through technology” for queer youth.
Much of Ruberg’s talk explored the history (or lack thereof) of the “sex robot” and sex dolls as “proto-sex robots.” They argued that “the sex robot is the ultimate straight cis male tech fantasy – tech so “high” it makes “real” women obsolete. The problem with the sex robot isn’t the sex robot. It’s the toxic masculine tech culture.”
The frequently told history of sex dolls and robots is that European sailors made the very first dolls to have sex with at sea. These were supposedly known as “dames de voyage.” Later, this commonly repeated history says, the dames de voyage evolved into complicated dolls which had mechanical parts and, therefore, “paved the way for sex dolls and robots today.”
While researching, Ruberg encountered this narrative in book after book and multiple magazines, but when they dug into this story, they found no proof. They instead found academics citing images and text from pornography, erotica, and catalogues as historical facts. Ruberg highlighted how bringing this flawed history around sex tech into the future is problematic as it is caught up in enforcing cis-heterosexual-masculine norms around sex and sexuality. For example, the narrative of sailors having sex with dolls while away from home is a convenient narrative to bypass recording the queer relationships between men at sea.
But what is the real story? The real (or most real) history of contemporary sexual technologies? Interested researchers will have to buy Dr. Ruberg’s book to find out!
Dr Ruberg is also the author of Video Games Have Always Been Queer, The Queer Games Avant-Garde: How LGBTQ Game Makers Are Reimagining the Medium of Video Games, and is the co-editor of Queer Game Studies, and Live Streaming Culture, which is forthcoming with MIT Press.
You can watch a full video of Dr. Ruberg’s presentation on the Games Institute’s YouTube Channel.