FEW email subjects surprise me these days. The rule of thumb that if it sounds dodgy it must be spam is no longer helpful. This week, a perfect example: “sex robot brothel to open”. That is a lot to digest before you even open it. Sex, ethics, robotics, objectification.

It wasn’t spam. A sex doll brothel has opened in Barcelona. Lumidolls, operating from an apartment and offering four silicone women for sex. These are far from the cheap plastic dolls of old. They look human. “Hard to distinguish from a real woman” – sure, if you mean the nipped, tucked and airbrushed women of the porn ideal, their reality-defying proportions too extreme to be a replicated human body. They are the materiality of male gaze. Lily will “gladly please you in everything you want and demand”. Her whole raison d’etre is to lie there and take it, whatever that is. “You set the limits and she will let herself be taken along for the ride - she’s the perfect submissive partner.” It’s jarring to see emotions superimposed where they’ve been deliberately omitted.

Lumidolls want to open in the UK. There’s demand because it is “legal” – though I’m struggling to think of a less erotic phrase. And the £5000+ dolls are getting an upgrade. Enter: the sex robot. Abyss Creations, makers of RealDoll, recently revealed Harmony – extra soft lips and tongue, with 18 different personalities, including “sexual”. Of course she doesn’t walk yet because a) she would look like Asimo and b) she would run away. Who would blame her?

Abyss are just one company competing to make the perfect ‘roboslut’, as one news outlet so delicately describes it. We’re in the midst of an AI sex race. Tellingly, Roberto Cardenas of competitors Eden Robotics, says “the dolls won’t complain and are ready 24 seven”. It’s unsettling to see women’s sexuality reduced to parts and function, and improved by “always being up for it”.

They claim the robots will offer relationship simulation and intimate companionship. I’m not sure how. Relationships are built on compromise, on knowing and respecting one another’s limits. Strip away the AI personality and heated genitals and you’ve got something that was designed for a single reason. An appliance. And herein lies the tension. This is how men with too much money design their perfect woman: hypersexual, “open-minded”, undemanding, incapable of reason or objection. Incapable of rejecting them or those demands.

In a way, I’m surprised it took so long. The sexy robot girl trope is everywhere. Pop culture is saturated with unabashed gynoid fantasy. Maria in Metropolis. The Stepford Wives. The hypersexualised and objectified Blade Runner replicants – Pris, the pleasure unit, and Zhora exotic dancer. Dolores, the A.I. woman in Westworld who exists for rich men to rape. Ava in Ex Machina who does the truly intelligent thing and escapes her creators.

These A.I. woman underscore how entrenched the feminine ideal is. Young, unblemished by time or circumstance. Sites of difference exaggerated as has always been expected. Stomachers. Corsets and bustles to exaggerate the tiny waist. Enhanced breasts. Neat vulvas. Unlike real women, the dolls don’t have to contort themselves into exaggerated forms. It’s speaks to the worth of the female body when men make a woman that does not rely on apparatus or intervention to please.

The manufactured woman is a fantasy of privilege. She’s fully removed from the realities of ordinary life. No meals to cook, no kids to bathe. She has no job, no hobbies, no friends. She represents throwaway, do-what-you-want sex. The ability to purchase sex with no objections, no limits, no two-way dynamic, and the ability to exempt yourself from the buying of real women. It’s eroticisation of ultimate power. You could take her out to dinner or shove a hot poker in her eye – the response would be the same. Such freedom. I’ve spent the last week watching documentaries and films about men and dolls, praying for eye-bleach.A Vice journalist took a trip to a Tokyo sex doll brothel.

l keep coming back to an image which swiftly disabused me of any notion of the relationship element. A single bed, in a pink room, Disney princess stickers peeling on the walls. A large naked man, bent over a small doll in a schoolgirl costume (their most popular) legs bent back to her ears, head violently to the side, watching hardcore pornography on a tiny portable telly. There was no companionship or feeling. Just a large guy masturbating into something small, lifelike and still. Watching her brutalised, I think of Hans Bellmer’s Doll. A surrealist sculpture, eroticised, fetishised and dismembered. A woman’s form, with no arms or legs, exaggerated breasts and genitals, hanging from a tree. She is objectification. In 80 years surrealist commentary has become a template for sexuality.

I can’t help but think of what these sex dolls are designed without. They have everything but agency. They can’t say no. And even if they did it wouldn’t matter. As technology moves closer to humanity, it’s hard not to consider these facsimiles on more human terms. What does it mean for our humanity when we step across that void sexually? There are no dolls writing searing critiques of porn culture. It’s up to human women, of flesh and bone, to speak up for what our synthetic sisters represent. In them we see ourselves, and how readily we are reduced to a function, and how often we suffer the consequences of that reduction, and how it’s so readily used to make money.