Book Review

Sex Dolls at Sea: Imagined Histories of Sexual Technologies by Bo Ruberg

sailors sharing sex dolls; a compromised text on compromised sex

cw: sexual content, suicide ideation

It’s rare for me (tho not as rare as it once was) to read an academic text, and that is because I’m not an academic.

The reason why it happens at all is because I am a curious, nerdy bibliophile who reads because I like basically nothing else. Also my lover is an academic so there are loads of academic books about which normalises their presence in the home and normalises the idea that academic books are something that can – and may – be read. This is dangerous.

The last academic text I read, though, was Joe Darlington’s near-flawless literary history masterpiece, The Experimentalists, which is probably one of my favourite books, and I say that very very lightly as I try not to think back too far into the past because it tends to be full of monsters and regret, neither of which I have any interest in excavating, but whichever way I look at it, The Experimentalists was imo excellent, and if you don’t *on some level* think that my opinion re: “things to read” isn’t valid, then what the hell are you doing here on my literary lifestyle blog, TriumphoftheNow.com???

Sex Dolls At Sea wasn’t quite as earth shattering as Darlington’s masterpiece-seeming (to me) academia, tho was similarly marketed towards the hipster millennial cod intellectual and client (customer? adherent? advocate? cultist?) of Burley Fisher Books that I am, that East London smartarse type (again, it is me) who’s slightly too old for ever doing anything enjoyable ever at any point, but slightly too young/interesting to have, I dunno, like… a car I could use to do carbon monoxide poisoning with… or something? (I dunno where I was hoping to go with that, but I ended up reminding myself of the fact that I’m still alive and unlikely to die imminently and that pisses me off. Eurgh, Christ, booooo.)

Sex Dolls At Sea: Imagined Histories of Sexual Technologies is about, as you can guess from the title and the subtitle, sex dolls and their history. It focuses on the myth (story? legend?) of the “dames de voyage”, an apocryphal tale that teaches that sex dolls were originally invented by “European sailors” and made out of rigging, sail, canvas etc, and passed around the crew and then tossed overboard when they reached port, sorta like a cross between Fruit T Bunn off of Viz magazine and like when you shared a condom for posh wanks when a student, which we all used to do, back in the day, passing around the increasingly filled Durex from dorm room to dorm room, everyone jizzing into the same tube until it was full and solid and we could use it as a water balloon type projectile to throw over a local villain threatening to destroy the sports ground or local strip club or something (I mean I don’t know what I’m talking about here – the only time I’ve seen anonymised fresh jizz irl is when using public toilets in motorway service stations, where a thick plug of jism is more likely to be seen on the floor – and cubicle walls, and across the toilet seat – than any kind of disinfectant, even during the most cautious period of the COVID-19 pandemic!!! (remember that, lol? Remember thinking it was a big deal and now it’s like it never happened except everyone who doesn’t own a house is now even more unlikely to ever do so and also loads of people died (people who were already ill, though, and therefore – the argument from the government went at least – basically deserved to die).)) (I think that’s enough closing brackets there but I honestly lost count.)

Where was I?

Oh.

So, yeah, there’s absolutely no evidence that sailors in the nineteenth century invented the sex doll, and Bo Ruberg expostulates (I don’t know what that word means) this in a disappointingly repetitive manner.

It’s that standard academic kinda repetition, tho – using different points of reference and different (usually longer) words and phrases to say basically the same thing in most chapters that has already been clearly stated in the introduction. Buuuuuuut, once Ruberg moves on from the legend of the dames de voyage, though, and begins to discuss, more generally, the history of sexual technologies, the history of rubber as a material and its centrality to capitalism’s priapic sprint into the bedroom (or wherever else you, reader, prefer to conduct your affaires de coeur/affaires de corps), Sex Dolls At Sea does get interesting again, and Ruberg’s look at the ways that colonialism, racism and queerphobia played into the historical development of technologies developed for masturbation is definitely worth reading, tho I don’t know if it’s worth reading as many times as the same discussion is included in this book.

Sex Dolls At Sea, with a proper edit (and a non academic publisher, I’d imagine) could have been a really excellent 100 page pop socio-sexual-cultural history book: there is one in here that’s, alas, almost as repressed as I am, under the excess of verbiage, the points being made and remade and reexamined and restated: I get it, it’s an academic book, it’s not [necessarily] meant to be read through in the way I did, but it is a book, and an interesting one, and to wish for it to have been a more interesting book, a shorter, tighter, more fun, book, I don’t think is too disingenuous. Like, I’m not taking it back to Burley Fisher to demand a refund. I’m not tweeting MIT Press to ask if they have editors on staff. Y’know, I didn’t hate it! I just didn’t love it!

Would I immediately read any essay I came across (don’t, you’re better than that) by Bo Ruberg? Yes, I would; well… I’d add it to my daunting list of open tabs and read when too hungover to get out of bed (if that’s ever to happen again (god I miss hangovers), but would I read a whole book? No, unless it was very clearly not hundreds of pages longer than it needed to be.

It’s interesting, if not excellent. Sex Dolls At Sea is a bit like the dames de voyage themselves: maybe not exactly what you want, but, well… y’know… better than nothing at all.

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