I am standing in the Harmony sex shop in central London, staring up a plastic vagina. I don't often do this. But a few weeks ago I read a news story about some men in Sweden who have reported a pharmacy to the Swedish equal opportunities ombudsman for sexual discrimination. Why? Because it stocks sex toys for women, but not for men. Now people don't usually talk about this; they rabbit on about the rabbit, but the plastic vagina has yet to have its Sex and the City moment. So what is out there? Or rather, what is in there?
Simon Pope is the buyer for Harmony. He is small and he looks tired, but he takes me through the racks of men's toys with the intensity of a man discussing drill bits. "The big thing at the moment are the anal toys," he says, waving at a wall of Rocks Off Naughty Boy prostate massagers. "Men seem to have discovered their bums at last. Straight men didn't used to want to buy anything anal," he beams at me. "That's all changed."
Together we peruse inflatable dolls there is an obese one called Fatima the Fully Functioning Sex Doll, who I feel a weird compassion for and some vaginas. I stick my finger inside one. It has the texture of rotting jelly. It feels dead. "Men mostly buy these to use alone," Simon says. He points out the Juicy Lucy portable can, which looks like a beer can but has both a vagina and an anus inside, and the Fleshlight, a torch containing a vagina. Both look like they were made by the ever-smiling Q for James Bond: "Now, Bond, if you press this a vagina will shoot out!"
"Toys are a lot more acceptable now than they used to be," Simon muses. "There is more crossover between the mainstream and us. But sex toys for women are still more talked about. They are more out there." Why is this? Why do women wave their rabbits at the world while men hide their rubber vaginas? (As it happens, I don't have a rabbit. I don't like anything up there with a face.)
Simon pauses. He chooses his words carefully, saying: "Male sex toys don't look quite as er cuddly as female sex toys. A vibrator looks more attractive than a fake vagina." I pout at him. You cannot say the vagina is ugly. You cannot say it looks like a face a car door slammed into. Not in The Independent. Not in 2008. "A vibrator doesn't have to look like a penis," he says. "A vagina always looks like a vagina." We pause together in front of Australia's Finest Vibrating Pussy and Ass. "You'll never see that in Boots," he says. It's hard to disagree.
A man is loitering by the Juicy Lucy portable can. He says he's going to buy it. Why? He's handsome. I'd shag him, if he had a house. "It's an easy way of masturbating," he says. "You can't go to a girlfriend all the time. It's a requirement nowadays. Any time you want it, it's available." I also find a man buying the Fleshlight. He too looks perfectly normal; if you looked in his wallet, you'd probably find a Pizza Express loyalty card. "I'll take it, but I'm not going to tell my girlfriend," he says. Why not? He looks aghast. "Would you tell anyone you were going to stick your dick up this?" he asks. "It looks like a badly packed ham sandwich."
A-ha! So the men in Sweden have it wrong. It's not hatred of men that is keeping Australia's Finest Vibrating Pussy and Ass off the shelves at Boots. It's hatred of women. Our bits look like food. Men don't want to be seen alone with them.
On the way out I talk to Tony, the store manager. He has the face of a central casting gangster and he has sold sex toys for 13 years. He says he flogs up to 30 plastic vaginas a day. Who buys them? "Men," he says. "Lonely men." (So the plastic vagina men are lying about having real girlfriends?) "The bum toys go to couples, but a lot of women still don't like the idea of their men screwing a plastic vagina," he says. "It's still not acceptable." He peers at me, and takes me over to view the strap-on dildos, which are for women who want to sodomise their boyfriends. So, are men becoming more open to the idea of being sodomised by their girlfriends? (This pleases me.) "Yes," he says. Tony is a man of few words.
But these are not the most sophisticated sex toys available for men. Davecat (not his real name) is a 35-year-old American man from Detroit. He owns a $7,000 silicone RealDoll called Sidore, manufactured by Abyss Creations in California. According to her drooling website, Sidore is "a Cancer, partial to Joy Division, videogames and foot rubs". She is also absurdly beautiful. A perfect 10. She has breasts, a vagina, an anus, and three removable tongues. Davecat is part of the community of "i-dollators". They worship dolls.
"Sidore means a great amount to me," Davecat says, when I ring him to discuss Sidore. "She is my ideal partner. She fulfils a lot of sexual needs but more importantly she fulfils a lot of emotional needs." Such as? He pauses. "She doesn't make demands I can't meet. She is always there for me. Human beings can't give guarantees. There are no variables [with the doll], no bizarreness that may or may not occur. There is always a constant. I like things constant and you can't get more constant than a doll." Any future girlfriend, he adds, would have to accept Sidore. "There is no way I could get rid of her."
Do you mind that she can't talk? "I'd prefer it if she did, but doll technology can only go so far," he replies. "My ideal partner would be a gynoid [a female android]. There are only a few in the world and they are not available for consumer markets yet. Dolls are wonderful, but they can't move, and they can't speak". I'm not sure what to say to Davecat. So I ask him you would really rather have a relationship with a robot than a really beautiful er actress? "Yes," he says. "That is the end all, be all of it."
He doesn't like to use the term sex toy for Sidore."It's demeaning and it's limiting," he says. "Sidore provides more than sexual fulfilment. When people think sex doll, they think blow-up toys or something really crude" I briefly think of poor, obese Fatima "not something you can actually have a relationship with. I don't consider myself a doll fetishist. I consider myself a doll husband."
Mr G, 41, lives in Virginia. He owns two pouting RealDolls GingerBrooke and KellySue. "Ginger Brook is pure and innocent," he says. He speaks incredibly seriously, in a southern drawl. "She wouldn't hurt a fly. Kelly is more aggressive."
So I ask him why do you sleep with RealDolls (three times a week), and never real women? "Dating has always been more trouble than it was worth," he says. "I don't want to get involved with anybody." He doesn't want to catch a disease, he adds. He doesn't want children. And he relates a few disastrous experiences with women. Doesn't he mind that the RealDolls are so passive? "No. I like being in control." Do you ever wish they could speak? "No". Do you ever get lonely? "No". Will you ever give them up? "No".
When he first got GingerBrooke, he explains: "I thought this would be great for sex and somebody to hang out with. But I had more fun with Ginger in the first month than I ever had with human women. I had no idea how far it would go. They are more human than anyone I have ever met. They don't break the law, they don't lie to me, and they aren't going to steal. There is no evil in them." But there is no good in them either, I point out. "They are good to me," he replies. "They look the same today as they did when I got them. They aren't going to age. I want to be buried with them."
I also speak to a British i-dollator, who asks to be called Zazakell. He is 62, and he bought three dolls Tess, (for Tess of the D'Urbervilles), Romy and Leeloo after his divorce. He talks to me like a stern schoolteacher, telling me how benign the RealDolls are. "They are very clean, they are very safe, and they are low maintenance," he says. "They aren't going to cause anyone any harm." They are helpful, he adds, "for shy men, virgins, the handicapped, and men who are unsuccessful at dating. Or they can be a learning tool. It takes a lot of the stress out of trying to get into a relationship. Women use them, couples use them to simulate a threesome, and gay men have male dolls." (I checked out a male RealDoll. He's called Charlie, and I would go there.)
Zazakell first saw a RealDoll on the So Graham Norton show. "She was a beautiful doll and that is how I discovered them," he says. He mostly uses them as cuddle companions. "It's nice to have something to cuddle. Do you remember when you had a cuddly toy when you were younger? It's the same feeling. You need to have some sort of contact, and touch at any age. But nothing can replace a real woman."
It is time to ask him: is i-dollatry about fear, hatred, or mistrust of women? "Far from it, no," Zazakell says, emphatically. "Most of us adore women. We use electric blankets with our dolls so they aren't cold. It has its own character; its own personality, even though it is an inanimate object. If you are romantic you will probably give your doll a name and you will dress her nicely and you might talk to her occasionally. There is a big difference between a sex toy like a vibrator and a doll. Dolls are so much more than that. I can't see someone paying 5,000 for a sex toy. Can you?"
I tell Zazakell a story from a doll repairer, who was sent a doll who had been mutilated; her leg was ripped off, her chest cavity spewed open. "There is only one time that I saw a photograph of a doll that had been run over by a delivery truck and crushed," says Zazakell. "There was almost an outcry that the person published the photos on the internet. It got taken down. Because we [i-dollators] felt so badly that a doll had been run over.
"We don't want anybody like that [in our community]. It's like saying that everybody that kills is a serial killer and people kill for all sorts of reasons don't they?"
He sends me a strict note later, telling me not to sensationalise the doll people. "We are a cross-section, just like society," he says. And so I leave the Valley of the Dolls.