Matt McMullen’s sex doll business

Matt McMullen with his wares. Pictures

Matt McMullen’s sex doll business

The man who meets me at his office in San Marcos, a beach town just north of San Diego, is slight, unassuming, with gentle manners and a sleeve tattoo. His headquarters, on the other hand, are far more arresting.

Heads on shelves. Disembodied limbs. Naked torsos. Otherworldly blank looks. There are full-size dolls everywhere – smooth, toned, unblemished. Both a fantasy of what women look like and strangely real at the same time.

 Matt McMullen didn’t set out to invent “the world’s finest love doll” (he prefers the term to “sex doll”). It began as a hobby, something he did when he wasn’t working at a factory making Halloween masks or playing in grunge bands. He decided to use moulding techniques in his garage to make figurines about a foot or two tall. The result was a series of exotic dancers. When they sold well he graduated to a one-off, life-size model. In the past he has said the project was more of a “joke” or “funky art piece”, and only became something he could make money from because people started asking him to make more of his silicone dolls with their completely accurate, fully articulated skeletons.

Traditionally, the sex doll has had a cheap, rather ludicrous image. The main problem has been that even the most sophisticated versions are still made up of separate parts – a visible seam between the upper and lower leg – and can only be propped up like a GI Joe.

 McMullen changed that. Early on, their ­creator gave the dolls replaceable faces, attached by Velcro at first, and now magnets. Next, the bodies became lighter and had more points of articulation in the spine, neck and shoulders. In their most recent incarnation they are strangely lifelike, weighing 45kg and priced at around $8000 or more. McMullen’s dolls have begun to acquire a knowing, super-real glamour, like ­photoshopped models in a glossy magazine. The quirky, charming Lars and the Real Girl starred Ryan Gosling and a doll called Bianca, made by McMullen. His dolls have appeared on HBO and Howard Stern, and mainstream television shows including CSI: New York and House.

 sex doll

Eight years after starting his company, Abyss Creations, McMullen’s business has grown to a team of 12 and an 800sqm factory (albeit one without a sign, to prevent nosy visitors). This year is shaping up to be one of his best yet. The company estimates that up to 400 dolls will be shipped out – roughly one a day. His success has inspired rivals. He has competitors in Asia, like Candy Girl in Japan and Micdolls in China. American companies are in it too, such as ­Private Island Beauties, and Sinthetics, which is run by a former employee of McMullen’s.

 The production floor is a hive of activity. It’s a rugged workspace of sprockets and lathes and 200 litre drums; for the uninitiated, though, it’s an unholy sight. A recent visitor from Vanity Fair vividly described it as “a mass slaughter at a dry cleaner or meatpacking plant”. Bodies are everywhere, in various states of completion. Headless torsos – because not all customers need the whole body. At one end of the room are the metal skeletons, set into moulds. And at the other end is an abattoir scene of bodies hanging from hooks on a carousel. One of the craftsmen is whistling and gluing on nipples.

 Customers can choose between 11 body types and 31 faces. They are invited to build the rubber woman of their dreams down to the freckles and eyebrows (real human hair available) and capillaries (wisps of red thread) on her eyeballs. Some customers demand a unique body type, just for them; no one else is allowed that mould. Those go for $50,000 and take up to six months. The average customer waits three months.

 That said, he has his limits. No children and no animals. “I have been asked,” he says. And no real people lookalikes, although he’ll customise a doll to suggest a celebrity likeness.

 His customers are not all like the shy loner played by Gosling. McMullen maintains that there is no typical client, although fewer than 10 per cent are female. His clients include sheiks, truck drivers, scientists, housewives, a Nobel prize winner, couples hoping to pep up their sex lives, a nursing association, a dental school, wounded veterans, men recovering from prostate cancer. The US Department of Defence has purchased dolls (without genitalia) for war games. Psychiatrists use them in therapy sessions. Parents have ordered them for their autistic grown-up children. According to Vanity Fair, there are rumours that an actor with “anger management issues” bought five, and was seen sunbathing with them on his yacht.

 McMullen has attempted to introduce robotic enhancements, but they’ve seldom worked. He has tried internal heating, to get past that cold, sticky feel of the rubber. “We had three different versions of a heater, but we ­haven’t released any of them. Either it’s not ­completely safe, or it didn’t get warm enough, or it got too hot.” He even got his dolls to gyrate – a step into the animatronic arena. He installed a motor in the chest cavity. There were various speeds and sequences. “I won’t say she’s fully twerking, but that kind of thing,” he says. “But the downside is the noise factor. You hear this rrr-rrr, rrr-rrr.” He sounds like an old windscreen wiper. “It’s just not a turn-on.”

 When it comes to robotics, McMullen is torn. “Sometimes I just want the doll to be a doll, you know? There’s a reason they’re timeless. They inspire the imagination. What we’ve found is that doll owners really don’t want a high level of robotics. But you should ask them yourself.”

 It’s a big day for Ben (not his real name) tomorrow. He’s taking his wife to her very first “doll meet”. He read about it on dollforum.com – 60 doll owners meeting up in Pennsylvania and bringing their dolls. These meets happen often, all over the world. Ben went to one last year. He was new to the subculture; he’d only just bought his first doll, and he confessed to the other doll owners that he hadn’t told his wife yet. “They were like, ‘What?’ ” he laughs. “ ‘You better hope she doesn’t find out on her own’.”

 This is not a lonely single man who’s been wounded by his relationships with women or lacking in social skills. Ben, 53, is a successful painting contractor from New Jersey. He’s ­married, with a 25-year-old daughter, and he lives a gregarious, active life – he has nine antique Harley-Davidsons, he goes kite surfing, plays the drums in a Pink Floyd tribute band, and he owns four parrots. “Four parrots and four sex dolls!” He laughs. “You see, my wife’s menopausal. The frequency of intimacy isn’t there anymore. So last year I bought a doll. And wow – I was blown away.”

 When he told his wife, he says she was more perturbed that he’d kept it from her than anything else. What smoothed the transition was his wife’s interest in photography, which is a huge part of the doll scene. The dolls often look stunning in photos – the sculpted bodies, the unblemished skin. In the hands of a practised photographer they can be hard to separate from the real thing. In the “flesh” the dolls can look still and cold. So the illusion of photography is critical to the fantasy. And on dollforum.com there are frequent photography competitions.

 “As soon as I bought Grace – that’s what I call my first doll – she was like a muse,” Ben says. “I was doing these shots that were like eye candy for men. It was so inspiring. And now my wife is posing and shooting the dolls, too.”

 The sex part is private. Some couples reportedly bring the dolls into bed with them as part of their fantasy life. But Ben keeps it quite separate. “It’s like a guy watching porn,” he says. “She knows it goes on, but she doesn’t want to know.”

 Ben’s Harley-Davidson collection has been neglected lately. The dolls are taking over. For McMullen, this is exactly the analogy. “It’s a subculture, just like bikes or cars,” he says. “They’re collectors. Some people have 10 or 15 dolls and they look after them as if they’re Rembrandts. This is what people forget – these are pieces of art. Forget that it’s anatomically correct.”

 “Anatomically correct” is code for “you can have sex with it”. And this disconnect between the art and its sexual function has been a source of irritation for McMullen over the years. “This is way more than just porn,” he says. “My whole career, I’ve pushed really hard against that. This is my art. If I were doing sculptures out of ­marble, no one would question it.”

 The movie reference that most closely ­resembles McMullen’s ideal future is the film Her, starring Scarlett Johansson, who voices the character of a hyper-advanced talking smartphone app that steals Joaquin Phoenix’s heart.

 “Siri [the equivalent of Her, on Apple’s iPhone] proves that it’s possible to talk to your devices,” McMullen says. “And if the processor can learn from its interactions, then it can learn what you like or don’t like. I see these dolls as a peripheral for your smartphone. That’s attainable. So instead of your phone reminding you of something, the voice comes out of the doll. And you get the perception that the doll is your girlfriend.”

 This is the sex-doll vision he’s talking about. One of his dolls is set up in a customer’s home, sitting in a chair, or lying on the sofa. The doll, by its GPS, knows where it is. It could call the owner to come downstairs and watch TV. “When you’re away, maybe she texts you,” he says. “Maybe you see her in your phone, as you would if you were Facetiming with someone. She says, ‘I miss you. I can’t wait till Friday when you get back from your business trip’. ” He smiles. “That’s where we’re headed.”

 McMullen says he feels grateful for his good fortune. He has four children, he’s happily ­married, and he’s doing something he loves for a living. “There were times over the past 20 years when I felt I was working at McDonald’s; I just had to keep pumping stuff out. But I’ve grown older now. And I’m having a second wind. I’ve always thought of this as my claim to fame, kind of. And I have all these ideas.”

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