Super vagina

Why are we so threatened by female masturbation?

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BY BIANCA JARVIS

“Loving your vagina, in every way, is not a sin. No more shame, no more secrets. Happy is on a mission: to free the world from a silly social stigma.”

This is the manifesto of pink cartoon vulva Happy, the star of Happy Playtime, described as “a sex education game whose aim is to eliminate the stigma around female masturbation.” Although research has shown that women are “more likely to be nearly always or always orgasmic when alone than with a partner,” the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (NSSHB) found that only 63 percent of sampled women ages 18-59 had masturbated alone in the past year, compared to 79 percent of men.  

These statistics are not going to change until Americans can let go of their hang-ups about female genitals and solo pleasure. A game like Happy Playtime is an excellent step in the direction of normalizing female masturbation and promoting women’s sexual pleasure in a fun, non-threatening way.

Unfortunately, Apple’s iTunes app store is not so keen on the idea. Ironically, this game designed to reduce sexual stigma was denied inclusion on the vague grounds of being “excessively objectionable,” “crude,” and “pornographic.” Bloggers have expressed disgust at Apple’s hypocrisy when a game depicting illegal drug dealing can make the cut, but an educational game starring an anthropomorphic vulva cannot.

Are abstract, stylized depictions of female genitalia just too threatening for the American public to handle?

“Vulva imagery has become less taboo over time (see the Daily Show's Halloween vulva costume, for example), but that doesn't mean it's commonplace, even when done tastefully or for educational purposes,” says Debby Herbenick, PHD, a research scientist at Indiana University and author of Sex Made Easy. “In 2007, I brought a vulva puppet on Tyra to teach women about their genitals. On the day of taping, I was asked to keep my vulva puppet in the Green Room because then-presidential hopeful Barack Obama was down the hallway getting ready for his taping and I guess there was some concern about a vulva puppet/Obama introduction.”

Clearly it’s not a question of simply making vulvas appear less “explicit” when a satin and velvet puppet is considered a threat to national security.

It is important to know the difference between an anatomically accurate depiction of genitalia created for an educational game, and the sexualized images of vulvas shown in pornography. It is doubtful that anyone other than a Hello Kitty fetishist would find jolly cartoon Happy to be erotically titillating. 

“I've seen a number of approved/available sex apps that use euphemisms for genitals and sex, but sometimes those euphemisms make it difficult to share honest, accurate information,” says Dr. Herbenick. 

HPT developer Tina Gong reports “requests to make the (Happy) character itself MORE graphic, because older users thought that it was TOO abstract.” It is unfortunate that any depiction of a vulva is automatically condemned as a sexually stimulating object, instead of as a human body part that serves various important physical functions, including but not limited to sexual pleasure.

Searah Deysach, owner of Chicago-based sex toy shop Early to Bed, believes the stigma goes deeper than the infantile shock value of cartoon genitalia.

I think vulva imagery and education about female masturbation are still so taboo in society mainly because folks are scared of women having sexual agency. Allowing women to love their vulvae and practice the radical art of self love could lead to better self esteem which could lead to women feeling they have the right to be in charge of their bodies. I cannot speak to what specifically happened with Happy Playtime, but I talk to women every freaking day who struggle with loving their bodies and I can see how that directly impacts their sexual lives and self esteem. 

Ghettoizing a relatively tame app like Happy Playtime as “pornographic” further feeds the same stigmas that the game is intended to dismantle. Any potential objections could be stymied simply by placing same the 17+ ratings applied to other sexuality-related apps such as “Sex Positions Game,” “Sex Strip Game,” and “Sex Tester.”

On the other hand, as Lux Alptraum points out, a 17+ rating might put the game out of reach for the women who might benefit the most: adolescent girls who might need some unintimidating guidance as they begin experimenting with masturbation and sex.

Apple’s rejection of Happy Playtime is a sobering reminder of how far society has to go towards embracing women’s sexuality is healthy, normal, and positive. However, I believe that Gong’s game still has the potential to empower women of all ages to love their vulvas, as Gong plans to release Happy Playtime as a browser-based website game, instead of as an app. Let's hope that Apple will catch up with her sooner or later. 

Bianca Jarvis, MPH, is blogger and sex educator at Indiana University's Kinsey Institute, based in Bloomington, IN. She is also executive editor of Msbehaved.com, "a sex-positive lifestyle site with a fierce femme sensibility." Read more at Kinsey Confidential and on Twitter at @BiancaJarvisMPH.

Photo via deleted.scenes/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)