When I was in ninth grade, my friends and I went to a sex shop in Chelsea. It was the first time I had ever been inside a sex shop, and I remember being overcome with awe and terror and dread as we headed toward the vibrator section. I expected them to be enormous and unwieldy and badass, with barbed edges and flames painted on the sides like a 1950s drag race villain’s car. I was surprised to find that, with their sleek, brightly colored packaging and cuddly animal names (Pearl Panther, Snow Leopard, Blue Dolphin, etc.), they looked more like Fisher-Price stacking toys, like something you’d purchase for a friend’s baby shower. After a few minutes, I started to think of them less as masturbation aids and more like adorable accessories, like Hello Kitty backpacks or one of those rubber bracelets I used to buy from Hot Topic. They looked cute and fun, and there was nothing dangerous or threatening or even particularly sexual about them.
If her masturbation instruction app Happy Playtime [mildly NSFW] is any indication, designer Tina Gong is trying to capture the same cutesy spirit. Taking a cue from the Jackrabbit and Snow Leopard manufacturers, Gong has created a program that is designed to make the concept of self-stimulation as cuddly, and non-threatening as humanly possible. In the app, a cherubic cartoon vulva named “Happy” shows users how to properly bring themselves to orgasm. A screenshot for the app shows Happy pointing out where the clitoris is, using bright pink arrows to indicate that users should stroke in a clockwise motion (as opposed to counterclockwise, or diagonally, or in any other cardinal direction).
If one were pressed to describe the app in one word, the word would definitely be “quirky.” Which is not to say that Gong’s intentions for the app aren’t admirable. In the site’s mission statement, Gong says the app is intended to eliminate cultural stigma “by talking openly and lightheartedly about female masturbation.” According to an infographic on the app’s website, this stigma is still widely prevalent: 46.6 percent of women say they masturbate less than once a month.
While it’s certainly plausible that a few users could stumble across Gong’s app and be inspired to engage in a little self-love, I’m inclined to say that most won’t be. For one thing, the cherubic mascot and peaches-and-cream color scheme make the app seem more like it’s targeting giggly adolescents than trying to educate mature adult women. Although the design is intended to be tongue-in-cheek, it comes off as condescending to its users, most of whom, even if they’re novices in the art of masturbation, probably know enough about their own equipment so as not to require an instruction manual. To paraphrase Miranda Hobbes from Sex and the City, it’s a clitoris, not a disassembled sofa from IKEA.
What’s most upsetting about the app, however, is not its weirdly condescending tone nor the creepiness of its mascot, which, with its little clitoral nub head, chubby bow legs, and vulvar opening, looks less like an adorable cartoon vagina than a fetus who’s been given a Caesarean in utero. It’s that it’s predicated on the notion that women will only be interested in self-gratification if it’s presented in a cute and cuddly and quirky light, rather than as a healthy part of everyday life. For years, marketers have operated under the assumption that women don’t particularly like sex, unless it’s sold to us through a specifically female lens (hence, the proliferation of pink, sparkly sex toys, or the hype over Oprah-endorsed “mommy porn”); it needs to look cute and fun and safe and unthreatening and maybe not even particularly sexual.
Of course, for men and women alike, sex is not quirky and unthreatening; it’s messy and unwieldy and mysterious and exciting and weird and revelatory and really, really fun. It’s not the sleek and pretty Pearl Panther; it’s the 1950s drag racing car, with barbed wire and flames on the side. It would have been great if Gong had kept that in mind when designing her female masturbation instruction app, but it would have been even greater if we, as a culture, had no need for a female masturbation instruction app at all.