Elaine did it on Seinfeld. Blair did it on Gossip Girl. Marnie did it on Girls. Vibrators have made their way to drugstores across America, and video evidence of women touching themselves proliferates online. We appear to be living in a golden age of female self-pleasure. And yet, women continue to lag far behind men in masturbation frequency. Why is that?
Perhaps some women are lacking in a basic wanking education. Men do have a head start in this subject: A 2010 survey found that 75 percent of 16- and 17-year-old boys had masturbated in the past year, compared to 45 percent of girls; it takes another decade for women to begin to catch up. A forthcoming app called HappyPlayTime hopes to bridge the gap. In it, an ethereal pink vulva floats across the screen, telling women how to press their own buttons. Sample instruction: “This is a clitoris. Make a circular motion here. Oh my, I’m getting all hot and bothered.”
Or maybe women are well aware of how to do it for themselves, but societal pressure keeps them from creating too much friction. “The notion that women enjoy sex has not yet achieved scientific or cultural acceptance,” Ann Friedman writes in an ode to female masturbation at New York magazine. “To social conservatives, it seems downright dangerous,” and there is “no purer example of this than a woman enjoying the pleasure of her own company.”
I’ll submit another complicating factor: Female masturbation is a logistical challenge, particularly for women who share their bed with a partner every night of their lives. When a single woman fails to orgasm from a one-night-stand, she’s free to go home and privately finish herself off; once she’s partnered up, she has no other bed to run to. As the developers of HappyPlayTime note, “women in longer relationships tend to masturbate less.” And it’s not just because they’re getting enough pleasure from their partners. According to a 2007 study on the sexual behavior of people age 45 and older, single men and women masturbate more frequently than those in relationships. Partnered men who are physically dissatisfied in their relationships also compensate by masturbating more. Not so for sexually frustrated females: Women who claim to be physically dissatisfied in their relationships still don’t turn to their own (battery-powered) devices.
Perhaps these women just don’t want it bad enough. But it’s also harder for women to find opportunities to engage in that solo sexual experience. A lot of people with live-in partners will find themselves truly alone for only a few minutes a day—and those minutes are often spent in the shower. (Those with kids have even less alone time.) For anatomical reasons, it’s more challenging for women to get off standing up. Many women need to enlist the help of a vibrator, and vibrators are loud. And because men orgasm a lot quicker during sex—and some of them are still unwilling to admit that their female partners aren’t coming along with them—it can be awkward for women to get caught engaging in some furtive postcoital activity. The same women who profess to be sexually dissatisfied with their partners are also unlikely to be in the position to start a frank conversation about needing some private time.
When it comes to increasing the rates of female masturbation, locating the clitoris is just the beginning. Women also need to find some time alone—and some long-term partners who are, once in a while, willing to make a graceful exit. I’m not sure you can make an app for that.