There’s a bit in the Cate Blanchett TV commercial for a scent called Si that never fails to make me snigger smuttily. (Admittedly not difficult.) After we see the Radiant One being life-affirming in the rain (‘Si to life!’) and with a Significant Other (‘Si to us!’) she wanders off alone and, looking particularly glowy, stares into the camera: ‘Si to myself!’ It’s tragic, but what was clearly intended as an oath to empowerment always strikes me as a reference to onanism. I spit out my Malibu every time.
Mind you, I could be forgiven for my immature interpretation. In recent years, female masturbation has gone from being the love that dare not speak its name to the one that can’t stop moaning, gasping and screaming it — and then making pop videos about it.
Once we had to make do with a hefty helping of soft-focus cleavage and pouting with the Diviynls ‘I Touch Myself’ back in 1990, though the lyric was quite to the point: ‘I don’t want anybody else/When I think about you, I touch myself’. These days things are far more explicit — and far more worthy. Lady Gaga’s ‘Dancing In Circles’, Hailee Steinfeild’s ‘Love Myself’, Charli XCX’s ‘Body Of My Own’ and FKA Twigs’s ‘Kicks’ all portray masturbation (for women, that is) as being right up there with being a chief executive in the triumph-of-feminism stakes.
Explicit — and duplicit. We’re encouraged to admire these finger-happy females, but what would our reaction be if male crooners started singing about self-abuse and, even better, filming themselves pretending to do it in order to flog their music? I suspect the reaction might not be a million miles from one long collective ‘Ewww!’ But why is a masturbating man the subject of amusement and/or contempt while a masturbating woman is some sort of heroine? Logically, it doesn’t make sense. A woman can always get sex, whereas men often have to chase it, pay for it or go without it, so they’ve got a lot more reason to be interfering with themselves.
But now it’s the ladies, Lord love ’em, who are paying for the pleasure right through the nose, with the unstoppable rise of sex aids. And yes, that was a snooty judgmental tone you thought you heard there. I refuse to use the approved term ‘sex toys’ because it brings a creepy air of infantilism to this most adult of pastimes (an unnerving number of sex aids are made in the style of children’s playthings). I don’t know what I find more pitiable, two people, presumably equipped with the usual supply of hands, mouths and sex organs, setting about each other with bits of garishly coloured cut-price plastic to reach the realms of ecstasy, or a woman with more money than sex paying £12,000 for a vibrator that the Sunday Times described thus: ‘An 18ct-gold-plated gilded pebble… five vibration patterns with customisable levels of intensity… comes in an artisanal wooden box with gold trimmings.’ Be still my beating heart!
It’s that old self-love double-standard again. If a man spent £12,000 on a sex doll, he’d be thought of as seven sorts of sleazy. Of course, you don’t have to be rich to be desperate. Boots the chemist no longer run a Booklovers Library, but who needs to broaden their mind when they can buy the Durex ‘Play’ range at this once most upright of outlets? And there’s that infantilism again, embodied by that awful decaffeinating word ‘Play’ — the sexual equivalent of those joyless clowns who say ‘Enjoy!’ whenever you’re about to eat anything, totally ignoring the fact that sex, despite all attempts to render it comical with unattractive words such as bonk and shag, is still one of the most insurrectionary and dangerous instincts in the world, leading people to voluntarily burn their own lives down in pursuit of it with a non-approved partner. In the face of such reckless splendour, the like of the Bedroom Fireworks Gift Pack (£17.99), the Little Devil Vibrating Ring (£4.89) or the frankly nightmarish Dream Vibrator (£37.99) seem very small beer indeed.
The global market in these abominations is currently valued at more than £12 billion, and that’s not counting the monstrous regiment of aforementioned sex dolls, the ‘high end’ of which began in Japan in the 1980s. Also coming soon will be sex robots, beginning with a robot ‘Fellatio Café’ in Paddington, due to open later this year. Even though I describe myself as a feminist, I can’t wait to mock the self-appointed spokeswomen for my gender slamming this set-up after years of bigging up broads bringing themselves off using battery-operated devices. As the rather rabid David Mills, an atheist activist and admirer of sex dolls, ranted to Vanity Fair: ‘Women have enjoyed sex toys for 50 years, probably 5,000 years, if the truth be known, but men are still stigmatised! We have to correct that! I want to be the Rosa Parks of sex dolls! Men are not going to sit in the back of the bus any more!’
Indeed, you could argue that a blowjob from a humanoid sexbot is far more indicative of a healthy desire to be connected to humanity than a quick once-over with a gilded pebble or a faceless phallus. But that won’t stop the lady columnists from penning predictable screeds about the woeful immaturity of men, and their willingness to risk having their tackle snagged in a faulty man-trap rather than ‘commit’ to a living, breathing female.
So can I (for once) put my head above the parapet and say that I totally get the appeal of sexbots in the current climate? Sex is, generally, a rather basic thing. Yet somewhere along the line some women have adopted the notion that it should be akin to a trip to Disneyland on gossamer wings for a playdate with Barbie and her pet unicorn. Some women seem to think sex should be about communicating, sharing, scented candles, two-hour massages, three-hour role play, kissing, cuddling and then… that other thing, if you must… whereas men generally tend to believe that sex is about having sex, the rotters. So can you blame them for wanting to keep it short and simple with a sexbot? And if it’s OK for women to pleasure themselves with friends electric, why not men?
Such is the confusion that the public celebration of female onanism has led us to. I’ll come clean here, I started abusing myself at an early age. Once, I did it so hard that I fell out of bed. When I read that my teenage heroine Patti Smith did it so much as a kiddy that she regularly lost consciousness, I was so full of admiration that I redoubled my efforts. I never rendered myself unconscious, but I had fun trying. However, I did not once think: ‘Oooh, one day I’ll grow up and masturbate even more!’ That would have been like dreaming that one day I’d grow up and go to school even more. I was practising for sex, the ultimate Big Scary Ride which I was, due to height and circumstance, currently barred from.
The idea that elaborate self-love — not just a quick one when you’re separated from your love object, or a noisy one to show off in front of them, but something you spend money on — empowers women is dubious to say the least; by franchising out tossing off, making the physical the fiscal, it actually adds to the clammy narrative of women ‘gagging for it’ and desperately mauling at themselves in the absence of a man. And if it’s true that porn contributes to making some men bad lovers, then it may also be that too much time devoted to self-love (because you’re worth it!) may similarly make certain women a less agreeable sexual prospect. But whatever happens, you can’t put the lid back on Pandora’s box — even if it’s made of artisanal wood with gold trimmings. And if men do start copping off with sex robots in increasing numbers, I can’t help but feel that women have paved the way to this danse macabre with their dead-end embrace of fetish over flesh.