38 Years of Self-Love: How "Sex for One" Changed Our Ideas About Masturbation
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This piece was originally published at Salon.
Without Betty Dodson, America would be a lot less good at masturbating. Almost four decades ago, the sex educator, artist and feminist activist self-published her book “Sex for One” under the name “Liberating Masturbation” and began selling it at small feminist bookstores around the country. The book, a guide to pleasuring oneself, caught on like wildfire, teaching a generation of women and men about an act that was still considered shameful to a large cross section of Americans – and utterly mysterious to a huge number of others. It has remained a touchstone.
83-year-old Dodson still dispenses sex advice on her website, dodsonandross.com, and now Three Rivers Press is issuing “ Sex for One” as an e-book for the first time ever. To mark the occasion we called Dodson to talk about how our attitudes toward masturbation have changed since 1974, when her book first appeared.
Your book has been out for 38 years, and people are still using it as a resource. That’s kind of incredible.
The book has a very long history. Originally, I had written an article for Ms. magazine [about masturbation]. They held it for a couple of years, and during that time I did a little self-publishing. I had a logo, which I called “Goddess Books.” It was so cornball, I can’t tell you, but I was thrilled by it. It was like a mimeograph. I sent it out everywhere, selling it for $2 and $3. The little checks were coming in from all over the world. I couldn’t get over it. I thought I’d get a couple of hundred checks. I got something like 4- to 5,000. So lo and behold I had enough money to go publish my own book in 1974, because publishers would laugh at me when I said I want to publish a book called “Liberating Masturbation.” They would laugh me out of their office.
And now it’s coming out in Kindle.
It’s amazing to me. It went all over via the women’s movement and coffee shops. I didn’t sell it to Crown until 1986. I couldn’t let it go, I couldn’t turn it over to anyone. I didn’t want anyone to touch my baby. And I knew they’d screw it up and, sure enough, the first version that came out, I hated it. The cover, the style, everything about it was nasty. When they decided to put it in paperback I became a bitch and I drove the art department crazy to make a cover that I could love, and I’ve got to say that cover is dynamite. The first time they had “Self Loving” in this stupid script, in faded pink, ugh, barf. It was so nasty. Once I got the cover that I liked, the book just went out and did what it did. I was getting letters and responses that said, “Oh thank you, thank you, I felt so guilty about this all my life.” I think the value of the book is that it broke through a lot of people’s guilt.
Obviously, the sexual climate was very different in 1974. How did people think about masturbation back then?
Who needed it? There was so much sexual freedom and there were so many groups and threesomes and couples getting together. It was very fluid in New York, L.A., San Francisco. I went to sex parties in the U.K., London, Amsterdam. I was one of the darlings of the jet set, so they’d invite me everywhere. I couldn’t have been happier. Then all of the sudden AIDS happened and the bottom crashed out of casual sex. That’s why the publisher in 1986 figured that they could finally deal with masturbation as the safest sex.