The Mother of Masturbation Speaks
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It takes nerve to talk openly about masturbation, even more so now than in the sex-friendly '70s. Only a decade ago, U.S. Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders lost her job when she publicly acknowledged that masturbation is a vital part of human sexuality. But Betty Dodson has been talking candidly about masturbation since the 1960s. Indeed, few women have done more to promote masturbation and liberate female sexual pleasure. Best known as "the Mother of Masturbation," Dodson has been one of America's most vocal advocates for female sexual pleasure for more than 30 years. Through workshops, instructional videos, and groundbreaking books -- most notably Liberating Masturbation (later revised and republished as Sex for One ) and Orgasms for Two - Dodson has transformed women's lives by giving them the tools and the confidence to tap into their sexual pleasure. Choice! Magazine spoke to Dodson to get her frank - and often irreverent -- take on her career and the state of female sexual pleasure today.
How was Liberating Masturbation received when you first published it in 1974?
Basically, I was overwhelmed at the success, particularly because I was publishing it myself because no one would touch it. The book was seen as a joke so I had to get accustomed to being everyone's favorite joke. The concept of talking about masturbation -- men thought it was hysterical and women though it was repulsive.
Have your workshops changed in the last decade to keep pace with changing trends?
I stopped doing workshops in the early 1990s. I now do sex coaching -- it is like a workshop, only with one person. It's very successful. The women who come are usually professional women. They are all ages - 30s, 40s, 60s. I get a lot of phases -- for example, women in their 50s, who say they are breaking free and now want some sexual pleasure, or women in their 20s. I don't see as many women in their 30s. Maybe they are off having babies. ...
The big thing I promote is the direct use of vibration, which I've done from the very beginning. For myself, I discovered vibration in the early 1960s. Rachel Maines, in her book [ The Technology of Orgasm ], says that feminists brought back vibrators. Excuse me, it wasn't feminists -- it was me!
Forty years after your first workshops, do you think you've been successful in getting across your message?
Women tell me I've been successful. I'm grateful that I've been able to reach as many women as I have. I'll go out somewhere and I'll be at a party and a woman will throw her arms around me and tell me I changed her life!
But I'm sad that I am censored by the culture that I live in. Goddess bless the internet because I've had a web site since '97 or '98, and for the first time I have a forum for communication so I won't be censored.
What are you working on now?
This next video I'm doing, "Orgasmic Woman," will show vaginal penetration using a vaginal barbell and clitoral stimulation. A lot of women hate penetration because it's too hard or fast or because of friction. "Orgasmic Woman" shows me working hands-on. I work with a woman who doesn't think she is having an orgasm. Some orgasms are like hiccups or a sneeze and some are huge and profound. But, if a woman doesn't recognize that she's having an orgasm, then what happens? How would you intensify it? That would be by taking more time after you have that first orgasm. Don't stop! Keep going! Women are not like guys. We are so ignorant about female sexual pleasure.
What role do sexual pleasure and expression play in the current political climate, when we are simply trying to hold on to our basic reproductive rights?
Obviously, it's been the same all along -- there is some pending disaster so we can't get around to sexual pleasure. What is that all about? If we are always fighting the battle, we never really get to pleasure.
I marched for abortion rights. At the time we thought that that would be it and we could move on. But we've spun into a downward spiral, which has thrust us into a more repressive, stringent time than when I grew up in the 1950s. I even had an illegal abortion. It was horrible. It was literally on a cold metal table. You don't know if you're going to die or get an infection. I started bleeding. I called a friend who was a doctor and he said to go to the emergency room because he didn't want to get in trouble. So I know how terrible it is for a woman to go through this.
What about the impact of abstinence-only sex education on the sex lives of future generations of women in the United States?
Very few women know anything anyway, but now they are really going to know nothing. It's a big fat zero. And we are going to have a lot of unplanned pregnancies. I grew up in Kansas. A lot of girls ended up getting married in high school. I think we might see that again.
The idea that talking to young people about birth control will encourage partner sex is ridiculous. What would help is a discussion of masturbation.
Any final thoughts?
We have to be strong. My attitude is I've got to have more orgasms to get through these times. It's the only antidote to violence.
Ellen Friedrichs is a sex educator based in New York City, where she teaches high school and college classes.