The great sex revolutionary and Godmother of Masturbation, Dr. Betty Dodson (1929-2020), one of my most beloved mentors, died on the Blue Moon of Halloween night.
It’s fitting she flew off on Halloween since she was one of the greatest, most magical, Make-Love-Not-War witches of our times.
Death rises on Halloween, but it’s sad (at least for the living) when Thanatos takes one of the world’s great humans away from us.
At least, Betty lived a good long, full, fun-packed and yes, revolutionary, 90 years of Eros.
She attributed her longevity to “pot, garlic and masturbation.” If she’s right about that, I should be around for a while too (so should a lot of Americans, now that cannabis is being legalized even in blood-red states like Mississippi).
Here’s a confession: Betty Dodson gave me my first orgasm.
Well, not her personally. It was her book. I was 19 years old, and I’d never had an orgasm. Oh, I’d had sex a few times, mainly with my high school boyfriend, and he’d had plenty of orgasms. I’d also masturbated since before I could walk, but not yet to *completion.* I had involuntary climaxes occasionally when I rode a horse or did kip-ups in gymnastics. But I’d never experienced a full-fledged voluntary orgasm until my first semester of my sophomore year at Yale. That was when I read a book that was definitely not required reading for any of my classes: Betty Dodson’s Liberating Masturbation.
No, I didn’t date any Skull & Boners during my sojourn in New Haven, but I was seeing a gorgeous young genius named Steven, and one morning, when Steven left for his 8am class (I never took such early classes, but then, I was no genius), I remember lingering in bed. Lazily, I started to pick up where Steven had left off, but I didn’t know what to do. Not exactly. So, being a bookish girl, I reached for a book.
I remember we were reading Antony and Cleopatra in my Shakespeare class. Though I found the play to be quite erotic, I knew old A&C wouldn’t tell me what I needed to know at that critical moment. Nor would my psych or philosophy textbooks, nor even my French Fleurs du Mal. So, I pushed them all aside for a little illustrated pamphlet I’d picked up from one of the consciousness-raising women’s groups so popular back then.
The pamphlet was Liberating Masturbation. I perused a few paragraphs as I continued to touch myself. Within less than a dozen pages, I’d received a lesson in female anatomy like I’d never been given before. In a smart, friendly, no-nonsense style, Betty told me exactly what and where my clitoris was (nobody else ever had!), and how to touch it to make it feel good. She told me to relax and breathe deep, something I’d never thought of doing during sex, despite all my years of yoga. So, I inhaled and exhaled deeply, as I stroked and played with myself like I’d played since I was a baby, but this time I followed Betty’s instructions, pushing myself farther, rubbing and pulling, licking my fingers and feeling the power, checking back with the book for ideas, breathing more and more deeply, rubbing faster and slower and then faster again, until lo and behold, the proverbial dam burst, the bed shook, the dorm room spun, and I bounced off the cliff into my first full-fledged, voluntary orgasm.
I remember feeling amazed, like I’d gone through a personal revolution right there in my tiny little dorm room bed, passing through a “rite of passage” that none of my anthropology books dared describe. I felt blessed, or maybe just lucky, like I’d been given a gift from God, or the Goddess, or Nature, a pure pleasure that I didn’t have to work for, didn’t cost any money and didn’t require *faith* in myths or suppositions.
I marveled that something so easy could be so explosive, yet so gentle. And I remember realizing I was hooked, that at that point, after 19 years of life on earth, I had become orgasmic. I knew, right then and there, that no matter what else happened, the rest of my life would include these exquisite explosions of pleasure. Pretty much whenever I wanted, I could enjoy a little piece of heaven on Earth. It was all just as close as my fingertips.
I remember drifting blissfully in that tiny little dorm room bed, as if I were Cleopatra floating down the Nile on her perfumed barge toward Antony, her erotic destiny. Then I remember glancing at the clock and realizing that if I didn’t get out of bed that minute, I’d miss that Shakespeare class and (being no genius) possibly flunk it. So I threw on my clothes, picked up my books and left—a New Orgasmic Woman—then, now, and forevermore, a proud citizen of Betty Dodson’s Masturbation Nation, joining her “on the barricades” against sexual ignorance and repression.
Betty’s Liberating Masturbation was later revamped and renamed Sex for One. It became a classic. Over the decades, it has helped millions of women like me to have our first orgasms, or just summon the courage to touch ourselves. It has helped millions of men and gender-neutral people too. As the title indicates, Sex for One is the quintessential self-help manual. Its message is self-revolutionary: If you can help yourself to the greatest sexual pleasure, you really don’t need to kowtow to the demands of an unreasonable husband, or wife, or religion, or government. No wonder masturbation is still so taboo.
Though Betty gave me (and countless other people) one of the greatest gifts ever, the power of self-pleasure, back in the late 1970s, I didn’t actually meet this great lady until 1994.
We were at a big birthday party for our mutual friend, Spectator publisher Cat Sunlove, when we caught each other’s eye. I was seduced by Betty’s sparkle, warmth and unvarnished sincerity, and I immediately sat my butt down in her welcoming lap as if I lived there. Then someone told me who she was, and I was blown away; here was the angel who had given me the keys to my previously locked up Womb Room! I immediately became one of Betty’s many adoring fans who are also friends.
Though Betty resided in New York—in an apartment she’d had for over 50 years (longer than most marriages)—our friendship grew and deepened. She was a delightful guest on several of my shows over the last few decades. We didn’t always agree; she didn’t *believe* in female ejaculation like I did, and we had an ongoing debate about it that we called “The Squirting Dialogues.”
But mostly, we did agree about sex, politics and the rest of life. Betty was vociferously anti-war, joining me in forcefully opposing Bush’s unconscionable Iraq invasion when most Americans were applauding it. Betty believed in the power of “pleasure for all” to help make peace on Earth. Always examining new ideas and techniques, Betty was one of the earliest cheerleaders for The Bonobo Way: The Evolution of Peace through Pleasure.
The last time I saw beautiful Betty was at her 87th birthday, also a celebration of her memoir, Sex by Design, documenting her unique, artistic (she was an accomplished artist before she found her calling as the godmother of self-pleasure) and iconic life in her iconoclastic, deeply authentic, profoundly feminist, plain-spoken, no-nonsense, Kansas style. It was just a couple of weeks after the passing of another great sex-positive pioneer, Good Vibrations founder Joani Blank, so I was feeling acutely appreciative of Betty’s life.
Little did I know that the kiss we gave each other that night would be our last.
Betty always made me feel special whether I was in her arms or reading her words. Of course, I’m just one of multitudes. Betty inspired many sex educators and explorers—I doubt that Jeffrey “Zoom Dick” Toobin properly credits her, though he should—but there was no one quite like Betty.
Maybe I would have eventually figured out how to have an orgasm on my own, without the helping hand of Liberating Masturbation, but who knows? In a way, I literally owe my orgasms—and more (but what’s really “more” than orgasms?)—to Dr. Betty Dodson.
May her memory live on, inspiring us to take matters of importance—like pleasure—into our own hands, to make love, not war, and go bonobos.
In remembrance of this extraordinary woman’s powerful, sexual self-help legacy and with hope for a sex-positive future, light a candle, grab your favorite toy and rub one out for the great Godmother of Masturbation, Dr. Betty Dodson.