Who knew that a kid growing up in the Bible Belt of Kansas in the ‘30s would become the “Mother of Masturbation”? The mother that so many of us who grew up with sexual shame wished we’d had.
What We Learned from Self-Pleasure Guru Betty Dodson
Betty Anne Dodson taught thousands of women how to reclaim their pleasure and live a sexually liberated life. While teaching women how to “run the fuck,” she gave no fucks and lived life out loud. (The gist of “running the fuck” is for women to take charge during intercourse, to do what needs to be done to get off.)
Betty Dodson's Career
Betty started her career as fine artist, painting the classical nude. During the Sexual Revolution of the ‘60s, her work progressed into a more erotic realm, with figures having sex and masturbating.
I have a signed print of one of Dodson’s 1976 drawings hanging in my bedroom. In it, she sits cross-legged on a pillow, with depictions of six vulvas haloing her nude body. When I’m having partner sex, I frequently look up and can hear Dodson saying, “Why stop at one? Keep going, have another.” Dodson was a true hedonist, unapologetic in every way.
In 1973, Dodson was on the planning committee for the first Sex Conference organized by N.O.W. (The National Organization for Women) and presented a workshop where she projected six-foot images of women’s vulvas, using architectural styles as a reference. Nothing had been done like this before and the library of visuals helped women realize there’s no such thing as a textbook vulva. A year later, she published her first book, Liberating Masturbation: A Meditation on Self-Love.
Around the same time, she birthed Bodysex; weekend masturbation workshops for women held in the nude at her Manhattan living room. The same space where she held her infamous group-sex parties.
In 1987, her book Sex for One: The Joy of Selfloving, took masturbation out of the shadows; more than one million readers
Dodson and Ross
At the age of 80, Dodson crossed paths with Carlin Ross, a then thirty-something attorney, who’d become her dear friend, business partner, and protégé. And in Dodson’s final days, the fiercest, most loving, and patient caretaker one could ever want.
For the next decade, Dodson and Ross worked tirelessly hosting hundreds of Bodysex workshops and speaking at conferences around the world to help women embrace pleasure and heal sexual shame – one orgasm at a time. (I first met the pair at a Bodysex workshop I took in 2015.)
In January of 2020, Dodson and Ross took masturbation mainstream, with an appearance on Netflix’s The Goop Lab. Dodson schooled Gwyneth Paltrow on what a vagina is: “The vagina is the birth canal only. You want to talk about the vulva, which is the clitoris and the inner lips and all that good shit around it.” Ross was filmed masturbating to orgasm in real time. The episode was a game-changer in showing what real female pleasure looks like.
As soon as the episode aired, there was a waitlist of more than 2,000 women who wanted to attend a Bodysex workshop with the feminist icon. (Yes, Dodson, at 90-years-old, was still hosting circles for women – five decades later.) The silver lining is that Ross was able to quickly adapt the workshops for a virtual audience, making Bodysex available to women all around the world.
Dodson may no longer be here to lead circles, but her legacy lives on in the army of women she taught, who now lead Bodysex workshops around the world. She leaves behind a powerful sisterhood of women who’ve bonded over Bodysex and become close friends. We meet weekly for virtual Erotic Recess, the portion of the Bodysex workshop when women masturbate together. In recent months, our orgasms have been dedicated to Betty and her transition into the other-verse.
Dodson wasn’t shy to tell people who she was and what she stood for. Even on her deathbed, at 91-years-old, she informed staff at her care facility that she was a “World Famous Masturbator.”
In her final weeks, a deal was inked to show an exhibition of Dodson’s work at the Museum of Sex in New York City. The exhibit will open to the public on December 18, 2020, and will stay up for a year or two, depending upon how COVID-19 plays out.
Betty Dodson's Legacy
It’s fitting that Dodson left the planet on her favorite holiday, Halloween, during a rare full blue moon on Samhain, when it is believed that the veil between the physical world and the spiritual (or “other”) world is at its thinnest.
Dodson was a hell-raiser of a human who fought fearlessly against a system that’s afraid of female desire, while enjoying her own and encouraging others to do the same. She learned about sex “by doing it, not studying it.”
I can’t think of another human more invested in women getting off than The Dodson. She didn’t exactly embark on an easy path. But she believed that when something isn’t fair, you change it – a lesson she learned from her mother, Bess. She also thought every woman in this world is worthy of having orgasms. Masturbation is a healthy form of sexual expression; self-love saw Dodson through old age.
So, please, raise a glass of Champagne (Dodson would want you to) and read this toast that Ross made during a retreat a group of us took to celebrate Dodson’s 88th birthday:
“To Betty: For never giving up, for never selling out, and you have taught us all to love ourselves and to embrace pleasure and to become the women we were destined to be in this world.”
Betty knew how to live, and how to die. She did it on her own terms, with a whole lot of grit and orgasms – and not a single ounce of regret. We should all be so lucky.
Ryn Pfeuffer is a versatile print and digital writer specializing in sex, lifestyle, and relationship topics. Over the past two decades, her work has appeared in more than 100 media outlets including Marie Claire, Playboy, Refinery29, The Globe and Mail, The Washington Post, WIRED, and Thrillist.
She adopted a pseudonym and was AVN’s (Adult Video Network) first female porn reviewer – while penning children’s books at the same time. More recently, she is the author of 101 Ways to Rock Online Dating (2019). She lives in Seattle with her rescue dog, Mimi. You can find her on Twitter @rynpfeuffer or IG @ryn_says