Betty Dodson, Sexual Revolutionary: August 24,1929-October 31, 2020
It’s truly the end of an era. The one and only Betty Dodson died (on Hallowe’en under a Blue Moon, no less), and if you have ever had an orgasm or know where the clitoris is located, you might want to raise a glass or light a candle to the Mother of Masturbation.
Betty had a decades-long connection with Good Vibrations—waaaay back in the 1980s we sponsored at least one of her Bodysex workshops, and in fact that’s the reason I came to work at GV! You might say that Dr. BAD, as she liked to be called, had more than a little influence on my life. (she told Robert and me we needed to start the Center for Sex & Culture, too!) I first heard of her—and her quest to get people to embrace masturbation—in 1972 or thereabouts, when I was a teen, and I snagged the vibrator that was gathering dust in the hall closet and never looked back. (I didn’t actually ever give it back, either. This plus some book learning equipped me to curate the Antique Vibrator Museum many years later.)
I was hardly the only one feeling Betty’s influence as she pushed for a feminist sexual revolution that made masturbation the foundation of our sex lives; she had nothing against partnersex (as she called it) and engaged in plenty of it, but she knew that women’s sexual pleasure was linked to information about the clit and also body image, including how they felt about their vulvas. A stupendously talented fine artist, she made beautiful, explicit artworks (with a major solo show in the 1960s), but as she got more and more engaged with feminism and the power of masturbation, she turned her artistic talents to documenting the diverse range of vulva styles. Besides being cool to draw, vulvas were the subject of distress for many women who didn’t think theirs looked “normal”—showing off how varied vulvas are was part of a quest to bring bodily and sexual comfort to women whose ability to experience pleasure was affected by shame.
This message and its accompanying slide show, as well as vibrator advocacy, is what she brought to the National Organization for Women’s conference on sexuality in 1973, where she blew minds and took lots of orders for her new book Liberating Masturbation. She spent a good deal of time in San Francisco during these years, too, and sex-positive older locals often have Betty stories to share as she and the City by the Bay influenced each other.
Writing a plainspoken, groundbreaking book about sexuality is one thing, and over a million people have read it and its updated version Sex for One. But Betty’s biggest breakthrough may have been the way she recognized the power of the ‘70s-era women’s consciousness-raising group—and created Bodysex workshops that brought a circle of naked women together to talk about their bodies and their orgasms, and then masturbate together. (She even did a couple of these that included men—plenty of men and people of other gender identities appreciate the work Betty has done to stamp out shame about genitals, sex and masturbation.) Many of the authors, teachers, and sex-positive activists who’ve helped make Good Vibrations what it is (as we carried their books, hosted their classes, and made community in other ways) say that the Bodysex workshops, or just knowing Betty, inspired them to focus on the sexuality work they do. Betty’s influence on the sex-positive world is simply enormous.
But Betty also did one-on-one coaching, and so her influence on the lives of women who would never cross her threshold to join a workshop of naked, masturbating women is also profound. And around fifteen years ago Betty teamed up with attorney Carlin Ross and together they launched dodsonandross.com, an online portal to give Betty new reach and a virtual way to teach and influence her community. Now that Betty is gone, Carlin will hold down the fort—including handling the work of the Betty Dodson Foundation, which aims to keep Betty’s work alive and accessible into the future.
So, not surprisingly, Dr. Betty Dodson is not entirely gone. Her spirit and her work live on via the website and foundation—but also in the hearts and legacies of the countless sex educators, coaches, Bodysex trainees, writers, teachers, sexuality advocates, and others whose lives Betty touched. They are all over the US and all around the world, and so as long as people can find the clitoris and know what to do when they find it, or masturbate without shame, Betty’s impact on us will live on.
Rest in Power, Betty.
- Carol Queen PhD, Staff Sexologist
A lifetime retrospective of Betty Dodson’s fine art will be up at the Museum Of Sex in New York starting on December 18, 2020.
Do you have a story about meeting Dodson, or her influence on your life? Drop me a note and I’ll add you to the list I’m compiling for a possible anthology of Dr. BAD stories. (I don’t know if I will be the person to do that project—but someone’s gotta, and I’m keeping track of who’s interested, for now. Ping me at email@example.com if you want to stay in the loop!)