Sex for One (1987) is a part-memoir, part-guidebook by Betty Dodson, a pioneering pro-sex feminist and masturbation advocate. Dodson recounts her own erotic journey and offers a step-by-step approach to embracing self-love.
Learn how masturbation teacher and sex expert Betty Dodson embraced self-love – and how you can, too.
Masturbation is a natural part of human sexuality. And yet it remains a taboo subject, even today. Why is this? According to sex educator Betty Dodson, people – women in particular – are conditioned by society to associate masturbation with feelings of embarrassment and guilt. This is by patriarchal design. Shame kills pleasure, and when a woman takes control of her pleasure, she realizes her independence.
Dodson recognized in the 1970s that sexual healing was the path to liberation. Dodson herself didn’t begin to explore her sexuality until she was in her mid-thirties, but the breakthrough she had would go on to define her life’s work as a self-described “orgasm coach.” These blinks highlight some of Dodson’s experiences and ideas.
A warning before we begin: these blinks contain language that some might find offensive.
In these summary, you’ll learn
- how Betty Dodson started teaching masturbation workshops after her divorce;
- why masturbation is like meditation; and
- how you can practice an exploratory self-loving ritual at home.
Masturbation can liberate us from sexual repression.
Before Betty Dodson became a sex educator, she, like many women, believed that her sexual pleasure should come from her partner’s penis. Cultural sex-negativity had conditioned her to deny the pleasure she got from masturbation. She believed her sexuality didn’t truly exist until she had sex for the first time with a partner, at age twenty.
For the rest of her twenties, in the 1950s, Dodson’s ideas about sex were drawn from Freudian psychology and marriage manuals. The available resources on sex at the time taught her that masturbating too much was infantile behavior; mature sex meant having vaginal orgasms within a meaningful relationship. So when she fell in love and got married at age twenty-nine, she couldn’t understand why her sex life wasn’t fulfilling. She’d hoped that orgasmic sex would be part of her married life. When it wasn’t, she blamed herself.
The key message here is: Masturbation can liberate us from sexual repression.
Dodson later realized that, although she said she’d married for love, she’d really exchanged sex for economic security. She’d hoped to please her husband, but she worried he wouldn’t love her if she were honest with him about her sexual desires. The couple’s sex life worsened, and Dodson began to believe she had no value at all – since providing sex was her unspoken end of the bargain. The lack of communication and shame intensified her sexual repression. Ultimately, they divorced.
It was then that Dodson began the erotic journey that would change her life. In her first post-marital relationship, with a divorced man named Blake, she started having rampant, experimental, exploratory sex. Together they spoke honestly about sex and masturbation, discovering that communication and sharing are at the core of true intimacy – which both of their marriages lacked.
Dodson had further breakthroughs: she realized that when we limit our idea of what constitutes romantic sex, we limit our sexual satisfaction. She also realized that society programs us to feel ashamed about touching ourselves. She resolved never to give in to sexual guilt again, and began masturbating more – not less – with Blake. They even masturbated together to learn more about one another’s sexual responses.
Dodson began to regard the first time she masturbated, rather than the first time she had intercourse, as the first time she had sex. If masturbation is as monumental an experience as penetrative sex, then it must be taken seriously as a profound form of self-love, rather than disregarded as a mere substitute for “something better.” When we know what feels good for us, we build confidence, and we let go of our inhibitions with partners.
After exhibiting her erotic artwork, Dodson realized that everyone was suffering from society’s sex-negative attitudes.
Dodson was a classically trained artist who drew sensual nudes – until her sexual reawakening. Then she began to channel her erotic ideas into her artwork, exhibiting them for the first time in 1968. She fretted initially about the reception, but her large charcoal drawings of lovemaking were a hit. She sold most of them, and people engaged with the work on a personal level. Complete strangers kept approaching Dodson, eager to share their own sex histories.
She learned that women were more open to exchanging sex information with each other than men. They were eager to discuss their fears and ask questions, while men projected a cool, masculine image. Since men were expected to have sexual prowess already, they were far less willing to admit ignorance. This kept them from learning and exploring. Dodson grew convinced that women would have to be the ones to usher in freedom of sexual expression.
Here’s the key message: After exhibiting her erotic artwork, Dodson realized that everyone was suffering from society’s sex-negative attitudes.
Buoyed by the public’s embrace of her drawings of heterosexual intercourse, Dodson decided to go further with her next series. For her exhibition in 1970, she created four giant drawings of people masturbating.
This time, the response to Dodson’s artwork wasn’t so positive. First, the gallery owner told her she couldn’t put them up. In response, Dodson threatened to pull the whole show. A compromise was reached in which she was permitted to exhibit two of the works – one drawing of a man masturbating with his hand, and one of a woman with her vibrator. The public was much more scandalized this time than they’d been by her previous show, but Dodson found their response fascinating and informative.
She learned that many women had never masturbated and didn’t know about vibrators. She observed that men engaged with the drawing of the woman but avoided the one of the man, while women engaged with both. Moreover, the drawing of the woman with the vibrator elicited hostile reactions from some men.
Dodson came to the conclusion that female sexuality was so forcefully repressed because of its threat to patriarchy. The patriarchal vision of social morality dictates that men should be sexually experienced and assertive, while women are categorized within the Freudian concepts of the saintly “Madonna” or the spurned “Whore.”
But sex is like any other skill: it must be practiced. So when women masturbate, they embrace their bodies and learn what gives them pleasure. They gain sexual proficiency, which leads to independence.
When we share stories and information, we raise our sexual consciousness.
Growing up, Dodson thought her genitals were deformed. One of her inner labia was shorter than the other, and she was self-conscious about it until she met Blake. He was shocked by her fears, and to demonstrate to her that she was perfectly normal, he retrieved a stack of soft-core porn magazines featuring a diversity of “split beavers” – the term then used for a woman’s genitals held open. After 30 minutes of poring over the magazines, Dodson learned for the first time how varied female genitalia could be.
A few years later, Dodson created a photography show titled “Creating an Aesthetic for the Female Genitals.” It consisted of twenty slides of her friends’ “split beavers,” and she presented it at the 1973 NOW Conference on Women’s Sexuality. Over a thousand women gave her a standing ovation. Afterward, many told her that they felt seriously changed. One woman even experienced such a self-esteem boost that she asked her boss for a raise – and got it!
Dodson’s foray into erotic art taught her that the personal was political. She sought to reclaim the word “cunt,” repeating it to herself in the mirror until it lost its negative power; thereafter, she referred to herself as cunt-positive. She realized that communication among women was the key to reversing the damage done to the female psyche.
The key message is this: When we share stories and information, we raise our sexual consciousness.
To this end, she and two friends started a women’s consciousness-raising, or CR, group at a radical women’s center. They experimented with theme and format, and it became a powerful and dynamic environment in which women shared their experiences, their strength, and their knowledge. Between nine and fifteen women attended the group once a week for over a year.
Later, Dodson joined another CR group of professional women interested in money and power – a kind of “old-girls” network. Knowing economic power wasn’t possible without sexual liberation, she hoped to start a dialogue about sex.
Around this time, Dodson entered into her first sexual relationship with a woman, whose name was Laura. The two lovers agreed that they were both against idealized romantic love, compulsive monogamy, and dependent sex; they referred to themselves as “sexual friends.” Dodson started calling herself a “heterosexual bisexual lesbian” – she didn’t like labels, but she believed using all of them lessened their individual impact.
Meanwhile, the group of independent career women were all shy about their bodies and had sappy, romantic notions of sex. They were love-addicted and suffering. So Dodson taught the group how to be sexually assertive. She also gave them masturbation tips, encouraging them to engage in self-love without guilt.
Dodson started the Bodysex Workshops to offer women a holistic view of their sexuality and masturbation.
Three years of attending women’s groups made it clear to Dodson that sex was a core feminist concern. It had the power either to liberate or to enslave women. So in 1973, she and Laura decided to set up a new consciousness-raising women’s group focused on bodies and pleasure, called the Bodysex Workshops.
The highlight of every workshop was always the “Genital Show and Tell.” First, Dodson would “split her beaver” and recount her old fears of genital deformity. Then everyone else would display their genitals and air their own concerns.
Within a year, the Bodysex Workshops had become so popular through word of mouth that Dodson was hosting groups across the country. Her motto was “Have vibrator, will travel.” But she never advertised or accepted offers of financial backing. It needed to be an intimate experience for her in order to keep its healing power.
The key message here is: Dodson started the Bodysex Workshops to offer women a holistic view of their sexuality and masturbation.
At first the group was centered around discussion and demonstration, but it later became much more playful and intimate. For example, Dodson taught masturbation through pantomime, until one day an attendee shyly mentioned that she’d like to see a real climax someday. So Laura and Dodson plugged in their vibrators and masturbated live, allowing attendees to observe different styles of orgasm; Dodson would experience one big climax in the time in which Laura had several small comes. The women cheered and applauded, and live masturbation became a regular feature of the workshops.
In another early group, Dodson shared her fantasy of a women’s masturbation circle in which they all had orgasms together. Everyone was eager to try – so, from then on, the guided masturbation ritual became a mainstay of the workshop. Eventually, women were required to bring carrots, zucchinis, or cucumbers to the workshop to carve their own dildos. Then, Dodson would guide them through different pelvic movements, genital stimulation, and breathing exercises with their dildos and vibrators for about 30 minutes. Afterward, they’d take an erotic recess for solo masturbation and exploration.
Another exercise Dodson developed involved reversing sex roles. Women pretended they were penetrating imaginary partners with their clitorises for three minutes – a little longer than the time the average man spent thrusting after penetration, according to sex researcher Albert Kinsey. Dodson commented on everyone’s technique, reminding them that if they stopped thrusting they’d lose their erection and if they moved too fast they’d come too soon. The women were always exhausted afterwards – and had increased empathy for men.
Sex and orgasms are like life – there’s always more to learn.
By practicing masturbation, Dodson learned that orgasms are personal, varied, and ever-evolving. She also discovered that our mental and physical health can interfere with the flow of our sexual energy. Dodson’s early orgasms were like little hiccups because her erotic sensations were blocked by feelings of guilt, anger, and self-pity, as well as constant hangovers, lack of exercise, and bad nutrition.
But once she altered her lifestyle, made the decision to embrace sexuality, and started experimenting, her orgasms soared.
Dodson viewed masturbation as a creative process. After meeting Blake, she realized that exploring the uncharted territory of her mind could also enhance orgasm. She’d previously been conditioned to base her fantasies around romantic love, but she overcame this by mining her imagination for erotic ideas, drawing from sexual encounters, scenes from movies, erotic material, and books and magazines about sex. She encouraged women in her workshops to do the same.
Here’s the key message: Sex and orgasms are like life – there’s always more to learn.
Even after years of having and teaching sex, Dodson still regarded sex and orgasms as a mystery. There was always some new research available. For example, when Dodson began doing Transcendental Meditation, or TM, she had a hunch that masturbation was a lot like meditation: she felt at peace in her body and mind after practicing both. Her friends laughed at her – but then an acquaintance, Raymond, a PhD sex researcher, asked if she’d like to be the subject of a project that would demonstrate the significance of brain phenomena during orgasm.
Dodson was an eager participant. The lab technicians hooked her up so that they could monitor her brain activity as she masturbated to orgasm. When the results were in, Raymond first explained the concept of brain activity producing different electrical discharges.
The first of these is beta – the realm of rational thinking and normal consciousness. We enter into alpha during moments of creative inspiration or while daydreaming. Theta is the level for hypnotic states and deep sleep with little to no dream activity – some yogi masters reach theta with deep meditation. And delta is the deepest level, when coma occurs.
Dodson’s brain waves were in alpha the entire time she masturbated – until just before she reached orgasm. Then, her brain waves dipped down to theta. This meant that her brain had experienced a quick, deep sleep while the rest of her body was moving, in a waking state – proving that masturbation was akin to meditation, just as she’d suspected.
Empathy and sharing help everyone have more erotic and fulfilling sex lives – including men.
Dodson kept receiving requests to do a Bodysex Workshop for men. She said no at first, but the role reversal of being a woman teaching a group of men how to masturbate intrigued her.
She eventually agreed. But it took some trial and error before she figured out what resonated with her male attendees. For example, they didn’t speak easily about themselves or their sexual fears – they mostly spoke in abstractions. She tried to get a discussion going about penis size to little response. They were uninterested in Genital Show and Tell, since they said they’d already seen other penises in bathrooms and locker rooms.
At first, Dodson felt discouraged. But she could sense her male attendees were rooting for her – and on the second day of her first men’s workshop, a good discussion got going.
The key message here is this: Empathy and sharing help everyone have more erotic and fulfilling sex lives – including men.
Dodson learned that the men’s biggest fears had to do with sexual performance. She’d initially believed that men had it easier sexually than women, but she came to realize that not all men were sexually assertive or cavalier. While they might orgasm more quickly and easily, some of these easier orgasms were early ejaculations, which were not very satisfying. And the most common sex problem for men was the feeling that their penis had a will of its own. A man would get hard randomly when no one was around, but he might not be able to achieve an erection while in bed with the lover of his dreams.
But what the attendees gained most from the workshop was the permission to share and discuss sex in an accepting environment. Men tend to have difficulty opening up about their insecurities because they’re expected to display confidence and expertise.
One of her last Bodysex for Men groups was especially successful. This group met right before the AIDS epidemic hit; it was a mix of heterosexual, gay, and bisexual men. Their worlds rarely intersected, and everyone felt that the open conversation about sex and relationships humanized the other men in the group. Each attendee became more than just a stereotype in the others’ eyes.
During the group masturbation, the men could feel each other’s love, affection, and warmth. The only man who didn’t orgasm said watching Dodson masturbate inspired him to practice loving himself more. She assured them we’d all become better lovers by loving ourselves more.
An experimental self-loving ritual can set you on the path to sexual healing.
We all struggle with moments of low self-esteem, body shame, and insecurity about sex. But we can begin to heal these wounds by loving ourselves mindfully and exploring what turns us on. Dodson designed a ritual to this end – which you can practice in its entirety, or from which you can pick and choose different steps.
Throughout the ritual, you may want to experiment with different fantasies and props. Things like lubricant, electric massagers, vibrators, dildos, and butt plugs – or anal dildos – can accompany you on your lifelong sexual relationship with yourself. You may enjoy dressing up in something sexy – let your sexual personas emerge.
The key message here is: An experimental self-loving ritual can set you on the path to sexual healing.
First, look into a mirror and say, “I love you just the way you are.” Give yourself a hug. Next, draw a hot bath. Touch your body gently and think of a sexual experience you enjoyed, or perhaps a scene in a movie that turned you on. Dive into your erotic imagination and slide your fingers over your genitals.
After you get out of the bath, light a candle. Stand nude in front of a mirror in the candlelight and admire your image. Find things you like about your body and compliment yourself. Give yourself a massage. Roll your head, pluck your nipples, knead your thighs. Next, you’ll need a makeup mirror that stands on its own in order to explore your genitals.
Women: look at your vulva as closely as you examine your face. Arrange your inner labia decoratively around your vagina. Examine your clitoris. Lightly caress the tip, or either side of the clitoral shaft. Then, slowly penetrate your vagina with your finger, pressing around, noticing the different feelings.
Men: Observe your penis. Examine the head of your cock – the glans. Note its shape, pulling back the foreskin if you aren’t circumcised. Touch the tip and note the different sensations. Fondle your testicles.
Return to your larger mirror and dance freely. Have fun getting off on your own erotic image. Then, set the stage for the culmination of your self-loving ritual as erotically as possible, with sensuous fabrics and lighting. Have your sex toys available.
Get comfortable. Breathe deeply. Tell yourself, “I love you,” and gently massage your body, then your genitals. Tease yourself. Try to spend at least 30 minutes playing with yourself before you sail into orgasm – and then release any joyful sounds that come up. If you’d like, continue stimulating yourself until you build up to another climax. Enjoy yourself.
The key message in these blinks:
Sharing knowledge about sex and bodies can help women liberate themselves within a patriarchal society. When Betty Dodson began to challenge years of sex-negative societal conditioning, she discovered that learning how to stimulate yourself is learning how to love yourself. Self-love is the key to an erotic and varied sex life, free from shame.
Tone your PC muscle
Strengthening your PC muscle – or pelvic floor muscle – can enhance the quality of your orgasms. It also prevents urinary incontinence.
The PC muscle spans the entire pelvic floor. When it’s tightened, it can be felt in the vagina, anus, and clitoris. Women can locate their PC muscles by putting a finger in their vagina and squeezing. Continually squeezing and releasing this muscle produces subtle sensations in the genitals that intensify with practice. It’s especially effective with something inside the vagina against which to work the muscle.
Men also have PC muscles that they can strengthen by tightening and releasing. One way they can locate the muscle is by stopping the flow of urine during urination.
About the Author
Betty Dodson was an American sex educator. An artist by training, she exhibited erotic art in New York, before pioneering the pro-sex feminist movement. Dodson’s workshops and manuals encourage women to masturbate, often in groups.
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