Betty Dodson, Women’s Guru of Self-Pleasure, Dies at 91


Betty Dodson, a feminist sexologist and evangelist of self-pleasure who taught generations of women how to masturbate in workshops, books and videos, seeing the do-it-yourself climax as a liberating social force, died on Saturday at a nursing home in New York City. She was 91.

The cause was cirrhosis of the liver, said Carlin Ross, her business partner.

Ms. Dodson was a second-wave feminist making erotic art when she began hosting consciousness raising groups — but with a twist — in her Manhattan apartment. The method involved a genital show and tell, so that women could see that vulvas came in all shapes, sizes and colors; this was followed by clitoral attention with a vibrator. As she refined her teaching, she realized that she had found her calling.

“This masturbation business,” as she liked to say, was a kind of social justice work. If women could learn to pleasure themselves properly, she reasoned, they could end their sexual dependence on men, which would make everybody happy.

“The most consistent sex will be the love affair you have with yourself,” she wrote in “Sex for One” a quasi memoir and how-to guide that began as a short primer in Ms. Magazine and that has been translated into 25 languages since Random House first published it in 1987. “Masturbation will get you through childhood, puberty, romance, marriage and divorce, and it will see you through old age.”

Gloria Steinem, a co-founder of Ms. Magazine, wrote in an email: “Betty Dodson was a brave and daring advocate for women’s right to sexual knowledge and pleasure. Her workshops turned women on to the beauty of our own bodies, and her outrageous honesty allowed more women to speak our truths.”

It was Ms. Dodson’s experience with orgies — group sex, in the parlance of the day — that brought home to her the fact that even in such a free-spirited setting, women were performing their orgasms and didn’t seem to have a clue about how to get there on their own. Also, she said, the women always ended up in the bedroom examining her collection of vibrators while the men talked shop — stocks and sports, mostly — in the living room.

Netflix declined to say how big the episode’s viewership was, but a spokesperson for Goop said that anecdotally it was the most popular episode in the series. Shown in a Manhattan movie theater last December, the episode received a standing ovation.

Betty Anne Dodson — she was proud that her initials spelled BAD — was born in Wichita, Kan., on Aug. 24, 1929. Her mother, Bess (Crowe) Dodson, worked in a dress shop; her father, Frank Dodson, was a sign painter and an alcoholic. She had three brothers, Rowan, Billy and Dickie, and leaves no immediate survivors.

Ms. Dodson said that she and her brothers played as equals when they were children, which not only developed her muscles but “added to my sense of entitlement as I got older,” she wrote in “Sex by Design: The Betty Dodson Story” (2010), her second memoir.

When she was in the ninth grade, she recalled, a family friend and drinking buddy of her father’s shoved his hand into her pants when she had asked to drive his car. She kept silent, she wrote, because she felt complicit in what she experienced as a transaction. But when the same man groped the breasts of her best friend in her kitchen, she threatened him with a knife. “You’d better get out of here before I shove this knife in your stomach,” she said she had told him.

In 1950, at age 20, Ms. Dodson moved to New York City to become an artist, supporting herself as a freelance illustrator of lingerie ads and studying at the Art Students League of New York. She married an advertising executive, but they were sexually mismatched, she said, and her unhappiness and shame about it accelerated her drinking. After they divorced amicably, she got sober, and it was in a meeting for alcoholics that she met a man who would teach her about self-pleasure. They maintained a sexual relationship until his death in 2008. (Ms. Dodson was essentially agnostic about the gender of her partners, describing herself as a “heterosexual bisexual lesbian.”)


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