With the lights dimmed, I sat at the back of the room. Flickering light and shadow were flung across the faces of eight women sitting on couches and chairs in an arc around the screen. It was my first time watching Bodysex with anyone other than my partner.
Plans are underway for a public showing, but I wanted to start with a private viewing in my home. I sent the invitation to 38 women, specifying that this first event would be female-only. Most of the people I invited were familiar with the project, but for those who weren’t, I included the following: “The film documents Betty Dodson’s sex-education workshops, which she ran for twenty-five years. Fair warning as you decide whether you wish to attend: the seven participants (including me) are nude, show their genitals, and learn various masturbation techniques.” I felt it was important to be candid about the content. The last thing I needed was someone showing up without a clear understanding of what they would see.
The viewing was over President’s Day weekend, and unsurprisingly, some invitees were out of town or otherwise busy. I received a number of supportive messages saying they were proud of me for participating. Other responses were along the lines, “I am fascinated and would be stoked to see it, except that it’s you, and I’m uncomfortable seeing you in that way.” I didn’t take those remarks personally. To me, it parallels some of the discussion in the D&R forum where women talk about interest in doing Bodysex, but only with the anonymity of doing it with strangers. Something about sharing that space with friends is apparently off-putting or perhaps scary. Maybe it feels too vulnerable, too subject to judgment.
We started by watching the short Behind-the-Scenes piece from the DVD Extras. I wanted to show the camaraderie among the Bodysex participants, and for those attending the viewing to hear what we were each thinking about before and during the filming. Then I showed the full Bodysex workshop from start to finish.
In an effort to gauge reaction, and quell my own nervousness, I sat behind everyone. I was happily surprised by the amount of light-hearted laughter, and perceived little discomfort. That is, until one point in the Genital Show and Tell. When Betty made (what I understood to be) a joking comment to Sayaka about the myth that Asian pussies are positioned sideways, there was a collective gasp in the room. The energy shifted perceptibly, and I overheard comments and grumbling that caused me to groan inwardly. Everyone had seemed comfortable and on board up to that point, and that one moment derailed the train. It took several minutes, but the viewers seemed to get back on board as the Show and Tell continued. We watched the rest of the workshop straight through, without intermission.
Afterward, I was fascinated by what people wanted to talk about. The film did just what it intended to do: get people talking about sex and body image.
For the most part, the response was positive. The quality of the film and sound production were highly appreciated. Someone noted how refreshing it was to hear female genitals talked about and shown without shame. More than one person talked about how normalizing it felt, to see the structurally different genital styles, and to watch women masturbate outside of a porn or performance context.
There were multiple reports of feeling relieved to know that other women also worried about what their breasts looked like, that others masturbated a certain way, or cried while having an orgasm. One woman told me how moved she was to see my larger body, and Betty and Sheila’s older bodies, represented on film when those images are so rarely seen in a sexual context. A few women wished there had been more instruction on manual masturbation, without vibrators.
Someone wondered why the topic of sexual trauma wasn’t addressed. I explained that Betty’s Bodysex groups are specifically focused on celebrating bodies and sex. While trauma and abuse may be part of someone’s healing journey, and may be noted, it’s not intended to be the focus of the group. Many, perhaps even most, have suffered trauma and abuse in the past. There are places and resources to begin that healing process. We gathered for Bodysex to focus on the joy rather than the horror associated with bodies and sex.
As I said, there was much upset in the room about Betty’s comment to Sayaka, and a few people said they would write to Betty directly about it. (I have no idea if they have or not.) Those concerns took a significant portion of the conversation after watching, and I was a little sad that it became such a strong focal point for the discussion.
As I considered how to report on the viewing party experience, I called Sayaka directly. We hadn’t spoken by voice since the filming, and it was nice to catch up outside of email. When I explained what happened and the reaction in the room, she was surprised. “Oh, was that in the video? I didn’t even catch that when I watched it!”
When I asked her if she was upset in that moment during the shoot, she said, “I wasn’t offended. One of the things I love about Betty is that she says things without censoring herself. I didn't grow up in this country and I didn't even know 'that joke' existed until Betty said it and it went right over me. And maybe it was a good thing that it was left in, to combat the idea some people might have that Asian pussies are different.”
Sayaka went on to say that she didn’t think of herself as “representing” Asian women in the film. “I represented Sayaka,” she told me decidedly. And for that matter, did I “represent” full-bodied women? I wasn’t entirely comfortable with that assessment, of representing anything. But for the sake of having at least somewhat differently-sized bodies, it’s a good thing we filmed at that point in my wax-and-wane body cycle because I’ve shed almost 35 pounds in the six months since.
Questions arose after the viewing about having more racial and ethnic diversity in the filmed Bodysex group. I responded that the group was what it was. There had been other participants of various ages and ethnic backgrounds who dropped out. One woman dropped out literally hours before we began filming. There were efforts made to fill the space, and I overheard Carlin on the phone with one potential participant, who sounded like she would do it, but only if her face wasn’t shown. That wouldn’t work. That wasn’t the deal.
The Bodysex film shows those of us who agreed to be on film, who agreed to put our bodies and our faces and our sex out there for the world to witness. It is what it is: a small group of women celebrating their bodies and their sex, helping document Betty’s work.
In all, I’m relieved that the first viewing is over. Now I feel much more confident in anticipated public viewings in the coming months. I expect that this Bodysex movement will continue organically, as it began those many years ago in Betty’s apartment. It may start with a viewing, and then some of those who watch may sit together in a circle, to talk about what they saw or how they feel about their own bodies and sex.
As Betty’s article on how to run a Bodysex group describes, there is no right or wrong way. The point is to listen, to talk, to share, to be in contact with one’s own experience and to witness others’ experiences. For me, that’s the core of Bodysex.