My feminist awareness first struck like a series of lightening bolts while reading Betty Freidan's The Feminine Mystique in 1963. At the time I was unhappily married. Although I never wanted to be a wife and mother, I surrendered to being "normal" in 1959. By the time I finished Freidan's book, I secretly began planning my escape from middle class respectability by resurrecting my dream of becoming a recognized artist with my drawings and paintings hanging in Museums.
The dream got altered. I became a recognized feminist, a one woman masturbation revolution to liberate women's sexual pleasure with orgasms through art, articles, books, and videos along with numerous workshops that I ran here and abroad. Once the creative process is unleashed, I had the good sense to follow where it led me.
To this day, feminist scholars have been unable to construct a theory of sexual pleasure. Other than the legalization of abortion that continues to be threatened by the Republican Party, the big sexual advance for women has been the acceptance of serial monogamy. That's nothing to write home about. We can have more than one lover or even more than one marriage, but never under any circumstances would a decent woman ever want to have sex with more than one man at a time. If she did, she would either be a whore or a slut. Monogamy is still the foundation for love and sex in most women's hearts and minds. We continue to want romantic love, dependent orgasms and a faithful husband in spite of the fact this exists for so few.
By the end of the seventies, the media was focusing on feminists who wanted to censor pornography blaming images of sex as the villain that caused sexual violence. This divided and weakened the women's movement internally and ended any further progress toward achieving equality and sexual liberation. A logical solution to the problem of marital boredom would be to liven up a spouse's sexlife with masturbation and fantasy for a little sexual variety. Instead feminists chose to focus on censoring pornography. Did they intend to insure a husband's fidelity by preventing masturbation while he looked at images of other women? If so, this was insane. It led to an unholy alliance where anti-porn feminists got into the same bed as Christian fundamentalists. The Porn Wars divided and conquered women's progress toward achieving equality and sexual liberation. The extreme sex negativity displayed by these anti-porn women turned an entire generation of young women away from feminism.
Beginning in the eighties up to the present, female sexuality has been discussed primarily as a series of horror stories that include incest, rape and domestic violence. There were marches to take back the night and rape defined heterosexuality for many feminists. There was no pleasure in sight. At the end of the nineties, the Ms. Foundation adopted Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues and created V-Day to end violence against women and girls. Leaving out the other half of the population of men and boys seemed not to have bothered anyone. I guess feminists figured men and boys could just continue to kill each other off while women and girls stayed home and baked cookies. It seems apparent to me that the quickest way to end the many forms of violence that affects both sexes would be to get rid of organized religions that have been the cause of the world's conflicts. Then perhaps both men and women could begin to focus on how to create more sexual pleasure in their lives which would be a sure way to diffuse some of the violence.
One of the most powerful concepts I ever came across as a budding feminist was the idea that "The personal is political." To this day, it remains a profound concept for me. The many problems in my everyday life are the result of America's political structure, not just my own personal failings. In the sixties, my struggle to survive as a working artist was not just a personal problem, it was a political one. In the sixties, women artists were rarely represented in museums. The gallery world was not receptive to us either. The few women artists that did get recognition were either married or sleeping with already famous male artists or established dealers - the casting couch of the art world.
Another example: As a commercial artist, I did not get paid as much as a man doing the same job. On top of unequal pay, there was also the constant social pressure to settle down, get married and have children. While a man could be a single bachelor and still be respected, a woman in the same position was seen as an "old maid" and pitied or worse. Men could also devote their lives to art or science and we admired them, but a woman doing the same was viewed as being unnatural for not wanting to marry and have a family. Or she was a lesbian which was classified as a mental illness until the early seventies.
Throughout the seventies I was one of the few feminists who went public with my personal sex history and experiences to teach women how to have orgasms by practicing guilt-free masturbation. What better way to make women second-class citizens than to keep us ignorant about our bodies, our sexuality and denying us the positive and empowering experience of enjoying regular orgasms. The absence of sexual expression damages women in so many ways. For young women who have yet to have an orgasm, they are obsessed with sex. Perhaps the most obvious problem that turns them into victims is their dedication to the romantic notion that a prince will come along and sexually awaken her. She will be magicallyand happily orgasmic forever.
The fairy tale never told us that unless we are walking around on Mr. Right's arm, we are fair game for every horny man on the street. Yet many women continue to insist on flaunting their sex appeal by wearing high heels and skimpy clothes. Then they claim to hate it when they are ogled like a side of beef, whistled at or actually propositioned. Or are they addicted to constant male attention mistaking it for power? Although we know that many women will get raped by a stranger, a date or even a husband, we still do not teach any system of self-defense. Until that happens, most women will continue to be sitting ducks for the next sexual predator.
Although many claim the women's movement is a non-hierarchal structure, we have our feminist stars and poster girls just the same as the entertainment world. For me it began with Betty Freidan, my first feminist hero. However Betty never achieved the star quality of Gloria Steinem who had a trim body and a pretty face with long hair that made her appear very feminine. I always saw Gloria as a tough-as-nails general who managed to convince a rag tag army of pissed-off housewives into believing that having Ms. instead of Mrs. in front of their names was progress. In the end, who are America's leading feminists? Authors who have written books on the subject, presidents of the local NOW Chapters, the academic women teaching Women's Studies in Colleges and Universities? Or is it any woman who calls herself a feminist? Or any man who also calls himself a feminist?
The Suffragette movement had women like Victoria Woodhull who promoted what she called "free love." Her take on sex was much closer to my ideal of sexual liberation and she got marginalized by other feminists in her time. Victoria felt most of the world's problems could be solved if society simply accepted sexual pleasure as a natural desire for both women and men. Then all the scandals that took up people's time and energy could be used more constructively. To this day, Americans love a juicy sexual scandal.
While Margaret Sanger probably never used the term "feminist" she too is one of my heros. Mary Calderone who formed Planned Parenthood was also a true warrior for women's rights. Today I'd add Mae West who portrayed a woman who liked sex and got what she wanted - my kind of gal. Also Helen Gurly Brown who wrote Sex and the Single Girl is on my list. While Brown isn't my favorite kind of feminist because she married a man who put her into business, nonetheless, she broke sexual barriers.
In the nineties, two young film makers who were working on a documentary about my life approached the author Susan Sontag. They asked if they could interview her about me. She made a sour face and said, "Betty Dodson is a nut! I wouldn't have anything to do with her." In a magazine article, Germaine Greer labeled me a "Misguided career masturbator" where she brought up my name six times for some first-rate verbal bashing - fortunately they spelled my name correctly. In 2000 Gloria said I'd been "a real cheerleader for masturbation." Her comment was faint praise. I see myself as a feminist visionary, a sexual pioneer, not a prancing cheerleader waving pom poms to get the crowd to chant, "Yea team, cum, cum, cum."
Is it any wonder that Gloria and the women at the Ms. Foundation loved The Vagina Monologues that was essentially inspired by my breakthrough book Liberating Masturbation according to Eve's boyfriend at the time? The word "vagina" is totally acceptable because it refers to the birth canal, which is where every heterosexual man wants to put his penis. Vagina is also how most sexually repressed women refer to her genitals. Too bad the idea of a sexually sophisticated phallic woman terrified the authoritarian matriarchs and patriarchs who always think they know what's best for the rest of us. But I have to hand to Eve. For a second rate playwright, she's one hell-of-a first rate organizer getting Hollywood stars to help her do PR and raise money. Besides violence, I'd say American women are abused by the way society defines heterosexuality. A penis inside her vagina is NOT the best was for her to have an orgasm, but it works for men practically every time!
So who is a feminist? Is it a woman or man who believes in equality for women? That we deserve equal pay for equal work, we are entitled to equal opportunities in education, business, science, the creative arts and the decision making process in government? While most people agree on economic and political equality for women, when it comes to sexual equality, we are divided. Most women want monogamous marriages, but more enlightened feminists believe monogamy is primarily practiced by women and marriage can turn into a woman's prison without bars. There are men who support economic and political equality for women, but they want to maintain a sexual double standard where they are free to have sex outside marriage while they expect their wives and girlfriends to remain faithful. One of the best things that could ever happen for heterosexual women would be the elimination of the world's sexual double standard.
Unfortunately the term "feminist" has come to mean a sexually conservative woman due to the press given those who discuss female sexuality in terms of rape, abuse and violence.
The press rarely if ever interviews those of us who are sex positive and claim pornography is protected first amendment speech. Time and time again history has shown that once sexual images are censored by any government, the next move is to eliminate a woman's right to choose abortion, the curtailment of gay rights, and to limit sex education by teaching abstinence only for teenagers. The religious right that currently has control of the White House is a perfect example of this dangerous infringement on our rights and it's still with us. It's the same with the press being owned by conservative corporate interests like the billionare Rupert Murdock.
Here's the tough part for me.
As an artist, I find most porn to be totally tasteless with women who appear to be willing to do anything to get male approval. Way too much of it is crude and worst of all, boring. But I will fight for every pornographer's right to make and sell it to all the horny men who after all, are the real victims of porn. They are being manipulated with images of tits and ass by women entertainers who are getting paid to pretend they love sex and men. Male porn consumers are paying to jerk off to a fantasy they will never get to have in real life. Yes, they can go to a titty bar and get a lap dance, but even then, they are not supposed to touch a woman while she grinds up against his raging hardon until he shoots a load inside his shorts.The answer to porn which is male entertainment would be to have a good sex education. The biggest problem today it that porn stands in for sex education. We can thank George W. Bush and the GOP for the "Absitnence Only" message.
During the feminist porn wars of the 1980's, feminism became divided from within the movement. Sex positive feminists began using the term "pro-sex feminist" to separate ourselves from the anti-porn feminists. Pro-sex feminists were clear that censorship in all forms harmed women and children, not pornography. Pro-sex feminists embraced sexual diversity and we supported erotic freedom of expression for all people whether straight, gay, transsexual or intersexed. In a democracy, we all have the right to design our own sex styles without interference from any organized religion, government or political movement.
Back in 1968 after I had my first one-woman show of erotic art in New York, I was invited by Richard Lamparski to appear on his radio show aired on the then very popular WBAI. If I remember correctly, the subject was feminism and sex. Evidently Kate Millet was the feminism part and I was there to represent sex. Before Kate arrived at the station, I'll never forget Richard's first question to me: "Why do women never ‘flash' on a man even if they're sexually interested in him?" I had to ask him what he meant by "flash?" He described it as a kind of overt flirting. Well, in the early seventies, no woman overtly flirted with a man. Any sexual flirting done by women was always subtle, covert, and not at all assertive. We knew if we stepped over the socially acceptable line, we would be viewed as "sluts" and no man would be interested.
After wading through the meaning of "flashing," Kate Millet entered the studio late. She was exhausted and obviously exasperated as she explained she had just been to some big feminist gathering where there had been "in-fighting" among women over the definition of "sexism." She was very upset and her tight narrow lips were turned down into what looked like a permanent frown. Between women in-fighting and sexism, my preference was to talk about sexism. At the time, I naively thought sexism had something to do with having sex. As a poor babe hopelessly lost in the feminist woods, I said with a big smile, "I'd love to hear more about sexism," thinking the conversation would become a discussion of liberated sex. Kate shot me a look that could have shrunk my multi-orgasmic clit into a dried up raisin if I hadn't been having so many orgasms back then.
I pressed forward talking about how having sex on my own terms with multiple partners including women without a meaningful relationship was not only great, but it was a lot of fun. It was also liberating and quite educational. For the rest of our round table discussion, Kate treated me like I was a mindless, heterosexual bimbo on drugs. Well, it was true that I did occasionally smoke pot.Kate was obvioulsly a boozer.
Kate Millet's book, Sexual Politics gave the women's movement "patriarchy" but unfortunately she left out the "matriarchy," the support system that father depends upon. According to her, mother had no power, which mis-directed feminism by giving us a blind spot that all women are powerless! This is simply not true. Authoritarian mothers rule many families and family businesses around the world. Look at Barbara Bush! I'd hate to meet her alone in a dark alley.
Richard also had regular salons in his New York apartment in Murray Hill. He collected an assortment of creative people. We'd sit around talking until the wee hours speculating how the world was going to be a better place with all the changes we saw on the horizon: women's equality, gay rights, legalization of marijuana and more sexual freedom seemed to be just around the corner. The photographer Diane Arbus was at several of his parties. She was a silent withdrawn woman who was obviously in some kind of psychic pain. I met Anselma Del Olio tjhere who never shut up. She was a handsome, vivacious woman who wore her hair Gloria Steinem style, parted in the middle and very long. We became best of friends and she spent hours explaining the political dynamics of feminism to me.
Today's younger women in their twenties and thirties don't want to use the word "feminist" because it conjures up the image of a woman who hates men and sex. We have lost the momentum of the seventies when the feminist movement was viable, alive, and politically potent. Women had the potential of changing society, maybe even changing the world, and without question, we were changing ourselves.
Not long ago when I was reading The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolfe. Towards the end Naomi asks; "How to begin? Let's be shameless. Be greedy. Pursue pleasure. Avoid pain. Wear and touch and eat and drink what we feel like. Tolerate other women's choices. Seek out the sex we want and fight fiercely against the sex we do not want. Choose our own causes. And once we break through and change the rules so our sense of our own beauty cannot be shaken, sing that beauty and dress it up and flaunt it and revel in it: In a sensual politics, female is beautiful." Like I said, sensual ain't sexual and Naomi offers no concrete solutions for how women can grow up sexually. She's another one of those naturally beautiful women like Gloria.
The work I started in the seventies and continue today is still right on target when it comes to breaking down the beauty myth. I'll have to send Naomi a copy of the workshop videotape so she can see women learning to love their real and natural bodies. She can watch us claiming our sexual power as we view and acknowledge the beauty of our genitals. She can observe women exploring masturbation, using their PC muscles, trying out different breathing patterns, learning to harness the energy of the electric vibrator, playing with sensuous penetration, and having all the orgasms we want as we explore and develop our own sexual responses instead of only following the procreative model of penis/vagina sexuality.
After all the efforts of women who worked so diligently for women's equality, little has changed for womankind in the new millennium. In fact, I could argue that the political, economic, and sexual lives of women has become more difficult and demanding than ever before. In my twenties, I was conflicted between choosing a career or marriage and family, but I had the good sense to know I couldn't be successful doing both. Women today are told they can have it all, but at what price? The sacrifices she must make are far too many - like never enjoying any down time, meeting an old friend and having a long leisurely lunch or a whole Sunday morning spent in bed with a lover. Professional women who are married and raising children never stop working. They end up with no quality time for themselves and rarely have any time to develop let alone enjoy a rewarding sexlife.
In the 20's Carrie Nation's crusade against "demon rum" effectively diverted the feminist movement. In the 60's feminism nearly didn't get off the ground because many women radicals felt the issue of socialism was more important than the struggle for women's equality. In the 70's feminists struggled against the fear that the entire movement would be co-opted by lesbians and many felt the current sexual freedom was simply putting more pressure on women to say "yes" to sex. In the early 80's, women against pornography divided the feminist movement with their anti-porn fervor which turned into an anti-sex wave. Many of us felt the need to identify ourselves as pro-sex feminists to separate ourselves from feminists who supported love, marriage and monogamy. That is one valid choice but they didn't have much to say about alternative sexual pleasures. The nineties feminist matriarchy continued to be against sexual violence under the titillating title of a play about the vagina.
While we cannot force the whole of mankind to do as we bid, we can begin to sexually educate American girls, boys and women. We can set an example for the rest of the world. We can demonstrate that sexual pleasure is life affirming where we can enjoy sexual pleasures alone and together. If we are serious about ending violence we will need to do away with all forms of fundamentalist religions.
We are doing a serious disservice to young girls by allowing them to grow up expecting to be sheltered and protected by one man who will constantly be by her side which is rarely true. This is based upon the fairy tale of prince charming. Instead we need to make self-defense part of every high school's girl's education. Since I grew up with brothers, I knew how to defend myself in a scramble. When I was outmatched on the playground, I couold bite, scratch and pinch hard. Fighting dirty was fair play when a guy was bigger than me.
Later on after I moved to New York, there were a couple of incidences where my date wanted sex and I didn't. One time I ended up in a wrestling match on the floor and it was a draw. The physical exertion burned off his desire for sex. Another time, I tricked a potential date rape by pretending I had to get my diaphragm. Instead I left the apartment and rang for the elevator man who was a big six foot two Jamaican. One of my favorite stories was getting stopped on an empty street late at night. The guy had obviously been drinking, and he insisted I come have drink with him. While he had a strong grip on my arm, I gave him a sad story about how my baby was sick and I was rushing home to take the poor little guy to the hospital. I knew he'd understand if I took a rain check. He mumbled he was sorry my baby was sick and released my arm and I took off at a fast clip.
We go to great lengths to establish profiles of men who are rapists and murderers, but we haven't spent any time working up a profile of women who are victims. It seems obvious to me this would be helpful in preventing sexual violence. The blood curdling female scream Hollywood adores will either inflame the rapist and he will silence her by any means that often includes killing her.
Instead of women marching with candles chanting "Take back the night" they would be better off taking a class in Model Mugging where they learn to fight back instead of freeze or go limp. If a physical response isn't possible, then any woman can learn to think on her feet and out smart an assailant. A friend of mine was surrounded one night by a gang of tough looking teens and she began to stammer incoherently. One of the boys said, "This bitch is deaf, man. Leave her alone." Another woman started acting psychotic by drooling and twitching which turned her assailant off immediately.
Women need to know there are many of us who are capable of defending ourselves by outsmarting men. Today women can carry pepper spray that is very effective. And don't forget the old fashioned hat pin that got many a Victorian woman out of a jam with one well-placed jab. We now have women athletes, cops, rugby players, explorers, mountain climbers, and soldiers. One of my favorite movies was GI Jane when Demi Moore goes through the tough physical challenges of basic training and makes it. We need to see more images of strong women who are capable of taking care of them selves physically. We are not all sweet little helpless virgins that start crying after some guy cops a feel. Some of us cop our own feels, others give a masher a piece of their mind and a few will throw him to the ground, cuff him and call for backup.
Unfortunately Feminism remains bound by myths such as romantic love, finding a soul mate, getting married and having one or more children within a monogamous marriage that's supposed to last forever. Yet most of us will have more than one marriage in our lifetimes. Some couples will adopt, others will chose not to have children. Today the new extended family is made up of couples who were formally married with shared children. They get together to celebrate the holidays with their current spouses and off spring. I see this as very positive. There is nothing more deadly than the isolated nuclear family that often ends feeding off each other until they can't stand to be in the same room together. "Home sweet home" is another myth.
With the world on the brink of destruction, one might ask why I worry about whether or not my next door neighbor or a woman down the street or someone in Kansas is having a happy sexlife? Why do I think it's so damn important that she get out a free standing mirror and sit under a bright light and have a close look at her sex organ using both hands? Why does she need to claim her sex organ as her own and enjoy the pleasure and power of her divine vulva? Why do I think it matters if she feels free to enjoy an orgasm with her hand or an electric vibrator whenever she feels like it? I must be crazy to think something that frivolous matters, right?
Well, maybe I am crazy, but I continuet to believe that orgasmic sex positive mothers are are our biggest hope for a better tomorrow. Imagine the value of raising children in an atmosphere of love and acceptance, not a rigid disciplinary regimen that prepares a child for the authoritarian structure of the military or big corporations or a monogamous marriage that eventually becomes sexless.
The greatest gift I received in this lifetime was to be raised by an orgasmic mother. She was fun, she laughed a lot, she adored getting dressed up and going to a party. We smoked cigarettes and drank high-balls together. She was critical of many people but liked some. I could tell her anything. She had a great sense of humor when we talked about sex which made it so much easier. She was opinionated and never hesitated to speak her mind. She had horse sense. Her lack of formal education and absence of religious brainwashing allowed her to think for herself, draw her own conclusions and never back down in a fight. She always told me never turn back once I was on my way. If I kept going the problem would solve itself.
Most important, I knew she loved me. I had the best mother's love available and she was a fierce protector of my right to chose how I wanted to live my life. She was convinced I had extraordinary artistic talent and supported my decision to move to New York the year I turned nineteen. She saw no reason I couldn't be the best fashion artist Lord &Taylor ever had. When I got involved in feminism, she worried that I would neglect my art and she was right. But she eventually accepted my new role as a feminst author and sex educator although she could never understand why so many women were not having orgasms. For her, sex was just natural. Today, I am more grateful than ever for Mother's love and acceptance because I know how rare it can be. Not everyone gets it.
When I think of all the thousands of happy orgasms I helped to launch in my long career teaching masturbation skills, I wonder how come I've never been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. It still sounds funny to most people when I talk about a skill being involved when a person touches their own sex organ. But until more folks figure out that sex is the "life force" and experiencing and sharing sexual pleasure is absolutely the best antidote to violence, I still have a lot of sex educating to do. One day we will understand that masturbation is the foundation for all of human sexuality. It's time to honor this humble activity.