Liberating Masturbation

Thu, 01/01/1998 - 00:00
Submitted by Betty Dodson

As an apolitical artist who never paid any attention to the workings of government, I naively declared myself a "radical feminist" in the early seventies and began writing a sexual manifesto. It first appeared in 1972 as a monograph, then as an article in Ms. magazine in 1973. As a self published book titled Liberating Masturbation, it quickly became a feminist classic, and finally, in its present form, Sex for One, my declaration of independence is now going into its tenth year with Crown as a trade paperback best seller.

Looking back, I marvel at how brazen it was of me to think I could liberate a sexual activity that had been closeted for ages, but the spirit of the times had convinced a lot of us that women were going to change the world. Leaving a fine arts career behind, I packed a bag of sex toys along with a carousel of one hundred color slides of female genitals and took off across the country to teach sex to feminists. At the time it seemed very simple. I'd show them the wide variety of women's sex organs so we'd stop thinking our own were ugly or deformed, and then I'd teach them how to have orgasms by masturbating, using both manual techniques and an electric massager.

In 1973, at the NOW Sexuality Conference in New York City, I introduced my slide show, titled "Creating an Aesthetic for the Female Genitals," to more than a thousand women. Back then, most women didn't know what their own genitals looked like, much less have an awareness of their beauty. Today many women trim and shape their pubic hair on a regular basis, and some are even wearing jeweled labia rings. That same weekend, I also introduced electric massagers during my conference workshop on masturbation and became the first public spokesperson for the sexual benefits of an electric vibrator, especially for women who were struggling to have a first orgasm. Now electric orgasms are commonplace and the sales of these pleasure appliances grow steadily.

I now proclaim that masturbation has come of age! The word appears more and more in print. Most college sex books include a chapter on masturbation. Many more magazine articles have been written about it. Madonna did it on-stage. Dr. Ruth consistently advocates it. When Pee Wee Herman got caught wanking in a porn theater, most folks just wanted to know what the cops were doing there. Seinfeld developed an entire show about who could abstain the longest, without ever using the "M" word, and Roseanne did a show about childhood masturbation. HBO did a segment on my masturbation workshop, ran Annie Sprinkle's performance where she actually used a vibrator on-stage, and also ran a piece on peep show masturbation with Carol Queen. Even Hollywood's gotten into the act with a great masturbation scene from Shirley MacLain in the movie Being There. And stand up comics like Rosie O'Donnell are doing very funny bits about masturbation; she jokes, "What do you say when you meet someone like Madonna? 'Hi! I have a Black and Decker electric vibrator.' " Not too long ago my phone started ringing off the hook with all my friends calling to tell me that Cybil had mentioned me on her well-known national television show. After her daughter told her she was giving up on men, Cyril told her she'd better go buy Sex for One by Betty Dodson. Nice plug!

The controversial firing of Dr. Jocelyn Elders in 1995 got the word masturbation on every TV network and in every newspaper. When our former surgeon general responded to a question about masturbation with intelligence and compassion, saying, "I believe masturbation is a natural part of human sexuality, something that might even be taught," our frightened legislators fell apart. They also knew she thought drugs could only be controlled by making them legal, and condoms needed to be passed out in our high schools to prevent teen pregnancy and AIDS. After the story broke, I watched a conservative politician on television say, "I don't want my five year old walking around with a condom in his pocket." The old political ploy of bait and switch.

On the brighter side, a lot of positive things have happened in the past twenty five years. Based on all my years of workshop experience, here's the good news: there is no one right way to have an orgasm. It's okay if you prefer clitoral stimulation and it's also okay if you prefer penetration. Most women desire a combination of both for their orgasms. Some women want oral sex only. Also, it's just fine if you spurt when your G spot is stimulated, and it's no big deal if you urinate when you climax. There are women who come with electric massagers, some who are into anal eroticism, and other women who want it all.

More couples both gay and straight include the sharing of masturbation in their sexual repertoire. According to the mail I get from heterosexual men, most are relieved when their partners learn how to masturbate and become more responsible for their own orgasms. A few men resent vibrators, and the women living with them have to hide their pleasure appliances, but one woman's husband routinely checks to see if her electric massager is warm when he comes home because if it is, that means she'll be interested in having sex with him later.

In spite of the bad rap pornography is getting, a larger number of women and couples are sharing sex related entertainment, including going to porn movies, renting X rated videos, buying sex books, calling party lines, exploring fetish wear, and buying adult toys from catalogs or sex shops to spice up both their masturbation and partner sex. No matter how much the government or religions try to repress this primal urge, they will never succeed.

When Sex for One first came out in 1986, I went on "Donahue" with two women and one man, all friends who'd taken a workshop I gave. Under each talking head was the caption "Practices Sex for One." The audience was extremely hostile because the woman who had revved them up before we came on actually told them they weren't going to like the show, and furthermore, she was too embarrassed to even say what it was about. It felt like we were sitting in front of a lynch mob. The vibrations were so hostile that Phil became an advocate for masturbation and challenged some of the prudes in the audience. Toward the end, Phil made a humorous remark directed at me: "You're going to be the only person in the Masturbation Hall of Fame." The audience finally broke up laughing, including me. But in spite of my brave friends sitting by my side, I did feel all alone at the public level. Now that's no longer true. The list of famous masturbators will be growing by leaps and bounds and it will continue right into the next millennium.

I am now releasing myself from a promise I made twenty five years ago: my feminist commitment of liberating masturbation has been accomplished.

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