Betty Dodson at a sexuality conference in 1973 (top left), a later photo, and two of her books

Emily Writes: Farewell to the fairy godmother of self-pleasure

Pondering the passing of sex-positive pioneer Betty Dodson, Emily Writes concludes we’re at a turning point – the shame is melting away as women embrace self-love and empowerment. 

A few days ago, sexual liberation pioneer and sex toy enthusiast Betty Dodson passed away aged 91. Betty was a legend. She held masturbation sessions for women in the United States where she taught them how to climax with a Hitachi Magic Wand. She wrote books on how to orgasm and had an infamous genital gallery. She introduced me to sexual liberation through her speeches and books. I came late, so to speak, to the whole sex-positive movement. A childhood in church will do that to you.

I found Betty frightening but fascinating. She was like a fairy godmother for sex. In many religions, it’s frowned on to touch yourself or have any kind of sex life that isn’t aimed at popping out as many children as is earthly possible.

I remember my first lessons in masturbation. The first was at youth group, where the cool youth pastor separated us into two groups – boys on one side, girls on the other (fundamentalist Christians were the original Terfs). They handed the boys a toothbrush to pass around. It was filthy. They asked which boy would put it in their mouth. Of course, none of the boys wanted to. And then they presented the girls with a brand-new packaged toothbrush. “God made you clean and pure. If you let anyone use you, you’ll be like this dirty toothbrush. And then who will want you?”

I certainly wanted to be used for babies only, by one man.

If only that pastor knew I’d grow up to be a raging bisexual feminist whose toothbrush is still working just fine after lots of vigorous brushing. I kid – but it’s not really funny. The messages young girls get sink in and they sit heavy in your belly as an adult woman.

Betty Dodson in the orgasm episode of the Goop Lab (Netflix screenshot)

I was already married with a child before I touched myself on my own. Despite being a non-believer now, I still worried that I’d be struck down. I enjoyed myself but it wasn’t until my discovery of adult toys in my 30s that I really got it.

My first thought after using the Satisfyer Pro 2 was: “So this is what they were afraid of!” Of course! Why would anyone even leave the house if they had access to this thing? No wonder that toy scares the crap out of men who send abusive emails to women online.

I spent a lot of time with the SP2. I even wrote about it – the impact on my life was profound.

I’ve always had a healthy sex life but I suddenly felt more confident. I felt able to let go of the shame I had around my desires and my body. I began to understand myself better. I began to know myself, to learn more about myself. I started to heal the scars of the past.

Betty Dodson’s incredible book Sex for One: The Joy of Selfloving came out two years after I was born. It is a profoundly beautiful book. In it she talks about the way we can heal trauma by loving ourselves: “All my years of childhood and marital masturbation were about not getting caught. I’d trained myself to come fast while remaining silent. When I was with a lover, I avoided heavy breathing, barely moved my body, and never broke out in a sweat. In order to have ‘ladylike orgasms’, I always held back because, basically, I was embarrassed about sex. All my fear and embarrassment gradually disappeared after I made a decision to embrace sexuality.”

Betty was right. And she devoted her life to doing this important work, in the face of mockery, censorship and personal attacks. Not much has changed – it’s still sadly true that any woman who openly talks about sex and sexuality will face abuse online. It is what happens. Always. I am told my kids will need therapy because I talk about sex. That’s how unhealthy our attitudes are towards this.

Betty Dodson speaking at a Goop Lab screening in January 2020 in New York City (Photo: JP Yim/Getty Images)

But quietly, beneath the covers, if you will, a sexual revolution is taking place. Online groups for women are being taken over with sex toy recommendations.

Women will comfortably ask each other things like “I think I squirted – how can you tell?” and “What does your G-spot feel like? Have you touched it?” They’re now feeling able to ask the questions that should have been answered in sex education classes – except that the classes in New Zealand schools are often useless. Girls might leave them knowing how to put on a condom but still be in the dark over the fact they have a clitoris.

Thank goodness, then, for the internet. If it weren’t for Facebook’s puritanical rules around women’s bodies, there would be even more scope for young women to discover themselves. To quote Betty again, “If we could grow up knowing that the genitals are beautiful parts of our bodies, we’d be proud, we wouldn’t have shame, we wouldn’t have sexual guilt.”

Sex toys are mainstream now. Women refer to them by their first names: “Have you tried the Penguin?” “The Satisfyer Rabbit didn’t work for me – is there a hands-free Womanizer?”

Everyone has the Satisfyer Pro 2 and now the search is on for the next big thing (I’m calling Kama, just FYI).

The shame is melting away as women embrace self-love and empowerment. Overturning the idea that desire is only acceptable if it is in service to others is something sex-positive feminists have worked towards for decades. It feels like we’re at a turning point.

Since taking on contract work at an adult toy store (such is my love for toys now), I’ve been fascinated to see a side to this country I never saw before – a really healthy attitude to buying products that will improve or enhance people’s sex lives.

As a sex-positive writer, my inbox might still be a cesspit of creeps with fragile masculinity – but I’m also seeing incredibly open conversations popping up everywhere.

I’m pleased to see I was wrong about little old New Zealand, It turns out we’re not nearly as scared of sexuality as I thought we were. A year ago, I said clit tech was the future. Now I think it’s here – and thank goodness for that. Betty would be proud.

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