Sex & Dating | November 17, 2020 7:58 am

How Betty Dodson Taught the World to Orgasm

A tribute to the sex educator who passed away last month

sex educator Betty Dodson
The pioneering sex educator Betty Dodson passed away this past October at 91.
JP Yim/Getty Images

Betty Dodson was not afraid of using the word “pussy.”

Nor should she have been — this pioneering sex educator who actively, fervently promoted the clitoral orgasm — nor would she have wanted anyone else to be. “We spend trillions of dollars going into outer space,” she wrote in her 2002 book Orgasms for Two: The Joy of Partnersex, “yet we spend very little exploring the inner space of our own sexual anatomy.”

Dodson passed away recently, on Halloween of this year, but her impact is ongoing. In her lifetime, Dodson became known as a promoter of self-love and pleasure, a force of positive sexuality who first taught women and then men the finer points of masturbation, of knowing their bodies, of communicating their desires, of taking the time to become good at sex and the importance of doing so. “She is a person, no matter her gender, who strove for sexual excellence,” according to sex coach Eric Amaranth, who was a former protege and partner of Dodson’s for 10 years, between 1999 and 2009.

Dodson’s work created space for women to be the force of their own orgasms through her Bodysex workshops — to “run the fuck” as she would brilliantly and bluntly quip — which teach women “how to overcome negative body image and pleasure anxiety.” She also sought to remove the shame from masturbation for men and women, especially in her internationally bestselling book Sex for One. Published in 1986, the book strove to share that masturbation was a positive force, that it wasn’t a childish act but rather a “joyful and ongoing love affair that each of us has with ourselves throughout childhood, adulthood, and the golden years of old age.” As much as Betty’s work affected women, it affected men, too, by promoting the needs of women first, of optimizing women’s orgasms before their own as a way of optimizing their own.

“She was dealing with very fine-tuned specifics as to how female sexuality, neurology function and optimizing that function really works instead of generalities,” Amaranth says. This became something that men could empower themselves to learn as well, to step away from dated mythologies of sexuality and gender roles. “Betty used to attack guys who were deep into the old ways of doing things and won’t accept anything but the old way,” Amaranth said. She was not afraid of calling out their idiocy. “Her influence is in softening that construct … there is actually a way to do this that isn’t just magical and comes from your inner studliness or whatever, and that’s through those details.”

In Orgasms for Two, for example, Dodson spends an entire chapter teaching the intricacies of what it means for men to be a “World-Class Lover,” from learning control over ejaculation to effectively using the pelvic floor muscles to penetration and everything in between. “Betty would always tell men, I don’t care how good at sex you are, how good you think you are, unless you’ve been having sex with that person for a long time and you’ve learned all the little things … you won’t be able to optimize. You’ll be going into it and trying stuff and then adjusting,” Amaranth says. “She advocated for men to put the time in and get awesome.”

Dodson herself was a product of the 1950s, when one was expected to marry at a young age, spit out children and make a happy home. But she found her sex life with her husband deeply unsatisfying, and they divorced after six years. For some 30 years after that, she lived, as she called it, as a “bisexual bachelor” — it was then that Amaranth entered her life — but in those 30 years she became an advocate for women’s sexual education and liberation.

She had started as an artist, painting nudes in traditional spaces like the Art Students League of New York, but when the sexual revolution arrived, the bodies in her work took to pleasure, which was at the time, and still is, political. When her opinions on sexuality were published in a 1971 edition of the Grove Press countercultural publication The Evergreen Review, along with her artwork, it prompted an editor from pioneering feminist magazine Ms. to commission her for an article on masturbation. While Dodson wrote the article — all 17 pages of it — the editors didn’t publish it, at least not right away. “The editors feared my views would cause women to cancel their subscriptions,” she wrote in 2002. Dodson was “infuriated,” and decided to publish the article, “Liberating Masturbation,” as a book on her own in 1974. Her workshops for women began in the 1970s as well, and continued until the pandemic made them impossible this year. She got her Ph.D. in sexology from the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in 1992 when she was 62.

In 2013, Dodson and business partner Carlin Ross started a YouTube channel where they would address questions from around the globe submitted by men and women. The videos continued until four months ago. In them, Dodson is as forthright and honest and unfiltered as her reputation had always purported her to be. Her softly silver hair shakes slightly as she emphatically punctuates her sentences, her voice a gentle growl, a “vulvaheart” pendant — a metallic heart accented with a clitoris — around her neck. In the video “What is the ideal penis size for women?” she answers:

“Here’s the thing … anything, a finger inside your vagina, well-managed, with good clit stim …”

“A dream,” Ross responds.

“Really. A tongue on your clit with a finger inside and you can do anal penetration.”

“You know our mantra,” Ross says.

“Vaginal penetration with clitoral stimulation,” they say in unison. Dodson laughs. “It’s so cute the way it rhymes.”

The video was recorded in 2014, when Dodson was 84. She’s as sharp and fresh as ever at 90 in the videos released earlier this year to their nearly 50,000 subscribers. The same is true when she lectures Gwyneth Paltrow on the difference between the vulva and the vagina on Netflix’s The Goop Lab, which aired in January of this year. Dodson arrives at the Goop offices not at all interested in the lifestyle brand’s material feminism, always the firebrand, a punk-rock sex educator with decades upon decades of experience in the field both physically and academically. In the show, she guides Ross through an orgasm onscreen using both the Hitachi Magic Wand and her signature dildo, Betty’s Barbell, which Dodson herself specifically designed for both vaginal exercise and pleasure (it’s currently sold out).

In March of this year, Dodson was still preaching the importance of masturbation and positive sexuality in a New York Times feature. Photographed by Celeste Sloman, she wears a plush grey robe and balances a cigarette in a slim hand accented with long fingernails. Another photo offers a tray on her desk with a button bearing a short checklist: “To Do: Masturbate.” After having lived too much of her life hearing that her own pleasure should come from men, Dodson instead decided to take pleasure into her own hands, literally and figuratively, and taught generations of women to do the same. The men who seek to learn from Dodson and to respond to women’s bodies first have nothing but pleasure to gain.

“It’s time for humankind to return to its senses, to enjoy the basic pleasures of being alive in healthy bodies without the fig leaf, black dot, or digital squares covering our sex organs,” Dodson wrote in 2002. “After all, they are responsible for creating the next generation as well as giving us an enormous amount of pleasure.”