Betty Anne Dodson – from being sexually mismatched with her husband to a feminist sexologist!
During my time at the University of Sydney studying a Masters of Science in Medicine (Sexual and Reproductive Health) I’ve had the pleasure of learning about different perspectives and such a huge amount of new information, including about public figures who changed the world’s mind about sexual health. One of these people, Betty Anne Dodson, has just been so fun to learn about. She is also known as B.A.D. and ‘the godmother of masturbation’. She contributed significantly and controversially to improving sexual health and wellbeing for tens of thousands, if not millions of people with the mantra ‘Better Orgasms, Better World’. (1) So here is a little summary of my musings on a legend of sexology.
* I have included references because I appreciate research writing and giving you the opportunity to read further if you’re interested!
Betty could be described by many titles including a sexologist, disrupter, artist, innovator, second-wave feminist, author and a social justice advocate. It is likely her ability to bring these descriptors together creatively in order to effect change in the world that made her such a prolific character. To understand Betty’s contribution to sexology, it is relevant to also understand the timeline of her life and experiences, as these inspired Betty to change her perspective and the focus of her life’s work. I’m always keen to understand why someone developed the perspectives they did – and how this all came about for them.
Betty grew up in Midwestern America. Despite a conservative upbringing she developed an early enjoyment of masturbation which conflicted with the belief permeating society that sexual pleasure for women was only facilitated by a man who the woman was married to. (2) In the 1950s she moved to New York, studied art, and married a man she later described herself as being sexually mismatched with. (3) They divorced in 1965 and she began to explore her sexuality further. During the 1960s she met a man who convinced her that her vulva wasn’t deformed and encouraged her to have orgasms with his electric scalp massager. (3) She also began hosting group sex in her apartment where she noticed that many women were faking orgasms. (1) Reflections from these two pivotal experiences changed the course of Betty’s life and contribution to the world.
During the 1970s Betty became part of the pro-sex feminist movement and was the first recognised feminist to focus on masturbation and publicly advocate for electric vibrator use for women solely for their orgasms. (4) Betty firmly believed that masturbation is inextricably linked to sexual liberation. (2) Betty’s contribution to publicly available sex information and a very progressive feminist perspective of masturbation began. In a MS Magazine article in 1974 she disagreed with the wildly held belief that “if there were any touching of my genitals to be done, my beloved should do it.” (3) She also described how “even my liberal, intelligent friends put down masturbation, making clear that it was a second-rate sexual activity.” (3)
Betty created erotic art including life-size drawings of women masturbating which didn’t sell; however, she observed how men became hostile at the sign of a vibrator in the artwork and were surprised that women masturbated. (3) The controversy from the exhibition ended her relationship with the gallery showing the artwork and there was a media blackout. (4) As often occurred given the controversial nature of her message and the visual directness she communicated this with, businesses and institutions ceased relationships with her. During a lecture tour in the mid-1970s she was projecting six-foot “cunt slides” (her words – not mine) at Syracuse University. (1) She stopped doing this because she was subjected to angry hissing from members of the audience and felt a potential for violence. (1) She also lost support from the National Organisation of Women after showing a slide show of vulvas at their conference. (2) Her direct and honest form of communication was considered obscene and too controversial given the sexual norms and intensity of the patriarchy at that moment in history.
During the early 1970s Betty also began hosting BodySex masturbation workshops in the New York apartment living room, which included a ‘genital show-and-tell’ and learning how to orgasm using an electric back massager. (3) During these workshops she encouraged the use of oil-based lubricant, vibrators, breathing techniques and rocking techniques. (3) Betty believed that sexual repression was one of the tools the patriarchy used to keep women in their ‘proper role’. (3) She believed masturbation taught women to like their own body and enjoy sex and wanted women to be educated to become proficient and independent in having their sexual needs met. (3) The impact of these workshops was profound, including some unexpected findings promoting acceptance of all sexualities. In the male BodySex groups heterosexual men commented on how wonderful it had been to get over their fear of gay men, simply by being in the group together. (5) In 2015 Meyers applied a mixed method approach to examine the outcomes for participating women, as the workshops were (and currently are) continuing. (6) She described the outcomes women experience from participating in BodySex workshops include improved genital self-image, improved sexual self-efficacy, improved sexual satisfaction, increased comfort with their bodies and their own nudity, emotional healing, a sense of sisterhood that participants felt was evident in their general lives post-workshop, positive shifts in their experience of orgasms with masturbation, an increase in the active pursuit of pleasure, and increased openness to talk about sex and sexuality with others, including discussing sexual likes and needs with sex partners. (6)
Betty published one of her books written for the general public in 1974 titled ‘Liberating Masturbation’ which was republished in 1986 titled ‘Sex for One: The Joy of Selfloving’. (3) Through this she popularised the clitoris and clitoral orgasms. (3) Although the book was purchased by thousands of people, Betty lost the support of the publisher. (1) Betty’s strongly held belief that shame-free masturbation was the foundation of every woman’s sexuality was too progressive for many institutions. The intensity of her delivery and refusal to soften her message, stating that “It’s not fair that women don’t get to orgasm” began raising sexual health as a social justice issue. (3)
Betty’s message did not align with many other prolific second-wave feminists at the time, including Gloria Steinem. (3) Many feminists criticized Betty for focusing purely on pleasure-driven clitoral stimulation and advocacy for equitable access to orgasms for all if they wanted to seek that. (2) Betty credited this for inspiring her to become the sexual educator she wanted to see as a client and she continued to advocate. In 1977 Dr Sally Binford shared that “While I do not agree with all that Betty Dodson has written, or with all the techniques she uses in her workshops, her impact on the field of women’s sexuality has been enormous. Some of us choose to think of her as the Lenny Bruce of the Women’s Movement.” (5)
During the following three decades she continued her private practice work, media appearances, and educating and advocating for the Betty Dodson method. She received a PhD in Sexology from the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in 1992. (4) She published ‘Orgasm for Two: The Joy of Partnersex’ which she wrote and illustrated in 2002. (4) In 2008 Struck and Ventegodt published their study of the Betty Dodson method for anorgasmic women. (7) They found that the Betty Dodson method of holistic sexological manual therapy appears to be rational, safe, ethical and efficient for the treatment of women who have chronic anorgasmia. (7) This group therapy method of treatment includes both short-term psychodynamic psychotherapy and complementary medicine with reparenting, genital acceptance, acceptance through touch and direct sexual clitoral stimulation with a clitoral vibrator. (7) Of the 500 cis female participants between 18 – 88 years of age with chronic anorgasmia, 25% of which had never experienced an orgasm, 93% had an orgasm during therapy as witnessed by the therapist, and 7% did not. (7) Interestingly, postmenopausal women were just as likely to achieve an orgasm as premenopausal women, and women who had never had an orgasm before were just as likely to orgasm as those who had previous had an orgasm. (7) Outstanding results that were published when societal appetite for research into the treatment of anorgasmic women was… limited… at best.
Betty accepted many awards for her contribution to the sexual health of others. In 2011 she received the Public Service Award from the Society for Scientific Study of Sexuality, and also the Masters and Johnson Award from the Society for Sex Therapy Research. (2)
* fun sidenote fact: I decided to study to be a Developmental Sexologist after watching a Masters and Johnson Conference in 2021! I just found this all so interesting and am passionate about health professionals being well educated in sexology! Anyway… back to Betty…
In 2013 she was named in the Top 10 Revolutionaries by Cosmopolitan Magazine and Top 100 People by Playboy which highlighted her growing pop culture popularity, as the public’s acceptance of female sexuality and masturbation slowly grew. (2) Yet as a public figure Betty also had her detractors who were clear when they believed she needed to explore her own unhelpful sexual biases and beliefs. In 2011 she was criticized for commenting that porn is ‘basically male entertainment’ that pushes women to view on-screen sex from a cis male point of view yet the type of porn she was referring to was not specific and likely did not include gay, lesbian, trans, vanilla or kinky porn which likely promotes female pleasure more so. (8)
Betty hit the peak of pop culture relevance and overall societal impact for her career when she went mainstream with her message in the Goop Lab Netflix show in February 2020. She was 90 years of age!! She famously made Gwyneth Paltrow blush after explaining the difference between a vulva and vagina, something that Gwyneth (along with most of us, really) was unaware of previously. She focused on the importance and power of cis female masturbation and orgasm, and the show controversially showed Betty assisting her business partner in masturbation leading to an orgasm. (1) This was, and arguably still is, considered a reflection of and a burst of propulsion towards sexual health and pleasure being part of the modern-day zeitgeist. Yet, as with much of Betty’s work, this was not without controversy. In the Goop episode Betty stated that there are two types of orgasms for cis women, the tension orgasm and her ‘rock and roll’ orgasm. (9) Which is controversial in the research community. Dr Jen Gunter reports that there is only one type of female orgasm since all originate from the clitoris. (9) The Archives of Sexual Behaviour purports that there are at least four types of orgasms based on the intensity of throbbing and spasms, and whether emotional intimacy was part of the experience. (9) Today most sexologists and researchers suggest that all orgasms occur because of clitoral stimulation whether through the vaginal walls during sex or during manual stimulation. (9) Regardless, Betty continued feeding society’s increased acceptance of and appetite for sexual health discussions.
Betty’s contribution to public health and discourse continued during the COVID-19 pandemic, when she moved her BodySex workshops online and shared her message that “you are your safest sex partner” with the New York Times. (10) Betty died at 91 years of age in October 2020 at the Riverside Premier Rehabilitation and Healing Centre in Manhattan, New York. (1) Her erotic art was exhibited at New York Museum of Sex from December 2020, and her business partner has continued Betty’s life work and BodySex masturbation workshops. (1)
It is challenging to summarise the powerful yet controversial impact Betty, a cis female from the bible belt of America, had within the field of sexology. Nowadays with a quick ‘google’ it is easy to find workshops on cunnilingus, fetish training and other currently fringe areas. There is also more acceptance of people’s sex lives as important and something everyone can own for themselves. (2) Feminism is mostly an ideology within the realm of sexology and for therapists, it is not grounded in interventions or techniques. Yet Betty’s focus on autonomy gave structure to this major tenant of feminist therapy. She provided a map for women to own and direct their own sexual pleasure. She emphasised a women’s right to autonomy based upon her own experiences and decisions, and not based upon opinions of others or society generally. As Karen Washington so eloquently said, “as clinicians, a note that we can take from Ms. Dodson is to never dismiss the role of sex and sexuality in a person’s life, and to meet our clients where they are with genuine care as well as resources.” (2) However, we aren’t quite ‘there’ yet. As a society we are still working to cease harmful gender messaging that shames and stigmatizes female sexual pleasure. Messaging about what is ‘appropriate’ prevents many women from achieving pleasurable sex and orgasm. (2) Betty created an understanding through a significant contribution to freely available sexual health content that masturbation can be a joyful experience in a time that taught that masturbation was sinful and psychologically immature. (5) Perhaps she could have had a broader impact with a gentler delivery style… however, it would not have been so uniquely ‘Betty’. Her life experiences and approach contributed to her being the sexologist she was. Betty has helped make the world a more sex-positive, pleasurable and expressive place for all of us… with her art, workshops, books, videos, private sessions and website devoted to masturbation.
References Theobald, S., 2020. How Is Betty Dodson, the Queen of Female Masturbation, Dying? Not Quietly. [online] Daily Beast. Available at: <https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-is-betty-dodson-the-queen-of-female-masturbation-dying-not-quietly> [Accessed 1 June 2022]. Washington K, Spencer J. In Memoriam: Betty Dodson–“Better Orgasms, Better Worlds”. Journal of Feminist Family Therapy. 2021 Apr 3;33(2):216-9. Vnuk, H., 2020. In 1970, Betty Dodson hosted a 'genital show and tell circle'. Every single woman orgasmed.. [online] Mamamia. Available at: <(3)> [Accessed 1 June 2022]. Anderlini-D'Onofrio S. Plural Loves : Designs for Bi and Poly Living. Florence: Taylor & Francis Group; 2005. Hooper A, Holford J. How Big Is Big?: The Mysteries of Sexology Explained. Robson; 2003. Lisa Meyers. Answering the call for more research on sexual pleasure: A mixed method case study of the Betty Dodson Bodysex™ workshops. Ann Arbor: Widener University; 2015. Struck P, Ventegodt S. Clinical holistic medicine: teaching orgasm for females with chronic anorgasmia using the Betty Dodson method. TheScientificWorldJOURNAL. 2008 Sep 21;8:883-95. Fox, L., 2011. Why Sexpert Betty Dodson Is Wrong. [online] Boston Magazine. Available at: <https://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/2011/07/13/sexpert-betty-dodson-wrong/> [Accessed 1 June 2022]. Charara, S., 2020. What The Goop Lab gets right (and wrong) about sex. [online] WIRED UK. Available at: <https://www.wired.co.uk/article/goop-lab-sex-netflix> [Accessed 1 June 2022]. La Ferla, R., 2020. You Are Your Safest Sex Partner. Betty Dodson Wants to Help. (Published 2020). [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: <https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/26/style/self-care/betty-dodson-masturbation.html> [Accessed 1 June 2022].
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