Rest in Power: Betty Dodson, Who Continues to Inspire Us to Own the Joy of Our Bodies

I did not truly comprehend how Betty fearlessly and unabashedly brought feminism and sex positivity together until she had passed.

Rest in Power: Betty Dodson, Who Continues to Inspire Us to Own the Joy of Our Bodies
Betty Dodson, sex-positive artist and advocate of self-love and masturbation, on a recent episode of “The goop Lab with Gwyneth Paltrow.” (Screenshot from Netflix)

Iconic feminist sex educator Betty Dodson—the godmother of female masturbation—passed away late last year at the age 91.

Dodson was a female-empowered force of nature who had spent close to five decades encouraging women to literally find their inner bliss in the most direct ways possible through female masturbation seminars held in her spacious Manhattan apartment.

Rest in Power: Betty Dodson, Who Continues to Inspire Us to Own the Joy of Our Bodies
A flyer from Betty’s early workshops.

I met Betty when she was in her 80s and was blown away by her amazing life force, as she smoked her cigarette and showed me all the things in her apartment that had brought her joy and made her who she was.

When I interviewed many of the women who had known her, and were truly inspired by her over the years, it became apparent to me that she had always been this force of nature, so powerful in her enthusiastic embrace of a woman’s innate right to own her erotic power that she convinced her own mother to pose naked for her at the beginning of her career as an erotic artist.

Where would our world be without Betty?

Rest in Power: Betty Dodson, Who Continues to Inspire Us to Own the Joy of Our Bodies
One of Betty’s pieces. (Betty Dodson)

I came of age in New York City in the 70s, and was an active participant in the feminist movement, so I knew just how radical Betty’s embrace of female masturbation was at a time when men were so freaked out that women could have orgasms without them that they caused author Shere Hite to leave the country. Dodson’s book, Sex for One, became an important underground bestseller that eventually sold over a million copies. But I did not truly comprehend how Betty fearlessly and unabashedly brought feminism and sex positivity together until she had passed.

Barbara Carrellas, founder of Urban Tantra, reminded me that Betty was part of circle of feminist sex educators in what she called “Betty’s Orgasmic Army.”  

“I was just one soldier in the large and formidable Orgasmic Army that Betty unleashed on the world,” Carrellas shared. “From Dell Williams, who founded Eve’s Garden in the 1970’s, to Carol Queen, who founded the Center for Sex and Culture in the 1990’s, to the current international team of Bodysex workshop leaders, Betty Dodson has loved, befriended, shoved, pushed, cajoled and inspired us into a collective force for women’s pleasure and power.”

She continued, ‘“Betty made me do it.’ I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard some variation of that phrase. Betty Dodson was pushy, kind, insistent and irresistible. She lived her passions with such righteous force that you were either enthralled or appalled. If you fell into the first category you were immediately inducted into Betty’s Orgasmic Army.

“Within two weeks of meeting Betty in 1990 at Eve’s Garden, the seminal women’s sex shop, I had graduated from her Bodysex workshop. Two weeks after that I was her first lieutenant as we orgasmed in front of television cameras in a Bodysex circle for HBO’s ‘Real Sex 1.’ By the end of the following month I’d breathed and orgasmed my way through the taping of Betty’s first Bodysex video. Within the next year, she dared me to write a tantric sex book that she would enjoy and approve of—a formidable task, to be sure. The result was Urban Tantra: Sacred Sex for the Twenty-First Centurythe world’s first LGBTQ+ and BDSM-friendly tantra book.”

Betty Dodson, Barbara Carrellas (co-author of Urban Tantra) and sexual empowerment coach Amy Jo Goddard.

I also was able to get Betty a spot on the annual LAMBDA Literary Award show where she was a presenter for Best Erotic Book three years ago—and even with all those amazing, wild presenters, Betty’s joi de vive outshone them all, and left us all in sex-positive stitches.

As Veronica Vera, one of Betty’s closest friends and fellow sex educators, who accompanied her that night, explained, “Betty and I just left the audience in awe. On stage, she punctuated the prepared script by spreading her legs, mimicking a masturbation technique. The crowd roared. It wasn’t the behavior you’d expect from a near nonagenarian. But Betty Dodson was never predictable.”

Vera continued: “As we left the venue, a young attendee told Betty her performance was ‘singular.’ Betty asked me to explain. ‘It means you are unique, beyond compare,’ I told my dear friend. ‘Hmmm. ‘Singular.’ I like that.’ she said. And she was.”

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When the New York Times ran a half-page profile of Dodson in March, just as the pandemic had really started and we were on the cusp of truly understanding how important embracing Sex for One was going to be for a whole new generation, I was glad to see Betty get the cultural recognition she so rightly deserved.

“Betty always wanted to be acknowledged for her immense contribution to the sexuality field, to feminism and to art,” Amy Jo Goddard, a friend of Betty’s for 25 years and a fellow sex educator, told me.

“She had a lot of misgivings about the ways she had been rejected and her work not recognized by the academy, the second-wave feminists, and the art world. She wanted the recognition that was her due. She finally got that towards the end of her life when she was asked to keynote at the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT) conference, to be a guest on [Gwyneth Paltrow’s Netflix series] ‘The goop Lab,’ and other shining moments with her BodySex training.”

Betty Dodson and Amy Jo Goddard.

Carlin Ross, a sex educator and lawyer, explained how she and Dodson brought her Bodysex workshops and sex education platform to another level as business partners: “Betty and I met 12 years ago. My intention to start a lifestyle brand for women including explicit sexual imagery landed me the front page of the New York Times.  Suddenly, I was a sexpert.  I knew I needed to know more, so I launched a podcast series where I would interview the biggest names in female sexuality as a way to force myself to read their books and make connections in the space.  

“I Googled ‘feminist’ plus ‘NYC,’ and couldn’t believe Betty lived 20 minutes from my apartment.  I was so excited to meet her that I showed up a day early for our interview.  A few minutes into our session Betty looked me dead in the eyes and said, ‘You have a quick mind.’  No one had ever seen me for my intelligence.  She asked a few more questions about my ability with tech, leaned over the table with her hand out and announced, ‘We’re going into business, shake on it,’ and I did.

“Fifty years separated us yet we both identified as ‘feminist.’  The tie that bound us was our pursuit of sexual freedom for women.  We traveled the world, filmed our weekly YouTube series, answered sex questions from all over the world, and ran Bodysex workshops side-by-side.  Our connection is almost indescribable—it transcended friendship and family.  I had the fortune to time bind with one of the greatest feminist icons of our time.  Betty was the best.”

Known by the nickname BAD (her initials), Dotson’s legacy lives on now at an exhibit of her art work that has just opened in New York City’s Sex Museum. “BAD: Betty A. Dodson and the Liberation of Masturbation, a Tribute,” features 50 of her paintings, drawings, photographs, videos and ephemera—all reflecting Dodson’s unflinching belief in sexual equality for women. The exhibit is organized chronologically, offering an in-depth look at the progression of Dodson as artist, sex educator and feminist icon chronicling her journey from a young artist discovering her own sexuality and power in 1950s New York to an adult expressing her desires.

Betty’s artwork. (Betty Dodson)

“Betty is a true feminist icon who spent her entire life fighting for women’s liberation through the embrace of pleasure,” said Daniel Gluck, the Museum of Sex’s executive director and founder. “Betty was one of the museum’s advisors, and we are honored to be able to introduce our visitors to her rich history and legacy.”

This year-long exhibit is the perfect tribute to a truly legendary feminist icon. Carlin Ross, Dodson’s business partner, said of the exhibit: “Self-love and devotion to pleasure inspired generations of women to look inward and tell the rest of the world to f**k off.”

But in the meantime, rewatch Dodson’s “The goop Lab” episode and remember that this one woman almost single-handedly brought female masturbation into the mainstream.

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Lori Perkins is the publisher of Riverdale Avenue Books, a New York-based award-winning book publisher known for their LGBTQ+ and feminist titles. She is a former adjunct professor of journalism at NYU and the author of many books including #METOO: Essays About How and Why This Happened, What It Means and How to Make Sure It Never Happens Again and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Watergate*But were Afraid to Ask.