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7 min

Liberation starts with masturbation

An interview with the Mother of Masturbation, Betty Dodson

MOVING BEYOND: Sexual liberation is within our reach, says Betty Dodson, who describes herself as a 'heterosexual-bisexual-lesbian- SM-leatherdyke-professional career masturbator.' Credit: Xtra West Files

She’s been called the Mother of Masturbation and credited as one of the most important queer, sex-positive feminists in North America’s sexual liberation movement.

Betty Dodson has spent nearly four decades liberating sexuality and encouraging everyone, and particularly women, to experience the pleasures of their own genitals. Her bestseller, Sex for One: The Joy of Selfloving, has sold more than one million copies in the last 20 years; she is also an artist and a sex educator. Now she is coming to Victoria to present what’s being billed as a “frank, funny and fearless” workshop on orgasms at the Erotica Festival of Film and Arts, May 5.

In preparation, she sat down with Xtra West to talk about sex, the hazards of censoring it, and the revolutionary ideas underlying SM play. Here is an excerpt from that interview.

Diane Walsh: What fuels your passion as a sex-positive leader?

Betty Dodson: The unacceptable fact that there are women who’ve never had an orgasm.

DW: How does gay and lesbian sexuality figure into your views?

BD: In 1974 I came out in my book as a heterosexual-bisexual-lesbian. From then on, I was never asked about my sexual orientation. Until society accepts these variations of sex styles, or sexual preferences, none of us is free.

DW: According to the Urban Dictionary the term “queer” has a wide definition including persons who are gay or lesbian, and/or transgendered; and/or are persons who engage in unconventional sex, bondage, bisexuality, or some form of crossdressing. Does this broad definition of queerness promote a more sex-positive society, do you think?

BD: Absolutely! I love the term “queer.” I agree that this broader definition is far more inclusive. Otherwise I’d have to say I’m a “heterosexual-bisexual-lesbian-SM-leather dyke-professional career masturbator.” Phew! That’s a mouthful. Some day I hope we will all just be “sexual.”

DW: Does this definition not make everyone queer?

BD: Absolutely! Queer includes heterosexuals who are kink-seeking or poly or into role playing and we can’t leave out the absexuals: Folks who get off complaining about sex and trying to censor porn.

DW: What are your thoughts on this broadening (queer) trend?

BD: Any time individuals or couples engage in a new sexual experience, I always see it as positive, even if they discover it’s not for them. At least they gave it a try. Or it becomes their favourite thing and now they have something new to enjoy.

DW: So I’ll ask: are you queer?

BD: I’m definitely queer. I’m addicted to my vibrator, I live with a man who is 47 years younger, I create granny porn for my website, I teach women about orgasms with hands-on sex coaching, I’m a lover of gay men, I hang out with trannies, I’ve had friendly sex with lesbians and I’ve been known to take a toke and talk dirty. I’m also dedicated to making people happier by encouraging their self-loving habits.

DW: How does your sexuality shape your views on sexual liberation? What is your definition of sexual liberation?

BD: My definition of sexual liberation would begin with the universal acceptance of masturbation across the board. Self-sexuality would be seen as the foundation for all of human sexuality. Sexual liberation is actually available right now to anyone with the courage to claim it.

DW: What are the hazards of censoring sex, in your view?

BD: We only need to look at the failed abstinence-only message standing in for sex education in the US today. The censorship of sex allows a handful of thugs in the church and governments to control and manipulate people who are guilt-ridden due to the restrictions placed on sex that they’ve failed to adhere to. Imagine, not being able to touch your own genitals for your personal private pleasures. That’s just not humanly possible, so naturally people fail. Meanwhile the priests are getting blowjobs, the ministers too, and so are the politicians.

DW: Some sexual expressions, like BDSM, still face heavy-duty opposition in most mainstream circles. How do you respond to such people in the crowd?

BD: I ask if they are speaking from experience, or is it some kind of bias that’s been learned. If there’s time, I explain that the most dangerous SM is the unconscious kind that takes place in many romantic love affairs. The jealous lover beats or kills his or her lover in a rage. That’s some dangerous non-consensual shit. Not two people who are negotiating a fantasy role-play that determines who’s on top.

DW: Where does bondage and queer women’s freedom of sexual expression feature in feminist debate, in your mind?

BD: When I first embraced SM, primarily to overcome my prejudice toward this sexual choice, I learned about the exchange of power that took place in relationships whether they were straight or gay. My hetero past was all about falling in love and then engaging in a power struggle that had no name. The idea of identifying a top and bottom when it came to sex was revolutionary to me. Once any couple agrees to play a role consciously, sex is a lot more playful. I loved the idea that I could be a switch-able. That meant that I could do both. Until women understand the power dynamic in partner sex, we will never be able to claim our pussy power.

DW: How does homophobia fit into this?

BD: Homophobia is a social/sexual disease that affects everything we think and do when it comes to sexual preferences. It’s bad enough to be a lesbian. Now I’m going to add SM to that? Do you think I’m crazy? In the ’80s, other feminists were really angry about those of us wearing leather. Of course, I loved flaunting my naughty sexual preference and upsetting those rigid romance junkies.

DW: You’ve been called a sex-positive feminist in the media. Is this how you would define yourself?

BD: Fuckin’ A. I’m more than the Mother of Masturbation. Although there have been days when I felt like I invented it. I’m also an accomplished artist, author and a brilliant sex educator, if I do say so myself. But it will take a little more time before folks figure out that.

DW: How would you compare the public acceptance of sexuality today versus in the ’60s and ’70s? Where does the rise of the religious right and the greater acceptance of gay and lesbian rights fit in?

BD: I ignore the religious right and they ignore me. While there is a bit more social acceptance of sexual differences today, there’s a lot less sexual activity taking place. In the ’60s and ’70s, the only thing we had to worry about was getting the clap, which could be cured with an antibiotic. Today the list of sexually transmitted diseases has grown, with AIDS at the top of the list. This makes Big Pharma very happy because they have a drug for everything. In the ’70s, if you didn’t have herpes it meant you weren’t getting laid. Now people are taking a pill every day to avoid an outbreak and it doesn’t even necessarily work. A bottle of Valtrex costs $300. I’d say that’s an expensive drug habit.

DW: You’ve often said that the act of liberating masturbation is a delightful activity and a powerful political concept. Can you expand on this?

BD: Masturbation is our first natural sexual activity and when it’s thwarted at an early age by an unenlightened parent, the psychological and sexual damage can leave a child scarred for life. Exploring our genitals and the good feelings they offer us is how we learn about sex, first in terms of ourselves and later on, how we make love to ourselves is what we bring to partner sex. The Catholic Church isn’t kidding when it says: “Give us the first five years of a child’s life and we’ve got them forever.”

DW: Do you believe that achieving or at least working toward achieving orgasm is one of the keys to sexual liberation for women, queer or otherwise?

BD: Yes. I’ve been accused of emphasizing orgasm far too much, even by therapists and educators. But just think about it for a moment. A woman who has never had one can’t help but either worry or wonder or obsess or feel inadequate or be very angry that something that is raved about, exaggerated, over-romanticized and used to sell everything has somehow eluded her. It’s okay to choose not to have orgasms but only after you know what one is. This business about being happy with just the closeness of cuddling is cute, but that’s after someone has enjoyed a period or a lifetime of orgasms alone and with partners.

DW: Is there a distinction, in your mind, between sex-positive erotica and porn, or is this a false divide?

BD: That debate successfully divided and conquered America’s feminism in the ’80s. One woman’s erotica is another woman’s porn or the other way around. It’s all sex art. Some of it is good and some of it is stupid, exaggerated or silly. But hey! If an image or an idea gets you off who am I to pass judgment?

DW: Do you think gay and lesbian porn/erotica has changed the artistic terrain politically?

BD: The artistic terrain got a jolt of some really good images with Mapplethorpe’s photos that challenged the censorship of sex art and won after a protracted battle. But I don’t think this had made sex art more available. Maybe less so due to fighting public outrage whenever a big or erect dick appears. And Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party with her pussy plates wasn’t all that well received. My masturbating nudes ended my gallery affiliation but my cunt drawings made it into some sex ed books. I confess I don’t watch porn these days, gay or straight. But I did have a phase of getting off on gay male porn. I loved the equal energy of two strong bodies instead of the usual hetero passive female, dominant male with the phony soundtrack.

DW: Do you think the voices of lesbian, gay and queer sexual expression have led to more expansive thinking on the sex-positive movement?

BD: Yes, we helped to move sex beyond the mom and pop image of heterosexual procreation. Hooray! We’re here, we’re queer, we’re fabulous, get used to it.

DW: Have you taken any shit from the right, or been accused of political incorrectness from the left, when promoting women, abundant sexuality and multiple orgasmic expression in the same sentence?

BD: Good question. I rarely hear from the right. Maybe it’s because they don’t know I exist. My worst critics have been other feminists, both straight and gay. I had a very difficult time in the ’70s with lesbian separatists-and this was when I was primarily with women, except for the occasional friendly fuck with a guy. I’ve made it a point to be diligent about being politically incorrect. The best way to kill off the joy in sex is to determine what’s correct. Barf!