38 years of self-love

We talk to the author of 1974's groundbreaking "Sex for One" about our changing attitudes towards self-pleasure

Topics: Salon -- After Dark, Sex, Feminism,

38 years of self-love Betty Dodson

Without Betty Dodson, America would be a lot less good at masturbating. Almost four decades ago, the sex educator, artist and feminist activist self-published her book “Sex for One” under the name “Liberating Masturbation” and began selling it at small feminist bookstores around the country. The book, a guide to pleasuring oneself, caught on like wildfire, teaching a generation of women and men about an act that was still considered shameful to a large cross section of Americans  – and utterly mysterious to a huge number of others. It has remained a touchstone.

83-year-old Dodson still dispenses sex advice on her website, dodsonandross.com, and now Three Rivers Press is issuing “Sex for One” as an e-book for the first time ever. To mark the occasion we called Dodson to talk about how our attitudes toward masturbation have changed since 1974, when her book first appeared.

Your book has been out for 38 years, and people are still using it as a resource. That’s kind of incredible. 

The book has a very long history. Originally, I had written an article for Ms. magazine [about masturbation].  They held it for a couple of years, and during that time I did a little self-publishing. I had a logo, which I called “Goddess Books.” It was so cornball, I can’t tell you, but I was thrilled by it. It was like a mimeograph. I sent it out everywhere, selling it for $2 and $3. The little checks were coming in from all over the world. I couldn’t get over it. I thought I’d get a couple of hundred checks. I got something like 4- to 5,000. So lo and behold I had enough money to go publish my own book in 1974, because publishers would laugh at me when I said I want to publish a book called “Liberating Masturbation.” They would laugh me out of their office.

And now it’s coming out in Kindle. 



It’s amazing to me. It went all over via the women’s movement and coffee shops. I didn’t sell it to Crown until 1986. I couldn’t let it go, I couldn’t turn it over to anyone. I didn’t want anyone to touch my baby. And I knew they’d screw it up and, sure enough, the first version that came out, I hated it. The cover, the style, everything about it was nasty. When they decided to put it in paperback I became a bitch and I drove the art department crazy to make a cover that I could love, and I’ve got to say that cover is dynamite. The first time they had “Self Loving” in this stupid script, in faded pink, ugh, barf. It was so nasty. Once I got the cover that I liked, the book just went out and did what it did. I was getting letters and responses that said, “Oh thank you, thank you, I felt so guilty about this all my life.” I think the value of the book is that it broke through a lot of people’s guilt.

Obviously, the sexual climate was very different in 1974. How did people think about masturbation back then?

Who needed it? There was so much sexual freedom and there were so many groups and threesomes and couples getting together. It was very fluid in New York, L.A., San Francisco. I went to sex parties in the U.K., London, Amsterdam. I was one of the darlings of the jet set, so they’d invite me everywhere. I couldn’t have been happier. Then all of the sudden AIDS happened and the bottom crashed out of casual sex. That’s why the publisher in 1986 figured that they could finally deal with masturbation as the safest sex.

Do you think there’s less guilt associated with masturbation now?

I don’t think we’ve made any progress. If anything we’ve gone backwards.

What?! Really?

Well, you can at least say the word now. In certain circumstances you couldn’t say it at all, when I first started off. The response I got to using the word was people rolling on the floor laughing, and when I talked about teaching women how to masturbate, they was even funnier. What would you do to teach someone to masturbate?  But it’s a physical activity that has an art to it. You don’t just grab it and whack it. It’s everyone’s favorite thing to do if you can’t get laid or you don’t have a delicious romantic relationship, but if we don’t incorporate masturbation into our relationships, we are going to lose sex anyway.

Why do you think it’s important to incorporate masturbation into a relationship?

You are only 20, wait until you are having sex …

I’m 28.

Oh, you’re an old man, I thought I heard you say 20.

No, I’m not quite that young and beautiful.

Oh now you really are too old. I was thinking of making a date with you but now you’ve got too much age on you.

I’m also a flaming homosexual, so that doesn’t really help us either. But in terms of the evolution of masturbation, in the last few decades, we’ve seen the rise of all these new sex stores, like Babeland and the Pleasure Chest, that try to make sex fun and not shameful.

They are little safe havens of sexual sanity. And they functioned the same way back in the ’70s for the women’s movement. There were feminist bookstores then because we were the only ones who were dealing with sex.

Porn is also much more accessible these days than it’s been in the past.

On the one hand it’s fabulous and on the other hand it’s a tragedy. Porn doesn’t factor female sexuality into it. All of these young guys are getting their sex information from porn and they have no other resource. And because young women don’t want to upset their boyfriend or make him feel insecure, just keep their mouth shut, suffer through it.

So you think porn has made young women less focused on their own pleasure?

Women have never been interested in their own pleasure. We can’t get there until we have women who make their own money. As long as women are going to be dependent upon men financially, we are going to make men happy. Or do our best because we need you to pick up the tab. Women go on the porn sites and what they come away with is, I don’t look like those girls so now I’m going to have to get my inner lips cut off and my asshole dyed and bleached and dyed pink.

I was talking to somebody recently who said that when she first learned to masturbate, it was the first time she realized that she didn’t need a man. How closely is masturbation tied to women’s rights?

I don’t think a woman can be fully sexual unless she does masturbate. What’s happening now is that these young girls don’t get around to it as teenagers. They give boys blow jobs to be popular and then when it comes to their turn, they have no idea what they want or what feels good. Can you imagine a young man not masturbating? I mean, I’ve had women in their 40s and 50s that have never even looked at their genitals, have never masturbated and they don’t know what a clitoris is.

But shows like “Sex and the City,” in which characters were always speaking openly about masturbation and sex toys,  did get a lot more people to talk about female masturbation, right?

So they talked about vibrators and stuff but now look at all the young women wearing those stupid high-heeled shoes. That means they are going to have back problems later on, kiddo, and they are going to break their fifth metatarsal. No, “Sex and the City” didn’t do us any good.

What about “American Pie”?

Oh, please. No, that was not helpful. That just made it seem like masturbation is always a joke, and that’s why guys continue to laugh at it. If everyone were honest — that it’s the sex most of us are doing most of the time — we would treat it with dignity.

So what do you think is necessary in order to make people more comfortable with the idea of masturbation?

Bottom line, parents and caregivers must not interfere with a child’s natural investigation of their genitals. The first line of sexual repression is non-verbal. It’s the way your mother or caregiver diapers you and cleans and washes and handles your genitals as a baby. It’s whether she’s doing that with some love in her heart and she’s going “look at that cute little thing, oh that is so sweet,” or she is going “eww nasty, I’ll cut it off.” Those feelings have power. If a kid is caught masturbating, often the first message is, “That’s disgusting” or “Honey, that’s not a good idea. I don’t want you to do that too much.” Of course their kids will still do it, because it feels good.

Why do you think that it’s taken so long for a male sex toy, like the Fleshlight, to catch on.

Because a man who masturbates is a loser. He should be fucking. And part of men’s animalistic procreative drive is that they want to stick their penis in something. That is very primal. And now you don’t need to go into a store to buy it. You can do it online.

Why do you think that jerking off is still funny to people?

We make things funny when we are embarrassed. When we are embarrassed about something, we laugh. And if you laugh at something people are embarrassed about, you’re hip. We are ashamed of our bodies. We are ashamed of sex. We are ashamed of pleasure. The reason masturbation is so political is because if we take control of our sexuality, the church loses its power over us. The government loses power over us. We become free-formed thinkers.

Thomas Rogers

Thomas Rogers is Salon's former Arts Editor. He has written for the Globe & Mail, the Village Voice and other publications. He can be reached at @thomasmaxrogers.

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