I walked down to a tented deck overlooking a meadow at Menla Retreat Center in upstate New York when a blonde woman dripping in gold jewelry and the body confidence of Amber Rose handed me a chilled glass of rosé. That's when I saw her—Betty Dodson. She was shorter than I imagined and wore a distressed denim jacket with patches across the chest, the one over her heart reading "come together." She threw her head back in a magnificent cackle, teeth gleaming as she chatted with some attendees. When I was introduced to her by a friend, I told her it was my first time attending a workshop and half expected some ridiculous display of brazenness—perhaps a tousle of my breasts. It didn't happen, though. Dodson read my nerves like a book and greeted me warmly. I imagine it comes naturally to be totally tuned in after five decades of hands-on vulva work.
To sex educators like myself, her reputation precedes her. "The great and terrible Betty Dodson," she joked across the dinner table on the first night of her recent birthday celebration, that very retreat with 40 orgasm-hungry, cisgender women. "You know I think I invented masturbation, don't you?" The truth is, she kind of did. At least, the way we know it today.
In the 70s, Dodson started teaching workshops which included showing people how to use a vibrator (namely, the iconic Magic Wand) to stimulate the clitoris. And when I say "show," I mean that literally; in addition to performing the entire workshop naked, each participant also performs a genital "show and tell," holding their labia open and talking about their relationship with their body, their orgasm, and their feelings about their vulva. As she said in her memoir, Sex by Design, she wasn't sure anyone would show up to that first class—or the ones that followed.
But apparently, the world was waiting with unmasturbated breath for Dodson's ideas.
At the age of 88, she's still leading workshops with her business partner and president of The Betty Dodson Foundation, Carlin Ross. Together, they teach bodysex workshops––"bodysex" being a term Dodson coined in 1975––which speak to the embodiment element of her work. They've developed a certification program for those who hope to teach her methods in their own communities.
It wasn't a lack of masturbation or a desire to become certified that brought me to her workshop, though. It was the fact that despite being a sex educator, I'm actually just a standard human being with sexual hang-ups of my own. While I encourage others to enjoy the sex lives of their dreams, I struggle with the concepts of exhibitionism, voyeurism, and––worst of all––people other than my partner sexualizing me.
I sought out Dodson's work because I wanted to get over my sexual hurdles. If we share no other commonalities, at least I can say that in this way, I'm like Ilana Glazer's character on Broad City. In last night's episode, "Witches," the sex-positive orgasm advocate, Ilana, seeks help from an orgasm coach (also named Betty), inspired by the real-life Dodson, as she struggles with a sudden inability to achieve orgasm due to the 2016 presidential election. "Orgasms have been down 144 percent since Trump was elected," Broad City Betty commiserates. The show's nurturing sex coach clearly plays off Dodson's quick-witted, sexpot-fairy godmother hybrid vibe.
"I think there are layers to why it works," says Laurie Mintz, professor of psychology at the University of Florida and author of Becoming Cliterate, about how Dodson's work helps people face sexual challenges. "I think that we consider sex so private and shameful and secret, we don't know that our sexuality is okay…we don't have a positive sex education system [in the US] and in the absence of positive, accurate sex ed, people are [basing] what they think is 'normal' off porn, which is acting. I'm not against porn, I think it's very entertaining, but it's not education." Mintz adds that Dodson's "sex-positive grandmotherly energy" is another component she believes contributes to the efficacy of her work. She cites a study conducted by Lisa Meyers for her Widener University dissertation in 2015—she found that 93 percent of answers from cis and trans women surveyed described positive shifts or changes in their orgasms after attending a bodysex workshop.
It certainly didn't fail me.
At the beginning of the first workshop, I was damp with sweat from the July heat and my own nerves. I was about to be a voyeur and an exhibitionist throughout the nude "erotic recess"—code for an hour of masturbating in a lotus-like arrangement of yoga mats, towels, pillows, blankets, and so many vibrators. In fact, it was much like what Ilana saw when she walked into the workshop on the show. I was the only newbie in attendance though. All the other attendees were seasoned bodysex-goers.
The days melted away in a rolling wave of orgasms––mine and every woman's at the center. It was surprisingly easy to come beside these women. The environment is best described as sweet and supportive. I witnessed others' sexuality and climaxes, they witnessed mine, and I didn't die. In fact, I glowed.
One-on-one Dodson time was hard to finagle, but on our final night, after dinner, I found my moment. The seat beside her was open and I quickly made my move.
"Betty, would it be okay if I ask you a question?"
"What is it?" she asked, sipping her wine and gently stroked the lines of my arm's tattoos.
"I came here to overcome my fear of voyeurism and exhibitionism, and here, it's so easy. Everyone is so accepting and encouraging and it's just comfortable. When I get back to the West Coast, I'm heading to a sex party and I want to know how to take everything I've learned here and put it to the test. How do I take what you've shared with me and bring it into my own life?"
She leaned back in her chair and raised her eyebrows. With a flourish and a shake of her head, she shrugged and said, "Enjoy yourself."
I stared at her for a moment after her two-word mic-drop.
"Said the fucking buddha," I replied.
Again, she cackled.