Betty Dodson still lives in the same spacious, light-drenched apartment off Park Avenue where she hosted circles of women in the 1970s. Her Bodysex workshops – from which Eve Ensler cribbed a section of her Vagina Monologues – brought a DIY spirit to sex. In the years that crossed the sexual revolution and the feminist sex wars, Betty’s apartment was an oasis.
I sat down there with Betty for nearly three hours one summer afternoon to talk sex, feminism, censorship and power. “It’s what I’ve been fighting against during my whole lifetime,” she said. “And here we go again! The fucked up . . . well, the fuckless Republicans – We’re being bombarded constantly, with all this sex-negative crap, coming out of Washington. It could keep a girl up at night.”
(This interview transcript has been edited for clarity and length.)
Melissa Gira Grant: I wanted to ask about the scene in your memoir, My Romantic Love Wars, where you’re meeting Gloria Steinem:
When we arrived at Brenda’s palatial East Side apartment, there were about ten women deep in conversation. Sitting there quietly, I was trying to understand all the political concepts but failed miserably. When Gloria Steinem walked in immaculately groomed, I silently admired her. As I looked around the room, I realized this was definitely the number one sorority. Every woman there was from the “A” list of good looks and money. Anselma and I looked like two scruffy hippies next to these tastefully dressed women who were well spoken with college degrees. There was no way I was going to bring up the subject of sex in this kind of setting. These women made love under satin sheets to the men of their dreams who probably owned a large piece of Wall Street.
It was just this perfect image. That tension is still there, the good girls and the bad girls in the women’s movement.
Betty Dodson: It’s just blind luck when a woman is born into a wealthy family and attends the best colleges and joins top sororities. I’m from Wichita, Kansas – a bunch of uneducated salespeople. We were just one step away from being shit-kicking farmers and cowboys. Although my Dad was a talented calligrapher and both of my younger brothers were successful – Bill owned a fancy men’s clothing store and Dick was in middle management at Cessna Aircraft – I was the first one in my family to graduate from high school.
And then you arrive in New York, with these women who already have all these publishing connections and their Ivy League educations, and they’re running – a girl’s club, it seems like, in the women’s movement.
I had very little support from any feminist organization. But fortunately my post-marital lover Grant Taylor, who had bailed out of academia over political in-fighting, was a one-man support team. He was the one who pushed me to write.
MGG: And what was the work you were doing at that time, before you were writing? When you found the women’s movement, your work was already in galleries.
BD: I did large drawings of couples having sex! Men and woman enjoying intercourse and oral sex in a Madison Avenue Gallery? That was the first time I broke a barrier that made me think, some idiot is going to blow my brains out for sure. I’ll never forget when I got that vibe loud and clear again years later, lecturing at Syracuse University. I’m projecting 6-foot images of women’s genitals on a screen from slides I produced for the National Organization for Women, talking about different styles of vulvas; how we’re all beautiful and all different. Meanwhile, in the back of room, there’s whispering, and hissing, and then agitation, and I thought, “Oh oh, here it comes.” I could almost feel a gun being aimed at me. So during the lecture I kept walking back and forth to be a moving target. (laughs)
MGG: With that, at that time, the parallel I would think of is the people who stand outside abortion clinics, yelling at and threatening people who want to go inside.
BD: Can you imagine, going to work or to terminate a pregnancy and having these idiots standing there calling you names and threatening you with eternal damnation? The women working at abortion clinics are really on the front lines and the true heroes of feminism.
MGG: But it’s all of a piece – all these people who are profoundly hostile to women having any power in their lives.
BD: Let’s name them: ignorant fundamentalist Christians for the most part with some conservative Republicans thrown in. When I was shopping the memoir that’s had several different titles, I changed it from My Sexual Revolution to My Romantic Love Wars, because that’s what’s going on today. We are at war with men, and most women don’t even know it. The first thing the male establishment wants to control is uterus and birth. You might call it womb envy. But even worse is the fact we are still using the male model of sexual response for women. Vaginal penetration only doesn’t work for most of us. And we’re not all meant to be monogamous either, especially since women are capable of having far more sex than men. Try to get that fact across in America!
MGG: Which is something you also expressed to the feminists in the early days. In your memoir, you talk about going to the National Organization for Women conference in the early ’70s and presenting your Bodysex work. And being told in response, no, what women really want is to be with one person, or to get married and to have children – as if that’s somehow incompatible with being sexually liberated?
BD: A monogamous marriage and family is what some women want – but not all of us. We are mostly doing serial monogamy anyway. Although I had to create my own place in the movement, in all fairness, Ms. magazine ran an article about masturbation that I wrote in 1974. They included the information that women could get the entire 18-page article by sending $3 to Ms. The readers’ response was huge, and I ended up with enough money to publish my first book, Liberating Masturbation. Then Ms. dropped like me like a hot potato. NOW also dropped me after I presented that fabulous slideshow demonstrating the variety of female genitals – that was in 1973. NOW’s first and last sex conference. I think it scared them. And that’s the drawing I did for their poster that they wouldn’t use because they thought I’d drawn “male genitals” and the woman’s body was too masculine.
MGG: Can I look at it?
BD: It’s over there on the wall. Get right up close for a good look.
MGG: So they thought it was “male” because there’s no pubic hair around the clitoris? Because – why?
BD: Yeah! Well. That’s how much we “know” about our bodies and sex organs. The exposed outer lips appeared to be masculine. Maybe they thought they were testicles. Who the hell knows?
MGG: Well. At least they got the word “lesbian” on there on the poster. And “teenage sexuality.” Would they know what to do with that now?
BD: Oh no! That was Dell Williams and me making up those titles for different workshops. She’s the feminist who opened the first sex shop for women. Dell is finally back home from the hospital unable to get around except in a wheelchair and refusing to die at 92.
MGG: And then after that, NOW swung very antiporn, antiprostitution. I wonder if they could handle something like this today.
BD: How old are you? And how old were you in 1973?
MGG: I wasn’t born yet. I was born in 1978. Once they had already gone into their full-on antiporn.
BD: Wait. Let that settle in. You were born in 1978? Fuck! I’m older than God. (laughing)
MGG: Given how old all these conflicts are, it’s hard not to get discouraged, to actually see feminism as a cohesive movement. How do you turn to another feminist and say, “what you want in your feminism would not actually lead to the world I want to live in?”
BD: Just come right out and say it. It’s Mother, the controlling matriarch telling us what to do while feminists blame the Patriarchy. And Eve Ensler picked up on it by watering down my sex information to appeal to conservative women and corporate interests.
MGG: Who [Ensler], in The Vagina Monologues – dramatized your Bodysex workshops in the play, but she uses the word “vagina,” which you don’t use yourself. And you’ve written, “Why don’t we use vulva?”
BD: And her response to me was, “Well, because no one would know what a vulva is.” I said, don’t you think it’s time we teach people the correct name for our sex organ? We don’t even know what to call our sex organ. The vagina is the birth canal. So I would prefer we say “vulva” or “sex organ” or “female genitals.” I personally love the Anglo Saxon term “cunt,” but that really scares everyone, especially women. Or we could just say clitoris. Because as long as we say “vagina,” guys think that all they have to do is [gestures] stick their penis inside a vagina, and it will feel as good to us as it does to them. I repeat: Most women cannot orgasm from vaginal penetration alone.
So at the Ms. Foundation performance on West 42nd Street, the first big showing of The Vagina Monologues – I’d only seen it once before off-off-off Broadway – I actually have this on videotape because my young video artist Alex, who wanted to do a documentary, said, “You’ve got to come see this. She mentions you.” So I go. It’s right after my double hip replacement surgery, and I’ve got a cane and I’m still in some pain. I laugh too, because there are some funny lines. But when she comes to the “Vagina Workshop,” she had the group of women holding a hand mirror looking for their g-spots. I nearly shit a brick!
MGG: She’s fictionalizing your workshops.
BD: Totally. Then, after she reads the “Vagina Workshop,” she says “There’s a lady who actually runs these groups and her name is Betty Dodson.” Oh great! Now we have misinformation that’s accredited to me. So I go backstage to set the record straight. “Eve,” I begin. “I would never have women looking for a g-spot. It’s still being debated if there is one. I want women to find the clitoris, the real source of our sexual pleasure.”
Then she looks at me thoughtfully and repeats the word, “clitoris!” Then she says, “Oh, that’s even funnier!”
At that point, my Kansas cowgirl rage came up from the bottom of my feet, and I felt the heat. I wanted to go for her throat. But I remained civil.
Although she did add the word clitoris to the monologue, still the women had their fingers inside their vaginas looking for it. Later on, when I published a critical essay about The Vagina Monologues on my web site, my name was dropped from her play. Then one of her corporate women jumped all over me – Eve became a corporation very quickly – and you don’t think that the old boys’ money isn’t behind that?
MGG: The whole V-Day campaign seems incredibly corporate, how it’s branded, how it’s positioned.
BD: It’s what they’re all about. It’s the same thing with Ms. magazine – the good old boys throw us a bone to keep us quiet. One of her executive women said to me in an email, “What would you tell a woman if she’s had female genital mutilation and she doesn’t have a clitoris?” And I said, “Well, Eve is going to see to it that no one has a clitoris because now they’re all looking for some goddamn mythical g-spot in their vaginas!”
MGG: That’s the other thing about her work that I don’t feel comfortable with. She will have some space to talk about female sexual pleasure, even in this very misguided way, and then she’ll connect from that to rape in Bosnia, or what she calls female genital mutilation.
BD: It’s called bait and switch. The second time I went to see it was the Ms. Foundation performance. In the first half she brings the audience up with her “vagina stories, ha ha ha” and then we go to Africa where all these poor women are genitally mutilated, and it just slams you down. And that’s feminism when it comes to sex. They’ll give you a little goodie, and then they’ll bring you down with some depressive shit like FGM, rape or domestic violence. No one is for violence, so why can’t we talk about sexual pleasure?
MGG: What would have been more powerful? If the stories about sexual violence had been better situated? Without that, it sets up this false binary: We’re the liberated ones here in America, but women, over there, that’s where it’s violent.
BD: Right you nailed it!. “In America, women are just fine!” I’ve been doing this work for over 40 years, and women who come to see me admit that they’ve never looked at their sex organ; they’ve never seen their clitoris. Now tell me if that isn’t a form of being psychologically genitally mutilated? For them, the clitoris doesn’t exist, but we’re worried about women in Africa!
MGG: Well, a lot gets lost in these conversations. I’m thinking of HIV prevention again, and the focus on empowering women, but the empowerment is all about negotiating condoms use. But what about empowering women across the board? To make demands around sex can’t be done in a vacuum. What’s going on in the rest of your life? Even when sex ed is supposedly about “empowerment,” if it’s still centered around illness, or against violence – pleasure gets lost, and when pleasure is lost, empowerment is lost.
BD: That’s very intentional. The powers that be understand – whoever they are, I’m learning more and more about that – that sexual freedom or liberation with any kind of joy means they are losing control. Because orgasmic sex would lead to women’s autonomy, knowing who you are and what we want: Women are not going to follow what some jackass tells us we must do. Not all women are going to get married, be monogamous and raise a family. It will destroy the current social structure based on a sexual double standard that we’re currently living under. And men in power know this. The image I now have for power is this big boardroom, not with corporations – but with dynasties of the richest families – and they’re sitting around making decisions about how to maintain control over the unruly masses. The example that Chris Hedges gives . . . hold on, I just have to read it to you.
MGG: This is the same Chris Hedges who is no fan of porn?
BD: I love Chris Hedges. But I know he can be very intellectual, and I have my problems with porn too, especially when it stands in for sex education while it entertains men (at her computer). Here it is:
The real power is not corporate; it is private. They choose not to have a name. It is a dynasty of banking families – Rothschild and Rockefeller being two – that operate chiefly out of London, in the boardrooms out of the city of London and the Bank of England, which they own. They own a global network of private banks operating as central banks for nations that have given up economic sovereignty to them, like our Fed. So they run the EU, IMF, World Bank, WTO, etc. They have a blizzard of NGOs to work through. So democracy is a smokescreen.
Fuckin’ A, Chris nails it. That’s it. The real power is not corporate. It’s private. It’s those 1% selfish turds that think they will be safe behind gated communities. Ha! Once we understand that people still have the power, we can turn this country around in no time.
On Her Legacy
MGG: Where are the women from your Bodysex workshops now?
BD: Many have gone on to become sex educators. Others are now orgasmic mothers raising healthier children. Some are big corporate executives. Every now and then, one will get in touch. We only spend a weekend together. Even when I do a private session, which is an open-ended afternoon, I only hear back from a few. Maybe it’s a bit embarrassing for anyone to know that you’ve never had an orgasm. Women don’t run around saying, “Oh, I took a Bodysex workshop, and I had so much fun, and Betty Dodson taught us how to blah blah.” They come, they go, and I rarely hear from them again.
MGG: Between the internet, maybe between the ’70s feminists retiring – or dying – maybe we’ll say retiring.
BD: Oh no, we’re dying off! Many of my old feminist friends have left the planet.
MGG: Well, it’s hard to face that. But…
BD: We need to face and embrace death like it’s the final orgasm! I’m going to design my death like I designed my life. Besides, I’m leaving all of my information and art images behind in the cloud. And I’m not going to exit for quite a while, either. I’m going for a hundred or more because I’m having so much fun!
MGG: Good! In your memoir, you wrote that your mom told you, “Don’t let all the time you are spending with the feminists take you away from your art.” Do you feel that way about your life?
BD: That’s what happened. From my point of view, I just changed mediums. It’s all creative – especially writing and quality teaching.
MGG: How are you feeling about that now, years later?
BD: I’m fully aware had I stayed with my art, I would be well known, respected and most likely rich. But today, art is all about becoming a name, a brand; it isn’t based on talent or creativity. The galleries are simply corporations in the art world – “Here’s a million dollars for this latest piece of crap” – but I’m not about to go along with the gallery system. You want to talk about a rip-off! When I found out after that first successful exhibition that the gallery wanted me to do another show like the first one, I come out two years later with four 6-foot drawings of classical nudes masturbating. The gallery director flipped the freak out!
MGG: So just nudes are okay, but masturbating nudes are over the line?
BD: And when you walked into the show – the guy beating off was in the back room with a big plant in front of the drawing. But he did hang the woman who had a vibrator strapped on the back of her hand. So not only was she masturbating [whispers] but it was with an electric vibrator!
MGG: Not some novelty thing from Times Square?
BD: Nope! Only the best. That ended my art career in terms of the gallery, but what happened to me psychologically was profound. Holy shit! I’d just found the bottom line of sexual repression: the repression of masturbation. If you tell a child “Don’t touch yourself there,” they will deal with some kind of sexual problem from then on, to one degree or other. So I had to teach. Instead of being a well-known painter, I became everybody’s favorite dirty joke. Come to think of it, teaching masturbation skills is pretty weird.
It was easy to leave the art world after I found out that it was just another corporation. When they told me I had to create the same thing, I rebelled. I don’t know where my rebellion comes from, and I’m not exactly proud of it, because I think there’s a lot of things I could have done differently to be more comfortable, and ultimately more effective. I think I should get the Nobel Peace Prize before I die for ending the war between the sexes. Fat chance!