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here are 11 naked women in a
room in a New York apartment.
Ten of us are lying with our legs
spread, a metal dildo in our
vagina, a purring vibrator on
our clitoris and our left hand
stroking our breasts. Your left
hand is your lover, a naked
85-year-old lady barks as she patrols the
room with her own massive vibrator,
which sounds like a cement mixer and
resembles an old-fashioned kitchen
device. Ive accepted some unusual jour-
nalistic assignments in my time: I have
taken the Amazonian hallucinogenic
ayahuasca, attended a goddess workshop
in Wales and a black mass in Paris. But
Betty Dodsons masturbation masterclass
is perhaps the oddest of them all.
Odd or not, could this be the next self-
improvement class to come crashing out
of Manhattan? Is the city that gave the
world Barrecore, Brazilian waxes and
SoulCycle setting its sights on a body part
that unless youve been handy with a
mirror you may not have even seen your-
self? The signs are there: wealthy New
Yorkers (the workshops cost over 700 for
a weekend) are booking up the classes
months in advance. And demand is so
high that, this year, the Bodysex Certi-
cation Programme was launched to train
women to run their own workshops
around the United States, and the world.
Born on a farm in Kansas in 1929, Betty
was a renegade of the second-wave femi-
nist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. She
believed women would never be truly lib-
erated until they were sexually liberated;
so she held Bodysex workshops through-
out the 1970s, in which women would talk
about their bodies and learn to mastur-
bate, and secretly sent her self-published
pamphlet, Liberating Masturbation, to
repressed housewives across America. In
1986, her book, Sex For One, became an
instant, and international, hit. The work-
shops, however, were put on the back-
burner, as she no longer had time between
writing and personal appearances.
Move over SoulCycle, the new must-try Manhattan
self-improvement class is focused purely on sexual
pleasure, with a side order of old-school feminism
Words Stephanie Theobald Artwork John Ciamillo
in the company of other women isnt
unusual for me, but weve only been going
30 seconds and Maria, a Spanish lawyer,
has orgasmed already. This is followed by
a cry from Ingrid, a vet from Norway, who
begins to climax with a soft, musical
moaning as if shes auditioning for an
Emmanuelle movie. Do women really
make that sound? Call me nosy, but part
of the fascination of the workshop is learn-
ing how other women masturbate.
Personally speaking, I have masturbat-
ed since the age of nine. I got my educa-
tion about my vulva (Betty hates vagina,
as it refers to only part of a womans gen-
itals and leaves out the clitoris) from the
Tampax leaet. These days, I often take
an afternoon break (I should explain, I
work from home) to masturbate energis-
ing my body and getting rid of tension
and yet, right now, Im feeling a little stage
fright. Now that Spain and Norway (ie all
the other non-American women in the
room) have climaxed, in theory, I should
be up next. Come on, London! Betty
jokes. Fake it!
Yesterday, day one of the two-day work-
shop, wasnt without its pressures either.
I arrived late at Bettys apartment to
glimpse nine women of varying shapes,
Fast-forward to 2012, when a 39-year-
old feminist lawyer, Carlin Ross, inter-
viewed Betty for her blog. This sparked
an idea: modern women are, if anything,
less connected to our sexuality and desire
and more mired in body image issues than
their mothers generation, and are
perhaps in dire need of Bettys expertise.
So Carlin relaunched the classes,
modernised the business and now even
assists at the workshops, too.
Women are still struggling with posi-
tive body image, orgasm and even the idea
of sisterhood, Carlin explains. Times may
have changed, but it seems Bettys mes-
sage, and the need for it, hasnt: we need
to take control of our own orgasms. Mas-
turbation is not a second-rate sexual activ-
ity it liberates women from what Betty
sees as the yoke of romantic love. Not that
it necessarily has to be a solo performance
she also advocates couples masturbat-
ing in front of each other, to teach your
partner what you like. She is her own best
advert, by the way: she looks amazing.
During a break in the workshop, she
tells me: Women were uninformed in the
1970s, but today theyre misinformed,
because of the internet. We are, she says,
watching unrealistic porn, and its mak-
ing us feel inadequate: We do not teach
our children anything about sex now. That
is a crime.
Betty has had many incarnations since
she touched down as an art student in New
York in 1950. She married an advertising
director, who she divorced once she worked
out he didnt like sex. In the late 1960s, her
sexual experimentation inspired her to
consider why women seemed to find
orgasms so hard, while men seemed to
have no problem. Now, she identies her-
self as a sex radical Id consider having
sex with whoever turns me on and has a
couple of thirtysomething male lovers on
the go, though she jokes theyre a bit old
for her. Actually, Im not sure she is joking.
Meanwhile, back in class, Im having a
little performance anxiety down here on
the carpet. Im bisexual, so sexual activity
us to comment on how we feel about our
bodies and our orgasms. A business con-
sultant, Erica, 32, says she can only come
using her vibrator, not with her boy-
friends penis. Shes worried that shes
wired wrongly. The 20-year-old says she
ejaculates when she comes but shes not
sure if she has orgasms. Sandra Bullock,
41, a yoga teacher, is worried that her vulva
might be deformed. The common denom-
inator is that we all think something is
slightly wrong with our sexual parts.
This is sad, and makes me wonder why
we are still so screwed up about our bod-
ies. While there is a fourth-wave feminist
move towards openness around female
sexuality, does that extend to true con-
dence? Sex And The City, with its talk of
G spots and female ejaculation, kicked
female sexual pleasure into the collective
consiousness. Yet the protagonists had
to be dressed up in Manolos in order to
feel hot. Lena Dunhams Girls is on the
zeitgeist with Marnie and her series-one
masturbation scene, but the characters
still strike me as neurotic and not partic-
ularly in love with their bodies. Caitlin
Morans How To Be A Woman might have
brought menstruation and self-pleasure
into the open, but it was done in that Brit-
ish, nudge-nudge way that suggests were
still deeply nervous about it all.
No time for such musings now, though,
as Betty announces its time for Genital
Show And Tell, quipping that wed
better pay attention. Look carefully now
when was the last time you saw an
85-year-old snatch? Playwright Eve
Ensler took Bettys Show And Tell idea
we all sit with a hand mirror and a lamp
for easier viewing and used it in her Vagi-
na Monologues show, albeit in a blander
form. Betty is in no way bland as we watch
her spread her legs before us. We start o
by doing a vulva massage, which, she says,
is like a ballet only with almond oil. (She
is scornful of expensive lubricants.
Throughout the weekend, Betty says
things like: I went through the sexual
revolution using almond oil, which
Women were uninformed
in the 1970s, but today
theyre misinformed
because of the internet
sizes and ages (from 20 to 48, and mostly
corporate professionals) sitting naked,
chatting in the next room, like a nudist
Tupperware party. Theres no offer of
a dressing room, so I just strip in the hall-
way and go into the main room, which is
lined with glass dildos and Bettys draw-
ings of couples pleasuring each other.
We sit in a circle (Betty says that we are
re-enacting an ancient ritual of women
sitting together, sharing experiences) and
it does feel oddly moving, although I note
that some of the women ranging from
a Rubenesque 20-year-old student to
Maria, sitting with her legs condently
splayed, to a Sandra Bullock lookalike
are taking sneaky peeks at each others
breasts and bikini lines. I curse myself for
my shoddy shave job.
After an opening exercise, where Betty
asks us to put our ngers up our nostrils
slowly to demonstrate how gradually all
penetration should take place, she asks
TWEET IT Join the
conversation @ELLEUK
I normally wake
up with this
frantic feeling,
like I need to
shop. But now
I feel like I have
I need
makes me feel as though we might be in
the 1960s and Janis Joplin is going to walk
through the door at any minute.)
At one point, Betty tells me to stop
frowning. But Im not frowning, Im expe-
riencing a feeling of wonder. As I look at
the variety of vulvas that pass before the
mirrors, it strikes me that this is a mas-
sively complex area, and one that, even
as someone who sleeps with other
women, Ive never studied in great detail.
Or, actually, even given much thought to.
Betty quips that the male sexual area is a
Penny Farthing (Its just a couple of tes-
ticles and a tube!) compared to the Lam-
borghinis that are womens bits. When
the 20-year-old sits in front of the mirror,
we see that she has a huge clitoris. Woah!
Thats big, girlfriend! says Betty. When
its my turn, Im surprised that I dont feel
too self-conscious. I am told I have heart-
shaped inner lips (inner lips are the big
issue when you get into vulva-gazing).
Betty asks me what I want to call her
(everyone has to name their vulva). I draw
a blank, so Betty oers Pink because of
the colour. I go for it because Im keen to
put my legs back together. When we have
a drink at the end of the day, one woman
in the group, a kindergarten teacher
who is also taking the Certication Pro-
gramme, eulogises about the art of self-
love a lifeline for her. I like to take a long
time 35 minutes. Like me, she prefers
hands to a vibrator (Betty believes women
should carry a vibrator around with them
at all times). Masturbatings not the hard
part, the teacher says. Its touching your
body and loving it thats the hard part for
lots of women. Once more, I feel a twinge
of sadness because, I think, its true.
Back at Bettys the next day, Sandra
Bullock says she feels incredible. I nor-
mally wake up with this frantic feeling,
like I need to shop. But now I feel like
I have everything I need. So much for the
mindfulness we are all being told to prac-
tice these days in order to live in the
moment. The other m word seems to be
even more effective. Betty calls over
Carlin to demonstrate, slowly inserting
a stainless steel barbell the size of a large
cigar into her vagina as she breathes
deeply. Breathing teaches you to tolerate
higher levels of bodily sensations, we are
told. Then Betty tells us to start your
engines! and lies next to me with her huge
vibrator (she says you need more force
when you get older). It is weird lying next
to a masturbating 85-year-old lady. But
Betty looks more like 50 than 85 a pink
glow comes over her face.
Im distracted from the octogenarians
ecstasy by the sound of Spain and Nor-
way coming. I start shing around in my
head for some suitable fantasy, then sud-
denly I feel a foot on mine it belongs to
Sandra Bullock. Im worried about being
the bisexual at the party I dont think we
are supposed to eroticise our classmates.
Still, the sensation sends a rush of energy
through my body. I decide to cast the
vibrator aside and go for manual stimu-
lation. Suddenly, I can visualise the cleav-
age of the cocktail waitress at the bar last
night and that starts something o. Then
Norway starts to orgasm again (or is that
still the noise from her rst one?), and
I hear the kindergarten teacher on the
other side of the room (I note with relief
that shes using the manual method, too),
followed by groans from Sandra Bullock.
Its impossible not to get pulled into the
wave of sexual energy in the room.
I come, and then I hear Betty say,
Youre not done yet, honey! She takes the
cement mixer, puts a condom on the
head, and I see it heading towards my
vulva. I think Im being electrocuted.
Then I just go with it. I dont hold my
breath or pull back and, suddenly, I dont
think any more. Soon Im in outer space,
having some mad cosmic orgasm. Im
aware of the fact that Im writhing around
on the oor making this moaning sound
that I dont even recognise. But Im
beyond caring. We all laugh uncontrolla-
bly at the end of our orgasms something
that rarely happens when I do it on my
own. Sandra Bullock announces, It feels
like free drugs! Betty retorts, Youre orgas-
mic! This is what people dont know. This
is female sexuality. Were endless.
We go home feeling 10 miles high. And
it lasts. I get an email from Erica telling me
that her solo orgasms are much more
empowered than previous attempts. As for
me, Ive been reminded how much more
alive you feel when youre connected
to your own sexual power. Lets be honest:
your local Virgin Active isnt ready to host
masturbation workshops just yet, but the
pleasure propagandists of the fourth wave
are gaining ground, if the waiting lists for
Bettys workshops are anything to go by.
Of course, you can join in right now,
minus the 700 fee, by making the time for
a solo siesta. As for me, I came home boast-
ing to my friends that Im multi-orgasmic
or rather, serially orgasmic, as Betty calls
it. So only one question remains: should
I get one of those cement mixers?
The next Bodysex workshop will take place
in New York, 20-21 September 2014. Go to
dodsonandross.com for more information