The queen of coming is going. At the end of July, Betty Dodson was admitted to a hospital following complications from failing organs. She is in the Riverside Premier Rehabilitation and Healing Center in Manhattan with around two to three weeks to live, according to her doctors. And yet she has chosen to die as she lived: outrageously.
This Sunday I attended one of her solo sex classes with a difference. At 4 p.m. ET, 55 women from around the world checked in for a Zoom circle jerk in honor of the self-styled “rowdy cowgirl” from Wichita, Kansas. Visuals were a shadowy checkerboard of knees splayed, breasts old and young, vibrators and vulvas, hips pressing down into pillows.
During the warming up session, a twentysomething woman in Iceland told us that she was going to be using her special onyx dildo for this special occasion and an American in her fifties admitted she was feeling a little intimidated. This was mainly because, “I’m my car in a parking lot. I don’t want to get arrested, but I had to be here today.”
Betty, a friend I have known for the last six years, is the wise-cracking general of the pro-sex feminist movement of the 1970s. Gloria Steinem called her “one of the first feminists” but Betty, who grew up on a farm in Wichita and originally trained as an artist, chose to focus on the most controversial item in the Pandora’s box of female sexuality: masturbation.
She was vilified for this by more conservative feminists, but her now famous book, Sex for One: The Joy of Selfloving (first published in 1986 but originally self-published as Liberating Masturbation in 1974), became a bestseller with its simple but powerful message that shame-free masturbation is the foundation of every woman’s sexuality.
In 2013, Betty revived the “BodySex” masturbation workshops that she had created in the 1970s. She reasoned, “In the 1970s there was no information for women. With the internet, there is misinformation.” Betty has been lecturing, touring, writing and doing workshops around masturbation for over 60 years.
She finally hit the mainstream this February as the breakout star in Episode Three of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Netflix show Goop Lab. She memorably made the Hollywood star blush when Paltrow confessed she didn’t know the difference between a “vagina” and a “vulva.”
At Sunday’s class, former corporate lawyer Carlin Ross, 47, was running the show from her house in New Jersey. Betty’s longtime creative and business partner and her chosen family member took a deep breath before saying, “We’re going to be offering our orgasm energy today to Betty’s transition.”
These hour-long Sunday sessions started back in March when COVID hit and Betty’s regular masturbation master classes had to be cancelled. They are short versions of her famous “BodySex” two-day master classes, minus the “genital show and tell” section.
These ones begin with yogic breathing, then we move on to massaging each chakra (energy centers, which run from the base of the spine to the crown of the head) with a vibrator—and then it’s time to hunker down for the big O. When I attended an actual BodySex master class in 2014, Betty explained why it was more than a mere circle jerk.
“When you look around the circle of women, you let go of the bullshit image they pump into the marketplace with the fashion magazines and the Hollywood movies and the fuckless porn,” she said. “The biggest problem for women is our body image and it starts with our vulvas. We think— all of us—that there’s something wrong with them.”
Betty is not present at the Sunday Zoom sessions, at least not in the flesh. She approves though. Before she was admitted to hospital in July, she was happy for Carlin to keep the healing self-pleasure message in the air in whichever modern way Carlin saw fit.
Carlin starts each session by giving an update on Betty’s health and prognosis. She told me, “Betty doesn’t really get the technology thing, but when I explained that we are now dedicating our orgasm energy to her, she said, ‘Good, that's what I want.’”
Carlin immediately understood that Betty would want to do death differently. “Betty really believed we could change the world with orgasm energy,” she told me after the class, apologizing for sometimes using the past tense (“I’m trying to get used to Betty not being here.”) “She lived her life out loud and she shared every intimacy. So why wouldn’t she share this one?”
What Carlin means specifically is that even those people who can’t attend the Sunday Zoom sessions (they are only open to women who attended the master classes known as “BodySex sessions) are welcome to masturbate for the Wizard of O’s transition “to the multiverse” as Betty is calling it.
“Everything in moderation, even moderation. Every so often you gotta blow it out of your ass.”
The last time I saw Betty was at her New York home in January 2019. Betty was 89 at the time, but we drank two and a half bottles of Veuve Clicquot between us, smoked a couple of joints, and spent the night swapping sex gossip until she finally keeled over at midnight on the carpet of her living room A.K.A “the Temple Of The Goddess”—the location of her now-legendary masturbation master classes, which has witnessed thousands of orgasms over the years.
She refused to let me help her get up, so I watched her crawl to a nearby chair and use it to gradually right herself. It only took her about half an hour, and as I watched her huffing and puffing in her trademark fluffy grey dressing gown with “BAD” (short for “Betty Anne Dodson”) embroidered over the left breast, I remember thinking how extraordinarily lucky I was to have met this woman.
I was a late-comer to Mondo Dodson, but what a fantastic devil to have had on your shoulder, even for six years. And what a role model for a life lived on your own terms: proof that if you have spent most of your life working out in the orgasm gym, then you can still get totally trashed and stoned at the age of 89 and pull yourself up from the floor unaided. One of her lines is: “Everything in moderation, even moderation. Every so often you gotta blow it out of your ass.”
In a way, Betty really has been preparing to die her whole life. “We need to embrace death like it’s our final orgasm,” she told me when I first interviewed her in 2014. It was an encounter that shook my world and led to a memoir, Sex Drive: On the Road to a Pleasure Revolution, which features Betty as a unifying character.
Betty had observed something from being present at the hospital death of her beloved mother. “The top half of her body suddenly lifted up and then fell back,” she writes in her memoir, Sex By Design: The Betty Dodson Story. “It wasnʼt a disturbing sight at all. It was as though death had come to her as a final orgasm.”
Like Freud, Betty considers sex and death the only really interesting topics. Both are the ultimate forms of release and an orgasm, as even the most sex-negative person will admit, offers a taste of infinity.
The avant-garde have long pondered how they will pass on. Psychedelic jester Timothy Leary claimed he was going to “die on the internet” back in the late 1990s when “Mademoiselle Cancer” invaded his body. He didn’t die on the internet in the end, but in his 1997 book, Design For Dying, he underlined that dying can be a high point of life if it’s done in a way that reflects the way we have lived.
Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World and Doors of Perception, famously left the world in 1963 tripping on LSD injected by his second wife, Laura.
But there have so far been no cases of rock-and-roll feminists riding into the afterlife on waves of orgasm energy directed to them by other human beings.
“Betty would absolutely want the readers of The Daily Beast to be sending her their pleasure energy,” said Carlin.
It’s not such a crazy idea when you think about it. Christians, for instance, send off distilled thoughts known as “prayers” to try and alleviate world suffering every day. Yet the kind of energy generated during orgasm is jet fuel compared to the economy petrol that comes from a morning at Mass. And Betty was never a big fan of Christianity. “I prefer the ET (extra-terrestrial) people to the Jesus people,” she’d often tell friends.
At one point, Carlin tells our group that “Betty’s creation myth is that the aliens and ETs will come and pick her up in their space ship and take her to the multiverse. And that’s what we’re going to support today.”
The outer space image is apt, since Betty never felt she fitted in with the early New York feminists who struck her as being “personally too conflicted” about sexuality. She’d started the BodySex classes in the first place because during her orgy years in the 1960s, she’d noticed that many women were faking orgasm. It was an insight that launched her on a lifetime’s crusade. And yet: “These were all sorority girls from the Seven Sisters. They thought I was from Mars.”
Back in the Zoom room, in spite of the limitations of the internet, the passion and love for Betty was palpable. As we “start our engines” as Betty used to say, some voices murmured, “Thank you Betty.” One said, “I love you and I want you to be released.”
Like a Dionysian saint, or the ultimate Boddhisattva Buddhist who postpones their own salvation to help others, Betty has dedicated her life to quelling difficult emotions—like jealousy, and especially romantic attachment—in order to let pleasure rise to the top, so she can be an example to other women.
“The possessive shit of romance is a form of mental illness,” she once told me. “You get married, you give up sex. Pretty much count on it. I’m way past the romantic love stage. That’s brainwashing shit. Take a shit or jerk off. Take a nice stiff drink.”
Betty has often quipped that she was a “triple Virgo” i.e. the ultimate in no-nonsense personalities. And yet she struggled. She dedicated her memoir to Grant Taylor, “The most intense love/hate affair of my lifetime.” She admits to weeping “bitter tears” when she realized in the 1960s that they could no longer be sexually exclusive if she was to carry on her journey of self-exploration.
She has also spent much of her life being vilified for the crime of reminding the world that women are sexual beings. On a lecture tour in the mid-1970s to promote Liberating Masturbation, she was subjected to “angry hissing” at Syracuse University when she projected 6-foot “cunt slides” during her talk. She stopped using them for a while because she sensed “a potential for violence.”
And yet she also reaped the bountiful rewards of becoming an official free spirit. In her seventies (a decade she named “the youth of old age”) she took a lover, Eric Amaranth, who was in his twenties. It was a “fabulous” 10 years but she said that when she turned 80 she knew she had to give him up. “I didn’t want to turn into Hugh Hefner.”
However, Betty does contain a few traces of Hef. Carlin recalls how Betty continues to breach 21st century sexual etiquette in the Riverside facility. One of the social workers was telling Carlin how he went into Betty’s room to wake her up. “She opened her eyes and gasped, ‘Oh, you’re adorable!’ and then tried to pat his ass. Some people might be insulted but he loved it. He said, ‘I’ve never had an older woman try and grab my butt!’”
“America is so sick—we cannot handle death. Come on! It was a great life, it was a great death. Celebrate it!”
Back in cyber-BodySex land last Sunday, the energy was rising. You could tell these were not fake orgasms because the sounds were so bizarre and varied: musical, strident, porny, macabre-sounding. With one woman still having an extremely long pleasure rush in the background, Carlin brought the session to a close by telling us how she would be donating dildos from Betty’s collection to women who are interested.
She thanked everyone for... coming and looked forward to seeing us on Zoom next Sunday. And then everything went black.
The next day I had what Annie Sprinkle has named a “Crygasm.” Because just as there is no such thing as a perfect life, there is no such thing as a perfect death. Betty’s hundreds of friends sent in flowers, balloons and cards for the celebration of her 91st birthday earlier this week (on Aug. 24). There was even a birthday cake with a vibrator inside, but the facility does not allow visitors. As Carlin said, “COVID is a shitty time to die.”
Betty was furious to begin with to be in the facility. She has lived in her rent-controlled apartment on Madison Avenue since 1959. But she’s come round to the idea that she needs constant medical care.
Her close friends say she’s ready to go, but that doesn’t mean she’s not angry at times. Rage was an ally for her during her life, a type of alternative orgasmic energy, so who knows what her final release will be like? She told me, “America is so sick—we cannot handle death. Come on! It was a great life, it was a great death. Celebrate it!”
Betty never envisaged the possibility of having a final orgasm in a global pandemic, but she’s had to be adaptable her whole life so clearly she’ll make the most of whatever happens. Carlin says that she sometimes starts to cry when she calls Betty on the phone and tells her she’s going to miss her. Betty will say something like, “I have to go,” because, says Carlin, “Betty hates displays of emotion.”
As a fellow Virgo, I suspect that Betty is just good at hiding her feelings. Although she writes in Sex By Design that she took charge of choreographing her mother’s passing in the hospital in front of her siblings (“Praise the goddess of sexual love,” I said out loud. “Motherʼs spirit has been released.”), it wasn’t until she went back alone to her mother’s house that she felt she could honor her true feelings.
“Suddenly overwhelmed by her absence, I sank to my knees by the side of her empty bed, and sobbed, finally releasing my own sadness,” Betty writes.
In any case, the space-ship is coming closer. Her closest friends, many of them from the American female sexuality hall of fame (including sex artist Annie Sprinkle, urban tantrica Barbara Carrellas, author Susie Bright, sexologist Carol Queen, San Francisco dominatrix Eve Minax, and New York creator of Miss Vera’s Finishing School For Boys Who Want To Be Girls, Veronica Vera) have started a started a “Love Circle For Betty Dodson” closed Facebook group to deal with the dying of their great light.
“She was a badass, bawdy broad who always spoke the truth with no holds, or holes barred,” Annie Sprinkle writes. “She was always the life—and the clitoris, of the party.”
Betty was usually blasé about her achievements. But this February, just before the apocalypse hit, when she and Carlin were driving back from the New York premier of episode three of Goop Lab, something struck her. She loved the champagne and the red carpet and the new generation of young women coming up and asking for selfies. People weren’t hissing any more.
But mainly, she’d been wowed by the unabashed footage of her and Carlin demonstrating a one-on-one BodySex class—with a lingering close-up of Carlin’s vulva.
“She turned to me in the cab,” Carlin recalled, and said, ‘I had no idea how big this thing has gotten. Fuck you! I did all the work and now you’re going to be having all the fun!’”
Carlin admits that on her good days she sees this moment as an exciting new beginning for Betty’s work. Next summer she will premier Betty’s extraordinary art collection of classical and not so classical nudes at New York’s Museum of Sex (Betty was an artist before she became a feminist). Carlin also plans to start a series of open-air BodySex workshops on the East and West coasts.
I finally got through to Betty on the phone on the morning of her 91st birthday.
“How are you feeling?” I asked her.
“Good,” she almost-quipped, although there was a new mistiness to her voice.
“Betty, everyone loves you so much. Everyone in the world is going to be sending you their orgasm energy.”
Some breath. A long silence. Then a quiet: “Good.”
“So, can you give me a quote about... well, about your crazy life?
Another long pause. A sleepy chuckle.
“Not looking so crazy now, is it?”