The Bodysex Effect

January 17 2023

Art by Betty Dodson
Betty’s 1974 Bodysex Flyer
Decorative Vulva by Betty

With the vaginal barbell moving against the back of my clitoris, the g-spot to those that downplay the clitoris, and the Hitachi magic wand on my clit, I was edging toward orgasm. The kind of orgasm that makes your feet spontaneously lift off the floor. The type of orgasm where I have to lie in the fetal position afterward. Next to me, my friend Rachel was using an eroscillator, her vibrator of choice. I was delighted to be placed next to her in the circle. And it was a circle spanning the entire surface area of a Buddhist retreat yoga space. I think there were at least fifty women in the room. It could’ve been more, though; we were in a haze of orgasmic bliss. On the far end of the room, I’m proud to say another of my friends, Mette, squirted so far that it caused a joyous stir in that corner. Watching another woman have an orgasm is not an ordinary experience. Not for straight women, at least. And dare I say it, not for many straight men either. It’s tough to tell in pornography whether women are enjoying themselves. Movies and television have a history of mishandling the subject. That is changing, but it is in a constant state of change. There was an article in the New York Times barely a week ago, in 2022, about the lack of Clitoral research. Was that the reason for me being in a circle of masturbating women? A circle jerk, to use the crass term. Betty would’ve wanted me to say it that way. Yes and no is the short and frustrating answer. 

In 2017 at 23 years old, I attended my first circle. I was in my first serious relationship with a Christian boy who was as kind as sexually repressed. But he was nice, and I had only had unfulfilling sexual relationships with emotionally unavailable men. I thought, at the time, that was quite empowering. My definition of empowerment has since changed. In 2017, I had already known about Betty Dodson for five years. Five years is the magic number in this story. Perhaps that’s where it ought to begin, 2012. I was 18 and a compulsive masturbator. When I say compulsive, I was quite the pervert. I probably still am. I would masturbate until there was no more serotonin in my brain for the day.

I do not have a refractory period to contend with, after all. I’d emerge from my room like a hungry, smelly troll. I know now that is the most typical and relatable experience of being a teenager. But I was a girl, and that’s still not the dominant message of girlhood, except for Tina Belcher, who I adore. I had the time of my life when I was in middle school. The first time I watched pornography was among girlfriends. I practiced making out with my girlfriends. We’d swim naked. Once, we all took turns touching each other’s tiny breasts. It sounds somewhat perverse to some, but it was playful, consensual, and fun. In High school, everything changed. Girls didn’t masturbate; we had boyfriends, that is what more than one person told me. I didn’t have a boyfriend. I tried to have Sex on prom night but went with a hardcore southern baptist. Alas, I went to college a virgin. I believed myself to be a pervert, a compulsive masturbator, and a virginal loser. I was desperate. This desperation led me to Betty Dodson’s work. Desperation is the common uniting factor of women who go to Bodysex circles. 

I know that word desperation is loaded and brings to mind feelings of shame. I felt pathetic. But Betty Dodson and Carlin Ross saved my life. I thought I would drown in sexual shame and loneliness. I was 18 years old, had never looked at my vulva, and didn’t even know the term vulva. Sure my clitoris and I had been friends since elementary school. How, then, had I not seen her? With the encouragement of still to this day the most comprehensive sexual education website, I looked at myself. I love my vulva. I have adorable little pink inner labia, which I hadn’t realized. Inner labia differ in length, after all. Truthfully everyone’s genitals look different. That may seem obvious. But there are no vulvas in movies or tv. There are barely any penises on tv unless you have an HBO subscription. If you do see Vulvas, the actress is generally wearing a merkin which is a pussy wig. As silly as that sounds. Or naked statues of women, there’s a delicate hairless little pussy that is barely anything more than a line in the marble. Porn pussies have that name for a reason. That doesn’t mean sex workers don’t deserve our respect, but there is an undeniable industry standard. I’ve never seen a vulva that wasn’t beautiful and rather fascinating. Suddenly looking at Dodson and Ross, I saw those images, and now I had a vision of myself. I could see with arousal the skin turned red and even resembled a heart. Connecting to our bodies in this way is radical. I think it’s radical even for men. They don’t escape sexual shame in this life. It’s different and less dangerous for them, but they suffer too in our sexually repressed society. 

I religiously read Dodson and Ross’s articles for five years, encompassing the entirety of college and my first sexual experiences. I watched every YouTube video. My sex toy collection tripled. Mature Fanfiction, sex scenes from movies, and pornography were my browser history. I was significantly less ashamed of my dirty little masturbation habit. Still, I wasn’t having satisfying partner sex because there was always alcohol involved, and I had no girlfriends to talk to about masturbation or vulvas. Sure we could get very Sex and the City talking about boys. But never forget that there was an episode of Sex and the City where Charlotte becomes addicted to a rabbit vibrator, and the girlies band together to get her to throw it away because she won’t date men anymore. Imagine. I have, at this point, ten years later, many, many vibrators. And I very much still have Sex with men. Sometimes I even have Sex with both at the same time. As I stated earlier, five years seems to be the desperation point. First in 2012 with no concept of my vulva despite being multi-orgasmic, and the second in 2017 when I finally mustered the courage to meet my heroes. 

I was working in food service, which can provide a person in their early twenties with a dangerous cash flow. Saving the 600 was easy. Signing up to attend a bodysex circle, I’ve more than hinted at what happens in these circles; you can imagine the nerves. It’s a two-day workshop. At the time, Betty was still alive in her 80’s. The first day is genital show and tell. I love the cutesy names. It has that middle school playfulness that I grieve losing to this day. Each woman takes a turn in front of a small circular mirror, spread-legged and brightly illuminated by the desk lamp Betty had since the 1970s before safety protocols. Each woman cautiously avoided it and joked about Betty’s stubbornness. The circles were on the 12th floor of an old apartment building in Manhattan. She lived there from the 1950s until she died in 2020. She had sex parties there. Wall-to-wall green carpet. A mantle filled with glass dildos. That studio apartment had just about as much character and history as the woman. She needed a man to cosign when she moved in because a woman couldn’t live alone. She was a living witness to the wild turmoil of the feminist movement. I could talk about her and her stories for hours, and it would barely begin to tell all that she lived. Bodysex is her legacy. Carlin is and was her business partner and decades her junior. Now it’s her work, and it’s work that will change the world. 

Genital Show and tell is life-changing for women who have lived through genital shame, whether it came from their mothers, fathers, lovers, or the church. As I said, nobody makes it out alive in this world. Many women who attend circles are multi-orgasmic, but just as many have never had an orgasm. There’s no real difference between boys, girls, or non-binary kids. All kids are born touching themselves for the most part, except perhaps asexual people, although I know plenty of asexual people who masturbate. Boys are stereotyped to be more sexual and masturbate more than girls. And often, girls caught masturbating lead to punishment or shame. I’ve heard the stories, and they’re heartbreaking. If you notice a kid masturbating, the best thing you can do is what my mother did because you know that, being the little freak I was, my mom saw me on more than one occasion. She calmly explained it was done in privacy, whether in a bathroom or a bedroom. I’ll never be able to thank her for that in his lifetime. And I have awkwardly tried. And I will keep awkwardly trying. I never realized how lucky I was until Bodysex. I realize now that the girls that shamed me in high school and college likely experienced shame in childhood. Hurt people, hurt people. That, we can all agree, is probably the most important lesson you can learn in life. 

Genital show and tell is the icebreaker. Everyone shares personal details about their sex life and their body image. It’s the most intimate and vulnerable thing you can do. I found it more terrifying than masturbating next to each other. I was nervous about that, too, but admittedly the pervert in me was excited. It’s the sisterhood of my dreams. When you showed up to a circle at Betty’s apartment, Carlin greeted you at the door fully naked with her perky tits and warm smile. You could not pass the threshold with clothes on. Even that, being naked with a group of about ten women is how I would live if I could.

I love being naked. I love seeing people naked. For sexual arousal at times. But this was different. Everyone had bodies with stretch marks, acne, scars, dimples, freckles, wrinkles, moles, squishy bellies, and firm bellies. I could go on and on about how beautiful and different everyone was. Betty was 88 at the time. She was adorable; her body was aged, which wasn’t so scary up close. I can’t wait to be an old lady. To have lived an entire life and still be orgasmic. In her 70s, she still had partner sex with men decades younger than her. Who knows if that’s what my life will be, but it certainly isn’t the image that comes to mind when we think about aging, about aging women in particular. I thought about my grandmothers and how precious they are to me. What they’ve lived through, their strength, and their pain. And I knew then that it was, weirdly, for them that I showed up. I can’t imagine how either of them would feel about that. But I like to imagine there’d at least be some flattery. 

Day two of the workshop is called erotic recess. A name I adore. I was less nervous after having bared my heart, soul, and vulva to what had been about a dozen strangers. By day two, I knew more about these women than I knew about close female friends of mine. More than I knew about my mother and sister. There were still nerves. On day two, you’re sitting on the floor completely naked, supported by a back jack. Next to you is your tray with almond oil, the vaginal barbell that Betty Designed herself, and the so-called Cadillac of vibrators, the Hitachi magic wand. If you’ve ever seen a magic wand up close, it’s massive—a little intimidating, perhaps. I can only imagine using the earlier 1970s model that plugged into the wall. It’s quite an image of Betty with her girlfriends all plugged in and vibing away after a 1970s sex party.

For more on the debauchery and chaos of the time, of which I’ve left out thousands of lurid details, you can read her memoir Sex by Design. The beginning of day two is a tutorial of sorts. Not any kind of tutorial I had ever participated in prior. It demonstrates what Betty and Carlin call “The Rock and Roll method .”Everyone who has ever masturbated will understand me when I talk about tense orgasms. It’s when you really, really, really want to cum, and you tense all the muscles in your body, and then it happens! It’s an orgasm, and an orgasm is an orgasm is an orgasm, but it isn’t THE orgasm: the toe-curling, whole-body one.

“The Rock and Roll” method involves squeezing and releasing your PC muscle, a relatively easy and accessible way to heighten your arousal. Meaning it feels delicious. And if you’re sitting there clothed doing it right now in your chair, nobody will even know. It’s essentially adding a Kegel to your masturbation practice to gather all the sexual energy you can. It forces you to edge and build to a bigger and bigger release. I think that appeals to the majority of people. It’s a nearly universal sentiment that people want to cum, hard. The vaginal barbell is a beautiful stainless steel, inconspicuous dildo with two sides with different-sized balls. It’s a dildo I could have out at my house, and people wouldn’t think twice. Carlin instructed us that if we fly with it and TSA tries to take it away, we can say it’s a medical device for carpal tunnel exercises. It’s the perfect size to squeeze your PC muscle around, and it’s completely changed my relationship with penetration. Most of us, if you’re someone that has penetrative Sex, that is, have had an experience where it’s painful. Either because you’re not warmed up or have a partner that’s too rough. And that can make a person have mental blocks around it. If you have a mental block around anything, your body will react. It meant my pussy would tighten, and penetration would hurt. 

And here’s the thing, it wasn’t my partner’s fault. I know that’s likely not what you expected me to say, but if you don’t tell a person that you’re in pain, how are they supposed to know unless you’re crying out? When I began to talk to my partners, which have been mostly men, they listened. At least, the decent ones did. I believe that men who sleep with women also want them to have pleasure. They can be in the dark about how that happens or how to tell if it did happen. Besides, asking and talking about Sex, even with a person you’ve had Sex with, can feel impossible. After BodySex, I started talking. It began with the Christian guy. I would masturbate next to him after we had Sex. That was my way of ensuring my pleasure too. When you not only watch a person masturbate in front of you but then you join in, and it’s a whole circle jerk, it gets easier to talk about Sex. Public speaking gets easier. You’ve masturbated in front of a group of people; is there anything you can’t do after that? For me, the answer has been no. I still have my fears and anxieties, but they do not rule my life. 

Erotic recess is many hours long and could be longer with women involved. I capped the day at nine orgasms. Once I relaxed, I let the sounds and sights utterly transfix me. One woman’s orgasm would lead to my own until I didn’t know my body from theirs. We were one writhing, vocalizing, sweaty, aroused body experiencing something I believed to be holy. And I’m not religious in the slightest; as you can imagine, I never felt at peace in a church. I thought and still think I could burst into flames taking everything and everyone down with me in a dazzling display of violence whenever I step foot in one. The orgasms are undoubtedly the highlight, especially for those that haven’t ever felt safe enough in their body to have one. But the orgasmic camaraderie can be more profound than sisterhood. There’s a lot of frank, honest conversation and delectable snacks like strawberries, cheese, and cookies. If you’ve ever felt called to heal your relationship with women, a BodySex circle is a place you want to be. I’ve heard more than once a woman say, “I’m not friends with women; they’re catty and view me as a threat,” or anything along those lines. My response is always I will be your friend. And I mean it. I know it’s perhaps a little too trusting, but I’ve been through conflict and losing friends, and I know that as painful as that is, it won’t kill me. BodySex is my armor. I don’t worry about losing those friendships or judgment. That is all anyone on this Earth wants. 

So if this is the best part of my life, and I believe it is, why didn’t I tell anyone? The obvious answer? You try telling people that you love to masturbate with your girlfriends. In 2019, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop premiered on Netflix. She did an episode with Betty and Carlin. I was shocked it was Gwyneth Paltrow, a mainstream celebrity, and I’ll always have to give her credit for that. You can watch the episode yourself if you haven’t already. I sobbed through the entire first viewing. Because it validated and affirmed the most secretive part of my life, Bodysex going mainstream, I couldn’t fathom that.

I still really can’t. It’s a space for female sexuality unburdened by trauma. Look at the Vagina Monologues. The first half is about body exploration, even though the term vulva is missing. Unfortunately, the second half is about rape and incest. Those conversations are still meaningful. But there ought to be space solely for female pleasure. That’s what’s so radical about BodySex. Not the masturbating next to each other but the pain and trauma left at the door. Pleasure is more important than pain and trauma. Rapture is how the body heals from pain and trauma. Having seen enough women orgasm, I know we were designed this way for a reason, there’s an undeniable release. We’re not used to thinking of female orgasms that way because the male model garners more attention and research. It’s clear to me that orgasm and masturbation are tools for healing and self-love. 

Still, I cried in silence and did not say a word. I was proud, though, and still am, incredibly honored to know Carlin and Betty. They are the most courageous people I’ve met. A year after the goop episode, on Halloween of 2020, Betty died. Having to grieve her privately was lonely. I’m no stranger to loneliness. My lifestyle and ways of moving in the world have all but guaranteed a near-constant hum of loneliness. But this was worse than that. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs that the world had lost an icon, a trailblazer, a fiercely funny woman. Who stayed true to herself all of her life. Again, I cried in silence. And I mourn her to this day. She, at 91, was beginning to receive the recognition she deserved. I believe she will in my lifetime. Carlin will make sure of it.

In 2021, the Museum of Sex had a showing of Betty’s artwork. She was an incredible artist. Giant portraits of people fucking and masturbating were her specialty. She started as a fashion illustrator, so you can imagine the stunning detail. You can similarly imagine the backlash when she was selling and displaying art in the 70s and 80s. Specifically, the masturbating female nudes made people the most uncomfortable. To see all of her work on display was emotional. I cried as Carlin took the group around, giving us the facts and anecdotes behind each piece. She’s brilliant and a wonderful storyteller. I can see what Betty saw her over a decade ago. Going to the art museum for the quasi-memorial was the beginning of my coming out. Like most people, the pandemic shifted my priorities and worldview. I met Rachel, a nurse living so unapologetically, and I envied that. She had known Betty and Carlin from other circles and sold me a bottle of handmade weed lube. She and countless others made me realize how pointless hiding was. Yes, there will always be risks. But it’s like when your dating standards finally go up. Everything changes. Even when I was hiding parts of myself, I lost people. You lose either way. 

I started participating in the weekly erotic recess zooms. During the pandemic, we’d put just about anything over zoom. It begins with a conversation and Carlin updating us on Betty’s work. Then we’ll go through the same rituals as we would in person. Breath of Fire, moving our vibrators along chakra points, starting a little vulva massage with our body oil of choice. I certainly think of friendship and community differently now. After many weeks of digitally shared orgasm, there was finally an opportunity for in-person circles in 2022—five years after my first in-person circle in New York City. Five years being the magical number, I signed up. 50+ women descended on Menla, a Buddhist retreat space in upstate New York.

We all mainly had a similar reason for going. Even though there were differences in life experiences, sexuality, relationship to the body, and orgasm, we all sought pleasure and community. Over four days, each woman brightened and relaxed. We’re mothers, career gals, or caretakers in our outside lives. There are many different roles, and all of them are stressful. I had a breakdown during the retreat. I wanted my whole life to be BodySex. For four days, I wasn’t so lonely. I cried the entire drive home, resolute that I would tell one person. I started with my most recent ex-boyfriend. It feels unfair to call him that because he’s one of my best friends. We need a better language for our romanticisms and sex lives. I told him that he had walked in on one of the weekly zooms during our relationship. Now, you can imagine how horrifying and embarrassing that was. But he didn’t judge me, and he was understandably a little shocked. Who wouldn’t be? Next, I told my mom. Then my siblings and even my conservative, catholic ex-cop dad, which is a story in and of itself. 

I am still the same sad, lonely pervert that I’ve always been. I accept that. But I am also free, sexually liberated, and connected to dozens of the most inspiring and captivating women I’ve ever met. That’s the Bodysex effect. It’s self-acceptance, warts and all. It’s self-love whether you fucking feel like it or not. It makes everything better: partner sex, masturbation, the pain and suffering of living. It liberated me. And it could free you too.