Many children of neglect, in their dark, lonely, scared hyperarousal, discover masturbation as a source of comfort, regulation or simply a way to get to sleep. Many are quite young and make the discovery well before they have any idea what they are doing.
They might before very long, get “caught” and reprimanded; or learn in some sort of religious or moral education that it is wrong or bad, or even in some way damaging. Orgasm itself may never be spoken about. Until they are older and learn of it as a mythical power that we should all be able to manufacture, and that makes us “hot”, powerful and sexy.
Originally a source of comfort, it might become a source of shame, pressure and power struggle between couples and a great mystery. And it is another of those taboo topics that no one really wants to be candid around or ask questions about.
Many people outside of the sex therapy field have never heard of woman pioneer Betty Dodson, a heroine worth honoring. In the Bay Area, March has been dedicated to women’s history, and I thought of Betty Dodson and her seminal work, an essential gift to women, and everyone really. She died in 2020 at age 91, healthy and vital until the end.
Many people outside of the sex therapy field have never heard of woman pioneer Betty Dodson, a heroine worth honoring.
Betty Dodson viewed part of her rich longevity to be a result of her viewing regular orgasms, along with sleep, good food and other exercise, as fundamental self-care practice right up until the end of her life.
I “discovered” Betty Dodson at my first sex therapy training in 2000. I was attending my first “SAR” or Sexual Attitude Reassessment. The SAR is something of an initiation, where the clinician is exposed to every imaginable and unimaginable variation of sex and sexuality and challenged to both examine and discuss what they/we think and feel. It is an effort to de-sensitize us so that we will not be shocked or scared by anything that might walk into our offices and also, to unearth what unconscious biases or attitudes we might have.
My first SAR was seven days long, in the Finger Lakes Region of Upstate New York, a spectacular setting for our long days that stretched from about 8:00am to 11:00pm of watching explicit movies, listening to speakers of every sexual ilk, and participating in small group processing after each presentation. We affectionately referred to this intense total immersion experience as “Sex Camp”.
Late one night, I was wandering around after hours, way too wound up to sleep, and I stumbled on one of our instructors watching a video in a classroom. On the screen I saw a circle of women covering a wide range of ages, shapes and sizes, all completely naked, and a leader who was teaching them how to have orgasms. That was Betty Dodson; at the time, she was “only” about 70. She also was wearing nothing but a beautiful pendant. That night, it became a bucket list item for me to attend one of Betty Dodson’s groups. I wanted to learn how to teach women to discover their orgasms.
Betty Dodson became a champion of women’s orgasms in the time period of the burgeoning Women’s Movement of the 1970s. Growing up in the rural American south, she was a gifted artist. Her art is truly spectacular, showcasing bodies in the classical style of Da Vinci or Michelangelo, only later to become exquisitely and (usually) tastefully erotic.
Marrying young, she came to find her marriage unbearably boring and lifeless. Her nice enough young husband was truly uninterested in sex and even less in her sexual pleasure. She came to find respite in long days in her art studio, where she settled into a brilliant and highly productive feedback loop: she masturbated often and found artistic inspiration in her orgasm, and the creation of art turned her on to masturbate, so her solitary days filled in with this colorful, energetic cycle.
She would come home at night energized and exhausted and pretty estranged from her already distant spouse. She was understandably secretly relieved and essentially freed when her deeply remorseful husband revealed that he had fallen in love with his secretary and wanted a divorce. Besieged with guilt, he left her their beautiful apartment in downtown New York, where she stayed until the end of her life.
Meanwhile, the Women’s Movement was gathering steam. Betty Dodson grew increasingly distressed about how overlooked and sidelined women’s sexuality was, and that became a centerpiece of women’s liberation for her. Women were indeed sex objects, expected to be available for men’s sexual pleasure without any value being placed on their own. In the women’s consciousness-raising groups she was involved in, she became loudly vocal about this, subsequently offering groups specifically on the topic.
Betty Dodson grew increasingly distressed about how overlooked and sidelined women’s sexuality was, and that became a centerpiece of women’s liberation for her.
My favorite story is when she wrote an article about women’s orgasm and submitted it to the newly established Ms Magazine, the first real mouthpiece of women’s lib. Up until then, women either read fashion magazines or House and Garden type periodicals filled with recipes and housekeeping tips. Ms being new on the scene, skittishly whittled Betty Dodson’s 18-page essay down to three, which had her understandably perturbed. She convinced the editors to agree to her placing a little note at the end of the published piece that interested readers could send one dollar and receive the uncut version. In the next several weeks, Betty Dodson’s mailbox swelled. with about $30,000 in one-dollar payments. Not bad for a starving artist. Clearly, she had hit a nerve – or a hunger – in many women’s worlds. Thus began her almost 50 years of groups.
In 2018, when Betty Dodson was close to turning 89, I saw an announcement of an upcoming workshop. I knew if I was serious about my bucket list, I better jump on it before it was too late. I made a pilgrimage to New York to attend what was a truly awesome experience. Betty Dodson was a brilliant teacher, even at 89. By now she had a delightful young assistant, Carlin Ross, who stood in for Betty Dodson’s ears and memory when they failed. (For the interested reader, I wrote a lengthy article about the workshop, Coming of Age which is available on my website here).
For now, I will say that I believe Betty Dodson gave countless women the joy and living pleasure of reclaiming their birthright and learning to value and create space for orgasm, both inside and apart from relationship.
Although I never went on to teach the art, not quite knowing how to incorporate that into a rather traditional psychotherapy practice, I found it invaluable to learn how it was done. And certainly, as you can see, how to talk openly about it.
For those dysregulated by trauma and neglect, sexuality is often hard hit. It requires an unusual combination of sympathetic and parasympathetic arousal; both ease, safety and relaxation are required, as well as excitement. Many brain areas are involved, besides the obvious body areas. Shame and anxiety are vasoconstricting, which means veins constrict and blood flow is inhibited. And of course, engorgement and erection are all about blood flow. It is important to me to convey that it is not only sexual trauma that engenders sexual inhibitions, impasses, and dysregulations of all sexual sorts. Neglect and many other traumatic and dysregulating experiences can do so too.
Many couples blame and fight about this misunderstanding. Betty Dodson had the courage to speak loudly on behalf of women’s orgasms and scream louder with pleasure. Let’s honor her by carrying on her legacy with pride and joy!
In the 1990s “Decade of the Brain”, we learned about neurogenesis: that we can produce new neurons. Prior to that, scientists believed that neurons were like ova – you are born with your life’s quota and that’s it. That would have meant that the thousands I killed during my drinking years were gone forever—Oy vey. We also learned that the three best ways to encourage neurogenesis are novelty, enriched environments and physical exercise. I have always been fond of saying that with good sex, we get all three!
One of the heroes of modern neuroscience was a poor soul named Phineas Gage, an affable, well-liked, intelligent and successful young man of 25. While working as a railroad foreman, he was tragically struck by an iron rod that went completely through his head. Miraculously he survived, although he emerged from his ordeal a very different man. He was angry, moody, and extremely hard to get along with. From studying his brain damage, scientists began to learn previously unknowable information about emotion regulation and which brain regions correlate to behavior and personality.
Phineas Gage’s recovery, however, was extremely trying for him. People found it very difficult to like the volatile new version of him. He was lonely, not to mention being faced with the challenge of securing employment. Somehow, he ended up driving a commuter train between Valparaiso and Santiago, Chile. Between the novelty of varying routes and the many languages and ethnicities of the people he encountered, Phineas Gage’s brain healed significantly, and he lived a strong 12 years post-accident. He died of a seizure disorder at the age of 37 (sadly missing out on the possible benefit of neurofeedback). Nonetheless, he was a testament to persistence and post-traumatic resilience.
So what does Phineas Gage have to do with orgasmic health and Betty Dodson? I guess it is all a pitch for persistence and a reminder of the resilient brain. And hope for those in search of an elusive orgasm.
Thanks Betty Dodson! Thanks Phineas Gage!
Each time I write a blog, I always try to think of a song that I love that goes with what I’ve written. Today’s is High Hopes by Bruce Springsteen.
My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.