The woman to my left could not stop coming. She exclaimed something like Oh, God! in Spanish under heavy breath: her Ruby-Woo-painted lips pursed and perfect and quivering with pleasure. This is typical of one of Betty Dodson’s Bodysex workshops. I was in attendance one weekend in mid-July of this year for my first workshop. Betty is a sexologist, visual artist, author of books such as Sex for One: The Joy of Selfloving and Orgasms for Two: The Joy of Partnersex and the mother of Bodysex. The meeting is a group of women, all nude, in a circle, who are willing to share their thoughts about their bodies and their orgasms. Over the course of two afternoons we participated in three important Bodysex rituals: Genital Show and Tell, Erotic Recess and Group Massage. The main goals of the workshop are to overcome body shame and pleasure anxiety. I found out about Bodysex through Dodson and Ross’s online video series on YouTube. All of the videos are informative and hilarious. Whenever I watch them I feel like I am in a room chatting with my girlfriends. I wanted to attend the workshop because I was scared as well as completely fascinated by it at the same time. I knew that I would be taking an emotional risk and I couldn’t wait.
Betty will be 90 years old next August, and has been hosting these workshops in her spacious midtown apartment for decades: She began in the 1970s, continued throughout the 1980s and then took a long break before beginning again about seven years ago. Her business partner, Carlin Ross, who is half Betty’s age, stopped practicing law to educate women about sex. I knew I would like both of these women, but I did not know that I would experience a sisterhood of deep kindness and a level of comfort — something I have felt almost exclusively with close friends and family — almost immediately. We all undressed upon entering and were as stark naked as the day we were born, apart from a pair of earrings, a smattering of tattoos, a stain of red lipstick, or a pair of eyeglasses. We had nothing to hide behind. The same silver hooks from Betty’s sex party days in the 1960’s (on which hung garments worn by heads of state and movie stars) are still on the wall in her foyer.
We snacked on juicy strawberries, Tate’s chocolate chip cookies, cheese cubes, cut vegetables, and water. I took two bars of chocolate to the workshop, just in case. I also brought a black vulva candle into the circle, which was placed on a silver tray in the center and lit alongside the traditional white candles Betty always keeps burning, white symbolizing purity and healing. Immediately, nearly all of the women asked where they could purchase their own wax pussies.
We sat naked in the circle in the goddess position: legs crossed, backs straight, tits out. We began with breathing exercises to relax and warm up. Including me, Betty and Carlin, there were fourteen women from all over the world. The women ranged in age from their late twenties to late eighties. We were all different sizes, shapes, races, religions, sexual orientations and nationalities. Women traveled from Europe, Australia, South America and Asia to be in the circle: Five continents were represented. All women, cisgender and transgender, are welcome. As far as I know every woman in our circle identified as cisgender — meaning their gender corresponds with their birth sex — which is probably reflective of most of the circles. The only requirements are that you are at least 18 years old, have a vulva and be willing to participate.
There is also the matter of money. It is an extravagant indulgence: $1,000 for the weekend and $800 for students. I rationalized with myself that it would be worth it for a truly exciting and invigorating holiday weekend in Manhattan that is also potentially life-changing and life-affirming. The money is Betty’s livelihood and it also keeps the website (www.dodsonandross.com) as well as the Betty Dodson Foundation going. You can also host your own Bodysex workshops at home: Bodysex Basics is the step-by-step manual available for purchase (for only $10.00) on Amazon. You have Betty and Carlin’s blessing.
Betty’s home is a positive, safe, comfortable, beautiful, clean environment where we were allowed to be relaxed in our own nakedness. The sunken living room is thickly carpeted. Some of Betty’s art works are on display, including a large and very lifelike portrait of her mother, Bessie, as an older woman, reclining nude. There is a large shelf filled with books, awards and various totems on the walls including a small statue of a woman resembling a fertility fetish. Each woman has her own private station in the circle complete with a clean gray towel to sit on, a black BackJack floor seat (a cushion with a back — basically a chair without legs) to lean against for comfort, and a tray containing a glass tumbler of water, a squeeze bottle of organic almond oil, and a box of Kleenex. On Day Two Betty’s vaginal barbell (which we were all allowed to take home) and a rechargeable Hitachi magic wand appeared on our trays; we were each given a Trojan condom to slip over the head of the vibrator, as they are thoroughly cleaned and disinfected but reused in other workshops.
Because we were undressed, there was no comparison of clothing or handbags, except for perhaps a shade of lipstick or nail polish. Many of the women commented on my long red hair, comparing me to Ariel, The Little Mermaid. There was no vanity. We shared our stories, our menstrual products, our vulvas and our orgasms. There was a deep love and affection for one another, which was remarkable, because nearly all of us were complete strangers. There was no judgment or competition — only understanding, honesty and real conversation about our bodies and our sexual response.
One of the most important rituals in Bodysex is Genital Show and Tell. All of the vulvas were different, beautiful, and extraordinary: The colors, sizes, shapes and styles were as varied as the color of our eyes or the shape of our noses. We sat next to Betty and examined our vulvas, one at a time, before a round mirror with a bright lamp shining on us, while each woman looked on. We all chose a special name for our vulva. I picked Ruby because it is red, glossy, beautiful and precious. When asked to choose a name for her vulva one woman replied: “I don’t know; I always just call it my cunt.” Carlin took each of our vulva portraits with her smart phone. There was so much reassurance. Whenever one woman would say something even slightly negative about her vulva another woman would say something wonderful: “Wow, that’s a big clit!” “Your pussy forms a perfect heart.” “Look at the colors! That shade of pink is amazing!” To know that there is not one normal type helped tremendously in quelling any feelings of genital shame the women may have been carrying.
Even a stray wisp of toilet paper stuck to Betty’s labia was reason for a lighthearted chuckle: It happens to the best of us and there’s no need to take ourselves so seriously all the time. About half of the women had completely shaved or waxed vulvas; there were a few full bushes (one so lush that it made Maria Schneider’s in Last Tango in Paris look pre-pubescent) and some that were neatly trimmed. All of the breasts were glorious — from the small and perky to the full, large ones with areolas the size of a powder puff. I loved them all.
Day Two began with gathering in the circle and discussing how we felt about the first day of the workshop; almost every woman described how well she slept the previous night. We took a group photo, just our faces and shoulders — no nudity — as well as a photo with just Betty and Carlin. Then Carlin demonstrated the Rock and Roll orgasm: deep rhythmic breathing while exercising your pelvic floor muscle, incorporating fantasy, vaginal penetration and clitoral stimulation simultaneously, and adding extra lubrication. Your natural juices are usually not quite enough. Never touch a clitoris — your own or someone else’s — with a dry hand.
Finally, we began Erotic Recess, the group masturbation ritual, which is probably the most fun of all. According to Betty, being in control of your own orgasm while in a group is the highest level of Tantra. We were just being who we are, loving ourselves and giving ourselves pleasure. As Betty says, women are bottomless pits of orgasm. One of the most exciting aspects of Erotic Recess is the coveted orgasm wave: As one woman began to come and her moans reverberated through the circle, another woman would come and then another, resulting in a fantastic cacophony; it was like the sexiest game of dominoes you can imagine. Women sound like goddesses when they’re having real orgasms. It is pure joy. There was lightheartedness, and a sense of play that permeated the room. I didn’t sense any performance anxiety.
We used the granddaddy of all vibrators (the cordless Hitachi magic wand) as well as the aforementioned vaginal barbell: a six-inch, 1 lb. stainless steel dildo and Kegel exerciser of Betty’s own design. Carlin helped to put us at ease by announcing one of Betty’s rules: The first woman who farts gets a quarter. I don’t know how many times I came — at least once, maybe twice. I wasn’t counting. I was trying my best not to quantify the experience. There was laughter during orgasm, as well as a few tears. I’ve found that for many women, their own erotic, sensual and sexual lives are very much tied up with their emotional and cerebral lives and it is not always easy to separate them. Being able to observe the amazing and wonderful sexual lives of women through an unfiltered lens, where none of us were trying to impress or seduce anyone else, was a rare gift, and something I will not soon forget.
I was menstruating as were a few of the other women, which quelled my nerves and added another layer of sisterly bonding. I used my diaphragm during Erotic Recess to collect the blood and it worked like a charm. Upon removing it, I dripped menstrual blood onto Betty’s white bathroom rug. She responded simply: “It’s okay; you’re a woman.” I wish all women accepted other women’s bodies and sexual power with such matter-of-factness and kindness. I poured a little bit of hydrogen peroxide over the stains and they disappeared. I continued to bleed after the workshop, longer than I ever have. The truth is that Bodysex shook me up. I am rethinking and reworking my orgasm when I’m alone masturbating and when I’m with my partner. After the workshop, while implementing the Rock and Roll orgasm technique, I realized that to have the full body orgasm I have been craving takes a lot of work, time and commitment. Betty encourages that you touch yourself as much as possible to get past the quick release of an anxiety orgasm: one hand is for your vulva stimulation (with or without a vibrator) and your other hand is your lover. Suck your thumb if you want to. Do what feels good.
One of the tenants of Betty’s work is that female power originates in our vulvas, and that the key to freedom and liberation lies within independent orgasm. Not every woman in the circle came during Erotic Recess, and that was okay. Orgasm is definitely welcome but it’s not the ultimate goal. Connecting with your body and enjoying yourself is the goal. Women are so emotionally and sexually intricate. There is not one button to push and accepting our complex bodies is the key to enjoying ourselves. Most of all, sex should be pleasurable, whether by ourselves, with one or multiple partners. Betty and Carlin are committed to bringing the fun back into sexuality.
Sharing our relationship to our bodies, our nakedness, our vulvas and our pleasure bonded us as sisters. I felt a part of an ancient tradition of women. We were the priestesses in the temple. This was a sacred rite of passage. We were connected beyond race, age, religion, background, nationality and body type. We were bonded through our womanness, our sexual power and our orgasms. Time is the great liberator; Betty is not concerned with surface. She says that old age provides complete freedom — if you are fortunate enough to remain reasonably healthy. She doesn’t even have the need for a lock on her bathroom door. She is only concerned with what’s inside: women’s thoughts, feelings, pleasure, and experience because that is what truly matters.
Group Massage focuses on gentle, non-sexual touch. Carlin and Betty sat aside and relaxed with a glass of wine while the twelve remaining women separated into two groups of six. Each woman’s front side and back were massaged by the other five women in her group for five minutes as she relaxed on the floor on a zebra-print blanket. Five pairs of oiled hands gently moving across your naked body is a feeling of pleasure I wish everyone could experience at least once. The air conditioner was turned down low so we were all a bit sweaty, which only intensified the sensuality of the experience.
At the end of the second day, after we were all sated with orgasm and oiled full-body massage, we sat in a tight circle on the floor and held hands; we thanked one another and made eye contact with every woman. We then raised our hands and squealed for joy as we wiggled our fingertips, releasing what was left of our orgasm energy into Betty’s Madison Avenue apartment, and hopefully, into the thick, hot July air. We floated down the busy streets of Manhattan, back to our own apartments, our own lovers, our own cities, our own countries. I left the workshop with my own sterling silver vulva-heart pendant with a little ruby clitoris (the design is also available as a ring and is based on a drawing of Betty’s) to wear around my neck as a memento of Bodysex and the women I met there. Whenever I look at it I am reminded that I love my vulva— as it is the root of my sexual power — I love and respect other women, I am committed to sisterhood and, most importantly, I love myself.