am not the naked friend, you know? I’m more likely to be found at the beach in a snowsuit than a swimsuit. But a few months ago, while breaking off an engagement of the marital variety, things were pretty stale down south-- and I decided maybe I needed to change that narrative.
“My mom’s dog has more sex than I do,” I told my best friend who, during that time, was a Brene Brown-shaped life raft.
“Want the name of my favorite vibrator?” she asked, but I didn’t want to masturbate, a seemingly sadder substitute for sex, with a complicated some next level AI sex-toy. I wanted the connection, satisfaction and desire that had been missing in my relationship.
As many do in all times of crisis, I turned to Goop. I remembered a sex theme on Goop awhile back and Gwenyth, oh she’s given us so much that Gwenyth, recommended some porn. Though porn and its accompanying solo activities wouldn’t give me the connection I sought, I figured it might help to understand my own desire better. Resigned to the lonely act, Figuring I had to start somewhere, I downloaded a volume of Erika Lust and got in touch with myself. Double entendre at play. Again.
What was surprising, and also maybe mortifying. is that what really turned me on wasn’t couples doing it, but a group masturbation piece: women talking about their first sexual experiences, being naked in a room together, exploring their bodies.
That the masturbation circle turned into an orgy is beside the point. I found something I wanted: intimacy with myself, but not totally by myself, intimacy that had nothing to do with men or the male gaze at all. After being so self-conscious about how my ex viewed me sexually, this was pleasure as empowerment.
I took an internet dive and signed up for a body/sex workshop with the legendary, epic Betty Dodson. I’d never heard of her. Though it was a questionably risky leap-of-faith, I read a few personal essays online from women who had taken her class and after reading up on her background, I thought Why not?
Betty’s been a sex-educator in New York since the 1960’s when she had a sexual awakening after her divorce. The awakening involved porn, a vibrator and the conclusion that she didn’t need a partnerman to satisfy her. Betty started teaching people with vulvas about achieving solo pleasure and has been running these body sex workshops out of her apartment in midtown for the last thirty years. (She’s since been featured on the third episode of the Goop Lab, The Pleasure is Ours, but I went in on blind faith).
I’d never considered feminism in this light before, but with the right knowledge and proper technique, I could see how getting off could be another pillar of independence alongside having one’s own income and procuring the right to vote. There’s no need to marry someone to ensure good loving. And not getting good loving is a reason not to marry someone.
I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in a cold bed feeling guilty for wanting something hot. It is not too much just to want at all.
To be honest, it was one of the reasons I called off my marriage. Now that the brutal part was over – telling friends and family, canceling the engagement party though rumor has it there was a juicer in the works - I had a grand vision of reclaiming the orgasm. I wanted in on the Betty Dodson Method.
Whatever resulted from the kinky adventure and sexual awakening, I was ready to have it.
“Aren’t there less extreme things you could do?” same best friend asked. Probably, but after months of being in a relationship I didn’t feel seen in or sexy in or really in at all, I wasn’t exactly sane. The suppressed feelings of neglect were rushing forth in frenzy, the damned dam broken. I went from amicable house cat to feral creature in about a week.
Cue me showing up to Betty’s apartment on Madison literally shaking in my boots – Blundstones ‘cause hi, I am a millennial – praying I wasn’t about to get murdered. The doorman pointed to the elevator when I said, “I’m here for, um,” and though I was sweating through pores newly created to serve this occasion, I was also powerful walking towards that door.
I was doing something for myself. After months of not wanting to want too much for fear of making my ex-fiance feel bad, I was daring to tell the universe I want more. I want. What transpired over that weekend was a deep and profound love for myself and vaginas and vibrators and this ninety year old woman willing to have a bunch of strangers in her apartment for the sake of feeling themselves.
When the apartment door opened and I was greeted with a boob in the face, there was a brief moment of I-could-run-out-of-here-and-nobody-would-know-I-had-a-stroke-of-insanity. “I know it’s weird, but you’ll get used to it,” the woman of the boob, Betty’s ass-naked assistant, Carlin, said. She told me to get undressed then meet everyone in the room beyond the closed door. I could hardly get anything off with the sweat, but I peeled away each layer – coat, sweater, clammy fear – because I had to.
It was time to confirm that suspicion, greet the me who was waiting on the other side of this trembling naked fear. I didn’t leave a neglectful relationship to sit in the shadows of my potential sexual awakening.
I left to come into the light.
Opening that door gave a whole new meaning to the expression “feeling like I’m walking into a room naked.” It was big for a New York apartment, and there were backjacks on the floor draped in towels. I did not want to put my bare ass anywhere in that apartment, but I sat down with my back to the mirror, eyeing the silver tray next to each seat with almond oil, tissues, and a microphone-type vibrator. Women of all ages and sizes came in and sat like I did, wrapped tightly into myself like a ball with elbows. Since a little before puberty, my body has been a skin-sack of embarrassment. But, sitting there, I realized I didn’t want to hate my body or myself anymore. I wanted pleasure.
Then came Betty.
When someone like that – ninety and totally naked - walks into a room, there’s a level of respect and trust and awe. I realized I’d never really seen a naked woman over the age of forty. She was totally at ease. She was herself. And when she asked us to go around the circle and “Talk about why you’re here” we were ourselves, too: Divorces, body-image issues, repressed sexual desires from a life working for the Catholic Church. As I listened to these people I’d never met before, I felt – and excuse the cliché because I’m about to rattle off five of them because they’re all fucking true – like I’d known them my whole life. We were from different countries, and generations and sexual orientations and races and we felt a similar lack, wanted something we were a little tentative to ask for. Was it too much? Were we greedy? Slutty? Wrong? But we were here because we felt how crucial it was to address our sexual questions – so crucial we were willing to pay a chunk of money to get naked in a stranger’s apartment. It felt safe.
Betty wanted to spread the love, but to do that we’d have to spread our legs.
It was exactly like it was in the episode of Slutever when Karley Sciortino has a one-on-one with Betty. Carlin brought out a big-ass lamp and we formed a horseshoe around Betty and one by one we sat down and examined ourselves. I saw some vaginas. A few minutes in I realized I’d never really looked at one. Honestly they were intimidating. I wrote a book that basically equated them to a carnivorous plant (self-plug, read my book), but this was a safe space. I was allowed to look, encouraged to look, and it wasn’t pervy or creepy or wrong. As we took turns sitting up there with Betty, I noticed lots of things on other women that were different from mine. Well, especially after Betty and Carlin pointed them out, like the variations in color, the different sizes and folds of lips, the patterns of hair. It was okay to be curious about this part of my body. I was granted the permission I needed to look down. This is what I found:
1) Stubble, cause I’d shaven a few weeks ago thinking I might try to get on Tinder real quick.
2) Pink lips with tiny folds inside, like ripples around a pearl.
3) Irritated red bumps from where the razor had been.
A weird, fast, transformation happened. There’s something about a bunch of people cooing over your vagina that makes you love it, too. Carlin took a picture, which she sent to us (“So not trauma informed,” my best friend said) and then we named them. I panicked on this one, but you can only make so much progress in a day.
“Why would you want to name your pussy Karl Marx?” Betty asked me. Because I was at capacity. Because if I didn’t laugh, I was going to sob about all the years I hadn’t once once considered what I wanted besides being wanted. Because I was so fucking nervous that the only thing that came to mind was the communist manifesto. One day I will name my pussy something fantastic, but not yet.
As we waited for the session to start, we got deeper into our secret preoccupations with that taboo thing called everything from “slapping cheeks” to “making love.” With everything allowed out loud I admitted that I was afraid my ex-fiance wasn’t attracted to me, that I was asking for too much from him – too much love, too much sexual attention, too much everything. I worried that I was becoming the trope of a woman who wants more from her husband than he can or will give her.
I looked at these women and asked, How can you have sex with someone when you’re trying to be sexy? Being with someone who was more critical of me than I was of myself made me not just want to break up with him, but break up with the whole system of self-hatred that makes billions off of insecurity. Loving myself just as I was – soft body and nose-picking habits and all – felt like the ultimate fuck that to all the years I’d spent insane.
“When I was around him, I felt like I had to be sexy,” I told them. “I don’t want to be sexy. I want to be myself.”
I wasn’t crazy. They were nodding. They were hearing me. Just as I felt so content with being heard that I could go home, Betty came in and the talking amongst ourselves stopped because it was time to full-on hear each other. Like hear each other masturbate, the thing we’d paid to come here to do.
Getting Down and Dirty:
“No one fucks me like I fuck me,” Betty said, large vibrator in one hand, barbell/dildo in the other. Looking at her I realized I never think of old people as sexual, which is ageist and points to how post-menopausal women are invisibilized. Damn was Betty a revolution against that.
We gathered around her and Carlin, preparing for the demo of the Betty Dodson Method. “I am my best lover,” Betty repeated, and proceeded to direct Carlin in touching herself while we watched.
We weren’t pervy for staring. We were allowed to be curious, to ask questions, to want to know if the G-spot is a thing. All I know is knowledge is power, and having a physical model was beyond helpful. By the end of it I felt like I knew the parts, had seen the goodies, was ready to start.
The actual masturbation was much less scary then the other parts of the weekend. I could hear everyone pleasuring themselves but we weren’t looking at each other, and the sounds were lovely. Sex is natural, a worshipping of bodies. Some people laughed, some moaned, and it was the ultimate aphrodisiac. I came three times.
To close up the weekend we gave each other nonsexual massages: loving touch with strangers. I didn’t know them but I trusted them to touch me in a way that was nurturing. They had my life in their hands – my confidence, satisfaction, pleasure – and I melted at their fingertips.
In the weeks since leaving Betty’s apartment and stepping into the jaws of midtown, I’ve never been more grateful for the decision I made not to marry someone flawed and wonderful. Prior to that weekend I considered masturbation a lesser substitute for having a warm body around. By extension, loving myself was just a subpar substitution for being loved by someone else. But Betty said it so clearly: “I am my best lover.”
I’ve started becoming my best lover, too because to love myself I gotta love myself: three-speeds preferred. I’m aware now of not only what I want, but that I want and being wanted is not the same thing as wanting. Over the course of two days I came into this new concept of desire with a tissue and some almond oil and some women I’d never met before. I’m still coming.*
* Betty passed away on October 31st this year. I was in the final stages of editing this piece and decided to keep everything as it was when she was alive. Carlin has a beautiful video up about Betty that you can watch here, if you like.