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Mar 15, 2011

Betty Dodson and the importance of self love and grass roots actions

Sex, linking the personal to the political


"Since most of us struggle with periods of self-hatred, bad body images, shame and confusion over sex and pleasure, I recommend having a hit love affair with yourself.(Dodson, 1996:143)"



In the book ´Sex for one` by Betty Dodson, famous Sexologist and grandmother of sex positive feminism, she argues that an important step toward empowerment and the liberation of women (and all) is to enjoy sex, primarily masturbation, in the manners and frequency one desires. She writes that we shouldn't be scared of our sexualities, that we should engage our sexual selves and form a deeper understanding of our sexuality. This can according to Dodson boost self esteem and improve intimate relationships and thus general well being. She talks about the many practical steps she took in encouraging people to engage with themselves sexually through masturbation and by arranging discussion groups and body sex workshops.

Dodson writes that she had been raised in a "typical" environment where she had been fed sex-negative conditioning, she "was made to feel that [she] should get all of [her] sexual pleasures from [her] lover´s penis, not from his hand or his mouth, and certainly not from [her] own hand by [herself] (Dodson, 1996:12)". Leaving religious Kansas behind at the age of 20 she went to New York only to be faced with the same type of norms but from "open minded" friends, where masturbation was seen as a mere substitute for sex. There she fell deeply in love and got married, spending six years with unfulfilled partner sex and guilt filled masturbation under the covers until the marriage ended. "As long as I insisted on the romantic ideal, I was sexually repressed and economically independent.(Dodson, 1996:15)"

Dodson moved on from an asexual marriage to a sexual adventure exploring herself and her desires. In 1968 she arranged a vernissage showing erotic art charcoals which became a sensation. Dodson moved on to put up another vernissage titled "Selflove", with images of women and men masturbating which was not as well received. The strong reaction to the material from the manager and the visitors made her realise that for most people masturbation was a taboo.

Sex under Discussion

In New York in the 1980´s she invited women to get together in a discussion group structure and talk personally about their sex lives and their sexuality, to share experiences and ideas in aim to support and educate one another. Dodson believed the personal aspect of sexuality, including masturbation, being an important sexual relationship to oneself that continues all through life, was directly relevant to the issue of feminism and sexual liberation.

"Masturbation is a way for all of us to learn about sexual response. It´s an opportunity for us to explore our bodies and minds for all those sexual secrets we´ve been taught to hide, even from ourselves. ... We don´t have to perform or meet anyone else´s standards, to satisfy the needs of a partner, or to fear criticism and rejection for failure. Sexual skills are like any other skills; they are not magically inherited, they have to be learnt. (Dodson: 1996:4)"

This was not a view shared by some of her participants where masturbation was considered something private disconnected to the socio political. She was surprised that even in a group consisting of educated radical feminist women (lawyers, doctors, business women) they still after hours of discussion had trouble disclosing the personal, seeing it as irrelevant to their political struggles. They responded with sentiments such as ´my sex life is private', 'I don't see the point in sharing it with strangers' and 'I don't see how it really relates to our (feminist) struggle´.

Dodson found it disappointing that these radical feminists did not see the importance of the personal in an aim to stimulate awareness about the bigger issues. The women in the group did not see how a sex support group based on personal experiences could be advantageous to the concept of feminism, concluding that they did not make a link between their own personal sexual experiences and the collective sexual fingerprint of the gender and equality issue. Dodson removed her sexual label arguing that "people were socially tortured by having to choose between being straight or gay (Dodson:49)". She referred to herself as a "heterosexual bisexual lesbian".

Nudity, role play and group masturbation

The body sex workshops were started as an attempt to attack the problem at the roots. Women of all sexualities were invited to join in nude discussions where Dodson and a colleague would offer exercises in getting to know desires and their own body. One of these was named the "pleasure ritual" where desires where expressed verbally, another consisted of pantomiming an orgasm, whilst another was based on role playing sex from a gender perspectives. Dodson stresses the importance of a safe environment for working with the sexual self, there was to be no form of pressure to join actions that participants felt were uncomfortable. "The first principle of pleasure was freedom of personal choice.(Dodson, 1996:77)" The group also had a vibrator collection where vibrators could be borrowed and taken home.

After many of the women who thought they never experienced an orgasm expressed they wanted to know "a real" orgasm the group leaders took out their dildos and decided to demonstrate. After the demonstration the group cheered. Dodson continued with opening up body sex workshops for men after many had heard from their female friends/partners about the groups. The group was mixed hetero and gay. From one of the first groups after a masturbation ritual Dodson writes about a man coming to talk to her after the group session; "He felt he had never been able to caress his own body tenderly because he´d been afraid to like his maleness. ... men usually counter[ed] their fear of liking men with anger and aggression. Sharing orgasms and naked hugs was a radical break from social conditioning (Dodson, 1996:109)".

Dodson was awarded a doctors degree in sexology for her continuous work towards better sex for all and is today still making body sex workshops as well as private sex counseling. Important parts of this work is to teach; breathing techniques, pelvic rocking, PC muscle contractions, use of a massager, letting go of expectations on self performance, stressing the enormous variety of sexual expression: masturbation, oral, manual, partner masturbation, massage, anal and oral penetration etc.

After a study conducted by Rutger´s University, where Dodson participated by masturbating until climax, it was concluded that when we masturbate our brain switches in to alpha mode (dream sleep) and as we orgasm the brain dips down into theta which usually means deep sleep. The study showed that while the body was working hard the brain was relaxing, masturbation is therefore scientifically a kind of meditation.

The Sluts in Berlin

Slut Conspiracy was based on the same understanding as that of Dodoson when it comes to the importance of sexuality, this lead to us starting monthly discussion groups for WLT (Women, Lesbian, Trans) and soon starting a MHT (Men, Homo, Trans) group, were we talk openly about issues of sex and sexuality on a personal level in Berlin. We stress the importance of creating an open safe environment where people feel comfortable to share their own very intimate selves.

After reading Dodson´s book 6 months into the work with our discussion group we found ourselves choking on her words, the most important of her sentences ringing through our minds 'the personal is political''.

There is an intrinsic link between people's personal (sex and love) lives and wider issues (sexuality/relationships/gender). Sometimes the best way to change social constructs toward a more positive configuration is to start from the inside out, this means identifying and working with the micro (personal) facets within the macro topic.

Why is sex political?

In the case of feminism, women´s sexuality has been bound and gagged by patriarchy as it is seen as a threat to the illusion of the nuclear family and the illusion of women as "providing" care and pleasure NOT receiving, strong sexual self esteem and a good sexual relation to one self can therefore be seen as a threat to patriarchy and a symbol of power. In the same way the sexual man as a gender construct limits people from experiencing intimacy and closeness connected to sex (intimacy is weakness), conditioning males with a perpetrator mentality, working as a social regulator by inducing fear in women to openly express themselves as sexual and control over female sexual expression. For both genders self love is generally seen as a second rate option to partner sex and has been degraded to shamefully be used only by those "who cannot get satisfaction by anyone else".

When the personal is not seen as political, it is hard to recognize the importance of everyday actions in relation to larger societal matters and we miss out on the support that exists in the community to overcome fears and change sex negative conditioning together with others. Discussion groups on sex can be seen as an opportunity to support the community in taking steps towards positive change.

We believe that the acknowledgment of ourselves as agents carrying society's structures within us is needed to come to the realization that we can all play a crucial part in social change and work towards a healthier personal as well as collective psyche. Therefore to take grass roots action towards sexual liberation will aid us to re-condition ourselves in the ways we please, to find a healthy relation to ourselves and our bodies instead of helping to maintain the status quo.


Literature: Dodson, Betty. Sex for One, 1996, Three Rivers Press


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