Betty Dodson, a feminist sexologist and evangelist of self-pleasure who taught generations of women how to masturbate in workshops, books and videos, seeing the do-it-yourself climax as a liberating social force, died on Saturday at a nursing home in New York City. She was 91.
The cause was cirrhosis of the liver, said Carlin Ross, her business partner.
Ms. Dodson was a second-wave feminist making erotic art when she began hosting consciousness raising groups — but with a twist — in her Manhattan apartment. The method involved a genital show and tell, so that women could see that vulvas came in all shapes, sizes and colors; this was followed by clitoral attention with a vibrator. As she refined her teaching, she realized that she had found her calling.
“This masturbation business,” as she liked to say, was a kind of social justice work. If women could learn to pleasure themselves properly, she reasoned, they could end their sexual dependence on men, which would make everybody happy.
“The most consistent sex will be the love affair you have with yourself,” she wrote in “Sex for One” a quasi memoir and how-to guide that began as a short primer in Ms. Magazine and that has been translated into 25 languages since Random House first published it in 1987. “Masturbation will get you through childhood, puberty, romance, marriage and divorce, and it will see you through old age.”
Gloria Steinem, a co-founder of Ms. Magazine, wrote in an email: Betty Dodson was a brave and daring advocate for women’s right to sexual knowledge and pleasure. Her workshops turned women on to the beauty of our own bodies, and her outrageous honesty allowed more women to speak our truths.”
It was Ms. Dodson’s experience with orgies — group sex, in the parlance of the day — that brought home to her the fact that even in such a free-spirited setting, women were performing their orgasms and didn’t seem to have a clue about how to get there on their own. Also, she said, the women always ended up in the bedroom examining her collection of vibrators while the men talked shop — stocks and sports, mostly — in the living room.
“Organized group sex is a little bowling league kind of thing,” she told Enid Nemy of The New York Times in 1971. “It’s super‐compulsive — there’s a frantic quality to it. It’s weird.”
Ms. Dodson enraged some second-wave feminists, who conflated her work with pornography, a particular bugbear for that generation. (Her slide show of vulvas at a National Organization for Women conference was particularly controversial, though a vibrator demonstration was quite popular, and she sold out the box of devices she’d brought with her.) But later generations have been inspired by her sex-positive teachings, and the internet continues to buoy her fame and promote her mantra: “Better orgasms, better world.”
Carol Queen, a sex educator and activist, recalled meeting Ms. Dodson in the late 1980s as part of her doctoral work