we’ve come a long way, baby. or have we?: is women’s sexuality a substitute for women’s equality?

by nikki meredith

vintage pornI’ve been thinking about sex a lot lately and it all started when I read an account of an all girls circle jerk in a Manhattan Upper East side apartment.  Okay, to be fair, as far as I know, no one but me is calling it a circle jerk.  Jenny Block, a columnist for The Huffington Post, attended a masturbation party…or, more precisely an orgasm party — after all, the former without the latter wouldn’t make much of a party. Again, to be fair, and I’m trying to be, sort of, it wasn’t a party it was a workshop though it had many aspects of a party, or a kind of party. All of the participants were naked and there was lots of sex, and booze.  Okay, actually, I don’t know about the booze.  I can’t seem to stop myself from trying to make the event sound ridiculous as though I don’t trust that the participants can get there on their own. And, speaking of getting there on their own, or, rather, not getting there on their own, a traditional young boy’s circle jerk, as far as I know, doesn’t involve a teacher. (If it did, someone would call the authorities.) The teacher of this, uh, class, was 85-year-old artist Betty Dodson who, in the buff, pranced — okay, maybe she didn’t prance –  she floated from woman to woman administering hands-on instruction.

It may not sound like it, but my purpose here is not to ridicule the workshop but rather to sort what it is that offends me about the whole enterprise.

Does the visual of Dodson’s hands-on work trigger my heretofore undiagnosed homophobia?   Or, does the mere mention of sex and nudity in the same sentence as an 85-year-old woman elicit from me the same bias against old people and sex as expressed by the likes of Chris Rock and Bill Maher?  (I’m just guessing about Bill Maher, but Chris Rock, in a riff about Sex in the City, once declared that the actresses on that show were way too old to be showing their “titties” on camera.) Or is my problem even more primitive?  Does my discomfort put me in the same category as, say, Rick Santorum, who, I’m quite sure would stroke-out if he found himself in the room with all of those masturbating women.  God knows, there are areas of my mind that are more narrow than wide. But, because I find my judgmental self so distasteful, an alarm goes off when it surfaces.  If I find myself rejecting something simply because it wasn’t done in my time or, if it was done, it wasn’t acceptable, I want to know if I’m just lagging behind culturally or if there are reasonable grounds to object.

So if it isn’t homophobia, ageism, or Rick Santorumitis, what is my problem? Anger. Anger is my problem.

Dodson calls herself a sex positive feminist whose tag line is “liberating women one orgasm at a time.”   In the 1970’s when she was known mainly for her graphic erotic art, she and the women’s movement embraced each other. Somewhere along the line, they, along with allies on both sides, parted company. The history of the split is too lengthy for this post but much of it centered around pornography. Dodson rejected the efforts to implicate pornography in the oppression of women by what is sometimes referred to as the temperance branch of the women’s movement.  As the debate raged on, Dodson went her own way, adding sex workshops to her erotic repertoire.  For decades, no one paid much attention but now every year they seem to grow in popularity; they certainly are getting more press.  Dodson claims that her biggest fans are fourth-wave feminists who she says are bored with what she calls the anti-pleasure stance of the third-wavers.  Earlier this year, she told Stephanie Theobald of the Guardian that to these young women independent orgasm is much more attractive than “banging on about childcare and sexual violence.”

tupperware partyViewed in the context of women’s liberation, it’s useful, at least it’s useful to me, to compare Betty’s workshop to a traditional circle jerk — a right-of-passage ritual for boys experimenting with their new-found sexuality.   In the 1960’s and 70’s, the Our Bodies Ourselves era, women (or some women) started eschewing Tupperware parties in favor of parties where they arrived armed with speculums and hand mirrors.  These also seemed like rites-of-passage rituals. Emboldened by the sisterhood, women set off to explore their own nether regions, no longer content to have boyfriends, husbands and male gynecologists be the only ones poking around. At the time, I wasn’t tempted to participate but, then, I’d never been tempted by Tupperware either. I could, however, see how planting a metaphorical flag in one’s vagina was a way of sending a message to the patriarchy about who owned one’s reproductive organs. Betty’s brand of trail blazing is in a different category altogether.hand mirrors

At the workshop Jenny attended, Betty traveled from towel to towel where the women were parked in a circle on the floor.  When it was Jenny’s turn, the first order of business was for Betty to name Jenny’s p—y.  (The fact that I cannot bring myself to write that word may be a clue to my problem. If it’s diagnostic, you should know that my problem first surfaced at recess in the 3rd grade when Tommy Nelson and all of his creepy little friends called all of the girls on the opposing dodge ball team  p—–s. Even worse was the vile kissing sound emitting from their vile little lips.)   Anyway, Betty christened Jenny’s genitalia cream puff.  Now will someone tell me how calling your whatsit “cream puff” equates with girl power of any kind?cream puff I feel the need to stop here and say I’m not suggesting that all young women are growing up believing that the road to gender equality is paved with competent orgasms.  But it’s more than a little disturbing that in an era when the uninhibited expression of female sexuality is depicted as a proxy for women’s liberation, young women are clueless about the accomplishments of the women’s movement — so clueless that the forces intent on reversing those accomplishments are winning victories no one thought possible twenty years ago. The female orgasm is now practically deified in our culture while reproductive rights are more endangered than spotted owls and women continue to earn $.77 on every $1 that men earn.women's rights march

There was another issue that bubbled up for me as I read Jenny’s account. Is there not a double standard when it comes to what’s acceptable for women and men’s sexual expression?  When Jenny described her experience with Betty and company as tribal and ancient, I thought about poet Robert Bly who pioneered drumming groups in an attempt to replicate tribal male bonding rituals. What would happen if Bly set aside his drums and, instead, invited young men to the woods to drop trou while he walked around the campfire giving them hand jobs? Would Salon, Huffington Post and New York magazine write about it?

Jenny Block writes that achieving an orgasm compliments of Betty Dodson was one of the most profound moments of her life. I say, mazel tov, Jenny. I’m happy for you. Perhaps it’s not surprising that it was so profound since, according to Dodson, most American women don’t know where their clitori are, but what Dodson says about female genitalia after that makes my blood boil: Given our ignorance about our own anatomies, we have no business objecting to cliteroctomies in other countries. I assume she’s suggesting that both are the consequence of the patriarchy not wanting women to experience sexual pleasure. No doubt we need better sex education in the schools, and no doubt we’re not going to get it as long as Republicans have anything to say about it, but I find it incomprehensible that she finds ignorance equivalent to a practice that not only robs a sizable portion of the world’s female population of sexual pleasure permanently, it kills a percentage of them every year.  UNICEF estimates that 125 million women have undergone genital cutting and according to a recent New York Times Op Ed piece, the rate of female genital mutilation among women ages 15 to 49 in Egypt is 91 percent.speculum

So, yes, Betty’s antagonism to the issues that the women’s movement “bang on” about makes me angry but I can’t deny that there’s also an ick factor involved. When I got to the section of Jenny’s article where she describes the denouement of the event, my knee-jerk judgmental self, which apparently had been waiting in the wings the whole time, could no longer be restrained.

Jenny writes that as time passed, she started to hear various women in the room having orgasms. One of those women was Betty.  And oh how ecstatic our Jenny is about that.

“I came to find out later that it’s quite rare for Betty to come during a workshop, and it had been two weeks since she had masturbated. I was thrilled that I could be part of the group that inspired her.”

Jenny left the workshop feeling that the true secret of female empowerment had been revealed: “owning our orgasms.”