The year is 1972. The doorbell rings and a boisterous Betty Dodson, nude, answers it. “Come on in,” she says to the stream of 13 women, aged anywhere between recent Smith grad and New Jersey grandmother, as they enter the large spare living room of her mid-Manhattan apartment. Complete strangers, they exchange brief hellos and knowing glances as they situate themselves on a cushy light-gray circular rug (the launching pad) and await instruction.
Dodson, always the gracious tour guide, points to the silver hooks along the wall where they will soon hang up their clothes and any other accompanying baggage. She warms up the crowd with a few sex jokes (“Who says everything has to come in pairs? What is this, Noah’s Ark?”), and explains today’s session—what she calls a “genital show-and-tell.” “This isn’t kindergarten, honey!” she announces, laughing. “Tomorrow, we’ll have two rituals—masturbation and massage. Bring your vibrators. Or you can buy one from me.” This reminds Dodson to collect her fee—about $300 for four sessions—before they begin. The stage is now set. Places, ladies, places please. Within minutes, the women are pulling off sweaters and socks to the sound of Dodson’s sumptuous voice: “Let me ask you this. What’s your relationship to your body and your orgasm? Think about it.”
Some 36 years later Dell Williams is still thinking about it—and how that whirlwind masturbation workshop completely transformed her own work, sex, and, ultimately, spiritual life. Before walking into Dodson’s apartment, Williams was a businesswoman who had never taken the time to fully examine her sexuality, and more specifically, her pussy. Lying on the launching pad, legs spread, mirror propped, she was suddenly overcome by the splendor of her sex. And after a couple orgiastic rounds with a Panabrator—the vibrating equivalent of Babe Ruth’s baseball bat—Williams was not only empowered enough to ask her boss for a raise (she got it) but to open Eve’s Garden, New York’s first feminist sex shop, in 1974.
Since their first meeting many moons ago, both Williams, 86, and Dodson, 79, have become pro-orgasm pioneers and advocates for women worldwide. They’ve marched, masturbated, lectured on land and sea, written mind- and body-altering books (Read Sex for One by Dodson; Revolution in the Garden by Williams), had older and younger lovers (Dodson’s latest is 47 years her junior), and continued on the enlightened path of women with a pulsating purpose. Celebrating the publication of Still Doing It: The Intimate Lives of Women Over 60 by Deirdre Fishel and Diana Holtzberg, the duo is reunited yet again, not in Betty’s apartment, but in Babeland, the sex toy shop on Mercer Street in SoHo.
“I really can’t believe how smart I was,” admits Betty, recalling her monumental masturbation workshops. “I got a bunch of women to come over to my house, take off their clothes, and have orgasms. And they paid me for it!”
Honestly, what could be a better title for Dodson and Williams than Still Doing It—a book that boldly salutes the sexual desires and dynamism of women over 60 as they let go of their inhibitions and take flight. In a world fixated on youth and reality television, the book examines the unseen, creative lives of women who wear age as an amulet, not an albatross. “To be an older sexual woman, you have to be wild,” says Deirdre Fishel, filmmaker and co-author of Still Doing It. “That’s the great little secret. These women don’t have the time to play it safe anymore.”
But Still Doing It, Fishel clarifies, is not solely about sex or being a sexual renegade, but rather staying tuned in and turned on by life. Each of the 35 women Fishel interviewed for the book (which was based on the groundbreaking 2004 documentary of the same name) shared something we rarely see depicted in our elders—vitality, a hearty capacity to have fun, the kind of joie de vivre that Catherine Deneuve, who recently turned 65, still radiates on screen.
“We have this staid image of older women as dry, humorless, sexless bent-over grannies,” says Fishel. “What I found was really, refreshingly, quite the opposite.”
The book also presents a slew of poignant, often alarming, statistics. Did you know, for example, that by the age of 65, there are 33 single men for every 100 women, which doesn’t factor in the older male’s proclivity to date younger, often much younger, women. Or, that in 1953, Dr. Alfred Kinsey did a follow-up to his revelatory Sexual Behavior in the Human Male that focused on women’s sexuality, revealing that women were masturbating, having pre-marital sex, and that yes, grandmothers were still doing it. Greeted with much Sturm und Drang, and denounced as devil’s work by crackpot pastors like the Reverend Billy Graham, Kinsey’s female study lost funding by the Rockefeller Foundation. It never went mainstream, which could explain why, fifty years later, the fact of older women’s sexuality still raises eyebrows.
Subverting this notion of older woman as sexless gargoyle, Still Doing It is beginning its national book tour not at Barnes and Noble, but Babeland, formerly Toys in Babeland, in Manhattan. Then it’s off to Good Vibrations, started by Joani Blank in San Francisco, in the ’70s, the Smitten Kitten in Minneapolis, the Sugar Shop in Baltimore, Déjà vu Love Boutique in Florida, and then back to the Garden, Eve’s that is, on West 57th Street.
On this chilly autumn night at Babeland, young and old peruse the various vibrators and labia-safe lubes before finding a spot to sit and hear two feminist icons expound on everything from the National Organization for Women to the hallucinatory orgasms of Hitachi’s Magic Wand on high speed.
Seated between sex-help books and black leather strap-on harnesses, Betty and Dell are so disarmingly at home in their bodies and frank in discussing its desires that their combined energy could practically levitate the store.
“My sexual activity is me, myself, and my vibrator,” says Dell in Still Doing It. “I would like to spend the next ten years treating myself as my own best lover. I am in what I am defining as a new lifestyle, which I have called self-sexuality.”
Betty seconds that emotion. “Use it or lose it, ” she says, a phrase which has been her mantra since her first sex workshop in the early ’70s. “I’m going into my 80th year—I’ve got a new website, new business partner—now I think its time for a new lover.”
For more details, visit www.stilldoingit.com
MICHELLE MEMRAN is a freelance writer and filmmaker living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.