Full disclosure: The filmmaker Betsy Blankenbaker is a friend of mine. She is not, however, an intimate friend. I knew nothing at all about her orgasms until I read her new book, An Autobiography of an Orgasm. Now I know everything.
Betsy produced a documentary film based on my memoir, New York in the Fifties. Her filmmography also includes Something to Cheer About, a documentary about the 1955 Crispus Attucks team that was the first all-Black squad in the country — in any sport — to win a state championship.
Her quest for great orgasms may have been subconsciously inspired by my account of "The Great Orgasm Debate" of New York in the 'fifties, initiated by Norman Mailer. He had announced in an article in Dissent magazine in 1957 that he was in search of "the apocalyptic orgasm," which seemed awfully ambitious; I was in search of any orgasm at all.
Mailer's article, "The White Negro," proclaimed the new avant-garde rebel ("the hipster," or "white Negro") did not need the analyst's couch because "orgasm is his therapy ... good orgasm opens his possibilities and bad orgasm imprisons him." A flurry of letters and debates ensued — the remarkable part of it was that the word "orgasm" was being bandied about in print in the '50s. This was an era when a play called The Moon Is Blue caused a scandal for using the word "virgin" on a Broadway stage for the first time.
We have come a long way from what now seems the Neolithic Age of sex in America. No one could have imagined back then that a contemporary, accomplished woman (she has produced four documentaries and started an orphanage in Zimbabwe), born and bred in Indianapolis (her mother served in the state legislature and her father was once this city's director of public safety), could write about her experience demonstrating orgasm in front of forty people during a class in "Orgasmic Meditation." To paraphrase Wordsworth: "Mailer, thou shouldst be living at this hour!" The poor guy was born fifty years too soon.
It must also be noted that this is a serious book. The author was molested at age 6 by a teenage female neighbor, and at 16 was groped by the elevator man at the Indianapolis Athletic Club as she was on the way to a swimming class. Training for the swim team developed her muscles, and her eldest sister — a cheerleader and county fair queen — told her, "Guys don't like bodies like yours. You're too big. You're too strong, too much muscle."
As a sophomore in college, the author's second boyfriend paid for her abortion while he went to a golf game. She gave birth to five children during her second marriage that lasted for ten years and ended after she found a letter to her husband from her best friend, calling herself his "fuck buddy" and lamenting his wife's "lack of zeal" in the bedroom.
They divorced a year later, but not because of the letter, she says, admitting she had also cheated during the marriage "and the shame of cheating added to the disapproval I felt about myself." She made a list of "the pile" of disapproval: "I was not a sensual being. My vagina was a place of shame. My vagina was a place of death. I had never let my vagina feel pleasure."
A decade later she decided that "instead of running away from everything, including my orgasm, I decided to see if I could discover what it meant to be born into the body of a woman. I wanted to find out how to feel my orgasm, and, maybe, how to feel my life, because at that point I wasn't feeling anything."
First she went to school — The School of Womanly Arts in New York City. Class began with the teacher dancing onto a stage and screaming, "How's your pussy?" Most of the 200 women in the room jumped up and danced along with her. Betsy stayed in her seat and wondered if she should have enrolled. The course included experts in health, wellness, diet, money, career, men, communication, sex and sensuality. Surely she'd find some answers in all that.
"Everything in class was 'your pussy' this and 'your pussy' that," she writes. "I was uncomfortable hearing her [the teacher, Regina Thomashauer] use a word I considered vulgar to refer to a woman's genitals. I'd never had a name for my vagina, because I'd never spoken about it."
But Thomashauer used the word "with reverence ... comparing it to the soul, something I'd never thought about either," Betsy continues. "She was making the point that if you were disconnected from your pussy, your feminine essence, you were disconnected from your soul." Betsy believes that her orgasm research put her on "a spiritual path" that she had previously rejected "because of the dogma I grew up with in the church."
After graduating from The School of Womanly Arts, Betsy signed up for a private class in "Extended Massive Orgasm" with Steve Bodansky, who she'd heard speak about his practice in the Womanly Arts course. Bodansky demonstrated his EMO technique with an assistant named Anne in her New York apartment, donning latex gloves "which are recommended if you are not in a committed relationship with the stroker." Watching the demonstration, Betsy learned a new lesson: "All my life, I heard about how hard it is for men to find the clit, but once again, I was surprised to see it really isn't that hard to find if you take time to look at the anatomy."
After watching the demonstration, Betsy got undressed and into bed with the instructor and his assistant. "You're very orgasmic," Bodansky told her, describing the changes in her vagina as he stroked her with the latex-gloved index finger of his right hand: "Your clit is already peeking out of the hood ... The outer lips are turning a deep shade of burgundy."
After "taking my orgasm to a peak" for the third time, Bodansky recommended that "When you self-pleasure, keep researching what your body likes, so you can let your partner know."
Betsy's research took her to a "series of Pleasure Intensives" in New York, and later to a class in "Orgasmic Meditation," in Austin, Texas, "a fifteen minute practice focused solely on your partner stroking your clit." She returned several months later for "an advanced OM workshop," and volunteered to lie on a massage table and allow a class of forty men and women to watch a "stroker" bring her to orgasm.
Toward the end of her research, Betsy was going through menopause, and her age had "been triggering new insecurities with men." A year before her OM workshop she was having drinks with two attractive men when the one who was her own age told about deciding against dating a woman because "he realized he didn't want "fifty-year-old pussy." The men laughed and Betsy joined in, "not wanting to reveal myself." Now as she was about to serve as the orgasm "receiver" in a class demonstration, she thought: "I was the fifty-year-old pussy."
The "giver" invited the forty or so men and women in the class to come closer to watch Betsy so they could "feel her orgasm." She writes that "I didn't recognize the 'me' that was doing all this. ... I was finally seeing that in order to change we needed to expose ourselves."
That's what she does in this book, reporting not only on her orgasms but also on matters such as menopause. Upon discovering that she has congenital hearing loss in both ears and after using hearing aids for a while, "I found that I preferred not hearing well to hearing everything," she writes. One of her orgasm instructors advised her to admit her hearing loss to a lover, and "seduce him with the information ... Make hearing loss the sexiest thing ever!"
She tells about taking a lover to the hospital when he fractured his penis while having sex with her, walking down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan "with a 'healing' jade egg in my vagina," making love to a quadraplegic, "honoring my womb near the Amazon in Peru." She eventually finds herself "back in Indianapolis, the place I'd been running from all my life" to finish writing her book.
After being taken to "a gourmet restaurant at a nearby farm community," her date "walked me across the one-lane street and through a small field surrounded by mature oak trees." They ended up lying on the grass and taking their clothes off, where "I felt the caress of his lips on my pussy. Sublime."
As Dorothy discovered in The Wizard of Oz, "There's no place like home."
Dan Wakefield is the author of New York in the Fifties and Going All The Way.