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, Autobiography of an Orgasm. Now I know everything.
Betsy produced a documentary film based on my memoir, New York in the Fifties, and 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 announced in an article in Dissent magazine in 1957 that he was in search of "the apocalyptic orgasm."
Mailer's proclaimed that the "hipster" (the new avant-garde rebel) didn't need the analyst's couch because "orgasm is his therapy ... good orgasm opens his possibilities and bad orgasm imprisons him."
Controversy flared -- the remarkable part was that the word "orgasm" was being bandied about in print in the 1950s. 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've come a long way from that Neolithic Age of sex in America. No one back then could have foreseen that a contemporary, accomplished woman (she's produced four documentary films and started an orphanage in Zimbabwe), born and bred in Indianapolis, could write about demonstrating orgasm in front of 40 people during a class in "Orgasmic Meditation."
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 on the way to a swim class. While 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 10 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 also cheated during the marriage "and the shame of cheating added to the disapproval I felt about myself":
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] ...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 "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.
Everything in class was 'your pussy' this and 'your pussy' that. 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.
Thomashauer compared the vagina to the soul:
She was making the point that if you were disconnected from your pussy, your feminine essence, you were disconnected from your soul.
Betsy believes her orgasm research put her on "a spiritual path" that she'd rejected before "because of the dogma I grew up with in the church."
She took a private class in "Extended Massive Orgasm" with Steve Bodansky, who spoke at the "Womanly Arts" course. He demonstrated his EMO technique with an assistant in her Manhattan 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.
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 for "an advanced OM workshop," volunteering to lie on a massage table and allow 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 man her age said he'd decided against dating a certain woman because "he realized he didn't want "50-year-old pussy. . ." She laughed with him, "not wanting to reveal myself." About to be the orgasm "receiver" in a class demonstration, she thought: "I was the 50-year-old pussy."
The "giver" invited the 40 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 Betsy does in this book. She tells about taking a lover to the hospital when he fractured his penis having sex with her, walking down Fifth Avenue "with a 'healing' jade egg in my vagina. . .honoring my womb near The Amazon," and ending up back in her hometown of Indianapolis.
After being taken to a gourmet restaurant at a nearby farm community, Betsy's date "walked me across the one-lane street and through a small field surrounded by my account of 'The Great Orgasm Debate' of New York in 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."
This originally appeared in NUVO.