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How one woman's road trip became a sexual revolution

“Part Jack Kerouac, part Joan Didion, Theobald brings a Londoner’s wit to what could have been a self-absorbed quest for personal pleasure.” Bidisha, BBC Arts

It all started in the living room of the Seventies rock and roll feminist Betty Dodson. I had arrived in New York with a broken body and a breaking relationship when I found myself at one of the 87-year-old’s masturbation master classes.

Female self-pleasure is one of the 21st century’s final taboos but, over the course of one incredible weekend, Betty showed us that it is the cornerstone of female sexuality. Inspired, I set out on a road trip across America hoping to meet more of these fantastic sex women from the 1970s. But what started as a quest for the ultimate auto-erotic experience became a fantastic voyage into my own body, a way to heal what no western doctor had been able to heal and a chance to re-build my orgasm from the ground up. This is my account of that journey.

During every night of my 3,497 mile journey, I would indulge in solo-sex “homework”. Yet as solo sex started to bring me back to life, it spilled over into a desire for sex for two. And more. By the time I reached San Francisco, what started out as a trip down the Yellow Brick Road was unraveling into something much more picaresque.

Sex Drive has a happy ending. I learned that masturbation can be a bit like dining: sometimes you go for fast food, sometimes you want haute cuisine. By the end of my journey it struck me that spirituality and sexuality are not necessarily different things. If you spend enough time getting intimate with your own body, self-pleasure becomes a form of meditation, a way of going back to the basics of who you really are.

This is the book I wish I'd had back at the start of my journey. It's a memoir about desire and pleasure, merging sexuality and spirituality, 18th-century porn and enlightenment philosophy. Women have put up with so many anti-climaxes from books and films that promise to explore female sexuality in an honest way. But actually all they get are sniggers, coy giggles or men’s desire reflected back at them. 

The good news is that a new Sexual Revolution has begun - and this time round, it’s all about the women.

It revolves around the politics of female pleasure: Think of OMGyes.com, the pussy hats in the Women’s Marches earlier this year and the rise of female-friendly porn. So come along on the ride. Sex Drive proves that what Jean-Jacques Rousseau termed “the dangerous supplement” can take you to some amazing places and has the power to work as the ultimate self-care medicine.

Join the conversation #pleasureispolitical

@stephotheo

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Stephanie Theobald is a British journalist, novelist, public speaker and broadcaster, known for her playful and thoughtful work around sexuality and alternative feminism.

Described by The Times as “one of London’s most celebrated literary lesbians,” she writes regularly for The Guardian, The Sunday Times and Elle UK. She is the author of four novels, the most recent of which, A Partial Indulgence, was hailed by Vivienne Westwood as being “like vomit coming at you off the page.”

Stephanie worked as the fashion editor of Robert Maxwell’s The European before moving to Harper’s Bazaar where her main beat was celebrity parties. She wanted to do a Truman Capote on modern-day high society but instead spent more time appearing in the Daily Mail’s gossip columns.

Stephanie, a graduate of Jesus College, Cambridge, coined the term “Bi-Try" (now in the Urban Dictionary) meaning a woman who has a casual fling with another woman without the commitment of identifying as bisexual. 

She’s not very good at understanding things in the abstract but feels compelled to experience them in real life. Maybe this is why she felt the need to undertake her latest hare-brained scheme of driving round America in search of her lost sex drive

She is based between London and Los Angeles.

Praise for Stephanie Theobald’s previous books:

“Puts the trip back into road trip.” Time Out on Trix

“Art, sex, money, class – this novel delivers them all, with enormous style.” The Times on A Partial Indulgence

“Does for Paris what Armistead Maupin did for San Francisco.” The Guardian on Biche

CHAPTER ONE

Meeting Pinky Tuscadero

There are eleven women stark naked in a room in a New York apartment. Ten of us are lying with our legs spread, a metal dildo in our vagina, a purring vibrator on our clitoris and our left hands stroking our breasts which glisten with almond oil. “Your left hand is your lover,” the naked 87-year-old lady barks as she patrols the room with her own massive vibrator that sounds like a cement mixer and resembles an old fashioned kitchen device.

It’s mid-January and I’ve flown back to New York to try and perfect my orgasms with the help of the narcotics detective. Let’s call her “Virginia”. Her office in Queens is called the “Organized Crime Bureau of the NYPD” and going there feels as exciting as being in an episode of The Wire. Yet even though I have now popped my all-time fantasy (sex under a desk with an American woman in a corporate location) I didn’t come. I’m convinced now that there’s something wrong with me. Am I too tense? Is there something wrong with my wiring? Am I too stuck in my head? 

In between bouts of sex where I take ages to come, I worry that I should be doing some journalism work. That’s how I end up at Betty Dodson’s women-only masturbation master class. I discover that Betty has revived the famous “Body Sex” classes she created in the 1970s. A pioneering renegade described as one of the “early feminists” by Gloria Steinem, and as a “misguided career masturbator” by Germaine Greer, Dodson wrote the world’s only best seller about masturbation. Sex For One, originally self-published in 1973, came out of Betty’s observation during her orgy years in the 1960s that many women were faking orgasm. It was an insight that launched her on a lifetime’s crusade.

When I go round to her apartment one freezing January afternoon for a preliminary interview, I meet a woman with a mouth like a sailor and the easy manner of a wisecracking Scorsese character. She looks amazing for her age. More 67 than 87. Her secret, she quips, is: “masturbation, pot and raw garlic.” 

She explains that today’s young women are way more at sea about their bodies than their 1970s counterparts. "Most of them haven't even seen their genitals in a mirror. You show 'em and they go 'eek!' Or 'ugh!'"

I’ve done some wacky journalistic assignments in my time: taken the Amazonian hallucinogenic Ayahuasca, attended a “goddess workshop” in Wales and a Black Mass in Paris but Betty’s master class takes the biscuit. I say I’d love to come to the next one and ask her why she keeps doing them. She looks at me like I’m an idiot.  “The sounds, the sights, the smells,” she says. “Women are so beautiful: fat, skinny, one tit gone. No wonder I keep doing it. Why do you think I look so good?”   

And yet, down here on the carpet, I’m having some performance anxiety. It’s finale time on Day Two where, having learned the nuts and bolts of our genitals, we are now expected to masturbate to orgasm together.  We’ve only been going about thirty seconds and Maria, the Spanish lawyer, has come already. This is followed by a cry from Ingrid, the vet from Norway, who begins to climax with a soft, musical moaning as if she’s auditioning for an Emmanuelle movie. Do women really make that sound when they come? Clearly they do. Spain and Norway have come and the only other European person in the room is me. Betty’s logic is that I should be next in line. “Come on, London!” she roars. “Fake it!”

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