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Wouldn’t it be a relief to be honest about your desire?
This was the question that prompted Stephanie Theobald to leave a long-term relationship behind in the UK and set off on a road trip across America in search of her vanished sex drive.
She was helped in her quest by an array of heroic women, from America’s first black Surgeon General to founder of dating app Bumble to the only porn star to be denounced on the floor of the US Senate. But her ultimate mentor was an eighty-five-year-old rock star feminist who suggested that masturbation might be the royal road to female self-discovery.
What started as a search for the ultimate auto-erotic experience became a fantastic voyage into her own body. This is her account of that journey.
Sex Drive is a memoir about desire and pleasure and loss, merging sexuality and spirituality, eighteenth-century porn and Enlightenment philosophy with the final sexual taboo. It’s about the relief of getting back in touch with your own body, exploring female sexuality in an honest way and welcoming a new wave of sex-positive feminism into the twenty-first century.
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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. She writes regularly for the Guardian, the Sunday Times and Elle. She is the author of four novels.
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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