In Sex Drive, Stephanie Theobald takes a road trip across the United States on a mission to get her sexuality back—specifically, her pleasure.
Sex Drive: On the Road to a Pleasure Revolution
What began as a journey to heal herself from vulvodynia opens up into an unabashed, unapologetic exploration of her own female pleasure, which also touches on history, literature, politics, and her encounters with sexual liberation pioneers such as Betty Dodson, Susie Bright, and Annie Sprinkle. Driving through the shady, naughty, taboo territory of masturbation and female pleasure with a wildly open heart, Theobald rebels against an overly cerebral approach to sexuality as a subject. She, herself, goes on steamy, sexy adventures with herself and others and does not shy away, at all, from any of it.
During an ayahuasca ceremony, Stephanie Theobald saw a vision that emboldened her to write Sex Drive. Since the narrative around psychedelics continues to refocus on their healing properties, sex is a major source of shame in many cultures, especially for women since, well, the dawn of patriarchal societies and tight religious ideologies. Thus, what a subject, rich in controversy and ripe for healing.
We spoke with the bold, fun “Brit” while she was nestled in the middle of the desert for quarantine, getting turned on by nature, having orgasms with trees, and wondering how this virus is going to affect our sexuality. “Spirituality is sexuality,” Theobald says. With that in mind, we explore the still vastly uncharted territory of female pleasure, the power of our sexuality, and getting over the shame of all of it.
RS + Stephanie Theobald Interview
RS: What is powerful about pleasuring yourself?
ST: Masturbation wakes you up and completely transforms the way you’re thinking and gives you a new lust for life. I’m not patient enough to become a sex educator or something like that, so this book, Sex Drive, is a testament to the power of female sexuality.
I was in the lounge of an LA hotel famous for its rock and roll reputation just before lockdown. This woman asked me, “What’s your book about?” I said, “masturbation” and you could hear a pin drop. That word can silence a room. There are not many words that can do that. Masturbation is still a massive taboo but I didn’t write Sex Drive to shock people. I wrote it because it was the only book I could write at the time and I didn’t understand why nobody had done it. Masturbation is the foundation of female sexuality but it was as if this was some dirty secret. That annoyed me.
RS: It’s not just about the orgasm, but about getting into your pleasure.
ST: Yes, it is even a kind of meditation. The energy from an orgasm is powerful. I’m still working on the “heart wank,” which is about moving your energy up your body, into the heart, and then out the top of your head. Spirituality is sexuality, and you can go to some really far-out places. My masturbation practice has even enabled me to connect with nature more.
I’ve been getting into this Lakota Sioux phrase, “Mitakuye Oyasin,” which means we’re all relatives. Right now, I’m looking at this beautiful desert and I’ve learned so much from it. Feeling the life force from the trees and all the nature around me–I suddenly feel horny or aroused when I’m walking past desert plants. Why? I’m still exploring this raw energy and seeing where nature takes me.
RS: Sex Drive is your journey to get your sexuality back, right? What was hindering you from experiencing pleasure?
ST: My relationship got complicated by having vulvodynia. Suddenly, from having orgasms and being very sexual, it was physically painful for me to have sex. That was hard. Also, I was very proud of being a lesbian. It was a big deal to come out as a lesbian in the early 1990s before gay marriage was legalized. You’d still get beaten up for it, and there was no recourse from the law.
Since I was seeing a guy at the time my vulvodynia started, I was conflicted about that also, because, since the early 1990s, I’d identified as a lesbian. It was a drag for me to have to identify as a “bisexual,” a sexuality group I’d been ranting about for years (“Sellouts!” “Can’t make up their minds!” etc, etc.) The whole thing could be seen as a big karmic comeuppance! I now identify as a “bisexual lesbian” because the emphasis is on “lesbian” and I think that word has come to seem old fashioned in a world where the media is more titillated by how people define their gender than their sexual desire.
I had to get my sexuality back. When I set out to New York, I had started to get better. I was having less pain in my genitals. But then, I did Betty Dodson’s workshop. She asked, “What do you feel about your body?” That was a big deal. When I was younger, I always felt my belly was too fat. But now I’m 53, and I’m fine with it. There are even days when I love it! Attitudes to your body are always going to ebb and flow. The second question was, “What do you feel about your orgasm?” What a great question. No one ever asks that question. However, it was Regena Thomashauer who first taught me the phrase “pleasure revolution.” That’s where this word pleasure became key. If you’ve got a daughter, one of the most important things you can do is telling her that pleasure is important. That’s why I did the vision quest in the first place: I was trying to work out how to heal this pain.
RS: What about ayahuasca, the vision quest in the book, and how that played into your journey?
ST: You don’t necessarily want to tell everyone what your visions are but it’s probably time to release this one to the world. I did my first ayahuasca experience at the end of 2010. People were starting to talk about the big “2012 thing.” I was lucky that journalism enabled me to connect at this time with some very significant people. The Pyrennes-based Manex Ibar was the shaman I was introduced to at a glamorous fashion party in London by an Ab Fab spiritual PR friend of mine. (High society and spirituality are unlikely bedfellows – just like spirituality and sexuality.)
One of the most important images and memories of that ayahuasca journey was of a huge asymmetrical pink and gold vulva in space! It was the sign that I needed to do this book, although I didn’t work that out until later. The idea started coming together four years later in 2014. But it wasn’t an easy vocation. I thought, am I going to be some crazy person driving around America meeting crazy old women? There are lots of impediments to doing what we want, because of what it looks like, what people are going to think, but that didn’t bother me too much. I just did it. And I’m a writer. I hadn’t written a book in four years and this was the only idea that inspired me.
RS: There’s a lot of shame around pleasure. “Life is for your pleasure” is already a revolutionary statement.
ST: The opening quote in the book is from Lydia Lunch. “In times of war, women especially need to seek out more pleasure” People used to make jokes: “Oh, masturbation. Ha-ha.” I didn’t care. To me, it’s political.
RS: Are there any parts of this subject that still make you uncomfortable? Or are you totally past that?
ST: Writing about imagining having sex with people in a spaceship—that was easy. Vulvodynia was difficult to write about, but I was quite desperate at that time. I remember in one of Mama Gena’s workshops, a woman stood up and said that she had vulvodynia. Mama Gena said, “If you go into it, illness can teach you.” I didn’t know what the hell she meant. It pissed me off. But again, some messages take longer to sink in. My illness did indeed teach me a lot! Even in my moments of doubt when I was on the “Sex Drive,” the thing that spurred me on was that women are getting such a raw deal. Hardly any research has been done on the anatomy of the vulva, especially the clitoris. More women now know about this figure that there are 8000 nerve endings in a clit compared to 4000 in the dick. But as I found out in the course of my research, that this figure was found during a study that was done on a group of sheep! I’m glad to see so much more activism around female sexuality now. Maybe, someone, will one day come up with the bright idea of doing research on human beings with clits!
RS: It’s interesting that you saw the vulva in your ayahuasca trip, that your relationship to your pleasure is what needed healing.
ST: The vision of the asymmetrical vulva was certainly beautiful and slightly bamboozling at the time. But as Betty Dodson says, no woman has a symmetrical vulva, but in a sense, I was feeling not whole, I don’t know. It’s one of those deep memories always there.
RS: For a lot of women, or people in general, shame is a cause of a lot of illnesses. Sex, pleasure—these are sources of power, and that’s what makes it so uncomfortable.
ST: If we’re sexual and happy with our bodies, everyone is going to have a better time. The other thing that came across, from Betty, is how dangerous the narrative of Prince Charming is, the man that you’re waiting for to help you discover yourself. So many people make terrible decisions because of romance. It’s also little things—just allowing yourself pleasure. Pleasure and food are massive for me, for example. Pleasure is not an indulgence. There’s still this idea that if you want pleasure, you’re indulging.
RS: Is it leftover fear of hedonism? Or, being so out of your mind or control …? The one place you get to take the mind and chuck it in the bedroom, or wherever you want to do it!
ST: An orgasm is an experience of infinity. You will get an out-of-body, amazing experience. What’s going to happen when people can touch each other again, though? It might be a very sexual time, or people might get really complicated about it. I was doing a reading in 2018, and this guy who was clearly angry at my message asked me a question: “Why do you use the word ‘pleasure’ and not ‘joy’?” At the time my line was, “Pleasure is the nuts and bolts of having a good time: orgasm, kissing, eating – the kind of pastime that makes you come out with lots of embarrassing squeals and groans and grunts. ‘Joy,’ for me, was a more ethereal concept. Like, you might feel ‘joy’ when you’ve spent all day hiking in the desert and you finally end up on the top of that mountain looking at a beautiful sunset. “Joy” has got nothing to do with getting down and dirty with yourself in bed. But now I’m happy to embrace both joy and pleasure. I think we’re all dazed right now after the ‘apocalypse.’ I’m waiting for all the stories on the post-traumatic effects of the ‘confinement’ as the French called it. So sure, bring on the joy! Let’s all be kind to one another. But if you’re an angry man who’s freaked out by the idea of women being shame-free about sexuality, then you need to do some serious thinking or you’re going to have a very angry and unfulfilled life.
RS: Can you talk about how women have responded? What they’ve been able to express or access because of it?
ST: After the launch, there were twenty-somethings openly talking about their vibrators. The older women were talking about menopause. This book is also about giving women permission to talk about not just masturbation or how getting older impacts that (and it doesn’t and shouldn’t by the way) but their own sexuality without being embarrassed. Someone in her early 20s said, “There are all these sex toys for women but what about men?” I thought, “Wow! A few years ago no one would have ever said that. Sex shop culture was a very sleazy, male thing. Things are definitely changing. Once you start talking about this, people don’t want to stop. I did find that women were often more nervous than men coming forward and buying the book.
RS: What does that tell you?
ST: That a lot of work is still to be done.