My interview with the inimitable sex icon, on the publication of her new memoir
April 8, 2011
Susie Bright has had a storied life and career as a sex educator, editor of erotica, and commentator and promulgator of queer/feminist sexual politics. Her most recent memoir, Big Sex, Little Death provides details about her early life and adolescence as a sexually forthright young woman who became a member of the International Socialists, a labor organizer, a poet and writer and, eventually, a founding editor of On Our Backs,the first female-run lesbian erotica magazine which drew the ire of lesbian and straight feminists alike for its frank depictions of female sexuality.
YASMIN NAIR: Let's talk about the structure of the book. The first two-thirds seems more impressionistic than the last third. The last parts are more detailed and chronological concerned as they with, primarily, On Our Backs. Could you talk about that stylistic difference, and what says about your approach to the subject matter?
SUSIE BRIGHT: Some of it was intuitive. I was intimidated at the beginning because it was the first long-form narrative that I’ve done that felt novelistic. I've done long-form political treatises but not like this. If I could have written everything with poetry and impressionism from beginning to end, I probably would have liked that better as a writer. There were times when I felt this public pressure, like my readers would want me to say something about x. I'll give you an obvious example: So many people ask me how do you raise your daughter, how do you ge involved with your sex life when you have kids. They wanted advice, in certain respects, the educator part of me came out and the poet had to go sit in the corner. If I was more clever and more experienced with this kind of writing, I wold have loved to tell more stories, and I did but it was too long. It would have taken another 200 pages to really unpack that as beautifully as I might have had in my Proustian mind [laughs].
On the other hand, the little scenes I show from the International Socialists and the Red Tide [as examples], I would get very detailed [as in this moment when I’m in Detroit, and this crazy vet loses his mind] so you've got these snapshots. Whenever I could, I found a moment to give a feeling of this new social world that I became a part of and these women who became very important to me. Later on, I had to march the action along.
YN: You write about your early experience with the International Socialists, and your clear disappointment with them. Would you say you still identify as someone on the left, and is so, how?
SB: These isms and labels are just fraught with misinterpretations but on a very general level, yes, I still consider myself a socialist. It means a great deal of my worldview is driven by class consciousness and about following the money and that capitalism puts profit above the survival of the species to a cruel and self-extinguishing degree. When I saw the young people taking to the streets in Tahrir Square, I knew exactly what they were going through. I knew they were staying up all night having sex and talking and singing and not letting their hopes burn and how they're not going to let the old people screw it up. And when the citizens and workers of Wisconsin said, “We're not going to take it any more, we're not going to bow and scrape and say thank you master,” it was so good to see a response against that dominant paradigm.
YN: You have this critique about the right wing clamping down on sexuality, and sexual freedom and expression. Given that you've been very clear about the profit motive – is there an overt critique of capitalism [in your work]?
SB: I used to get into trouble with the International Socialists [laughs] if I didn't write at the end: “this is why capitalism is bad.”
YN: Yes, but is worth us returning to that question of capitalism, without using that cliched rhetoric? We don't seem to think about capitalism so much when we think about sex, or do we? Do we think about capitalism when we think about sex?
SB: As far as what activism and discussion is like now: I find it amazing that amongst my daughter's generation, you can now use the word “capitalism” and everybody knows what it means and it's not considered a sneaky, dirty, commie thing. When I was becoming familiar with Marxism, you could not say the word “capitalist” without people saying, “do you hate this country?” And the rest of the world was never like that. In the US, the red-baiting had made certain words off the table.
The sexual anxiety that the ruling class has promoted is this double-standard titillation that we see the media drowning in. Why is that? Because if a woman is nothing more than the producer of your heir, it's very important that you control her sexuality, it's very important that she doesn’t fuck around. The more valuable the dynasty, the more valuable the heir – it's almost like a royal wedding. The royal wedding is a mirror of the the false consciousness about sexuality that we have these days of. Unfortunately, because the mainstream Democratic party feminists have been so parochial in their focuses and threw so many women out of the movement, they haven’t been able to face the big picture and look at the attacks they're sustaining. What's happened to planned parenthood in just the last few months would have been unbelievable a year ago. When you don't have a thriving women's movement that is united around sexual self-determination and sexual self-empowerment for women, if you don’t have that point of view you can't defend your causes and your territory like you need to.
There are always people like me on the left who say, grow a pair of balls, defend this, defend the whole thing. Don't just sit there saying, “Well, it's so sad, every time there's an abortion, but we're just trying to help with family planning.” Why don't more women say, “I want an abortion, and it's none of your business, and my uterus that has a whole life that goes on for years and years and it's none of your fucking business.”
YN: You write about your daughter [in the book]. Are there generational shifts? In your book, there's this delightful moment where you were accused of sleeping with a schoolmate's boyfriend, and you turned around and said what's your problem with that? That discovery of a sexual ethos that isn't so much about possession, about claiming “my boyfriend,” ...
SB: [laughs] When I was my daughter's age [Bright's daughter is 20], we would have been embarrassed [to say that].
YN: Right. It seems like teens are being encouraged to become much more puritanical, and that notion of teenagers sleeping around because it was just fun seems to have been erased. Do you think there's a possibility of that returning?
SB: There's a real class divide on this too. There was an article that recently appeared that said it turns out that recent college grads have had far less lesbian experience than women who haven't gone to college, and it defied defined this titillating notion that women go to college and have little lesbian flings. And I said that this survey doesn't surprise me, but it doesn't explain something else, which is that these recent colleges grads who didn't have same-sex experiences also didn't go to bed with boys either or, if they did , it was far less frequently. They're a less experienced generation in sex over all. It's this group that has been kept in a hothouse and supervised by their parents as if they were royal infants from day one, it's that group. The group that hasn't been supervised every minute, and had every hour of every day planned for them: those people who have been making their way throughout their life without the Ivy Leagues have been more impulsive, impromptu, very experimental in their sex lives, not necessarily within the context of a bohemian movement but just because life presents itself with sexual opportunities. And there's nobody in your life saying, “No darling, you mustn’t go to bed with anyone or you won't get your PhD or you won't get into the best schools, or you won't have a future, you won't have a good job, you just have to postpone that.” That is the the mantra of the frightened parent that says that if we don't keep them pure, we'll lose everything, our future will become insecure.
I don't think it's everyone who's so bloody celibate. I just think that the upper class sets the tone and controls the media. It's like watching one of those television shows when I was a kid. I would think to myself, “How come all the parents on this show are married how come no one's divorced.” Of course, that's changed, you know what I mean, but it's a picture that isn't altogether real.
YN: Where are queers in relation to sex? Given the state of the current gay movement which is focused very much on gay marriage and on establishing the reasons why it deserves the same rights and proving to be capable of conjugal fidelity...
SB: [Laughs] Right, because that's so important. And proving themselves capable of adultery.
YN: Right, yes, now that we can get married, we can also be adulterous, how delightful. You talk in your book about the gay daddies who actually helped keep the publication going and also kept the spirit of that sexual revolution going. Where do you think queers are today in relation to notions of sexual freedom and expression and sex in general, given all of this?
SB: It's a more conservative group, certainly. It's been a very awkward position because it was so much gay artists, intellectuals, left-wingers, revolutionaries of all stripes who birthed the gay movement. We've always thought we would be setting the tone and when the marriage issues came up and the military issue came up, we were like, well, yes, certainly, it is an issue of fairness and civil rights, but honest to god, who wants to join the army anyway? I couldn’t believe that was going to get traction on that and boy, was I wrong. I feel passionate – I cry when I see those army vets who've been thrown out after years of service. I was so proud of San Francisco's City Hall when we started doing marriage and let the rest of the world go to hell. It's true on the most basic rights of a citizen – if you're really legal, and you could say the same thing about sex work - if you're really legal you should have all the rights, you should have access to law and order just like anyone else. It is absolutely a valid issue. If that, however, is the scope of it...some of my friends who are fighting these battles, like in the ACLU or in gay rights organizations: they have a hard enough job as it is but there have got to be other dimensions to what we're all about besides being victimized by second-class citizenship. And that is because the very notion of being queer raises issues about a sexual spectrum and a gender variety and a sexual variety that interests us as an entire species.
People really aren’t so black and white as we like to make out, we're not all gay or all straight. In some ways the gay movement has tried to shoehorn themselves into a nuclear family, straight-thinking square dichotomy. If you're going to be gay but you want to be square – here's what it looks like, it doesn't quite fit, but try to fit yourself into it anyway. It's like an ill-fitting pair of shoes, and it's an ill-fitting pair of shoes for everyone, including men and women who live with each other and have sex and get married. People are just a lot more unexpected than we like to make out, and what they want out of life and how they regard their sexual philosophy, how they see themselves as masculine and feminine and everything else outside of that: that territory is very real and the extent to which we ignore that and ignore critiques of Squaresville, we do so at our peril. I so wish that these laws would get passed, gay marriage and the gay military, if only because once it were done, there would be this fabulous moment where you'd say, now, now, can we talk about something else? Could we get out of the baby stages, because it's long overdue and this is absolutely wonderful and I've stayed up partying but now I want to move on?
YN: You write about your entanglements, especially during the time of On Our Backs, with lesbian separatists and anti-porn feminists.
SB: I'd give my eyeteeth to meet lesbian separatists today. Now, it seems so romantic...I’d be happy to be in a lesbian separatist commune at any moment, it sounds fabulous to me, you got to be the whipping girl of the entire feminist movement [who said], “Oh, yeah, those man-haters, it serves them right.” It was never like that, it was never the right-wing stereotype about man-hating . There was a lot of really awesome do-it-yourselfism, and independence and economic freedom and art and culture that came out of it, and not all of it was sexually puritanical. That was also a lie. It was a mixed bag. I'm still waiting to read the ultimate analysis of why it so spectacularly died out as a philosophy.
When I was in On Our Backs, it was so frustrating because we would do our magazine and we'd have women say, “Well, you shouldn't do this magazine because if a man sees it, we're ruined.” And I said, “No, we're not going to hide. I don't care if they see it, I want you to see it. And I want you to be in it and I want you to write for it.” And I said, “Do you see gay men hiding and worried that some straight woman is going to pick up their magazines? We need to be a lot braver about who we are and more confrontational.” That was a difficult and weird sectarian moment. There is no real lesbian separatist movement now and I'm sorry for it. I miss the separatists. I like having more variety in our political life. I just hate the sameness and only having two alternatives.
YN: Where do you think feminists are, especially the anti-porn feminists, in relation to sexual politics?
SB: There's a professional class of anti-porn campaigners, and it consists of evangelicals and certain feminist-background people who've made it their gig. And they lost a lot of points in the porn wars and so they've moved on to trafficking, and they've been rather successful at establishing this word and this meme which is filled with junk science and spurious claims. They've gotten to the point where anybody they disagree with for any reason is a trafficker. They have very conservative politics on migration and internationalism, and they have no class consciousness about sex work as work, they have no empathy or compassion for the labor issues of sex work, and they don't listen to anybody. They make a nice little penny off the government tit of sexual control to the extent that they've joined arms with certain NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and certain law and order elements.
If you tell the Attorney General that we're going to go after the traffickers, boy, you're going to make a lot of political hay out of it by saying, “They [the traffickers] are just a bunch of disgusting people anyway, they're worthless. And we'll find victims too, we'll find them all.” Okay, a few million dollars later, they really don't have the claims, they don't have the data, but it doesn't matter because it's trafficking, quote unquote, neon letters, flash, flash, flash. I get very excited about the international sex worker organizations, who will not let these positions go uncommented upon, who speak a little truth to the power.
When you talk about where they're at, it's funny because back in the old days, some of these anti-porn people posed as separatists [laughs]. It's hysterical, they are so in bed with the highly patriarchal government establishments to control women's lives, and with the patriarchy of the religious Christian Right, it's just absurd. I mean, that's who their financial and influential allies are.
Interview edited for conciseness. A version appeared in Windy City Times.