Susie Bright is known for her pioneering work as editor of lesbian sex magazine On Our Backs and the Best American Erotica series. She’s done everything from guest star on the show Six Feet Under to serve as a consultant on the film Bound. While she’s written about her personal life before, in books like Susie Sexpert’s Lesbian Sex World and Mommy’s Little Girl, with her latest, Big Sex Little Death (Seal Press), she explores her parents’ divorce and her tumultuous childhood, her teenager years as a socialist activist and work on the newspaper The Red Tide, and finally, the wild up and down revolutionary spirit and nitty gritty of running On Our Backs.
The stories she tells are often dramatic, sometimes violent, sometimes passionate, but it’s the writing here that is the most stunning. Bright has an eye for the telling and often detail (a dominatrix friend tells her, “I’m not spanking Republicans anymore. I’ve had it,” which Bright uses to riff on the divisive sexual politics within the lesbian feminist movement at the time), and her vivid characters (herself included) leap from the page, whether she’s a waitress being observed as a possible agent of the revolution to The Mitchell Brothers and John Preston.
Bright does far more than simply recount her life, she contextualizes it amidst the greater happenings in American culture, and does so with heart, vibrancy and compassion, from the drama of falling for her first girlfriend, the power of selling someone their first vibrator, and what pregnancy and motherhood taught her about herself. I emailed Bright in the middle of her nationwide book tour to find out about feminist disharmony, the politics of publishing and why she doesn’t plan to stop “sticking it to the squares.”
Why was now the right time for you to write your memoir, Big Sex Little Death? Had you started one previously? What was the most challenging part of writing it?
I was asked to the dance. There’s nothing like a deadline and a check to light a fire under your ass.
I’ve always had an autobiography on my mind. If you’ve read my books over the years, you could say it’s been one long saga in progress! Mommy’s Little Girl was about my first years as a parent, Susie Sexpert’s Lesbian Sex World was about the dyke orgy era, How to Write a Dirty Story was my professional memoir and how-to, etc.
Once I committed with Seal Press to do BSLD, the reason to nail it, to sprint to the finish line, was because, today, the rewriting of the feminist and queer sexual revolution by conservatives, centrists, and shame-gloaters is REVOLTING. It’s Revisionism Uber Alles.
Someone has to set the record right...More than one someone, actually. I want every woman who’s had an abortion without falling to pieces, who has no regrets in her sexual imagination, who’s raised strong capable children without superstition, who’s shared comradeship with lovers and relished the poetry of erotic illumination — I want all these women to start typing NOW.
What struck me while reading the book was how early you came to your convictions and activism. You dropped out of high school to live on your own and be an organizer and had a very full life, working, having sexual relationships and getting involved in activism that at times was extremely dangerous.
At times I had to pause and think to myself, “Wait, she was only 17!” Did that feel natural to you to be taking a route that was very much off the beaten path?
The crucible of Vietnam and civil rights movements — on every front — made my path more than natural, it was fundamental. Besides, 17-year-olds are capable of anything, they can stay up all night…I am perplexed by the infantilization of the leisure class.
I thought some of the most interesting parts were about the death threats and hate mail you got while at On Our Backs. They reminded me of the Dorothy Allison poem “The Women Who Hate Me.”
Ha! That’s funny, I had Allison’s poem on my night table for many years, as did many dyke-outliers.
When I started my memoir I wrote Dorothy and told her I was thinking of quoting her poem. But it was really her title that most unsettled and captivated me. I ended up just letting it work on my dream life, and it did its best work there.
The vitriol you faced seemed, at first, more unexpected than some of the opposition you got as a socialist organizer and like it took you by surprise. Was it more painful to face that kind of hostility from women you’d expected to be on your side?
I had never had a reasonable expectation that the monied, court-side feminist establishment would be on my side. Since when, historically, has there ever been any illusions about peace, love, and harmony in feminist movement? As a group, we’ve been fighting about “free love” since DAY ONE.
But, yes, it was still shocking to be the target of their infantry’s violence. The sex war scene was all very “Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” where the charismatic professor gins her “special girls” up into a frenzy to go off and join Mussolini.
I wouldn’t compare it as being worse or less than what I faced in the labor movement, or as a red. There were too many guns, knives, heavy objects and red-faced freakouts all the way around. I remember well the psycho in Kentucky who pulled up in his car as I handed out a flyer about frickin “maternity leave contract issues” — so wholesome! — in front of an auto plant employee parking lot. He pulled up close, lowered the window, and I drew near, ‘cause he had a big grin in his face. When I was right up next to him, he drew a pistol, stuck it in my stomach, and said, “Get your nigger-loving communist ass off this lot.”
Different style than the bomb-making, knife-wielding women’s studies students. Everybody’s got their personal nut on.
Similarly, a theme I noticed is this casting out, whether by your mother, the IS or the women you started On Our Backs with, and it all happened very painful ways, with you being accused of being the betrayer. Do you see a connection between those actions?
“Everybody’s out to get me!” Mwah ha ha ha!
My mom isn’t the same as Gloria Steinem or Andrea Dworkin — she loved me unconditionally. The dangers she placed me in were only the same as she put herself.
Even though Gloria and I share the same birthdate, I don’t think she loves me! ; -)
Politics is a different matter. The struggle to name a solution, to lead, is fierce. Plus, every group who’s been marginalized by oppression has a nasty cannibalistic streak. We scrounge over crumbs. We always tell ourselves, “Stay tight, don’t let The Man divide us,” but the internalized madness is quite daunting.
You know, everyone’s history has bitter stings, everyone gets thrown out of paradise. They are formative experiences, and certainly part of any narrative. But they aren’t the only climaxes. The embraces, the deep loves and kinships are just as powerful. I hope that comes across in my story!
Why did you choose Big Sex Little Death as the title? I’ve been puzzling over it, because the deaths, literal and figurative, in the book loom very large.
Because I’m a poet; that’s how I started writing in the first place. The title is an allusion. It’s like a song in your head. If you love Beat-era poetry as I do, that title’s right in the thick of it.
You’ve just started your book tour, and I’m curious about your audiences. Is there a typical Susie Bright fan? Is there a type of person you think will most relate to the book? Do you feel this book is more geared toward those who lived through the seventies and eighties along with you?
An enthusiastic reader just wrote on my FB Wall, “Keep stickin’ it to the squares, Susie!” That cracked me up.
It’s amazing how untypical my readers are; I never know who’s walking through the door. It’s anyone who’s ever had a searing moment of self-contemplation, who’s ever laughed in bed, who’s ever sat down in street and said “ENOUGH!”
As for generations, of course if you were “there,” it’s one thing, but young people are always looking at the primary sources of history, particularly those revolutionary times which are freighted with mythology, like the cultural revolution of my generation. I always have looked into the past for answers, myself.
What advice would you have for those who want to go into the field of sexuality, whether as educators, writers, sex workers, etc.? Is there a certain personality type that’s best suited to facing the kinds of sex-negative slings and arrows that come with it?
Well, I'm so ridiculously over-sensitive that I’d say the door is wide open for all kinds. Big crybabies and people who pee in their pants laughing are welcome. Empathy is all you need.
As a society, has American culture gotten more knowledgeable and open-minded about sex? It seems like in some ways we have, but in others we are regressing. Are you optimistic?
Better? Yes. Worse? Yes. To quote my favorite Roland Barthes exclamation:
"I am reduced to endurance.... I suffer without adjustment, I persist without intensity, always bewildered, never discouraged. I am a Daruma doll, a legless toy endlessly poked and pushed, but finally regaining its balance, assured by an inner balancing pin.
"But WHAT is my balancing pin? The force of love?
"...Such is life, falling over seven times and getting up eight."
Obviously, “optimism” isn’t what’s required. Activism is.
What’s next for you?
I'm writing a book which only has a nickname so far: Mom’s Sex Diary. It’s about how parents evolve sexually from their own pregnancies to witnessing their children’s puberty. Raising kids changes your sex life…and foretells their future love lives. Lots of ground to cover!
But then, of course there’s a second memoir, more dirt. I’ll call it, Sticking it to the Squares, The Sequel!
Susie Bright is currently on a book tour for Big Sex Little Death; find out more at susiebright.com and follow her @susiebright on Twitter. Big Sex Little Death is available in bookstores now.