When I recently got sex writer Susie Bright on the phone, she wanted to tell me what she was wearing. One might expect a sexual revolutionary like herself to be clad in latex, leather -- or maybe nothing at all. Instead, she was swaddled in a wool jumpsuit and clogs. "Do I sound scary and kinky?" she asked with a laugh. "Are you trembling?" Bright is 52 years old now and the mother of a 20-year-old daughter, whom she teamed up with in recent years to co-write a sex column for Jezebel. She may have traded in her punk rock leathers for one of the least erotic materials on the planet, but her fierce rhetoric about sexual freedom and pleasure has stayed the same.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in her new memoir, "Big Sex Little Death." It takes readers through her early childhood in, where else, Berkeley, Calif.; the turbulent years she spent moving from place to place with her mother after her parents' divorce; her teenage days working for underground student newspaper the Red Tide and volunteering for a radical, gun-toting socialist organization; and her time in San Francisco, where she worked at Good Vibrations, one of the first female-friendly sex shops in the country, and at the pioneering lesbian erotica magazine On Our Backs. It's the tale of how a brainy Irish Catholic girl blossomed into by far one of the bravest and sharpest sex writers of our time.
I talked to the former Salon columnist and author of "The Sexual State of the Union" about how the feminist establishment is "worse than the Vatican," where the sexual revolution went wrong and why she hates the term "casual sex."
When did you first become aware of the lack of awareness or concern about women's pleasure?
My dad gave me a subscription to Ms. magazine when I was 12, which just delighted me to no end. I remember seeing an advertisement that used the word "masturbate," and the moment I saw that word in context I knew what it meant. I knew that suddenly this was an objective reality and that Satan was not in my underpants. Just one word opened the truth to me.
I became alert to the hypocrisy around women's sexuality. I came of age at the height of women's liberation. There was all this material in the news. You had "The Hite Report"; I had read the whole thing front to back and I hadn’t even kissed anyone yet. At that time there was a lot of outreach to young people where I lived in Los Angeles about the free clinic and you could very quickly get a crash course in birth control and pap smears. At the same time, the feminist women's health centers were creating this movement to start your own health group where you'd get out the speculum, open your legs and everyone would take a look at everyone else's cervix. It was the first genuine science education I'd ever had.
Before that point I remember just reading stuffy books that said, "Young men largely masturbate but only a minority of women do," and I thought to myself: I bet that's not true. If a square, sheltered dumb-dumb like me is doing it I just can't imagine that I'm some bizarre minority.
There are lots of things about your early sex life that could be quite controversial -- you're underage and sleeping with much older adults. But you write about the experience like it was very positive overall.
Oh, I feel that way. When I talk nonchalantly publicly about becoming sexually active at 16, people are like, "Oh my god you were underage!" And I'm like, "Are you kidding me?!" You think I was wearing diapers? You want to see a picture of me at 16? I'm working, I'm going to school, I'm having sex, I have a huge social life, I'm politically involved in meetings from morning to night, I take care of a household with my dad. I'm a beginning grown-up. I had the foolishness and naiveté and clumsiness of a teenager, but when you're ready you're ready. When you think about this on more of a global or species level, it's kind of ridiculous how we infantalize teenagers.
From there you were introduced to this world of casual sex where the idea was that, as you say, "sex would be friendly and kind and fun. You'd get to see what everyone was like in bed." How did that idea pan out in practice?
Well, first of all, I detest the term "casual sex" -- since when is it actually casual, this so-called casual sex? Every time I was with someone it was intimate. It was intense. I got to know them and they got to know me on levels we certainly wouldn't have known if we hadn't gotten together -- and I don't just mean what their bottom looked like, I mean their personality, their feelings. You're vulnerable with someone. I mean, some people say, "No, I'm made of steel. I just go in there and fuck." Have I ever experienced that, at all? I just don't find sex to be this jaded, cynical, stoic exercise. How do you manage to do that and have an orgasm? I don't.
Rather than say "casual sex," I would say, "What was it like to have more than one lover? What was it like to be in love or in crush with more than one person at the same time? What was it like to be sexually active without being shamed at all, ever?" I mean, the whole slut-shaming thing, I don't think I even heard that word until I was much older. It just would have sounded quaint to me. It would have been impossible in the crowd I was running in to be put down for being sexually interested in more than one person. I know that some of my comrades found it trickier to navigate because they felt deeply in love with one person and they wanted to nest with them and it made them a lot more nervous and hurt. It was tough sometimes.
Most people who ask me about this are coming from a place of serial monogamy, or where they've had secrets or cheating, and I'm kind of like: Well, how's it been for you? Monogamy isn't a religion. It's not like you believe in it and all of a sudden all your problems are solved. Meanwhile, your life goes on and you deal with real people and their real animal instincts and impulses and idiosyncrasies. That's what actually happens, so how do you cope with that? At that time, sex was a way to find out a lot very fast about someone.
When I think about the really creepy scary things that happened to me in my young sex life, it has nothing to do with [the friends I slept with]. It's the time I went hitchhiking and some guy exposed himself to me in the car, or the time some guy followed me home from the library and then looked my name up in the phone book and kept bothering me. That didn't have anything to do with me being young or having more than one lover or any of these other staid puritanical fairy tales about why I should be so miserable.
One of my favorite passages in the book is a scene in your women's studies class in college. A student reveals that she has rape fantasies and the classroom explodes with shouts of, "It's the patriarchy!"
It's fun to laugh about it now. It was so scary at the time.
Right, well, you write that sex education in women's studies classes was an odd duck. Why is that?
The template for feminist sex education in the '70s was "Our Bodies, Our Selves." It did everybody this massive gift of popularizing clear information about our physiology. When it came to anatomy, the women's movement was all on the same page. You know, "Here is your clitoris. Here is your vulva. Masturbation is fabulous." But as soon as you got above the neck and started talking about the erotic mind -- where our sexual imagination goes when we're daydreaming, masturbating or in bed with someone -- then people started getting very nervous. The feminist movement had a difficult relationship with everything to do with the shadow side, the psychological world.
The term "rape fantasy" is an oxymoron, because of course when you're actually assaulted there's nothing fantastical about it. In a fantasy, you control every quiver, every nuance -- you're as scared as you wanna be. The tension, the suspense is completely under your control. That's the opposite of a non-consensual act of violence.
That brings us to the so-called feminist sex wars of the time.
There was one group of people who said, "Sex is part of the revolution. So is the ability to express ourselves and say how we feel about sex and explore our wildest dreams and thoughts, and you have to talk about it now." And then there was another group of people who said," If you don't shut up, we're gonna lose the whole thing. You're going to derail the movement." There was the bohemian side of the women's movement and there was the puritanical side, which was confronting me at every turn.
What happened was a certain kind of feminist leader became an establishment power force -- that would be Gloria Steinem and all the mainstream feminist leaders in her wake. They lumped everything into pornography that had to do with sexual imagery. I wish I could get her in a corner and say: Is there one erotic picture from any year in the history of the world that you think is OK or find inspiring or moving? Of course there would be -- in fact these people probably have homes filled with erotic art. I began to realize the hypocrisy about sexual freedom in the feminist establishment was as bad as it is in the religious right. They do whatever they want. They look at whatever they want, they masturbate to whatever they want, they fuck whoever and however they like. I couldn't even say everything I know in the book because it would just be too cruel and personally invasive. But I've had it with their lying. I spent so long trying to have these earnest conversations and now I'm like, "Fuck you -- you're as bad as the Vatican!"
Were you surprised by the intense feminist backlash to On Our Backs magazine?
Obviously you wouldn't start a magazine called, On Our Backs [a parody of the feminist anti-pornography newspaper "off our backs"] with that tongue-in-cheek sarcasm if you didn't understand that there was a feisty debate. That was part of why we were doing it. We were sticking our tongues out. But how could I have anticipated the economic and social power of a group to say, "You won't be sold. You will be blacklisted. We will incite our most deranged members to physically attack you and tell you that you should be dead." I mean, c'mon, it's just crazy.
I've been thinking a lot about the abortion fight that's going on right now. What if the women's movement had kept its eye on the ball? What if we had realized what was at stake? We saw it, the Moral Majority was being formed at this time in the '80s, and we should have been saying, "We need to pull together everyone we've got and strategize on these issues because we're in for the fight of our lives and our daughters' lives." But, no, we had a sectarian battle over pornography. The FBI didn't bother to infiltrate the women's movement, but if they had, they couldn't have come up with a better plan to sow the seed of destruction. I'll still go to places where a feminist activist gingerly approaches me, not quite sure we still have anything to talk about and worried about whether I'm on the right side. It's a little hard to keep that crap up at this point.
In the book, you ask a great question, which I'm going to steal and ask of you right now: "How do you get from Patti Smith to Girls Gone Wild?"
Do I answer that or do I just whine? Is it me stabbing the knife in my chest and asking my last mournful question? It's an anguished cry. I'm talking about a radical free spirit that I associate with my coming-of-age. Patti Smith is a persona that embodies that to me. I think of all the creative, inspired energy around artists like that. It felt like, yeah, Patti Smith is one of us. We were all frantically writing our own poetry and standing on the street corner howling. It was this thrilling moment where you had a number of female role models who made you feel like you were coming alive. And now the entertainment business, particularly music, it's just so banal. The soufflé of poufy female sexuality was certainly there in the '60s but there were also these more radical women in the spotlight. Really radical. And now those women are like me. They're out there, they're talkative, they're outspoken but they are not the pabulum diet, the popular sugar.