Susie Bright's Story: Yes, Women Love Sex Too
About a third a way into her new memoir Big Sex Little Death (Seal Press) Susie Bright, writer, feminist, and sex-educator, tells a story about the time she went to a high school dance that was held, oddly yet appropriately enough, at the Playboy Club in Los Angeles.
At the dance, which was a banquet for the swim team, the cocktail waitresses were outfitted like Playboy bunnies with fuzzy little puffs pinned to their backsides. Bright got to talking to one and quickly asked her if she could touch her tail. The bunny’s response:
“Oh, for you, baby, anything,” she said, taking a perfumed step closer to my reach. Not spilling one drop, she turned around, and bent, just slightly, at the waist.”
Now if I told you this PG moment was the most erotic moment in the book you probably wouldn’t believe me. This is Susie “Sexpert” we are talking about, a woman known for her erotic writing and a trailblazer in sex-positive activism and feminist pornography.
But this isn’t a book by Susie Sexpert, replete with juicy ruminations on lust and fantasy, it is a book by Susie Bright, a once fearful Catholic school girl who’s sexual and intellectual awakening was personal before it was political.
Bright’s story begins with her childhood in the 1960’s, and her rocky relationship with her sharp yet unstable mother. As a teenager she moves to Los Angeles to live with her father and attend high school, during which she discovers, nearly simultaneously, socialism and sex and begins to write for the underground high school newspaper The Red Tide. She eventually leaves school to work as a full-time labor organizer with some gun-toting members of the International Socialist party, has stints in Detroit and the South, until she ends up getting kicked out of the organization and returns west.
The second part of her story focuses on her years in northern California in the 1980’s, when a job at one of the first feminist sex-toy store leads her to a gig at a new erotic magazine “On Our Backs,” the first of its kind published by women, for women. The magazine became an emblem of sex-positive feminism -- a movement that encouraged women to better understand, and perhaps more importantly, enjoy their sexuality. This was even more the case during after the publication received resistance from other feminists (including those that wrote for a publication called “off our backs”) who believed that all pornography caused harm to women.
“Of course, I took it personally,” Bright writes of the time. “How could these leaders and their shock troops think they had more in common with crooked televangelists than they did with me, someone who drew pictures of clits on walls?”
The book is light on exegesis, which wouldn’t work for all memoirists, but turns out to be a good thing in Bright’s case. Ideology and intellectualizations make way for the candid and anecdotal , and we are constantly reminded that this isn’t the manifesto of a movement, but rather the story of a person who thinks the world should know that women like sex too. Reading Bright is the equivalent of seeing her at your local farmers market wearing “This is what sex-positive feminist looks like” t-shirt. This is a good thing.
Bright was indeed a revolutionary, though reading her story reminds me of how tricky it is to follow the traces of that revolution today. On one-hand, her once radical ideas have become more mainstream. Take for example Jessica Valenti’s book He's a Stud, She's a Slut, and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know or even “What’s Your Number?” a new movie about a woman who has had twenty sexual partners. (The fact that the woman sees this is a problem is hardly feminist. The fact that Hollywood has made her a leading lady, not a sidekick, may be progress.)
But then there are other areas where the legacy of sex-positivism appears murkier. Is Miley Cyrus pole-dancing an example of a young woman owning her sexuality, or the hypersexualization of teenage girls? Is teenage promiscuity really getting worse, as the media reports? And how does that square away with the growing prudishness among politicians, those who refuse to discuss women’s sexual health like mature and intelligent adults?
“Sexuality authenticity is in rare supply right now,” said Bright in an interview. She explained that why we might be seeing more sex on stage in marketing campaigns, she sees less real sexual awareness on college campuses. The age of virginity has actually risen in the last few years, and more and more women Bright speaks to on college campuses have never had an orgasm or masturbated.
Bright said the difference between her work, and, for instance, Miley Cyrus’s stripper-inspired choreography, is self-determination, something she doesn’t think Cyrus has.
"Thinking that erotic writers, or sex educators, or activist midwives are somehow responsible for sexual vacuity is absurd,” Bright said. “We've been the last line of defense. It is religious zealots and their keepers who've set the public policies in motion that have devastated an equal playing field for women, or for anyone who was part of a civil rights struggle. Sex-positive feminism is a civil rights story, it's a First Amendment story, it's a creative explosion story, and therein lies its legacy.”