Alone at Last

With a great deal of haughtiness, our culture declares that the one sexual thing we can all agree upon is (ital)privacy.(end ital) The bathroom and the bedroom doors are closed. We say we would rather not be privy to the details. With a knowing air, we say that not only is it uncivilized to pry into sex, but it's also an exercise in self-defeat -- that to know it all and say it all is to render sex lifeless. Without mystery, we believe that our sex life will have no life at all.Just what that "great mystery" is supposed to entail has always been controversial. Is it the uncanniness of seduction, the riddle of sexual taboos, the puzzles of arousal?I'd say 90 percent of what's supposed to be intriguingly mysterious is nothing more than superstition. It's irresponsible because the lack of sex education in this country has nothing to do with the pleasure of privacy, and everything to do with being painfully ignorant. No other aspect of public health, except perhaps the nature and ritual of death itself, is so shrouded. It seems that we can't bear to look at the facts of making life, or leaving it. Privacy has been a pathetic excuse for a lot of people's pain and exploitation.It's not hard to win people over to the health benefits of learning about their bodies. I've got "Mr. Science" on my side. The tricky area of privacy is not the physiological but the psychological, where many adults feel that their romantic lives, fantasy lives, and erotic tastes are not intended for public discussion.The crux of that intent, unfortunately, is the criminalization of so many erotic discussions. You don't have to actually perform a "homosexual act" to be fired from your job; it can happen simply because you confided your thoughts to the wrong busybody.I once described a very intricate and surreal fantasy of mine, about living in a traveling circus, to a talk show producer who was preparing a program about women's sexual fantasies. She wrote me up on her crib card: "Susie Bright: into bestiality." Yes, that's just how I want to be broadcast to all my friends and family; turn me into the freak of the day. If I had been able to tell my fantasies in my own words, I would not have felt that my privacy was invaded. But when my words were twisted into this producer's tawdry pathology, I did feel like my privacy had been subverted. For me, the end of privacy comes when someone puts (ital)their(end ital) words in (ital)my(end ital) mouth, when my intimate ideas are twisted for someone else's not-so-intimate agenda.Privacy is also invoked as a way to keep a public silence about sleeping monsters. Certain topics, no matter how common, become the (ital)peur du jour,(end ital) the fear of the day. For example, writers looking for places to publish their erotic short stories nowadays are often warned by their publishers -- who put out erotica magazines by the dozen -- that no story will be printed that involves minors, including reminiscences of one's own life as a horny teenager. It comes as quite a shock when people who have nostalgic memories of making out in the backseat learn that their memoirs are considered "child pornography" by some legal interpretations.Where are the allies for sexual speech? The right to free speech, when you get right down to it, is the right to make someone else uncomfortable, to outrage the respectable, and to question everything held dear. Who, after all, needs protection to say they like Mom and apple pie? It's the same with our legal rights to privacy; they allow us to be private about the very things that other people wouldn't always understand or be partial to. We have idealized these concepts in our culture, but we haven't always protected them in our justice system. We have persecuted people (from socialists to separatists, gay liberationists to pot smokers) who made unpopular statements or did unusual things, and the public has screamed when the accused have brought their civil rights attorneys into court. How (ital)dare(end ital) they interpret the Constitution for their own philosophical ends!Every day in the paper I read another "scandal." Sometimes I get hopeful, like when I read about the woman who successfully defended her right to mow her lawn topless if she felt like it, even though some of her neighbors (none of whom had an easy view of her yard) thought her behavior should be censored. Other times, of course, I despair. Once I helped make a documentary about women's orgasm, and the broadcaster who had commissioned the project was so appalled at one of the orgasms we depicted -- I guess she likes her orgasms dry and tidy -- that she put a giant purple banner over the woman's vulva when the show reached her climax. When it comes to nude lawn mowing or sex education, the ignorant and fearful won't hesitate to turn to their prejudices, and they won't be easily silenced.I don't blame people for keeping so many things to themselves -- when, in a more respectful atmosphere, they might have shared them. We want to protect our families, our reputations, from being turned into a sideshow or a crime profile. If any of us dares to go public, we have to go public in our own words, because the only protection we have after we come out is finding our allies."Well, the problem is with the ones who want to be blatant," some say. My late lesbian aunt, of all people, had a huge chip on her shoulder about drag queens, gay parades, and any sort of "blatant sexual display," as she would call it. But this was the very same aunt who would never wear a dress, even the time I saw my mother cry at the kitchen table and beg her. This is the aunt who thought she was passing for straight in a polyester pantsuit, with an application of lipstick that looked like it had been painstakingly etched on by a kindergartner. When I became aware of gay history, I fantasized that I would call up Aunt Molly, and we would talk for hours about how things used to be in the forties and fifties when she first came out in the San Francisco gay community. Instead, I thought she was going to chop my head off."What is the (ital)point(end ital) in talking about any of this?" she said. "You and your blatant carrying-on are going to be the death of us." Well, I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt with bright pink women's symbols on it, but so were a thousand other women on the streets of Berkeley, where my aunt lived at the time. I still think she looked more butch than any of us. I didn't say that, though; I just said I felt that things that hurt would never change if we didn't talk about them. I might as well have sung "Kumbaya" to the Marine Corps. Molly worked herself into such a lather that she left and called my mother -- who was completely in the dark about her sister's love life -- to complain that I was sending "unwanted homosexual literature" to her home, and threatening her reputation.What a battle. I felt like driving up in front of her house with a big lavender triangle bus and a bullhorn, yelling, "Come out, come out, wherever you are!"The year before Molly died, she did come out to my mother. My mom was seventy and my aunt was sixty-eight. My mom loved her so much, and Molly's secret -- whatever its point was -- had been so painful. Yes, my aunt believed that her privacy, her security, was threatened because of the erotic blabbermouths, the gay rights militants, the militant sex-positive posse. I could never argue her into sympathy or support for all the flamboyant examples -- however crass or cheesy -- who made it easier for others to share a little of who they are sexually with their family or friends -- let alone walk down the street in a parade. Molly was labelled by others "blatant" because of how she looked, and she hated that -- she felt like she was just being herself, natural. I was blatant because of what I said out loud; and it's true, I had a lot more control. Was the issue privacy, or was it stereotyping, having your identity defined by others?As a nation, we've ignored the real carnage of privacy rights and indulged ourselves with the hasty and exploitative prejudices of intolerant voyeurs. By allowing ourselves to become the Tattletale Nation -- we're taping this, right? -- we have become obsessed over the trivia of privacy, the mechanical details of erotic disclosure. But where is our genuine regard for an individual's own definition? Even sympathetic critics have asked me if it hasn't ruined my sex life to have talked about myself so publicly. They picture me as a hollow shell, with all my sex life scooped out and baked for commercial consumption. But no, choosing to tell my own story to my own audience has never ruined anything for me. It's only when my words have been usurped by others that I have felt the rub of my pants being pulled down.From "FULL EXPOSURE: Opening Up To Your Sexual Creativity and Erotic Expression," by Susie Bright. Copyright (c) 1999 by Susie Bright. Reprinted by arrangement with HarperSanFrancisco, a division of HarperCollins Publishers Inc.To learn more about Susie Bright, check out her Web site at

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.