Photo by Honey Lee Cottrell
For almost three decades, feminist sex writer Susie Bright has taken America on a guided tour of her sex life, offering political ruminations, writing advice and titillating anecdotes. But what do we really know about her life outside of the bedroom? Her new memoir, “Big Sex, Little Death” addresses this omission, offering characteristically frank, often startling accounts of topics as varied as Bright’s early work as a founding member of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, her fraught family life, and the truth behind her ongoing feud with anti-sex crusaders.
Our Town Why write a memoir now?
Susie Bright When the publisher approached me, my parents had died recently and I was learning things I never would have discovered if they were alive. I thought I knew everything about my family, but there are people who come out of the woodwork, there’s a box of letters that falls in your lap. I also had a twenty-year perspective on the highlights of the feminist sex wars, things I didn’t discuss when we were in the thick of it. It’s funny how some of the biggest things in your life, you realize you’ve never told anyone.
OT You write that women’s memoirs are often diet books or tell-alls. Why?
SB It’s the snake biting its own tale. Mainstream media and publishers say no to anything truly original. I once proposed a book about my experience as a sex positive feminist and parent to one of my former publishers who said, ‘You can’t be a mom and a sex goddess at the same time.’ I laughed my ass off, although I could only laugh so much because it was a rejection. The professional climate is rife with male chauvinism. A friend of mine’s daughter recently got an editing post at a digital media company, but she wants to do international reporting. She’ll hafta buy her own ticket and airdrop herself into the gnarliest situation she can, because of the gender rigidity in mainstream media publishing. There’s a tracking regime, like, ‘Would you like to write about diapers? How about edit these very important men’s work? You don’t want to do news and hard Op-ed, are you kidding? Wouldn’t you feel better working in PR and marketing and all these other areas where strangely, there are lots of other women?’ We’re faced with those obstacles, which you can get really mad about, and stamp your feet, but you might also find you’re participating. It’s not enough for me to worry about where I get to publish or what I get to say. What am I doing in terms of publishing other women’s real life adventure stories? If I’m not doing that then I can just shut up.
OT Reading your book, I was struck by your bravery. You talked your way out of many explosive situations. Do you look back in amazement?
SB In the moment I didn’t have any doubts. Like, I have to hitchhike to San Francisco, what the hell are you doing obstructing my path with your gun and your psychosis? Afterward is when you open your eyes in the middle of the night. In a narrative, of course, those elements are dramatic highlights. Most of the time my life could be called ‘the kindness of strangers.’ I’m talking to you from Baltimore, where I’ve just been kissed and fed and treated like a queen by people I’d never met. Being plugged in and open to new experiences is definitely worth it.
OT You write about anti-sex advocate Kittie Mackinnon publicly decrying porn and rough sex, but privately sleeping with a woman who in your mind embodied kinky sex. Why do people like her condemn what they enjoy?
SB Look at the GOP Christian zealots who get caught with their pants down in the public square. Same reason, they believe they’re special. If they have a kinky sex life, if they like naughty pictures, if they entertain themselves with taboos, if they have secret prostitute friends, they can handle it because they’re different, they’re entitled. You see this all the time among the uber elite. It’s an aristocratic point of view, which is why sexual freedoms and sexual speech is the foundation of democracy, the litmus test. If people can’t make their own decisions about their sex life and speak freely about it--we’re talking everything from reproductive rights to what you like to fantasize about-- it means there’s a group of people setting up and enforcing public policy in vindictive and prejudiced ways.
OT Have your thoughts on anti-sex supporters evolved over time?
SB I used to want to have these earnest discussions, prove how much we had in common, how it was all a big misunderstanding. Now I realize it’s for naught. Somebody asked me if I’d read something new that Gail Dines [A leading sex negative feminist] had written, I said the only thing I want to read from Gail is her tax return.
OT Sexual imagery seems rampant today, yet women’s sexual options seem circumscribed. In other words, sexy has a specific, shaved, thin, plastic look. Why the disconnect?
SB People say there’s so much sex in the media today but this word ‘sex’ means nothing. You’re seeing advertising-driven titillation. If you buy X you will get laid. But, oh my god, you need to buy one more thing, sorry, then you’ll be really sexually attractive--this carrot and stick approach. I tried to use my book as a [counter example]. I wanted sexual scenes to be authentic, move the story forward and offer insight into what goes on in people’s heads during sex. Sometimes you find real sexuality in moments in independent films or some of the better television; moments that are searing or funny because they touch on something that nobody really says.
OT Speaking of TV, what led to your cameo on “Six Feet Under?”
SB You can tell from the direction Alan Ball’s gone with “True Blood,” he has wide reaching, radical, sex positive ideas. One of “Six Feet’s” main writers Jill Soloway, had written a brief mention of my name in an early episode. A character is excited about a new person they’ve met and says ‘She’s just like Susie Bright.’ An HBO suit, a woman, maybe the Kittie MacKinnon of HBO, said ‘The name Susie Bright will never be said on this show.’ It was a trivial piece of dialogue, but it’s like, is what I have to say about women’s sexual self-determination so corrosive that the horses must be protected? Years later, Jill and I became pals through the publishing world, and she calls me up and she says ‘Alan’s closing the show. I’m writing my last episode and I want you on it.’ What an honor! When I got the script I realized Jill’s revenge was at some point, virtually every major character in the episode turns to somebody and says, “Oh, Susie Bright, you know, the feminist sex writer.” It becomes this recurring joke. Obviously I’m a miniscule part of the show, but Jill is one of the many women I connect with creatively who, thank God will not shut up about women and sex.
OT Any thoughts on Scott Walker and the chaos in Wisconsin?
SB I have both the Egyptian and Wisconsin flags flying outside my home. I’m so excited people are saying, ‘How dare you turn on us and say we’re the reason there’s a problem or even that there is the problem you say there is?’ The way Walker behaves, again it’s that aristocratic thing, you little people need to serve us. How dare you want job security, a pension, collective bargaining? Marie Antoinette would blanch at the kind of crap coming out of the GOP and their centrist democrat lap dogs. And poor and working class people are constantly asked to pick between these intensely grim choices. Somebody has to keep articulating that there are other options. [Michael] Moore said this country is wallowing in riches; it’s simply in fewer hands, that couldn’t be truer. The idea that somehow all the wealth disappeared is a lie. I wish Studs Terkel was still alive and could also be sticking it to the fat cats. A humbling is in order. In discussions [on the book tour], we talk just like you and I; we just cover everything. People ask labor questions interchangeably with sex questions. None of us is even flinching, it’s like, yeah, this is all the same thing, we know how it connects.
Susie Bright reads from her memoir Women and Children First, Friday, April 15th at 7:30 p.m.
A freelance writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum, when not writing, supports herself as a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago's Story Studio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She’s kind of looking forward to it actually. IMPORTANT: the official Our Town site doesn't support comments. Join in the conversation by followingOur Town on Facebook and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez