THE SEXPERT’S SLANT: Susie Bright on Porn, Erotica, Orange is the New Black and How Prudery Kills….
Twenty years ago, when Susie Bright published the first-ever anthology of women’s erotic fiction, Herotica, the publishing industry shrieked, “Women want romance, not sex!” They, of course, were wrong–way wrong. Herotica did so well that it landed Bright a new book series, The Best American Erotica, which still thrives two decades later.
The Slant reached out to America’s beloved sex critic to get a temperature on contemporary sexual politics. In her view, our cultural discourse on sexuality remains as frighteningly dishonest and out of touch as the publishers who pooh-poohed Herotica back in 1993.
Ms. Bright, electrifying and as sassy as ever, gave us her spin on internet porn, misperceptions about erotica, and Netflix’s new hit show Orange is the New Black. She also warned about the deadliness of prudery.
Who anointed you “Susie Sexpert”and how did you become a sex activist/critic?
I wrote in my first book, Susie Sexpert’s Lesbian Sex World, that my advice persona was borne out of a tantrum. A comic tantrum.
I was working on the first issue of On Our Backs (OOB). There we were, putting together the first lesbian sex magazine, and unbeknownst to us, the first women’s sex magazine of any kind. We followed every mad impulse we had.
At the time, the 80s, there were “sex columns” in the daily newspapers, but they were so quaint and prudish that they were a constant source of satire. In San Francisco, I bet a lot of people remember “Ask Beth.” Asking Beth was like asking Nancy Drew where her clitoris was.
I decided on a whim to do a sex advice column for OOB with a dyke point of view. I think my first target was the politically correct rhetoric about what lesbians could and couldn’t do in bed. It was so absurd. I wrote, “Ladies, penetration is as ‘heterosexual’ as kissing.” There’s no sexual activity that belongs to one gender or one group of people.
Since OOB, I’ve written many books on what the Sexpert sobriquet eventually added up to.
Some people said Sexpert was just the inevitable alliteration with my first name. We will never know who first said it, because I don’t remember!
Critics sometimes used it disdainfully, as if it defined a facile, superficial gossiper of sex. I never would’ve guessed that definition in those early years. If you went public as a sex activist and educator in America, you could count on getting arrested. You’d better fucking know what you were talking about.
And worse, threatened. In 1994, I was scheduled to give a talk, Susie’s Sexual State of the Union at Wellesley, and the police came into the hall where I was about to speak, and said we had to clear it out, pronto, because there’d been a bomb threat phoned in. It was dead serious. We all stood out in the snow. The police were so puzzled. “Why does someone want to kill you?” they asked.
That wasn’t the only time. I had one crazed do-gooder rush at me with a blade in the bathroom when I was 7 months pregnant, because she was was going to “stop genocide against women.” She was trying to impress Andrea Dworkin (the anti-pornography feminist).
We’ve read that part of your credo is “prudery kills.” Guess that’s what you meant by that!
Well, on a bigger level, the political shambles of how the world reacted to the AIDS crisis, to child abuse, to the Church abuse scandals, are all vivid portrayals of how prudery is killing people left and right, damage untold.
No one ever died, or even got a sneeze, from looking at an erotic picture or reading a sexually evocative story. Or hearing the truth about their bodies. No one.
Your Wikipedia page says that you’ve identified as a “dyke” your whole life, but you’re bisexual in your choice of partners. If that’s true, would you elaborate?
Your question makes me smile, because I imagine running around in diapers as an Amazon Tot, with a dyke safety pin holding it all together.
I came of age in a radical feminist milieu in L.A. in the 70s. My first sexual experience of any kind—as in kissing, which led to everything else in one afternoon—was with a man and woman. I felt more “chosen” than choosing. It just happened, and voila. I was drawn to both men and women. I didn’t contemplate it. And it never ended.
We’ve read that you’re in a longtime, open relationship with artist Jon Bailiff? Can you talk a little bit about how you negotiate the parameters of that?
I’m getting a kick out of these rumors. I want to hear them all!
I lived with Honey Lee Cottrell for many years, who is one of the greatest living photographers. Jon’s an artist, known for his painting and inventions. We’ve lived together for many years; I’m sure many people imagine we’re an old married couple until we open our mouths.
I’m pretty close to several of my ex’s; they’re family to me.
I came of age at a time when monogamy was considered bourgeois nonsense, and luckily, my temperament suited that notion.
I have never “negotiated the parameters” at all—it’s just been assumed, when I’ve been close to someone, that we didn’t own the license to each other’s sexual life.
Yeah, but sexual infidelity hits a primal nerve that causes us so much pain?
Of course, sometimes one person has a love affair that hurts another, or you’re blind with jealousy and pain—but that is the cost of loving, of being human. I wouldn’t say you can “get out of it” by casting a net around your relationship. All you can do is be as honest and kind as you can. Over the long haul, you’ll see whether your love is lasting or not.
Most questions about negotiating open relationships have a youthful, immortal, almost virginal quality to them.
How do you mean?
They are not tempered by loss or grieving, or mature sexual experience. After you’ve fucked a lot of people, and after you’ve been to a few funerals, and the full scope of our tender time on earth is revealed–the do’s and don’ts about polyamory just don’t take a front chair. If you love someone, love them; if you feel a bond, an attraction, act on it, with gusto and no agenda. We may not be here tomorrow. Stop lying and get real.
Do you think monogamy is an unrealistic expectation over a long a long haul?
I would say expectations are unrealistic.
Where do you stand on the whole same-sex marriage debate?
I’m a civil rights absolutist, so of course I’m all for equality under the law. I got all choked up when our local City Hall was lit up with rainbow spotlights for the first day of marriage licenses.
But when marriage first came up as a gay concern, I was puzzled. It seemed so “square.” Why let the state be your pimp?
But I am perfectly civil about it. I understand that for most people, it’s a romantic institution that is a joyful occasion. Others marry for health, tax, or legal reasons.
Have you ever been married?
No, but most people who have quickly get a lesson in realism. And if you’re with anyone for a long time, whom you trust, eventually you start to make arrangements about your health, your legacy, your “stuff.” It’s part of being a family. Legal marriage is one way to muddle it out, but having been unmarried for so long, I can’t imagine a reason why I would do it.
How old is your daughter, Aretha? How did the birds and bees chat go down in the Bright household?
Aretha is 23. My best answer is to read the book she wrote with me, Mother Daughter Sex Advice. She is eloquent in her own words!
And there was no chat. The whole idea of a “chat” is hilarious. It’s what you do, how you behave, day after day, that communicates how you feel and think about sex.
I would say to young parents, who are thinking about all that lies ahead: It’s what you do, not what you say, that will linger. Give them privacy, as you cherish your privacy. Don’t lie to them.
There, you’re all set.
What was happening in the culture in 1993 to inspire you to put together the first edition of The Best American Erotica?
I had edited the first women’s erotic anthology, Herotica with publisher Joani Blank, and despite the entire publishing world screaming–”women want romance, not sex!”–it was a hit. A gay editor at Macmillan called me and asked me if I’d like to lead up a Best American Erotica series, as a companion to their Best American Poetry series. I was delighted.
What happened was the underground sex movement, punk rock, queer liberation, sex positive feminism, the lesbian erotic renaissance! Everything I’d been doing in San Francisco in the 80s, especially On Our Backs, led up to this. It was a really thrilling time for sexually outspoken and literate artists.
Five years later, in 1998, HBO aired Sex and the City, which seemed to spawn a bunch of other sex-oriented shows like Queer As Folk, The L Word, Hung, Gigolos, Polyamory, Unfaithful, and many more. Is that a sign of progress?
I found most of those shows you’ve mentioned to be facetious, prudish, sexist, and just incredibly annoying. I can’t make it through an entire episode of either Sex and the City, or the L Word.
I would say I’ve found other series with more sexual honesty and diversity, but they weren’t being pitched as comedies. Like The Wire.
Something new I like: Orange is the New Black. First portrayal I’ve ever seen and liked of butch dykes on mainstream TV.
There’s fantastic work being done on the edges, as usual. Most of the mainstream is the usual crap of using sex as a carrot or a stick, to get you to buy something or make you feel ashamed of yourself. I sound like such a Grinch. I’m insatiable for movies and books and audiobooks and music of all kinds. But I’m always attracted to the ones with subversive tendencies!
It’s been 20 years since you published this first edition of Best American Erotica and yet the idea persists that erotica doesn’t have literary merit.
Legions of the world’s greatest writers and folklorists would give you ample example of erotic history. It’s a foundation of language, of the written word. Look at any of my introductions to Best American Erotica, or the list of writers you see in each volume, and you’ll realize you’re looking at a literary pantheon.
Mary Gaitskill, for example, is a fantastic erotic writer because she is a convincing writer, period. Her stories make you feel things deeply, including sexual feelings. She doesn’t whitewash her characters or make them sexless, which is the real literary deception.
This year’s trend is to call quickly-written formulaic romances “erotica.” But it’s not real, nor will that 50 Shades canard stick around.
There is no prejudice among experienced writers or literature scholars about erotic text and precedent. The bias you’re talking about comes from the religious fundamentalists and all the uneducated squeamishness and infantilism they’ve propagated.
Sex-phobia is like saying, “people who won’t eat vegetables think greens are rubbish– and you should feel the same way too.” What do they know? Nothing!
How do you think the proliferation and easy access to porn has affected sexual dynamics between people? Some critics talk about the negative consequences—it’s numbed men to the real thing, put impossible sexual expectations on women—but we wondered if you’d talk about the positive affects?
C’mon. The very nature of that question says more about gender bias, Puritanism, and being enormously sheltered than it says about sexual representation.
Pictures and words about people being naked and having sex with themselves and each other has infinite meanings and contexts. I make sexual art. I critique erotic art. Do you think I do it to become numb and impossible? No artist does. It’s not even on our map.
One’s “sexual dyanamics” in life will have a lot more to do with your parents and the values you were raised with.
I guess I’m Patient Zero in all this. I’ve seen thousands of erotic photographs, movies, vignettes, read millions of erotic stories. And I’m incredibly over-sensitive, laugh and cry a lot, get worked up over kittens and a kind word or touch. Expectations? I hope to live another day, but that’s about it. When I see a gorgeous woman, I want to be close to her, I don’t envy her or plunge into despair. What rubbish.
Porn? It hasn’t had the superstitious effect we’ve heard so much about!