Susie Bright Tells All : Preaching a Doctrine of Adventure, Fantasy and Safety, the Feminist Bad Girl Brings Her Pro-Sex Message to the Masses
SUSIE BRIGHT WANTS TO TALK ABOUT SEX. AND somebody, it seems, is always trying to shut her up. Back in 1990, for instance, at one of her erotica lectures, a women’s studies class passed out flyers that read: “First, slavery in the Roman Empire . . . then the Holocaust . . . Now, Susie Bright comes to the University of Minnesota.” In Northampton, Mass., a hotbed of radical feminist activity, police advised her not to eat out because they feared she’d be attacked by anti-porn fanatics.
Then there was the Wellesley College incident.
In March, Bright was invited to speak at this elite, all-female institution outside of Boston. About 1,000 people showed up, and not just students and faculty. Throngs of the off-campus curious--gay and straight, young and old, male and female--poured into Alumnae Hall to hear Bright’s “Sexual State of the Union Address,” an oh-so-frank look at the current state of sexuality and sexual politics in America. In her honor, the Colonial-style auditorium was converted into a kind of carnal carnival, with condoms, safe-sex pamphlets, chocolate nipples and other sex-celebratory items on display.
As it happened, President Clinton was in town, too, to give his take on the state of the Union--jobs and health care. The President’s speeches went off without a hitch. But at Wellesley, 15 minutes before show time, campus police received an anonymous phone call. “There’s a bomb in Alumnae Hall,” the voice said and hung up.
The threat--eventually proven to be a hoax--didn’t cancel Bright’s lecture. After an hour of frantic phone calls, campus officials found an alternate location. The slightly diminished crowd trudged across the rain-soaked campus to hear Bright preach her corporeal gospel in Houghton Memorial Chapel, Wellesley’s house of worship. Not that Bright had a problem with that. Her rule of thumb: “the more religious, puritanical or fundamentalist the territory, the kinkier it gets.”
“I’m so glad God is on my side,” Bright quipped when, at last, her tall, black-velvet clad figure emerged behind the pulpit to thunderous applause. “I knew She’d want me to be here.”
IT WAS JUST ANOTHER EXCITING chapter in the adventures of Susie Bright--a.k.a. Susie Sexpert--author, adviser, educator, pornography aficionado and all-around sex guru. Her credo is simple: Sex is fun. Prudery kills. Fantasies are healthy and important. And given empathy, latex and some basic instruction, anything that occurs between two consenting adults is A-OK.
With a sense of humor, unflinching candor and a sincere, nonjudgmental desire to help people improve their sex lives, this 36-year-old single mother has powered her way from an obscure performance artist on San Francisco’s gay coffeehouse fringe to a sort of Ann Landers of all things erotic. Her mission: sexual empowerment, especially for women.
“In many years of teaching and talking sex,” she says, “I’ve never had a man say, ‘I don’t know where my penis is and I’ve never had an orgasm.’ And that will never happen. It’s feminists who put the clitoris on the map. Now we’re concentrating above the neck.”
Such frankness is the hallmark of a new pro-sex politics that is emerging among women, especially young women. It is the reason Bright has suddenly gotten, in a word, hot. She packs college auditoriums and movie theaters across the country. Her writing--including two books, “Susie Sexpert’s Lesbian Sex World” and “Susie Bright’s Sexual Reality: A Virtual Sex World Reader” and countless reviews, essays and articles--has leaped out of the small-press league and into the major publishing houses. Her collections of women-authored erotica, “Herotica”, and the co-ed “Best American Erotica,” are selling well, and her presentation, “Susie Bright’s Sexual State of the Union” is being expanded into a book to be published next year by Simon & Schuster.
“I had been following her for a long time and I was aware that she was starting to get a national audience,” says Mark Gompertz, publisher of Simon & Schuster Trade Paperbacks, for whom Bright edited “Best American Erotica 1993,” which sold 60,000 copies in its first eight months. “The time is right. There’s a lot of interest in sexual politics and sexual thought.”
No wonder. Between AIDS, Christian chastity clubs, anti-porn campaigns and date rape controversies, the national libido seems to be in full retreat. The time was ripe for someone with a librarian’s knowledge, a mother’s concern and a hooker’s candor to put the F-word, fun , back into sex.
“People are starved for the kind of message that she imparts,” says Janice M. Irvine, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author of “Disorders of Desire: Sex and Gender in Modern American Sexology.” “Susie integrates a health perspective, but she falls totally on the side of sexual adventure, experimentation and pleasure and is able to provide a voice for people who haven’t been able to get information or see role models or really hear that kind of message from anybody. And let’s face it. She’s not boring.”
“Close your eyes for a moment,” Bright says, addressing the crowd from the Houghton chapel pulpit. “Remember the last time you had an orgasm. Now, at the moment of climax, how many of you were thinking about a walk on the beach or a bouquet of balloons?” The audience erupts into laughter. “None of you were! Come on, be honest! Beach walking is a really nice romantic fantasy, so are sunsets, dinner for two, etc. But as erotic fantasies, they don’t come up.”
It’s a quintessential Susie Bright moment. Sexual fantasies take place in a seething psychic nether world but not many people will admit it. “If there’s any explanation for my popularity on sexual issues,” goes one Bright maxim, “it’s that I never leave out the sex in sexual politics.”
For that reason, Bright has been the subject of an HBO “Real Sex” episode, a member of innumerable panels and is in the Rolodexes of countless magazine editors. She’s weighed in for such diverse forums as USA Today, backing up one story’s assertion that “sexual explicitness is all the rage” in fiction, and in Esquire, teaching men how to pick up girls, and her libertine pronouncements on feminism, pornography and sex have appeared in Playboy, Mother Jones and elsewhere.
What many people find so attractive about Bright is her approach. She’s doesn’t bring with her a lot of ideological dogma. Rather, as in the case of “Esquire’s” story on the new “Do-Me” feminists, she shows rather than tells, bringing to the interview a pornographic spanking video.
“There’s this kind of false front--one of those emperor has no clothes problems--and that happens with sex constantly,” goes Susie Bright Gripe 1. “‘The sexual pundits we’re accustomed to have talked about their philosophy at great lengths without ever integrating their own sexual experience in to their polemics. Too often, it’s not shyness or decorum that motivates their secrecy, but hypocrisy. Our leaders, from the Hall of Congress to the most politically correct, have plenty of life experience that directly contradicts their sexual rules for others.”
Not only does Bright fearlessly and repeatedly point out the emperor’s condition, she has the temerity to suggest that the rest of us might just want to get naked with him. Be it lesbian chic, virtual sex, “queer” culture or yuppie porn, there isn’t a single controversial or cutting-edge erotic frontier that hasn’t been embraced early on--if not actually launched into American consciousness--by the Susie Sexpert sex crusade.
Obviously, she’s not working in a vacuum; she is only the most user-friendly member of the emerging cadre of bad-girl feminists, a movement of sassy, sex-positive women whom Bright calls “women-centric, no compromises, read-my-lips Amazons.” While acknowledging the struggles and gains of the earlier generation of women’s libbers, these upstarts shuck off what they regard as the sex-negative, separatist, man-phobic direction that they claim current politically correct feminism has taken.
“In the late ‘60s, there were a lot of real sexual radicals and a lot of real individualists,” says Camille Paglia, professor of humanities at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts and author of the much-acclaimed “Sexual Personae: Art & Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson.” “But something seemed to happen by the early ‘70s. You began to get an anti-male, anti-sex kind of philosophy taking over. Ideology began to take over.”
By the end of the ‘80s, Paglia believes, the culture began to turn. “You could almost feel the change, that people were sick of such political correctness. The fight over feminism is one of the only anti-PC fights.”
As Bright explained in a rebuttal she wrote in response to a New York Times article criticizing the Do-Me feminists: “The second generation of feminists are the first young women to grow up at a time when neither our virginity nor our child-bearing ability is our prize possession, when sexual orientation is not criminal or pathological, but a matter of desire, and when sexual risk and experimentation are loaded with AIDS on one side and virtual technology on the other.”
Comprehensive coverage of contemporary sexuality, therefore, needs to cover a lot of ground, analyzing everything from Christianity to cyberspace. “It’s fun to talk about how these elements combine,” she says, “to just keep stirring the mix and seeing what’s going to bubble up next.”
THE TYPICAL SUSIE Bright sexual revival begins with Bright, dressed in something form-fitting, facing the crowd with a pitcher of water and her PowerBook. Her address usually contains some standard Bright-isms, as well as some fresh takes on the hot sex topic of the day. At Wellesley, the topic--repression of sexual speech--was handed to her in the form of a bomb scare. The evening before, at New York City’s 92nd Street YM-YWHA’s prestigious Sunday Evening Lecture Series, an article in the paper about chastity clubs served as a springboard for her rumination on the futility of trying to shut off teen-age sexuality.
Then, with the audience brought up to date on the sex world according to Susie, she’ll pare off an equal amount of time for Q&A.; And the questions fly. She fields the mundane and the taboo with equal felicity. “What’s up with female ejaculation?” and “Where do you draw the line with violence in pornography?” are a few of the constants. (Her answers: There are a few excellent videos on female ejaculation. As far as sex and violence goes, “Do you mean behind the camera or in front?”) Whether they’re questions on sex and religion, tips on bisexual dating or locating the G-spot (It’s the spongy mass of tissue just above your pubic bone), Bright tries to answer them honestly and clearly, occasionally throwing in a spicy personal anecdote.
Unlike more mainstream sex researchers, Susie Bright isn’t a chaste or married therapist rattling off data and safe-sex homilies. She’s a sexually active, proudly polymorphous, bisexual. Even her Macintosh is programmed to moan sensuously. Her willingness to stand up and say, “I’ve done it and I liked it,” and her ability to share the information she gleans through her sexual experience makes her unique in the sexpert biz. Rape fantasies? No problem, as long as you don’t act them out. Does craving penetration make a lesbian a traitor? “Penetration is as heterosexual as kissing,” sayeth Susie. Even the condemnatory Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography (the Meese Report), which quotes sexually explicit material, brought her to a few roaring orgasms, she publicly brags.
“The thing that’s special about Susie is that she bypasses all the politicizing all the intellectualizing and is completely personal and honest,” says friend and former co-worker Laura Miller. “Nobody does that. Nobody. And you don’t even realize that until you hear her do it.”
The way she stomps all over traditional religious, sexual and political values in today’s highly charged climate, makes bomb threats nearly predictable. But there’s something about her persona--as much Susie Homemaker as Susie Sexpot--that enables her to make these controversial forays into the American sexual conscience with minimal outrage. Far from coming off like some oversexed freak, Bright projects an image that’s more like the friendly bisexual next door--which is exactly what she is. Her green eyes are almost always concealed by librarianesque horn-rimmed glasses and her extensive sexual resume is delivered in a voice with a wholesome Middle-American ring to it. One-on-one, she’ll usually lean forward, her wide, friendly face inches away, and discuss sexuality both personal and general in a compassionate fashion. At this distance, her lack of inhibition becomes contagious. Even the Wellesley campus police officer who sat with her during the bomb scare, Bright says, asked her about some of his own sexual concerns.
“She’s got a lot of kinky ideas about sex,” says Lisa Palac, a Bright cohort who founded Future Sex, an explicit magazine for men and women she founded that explores sex, culture and technology. “And so do a lot of people, but you wouldn’t want to hear it from them because they’re just too militant or they think they’re better than you or you can’t relate to it. Susie is able to say it in a way that people can understand it, and it makes them feel comfortable.”
So while many people cannot utter clitoris or masturbation without blushing or gagging, Susie Bright has given public demonstrations of some unspeakably esoteric sex acts with a seamless, what’s-all-the-fuss-about conviction.
“Don’t you feel like it’s very teacherly?” Bright asks about the way she opens up her bedroom antics to public scrutiny. “I might be able to say I’ve had anal sex. I might describe how it feels or why it feels good. But they see me talking about it like a really fun social science teacher.”
“Susie Bright is one of the only people, if not the only person, who is talking frankly about women’s sexuality and even men’s sexuality,” says Camilla Keating, a gay New York City high school teacher, who, with her lover, caught Bright’s presentation at the Y. “It’s really a specific source of information and I feel that as such I have really learned a lot about dealing with my own sexuality, in specific ways.”
And Bright has attracted no shortage of mainstream types. “I’m just a regular straight white guy,” says 38-year-old Stuart Cohn, who saw Bright read recently at the Book Soup Bistro in West Hollywood. “Any time that you read something by someone who’s not in the group that you’re in normally and you discover that they’re really smart and then you feel something in common with them, there’s sort of a universality. It widens your world a little bit.”
BRIGHT’S EARLIEST MEMORIES are of wanting to belong to the counterculture. Her parents divorced when she was young, and both her father, a linguistics professor at UCLA who now teaches at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and her mother, a teacher and librarian, were ‘60s liberals who taught her the importance of getting involved. Her activist membership was confirmed in 1974, when she was a student at West L.A.'s University High School. She filed a lawsuit that pitted the Red Tide, a Marxist-revolutionary newspaper, against the L.A. Unified School District, which had tried to prevent distribution of the paper citywide. The case was decided in the Tide’s favor two years later.
By that time, however, Bright had moved to the Midwest to start a Red Tide among the Detroit urban poor and leap full time into socialist politics and organizing. By the late ‘70s, the country’s countercultural fervor had run out of steam. Bright entered college, first at Cal State Long Beach, then UC Santa Cruz, majoring in theater and women’s studies, a dual major tailor-made for the budding sexpert.
Being openly bisexual in an extremely politicized lesbian culture, she says, made her a sexual outlaw two times over. “There had been kind of a ‘60s, new age, feminist egalitarian sense about sexuality,” says Bright, cooking pasta for herself and her 4-year old daughter, Aretha, in her San Francisco home. Her voice rises and falls in a kind of singsong sarcasm. “We hold hands. We talk about peace and environmentalism. Then I bring you to an orgasm, you bring me to an orgasm simultaneously. But there’s no penetration and we don’t look at each other’s bodies. We just look into each other’s eyes, because if I looked at your body, that would be demeaning you and objectifying you. And it was on and on and on, a very unrealistic idea of how to relate sexually.”
Bright calls that egalitarian pretense “a new left version of very traditional religious hang-ups” and wanted no part of it. “Of course, people look at and enjoy other people’s bodies. Of course it’s exciting to feel seduction and power and conquest and ravishing somebody and giving it up to somebody. That’s part of what passion is all about.”
Bright had begun questioning other aspects of feminism when she and her friends were organizing the first Take Back the Night marches in Northern California.
“We had had a tremendous education about what was happening with street violence and women wanting to have safety and confidence when they walk to their dormitories or into town,” she says. The idea was to gather at midnight in the most dangerous part of town, then hold a rally afterward. During one rally, one woman burned pornographic photos she had taken from the library.
“A lot of people thought that was so great,” Bright says. “And I remember this little voice inside me, the voice of a librarian’ daughter saying, ‘You shouldn’t destroy anything in the library.’ ”
The evolution of Susie Sexpert began in earnest around 1981. Bright had been commuting frequently to San Francisco during her UC Santa Cruz days to fulfill her requirements for her self-invented emphasis: Sexual Politics. She joined a performance art group called Mainstream Exiles, which, she recalls, “was a bunch of queer artists of all persuasions holding events just to talk about lots of things that were on our minds.” Through the connections she made in the group, she landed a job at Good Vibrations in San Francisco, one of the first woman-oriented sex toy shops in the country, which was started by sex educator, author and publisher Joani Blank. (Bright is still Good Vibrations’ erotic video librarian.)
Blank’s tiny store, which grew from a $35,000-a-year business to $2 1/2 million in sales last year and has spun off many imitators, offered a comfortable environment for men and women to shop for sex toys, not to mention plenty of sex education material. It was here where Bright began to make a career of sex.
Customers began asking for erotica by women authors, but with the exception of Anais Nin and Erica Jong, there weren’t any. That’s when Bright and Blank edited “Herotica” and later, “Best American Erotica,” an enterprise that continues to this day.
Then, in 1984, Bright was asked to join a start-up magazine called On Our Backs, a for-women, by-women publication. The magazine--its name a play on off our backs, the title of a still-extant, radical radical feminist newspaper--literally flipped the notion of sapphic politics on it’s back, offering sexually explicit “entertainment for the adventurous lesbian.”
“I’d been writing political tracts for so long and then my more imaginative theatrical things,” Bright says, having moved after dinner to her basement office, which contains her porno movie collection, her 1966 spelling bee championship certificate and her computer. “It never really hit me that I could write prescriptively like Ann Landers and that it would go over like gangbusters.”
Her experiments with sex toys became column material for On Our Backs. Her readers learned how she organized a literary soiree, in which the women dressed to the nines and the all-male service staff worked in the nude. Then, when she became pregnant, sex during pregnancy became the topic du jour, despite considerable flak from the separatist community. (Aretha’s father, Bright says, was someone with whom she had had an on-and-off affair. He had a fetish for impregnating women and, Bright says, popped the question just as her biological alarm clock was ringing. She accepted the offer as well as full responsibility for the child.) These essays were then incorporated into her two books.
“It was a very creative, very vibrant, very exciting time, and also a struggle,” recalls On Our Backs founder Debra Sundahl, who feels, as does Blank, that her accomplishments and contributions to the emancipation of female eroticism may have gotten lost in the roar of the Susie Bright express. “We had no money. People thought we were crazy. Lesbians weren’t a trend then. We were a plague.”
Certainly Sundahl, Bright and company were way ahead of the curve as far as lesbian chic goes. But with sexual candor in short supply, Bright also found herself talking to an audience much larger than “adventurous lesbians.” “Not only was I hearing from lots of lesbians, but I was hearing from men--straight and gay--and straight women who felt my frank discussion about female sexual desire was very appealing,” Bright says.
In 1987, she moved further into the hetero world. While the pornography industry was going through its post-Meese retrenchment, she became the first female X-rated movie reviewer for Penthouse Forum, where she became known as “the Pauline Kael of porn.”
“I was the first person to critique pornography who really didn’t give a damn about, ‘Oh, yes, Debbie has such succulent breasts,’ ” Bright says. “No one had ever critiqued porn and said, ‘This part is baloney and totally fake and a big disappointment, and the people should be horse-whipped for making such a bad movie.’ Not because they’re evil but because they made a bad movie! And then, on the other hand, looking at a movie and saying, ‘This has some really great acting. There was some authentic feeling.’ No one’s ever discriminated in porn.”
By the decade’s end, Bright had completed the basic training necessary for an all-out assault on the sexual status quo and what she considered its underlying hypocrisy. On Our Backs was gaining recognition in both the gay and straight world, Bright had just published “Susie Sexpert’s Lesbian Sex World,” and the speaking engagements and panel discussion invitations began to increase.
“The turning point was when Susie spoke at the Castro theater (in San Francisco in 1989),” says Sundahl. “And it was filled to capacity. I don’t know what that theater seats. At least 1,000. It was full of women who just loved it. It was a moment where we knew that the work was gathering steam and momentum. It had changed people’s attitudes.”
OBVIOUSLY, NOT EVERYBODY IS cheering Susie Bright on as she crashes through the barriers of sexual expression. While Bright’s rising profile recently landed her on the radar of such “traditional” right-wing hit men as Jesse Helms and Rush Limbaugh, for the most part the critical salvos are being lobbed from the left. Bright promotes “erotic literacy” in many of her lectures, including “All Girl Action,” a history of lesbian erotica, and “How to Read a Dirty Movie,” an audiovisual presentation on the aesthetics of porn. She recently co-wrote the screenplay for one segment of “Erotique,” a theatrical tryptic destined this fall for the national art-house circuit. Her if-it-feels-good-do-it attitudes about S/M, the sex industry and the expression of sexual fantasy have put her at ideological odds with feminists such as Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin (who both declined to be interviewed). They consider pornography both a catalyst for, and an institution of, rape and look upon Bright’s coddling of the sex industry with unadulterated disgust. “Susie can speak for herself, if she likes, but she has absolutely no factual basis for the assertions that she’s making,” says Evelina Giobbe, founder and director of education and public policy for WHISPER, an acronym for Women Hurt in Systems of Prostitution Engaged in Revolt. “We believe that pornography is directly connected to women’s social, sexual and economic subordination under patriarchy, and as that it is nothing more or less than part of women’s oppression and social colonization.”
Giobbe, a former prostitute turned activist who testified before the Meese Commission as a survivor of commercial exploitation, is active in anti-porn legislation. She says she comes at her beliefs “personally, politically and theoretically. (Pornography) is something that hurts women,” she says. “It hurts your dignity. It hurts your health. It hurts your mind, spirit and body. These premises came from the lived experiences of women like myself. These women aren’t finding this particularly empowering.”
Bright is by no means the first self-described feminist to draw the wrath of her sisters over matters of the flesh. She is merely a lightning rod for a controversy that has seethed in this country since the late 19th-Century writer and activist Victoria Woodhull (the first woman to run for President of the United States) drove a wedge through the budding women’s movement by insisting that free love was as unconditional a goal as female suffrage.
With such feminist credentials as a women’s studies degree and a history of women’s-rights activism, Bright dismisses the anti-porn arguments of what she calls “the Fundamental Feminists” as deterministic, dogmatic and, well, prudish and uptight.
“Whatever happened to saying, ‘Sexual speech is important?’ ” she asks. “Of course, go ahead and make a legal basis for it, but sexual speech, sexual expression, sexual artistry, sexuality is important. It’s vital. It’s who we are. And why are we trying to keep suppressing it and why do we think it’s so ugly?”
But when it comes to navigating the tricky questions surrounding date rape and sexual harassment, Bright, a rape survivor herself, argues that female reluctance to initiate or take responsibility for a sexual experience muddies the issue of consent. Sexuality equals empowerment--"When women feel confident about saying yes to sex, it gets a lot easier to say no,” is her stock sound-bite response. “Instead of sexual repression and silence, for me it’s more openness about sexuality. That is what gives children and women--the two groups that are always thought of as being sexually at a disadvantage and victimized--a chance to react strongly with some kind of confidence and sense of intactness.”
Bright’s critics charge that such answers at best ignore the realities of women’s oppression and at worst support it. And, in truth, Bright’s arguments can get solipsistic, if not downright sloppy. Her response to the possible negative affects of pornography--"when it isn’t a sexual image, no one worries what we’re going to do about it. People don’t really believe that a war movie will make you buy a gun and shoot somebody"--doesn’t reflect the fact that the question of whether seeing violence causes violence is far from settled.
But Bright claims that she realizes that life off-stage is not as simple as her glib, flashy shoot-from-the-hip rejoinders make it out to be. “In my efforts to be encouraging, charming, coaxing and reassuring about sexuality, I think, for some people, it just sounds like I’m making it sound so easy, like ‘tra-la-la, you know, hopping down the bunny path of sexual freedom,’ ” she says. “I emphasize that because in America there’s always an emphasis on the hardships and the dangers of sex. And I would like to say, ‘Would you please shut up about the hardships for a moment?’ But I’m not ignorant of that. I feel bad when people think that I don’t take into account the pain.”
And the Bright side has a few criticisms of its own. These feminists accuse Dworkin, MacKinnon and others of exploiting women’s sexual anxiety and fear of rape, and oppose legislation of sexuality--whether it’s the banning of pornography or Antioch College’s Sexual Consent Policy, a rigorous, step-by-step guideline for sexual behavior and consent adopted at the Ohio school that students are required to follow.
“I think that a younger generation of women just doesn’t buy that anymore,” says Palac, the 30-year-old San Francisco editor who is compiling an audio-erotica CD for Time-Warner called Cyborgasm. “And they’re not so into trashing men. We don’t want to sit around and talk about what’s wrong. We want to talk about what’s right.”
Closing ranks on this side of the divide is a diverse group of renegade feminists. Many, like sexually explicit performance artist Annie Sprinkle and erotic filmmaker Candida Royale, are themselves former prostitutes, porn actresses and strippers who not only disagree with Giobbe’s views of the oppressiveness of pornography but are creating women-oriented erotic works. Others include pop and alternative voices Palac and lesbian S/M author Pat Califia and, from academia, people like Christina Hoff Summers and Paglia. While these women are not monolithic in their opinions and ideas, their attitudes tend to bring Emma Goldman up to date: If I can’t orgasm, you can keep your revolution.
It’s a tantalizing message, especially for some young women struggling to integrate feminist dogma and feminine desire.
“Susie’s celebration of erotica, that was the strongest point for me,” says 21-year-old Ophelia Navarro, one of the two students responsible for bringing Bright to Wellesley. “In my women’s studies class, when arguments like that were brought up--examples of MacKinnon--that pornography is bad, they virtually went unchallenged.”
For women like Navarro, Bright’s breezy sexcapades are a welcome change. “I just thought feminism was anti-pornography and that was the only way to go,” says Kelly Besser, a women’s studies major at UCLA. “When I was reading Susie’s books, I felt a parallel with my life.”
Bright, by her own admission, has originated few of these ideas. Paglia, who had a falling-out with Bright in 1992 over personal differences, says that Bright is intelligent but calls her an “anti-intellectual who doesn’t want any deep thinking.” Bright’s talent, Paglia says, and many agree, is that “she’s a great entertainer.” This may diminish her in the eyes of Paglia, but to others, this quality makes her the cultural force that she is.
“She has a sort of mission around sexual pleasure that I think is unique,” says sociologist Irvine. “Nobody else has really done that in a performance kind of way. She makes people laugh. She’s entertaining. She allows people to feel good about themselves.”
DISCUSSING THE INTRICACIES of your sex life may not be everybody’s idea of a great job, but it is a living. In fact, as her audience has grown and broadened, Bright has recently been able to fulfill the dream of every ‘50s housewife--she got out of her city apartment and into a house in the ‘burbs. Some people, she jokes, accuse her of selling out. But what could she do? She’s got Aretha to look after.
“Friends in both the commercial part of the sex business and in sex therapy have said that it can be very difficult with family life because your kids might get embarrassed about who you are, what you do,” says Bright, whose living room is adorned with all manner of erotic art. “It’s not even that I’m worried. I’m just dealing with it.”
But fame, especially this particular brand, has a price. Her fans can be as high voltage as her critics and some find it hard to tell where the professional leaves off and the person begins. Although Bright always harps on the boundaries between fantasy and reality, sexual expression and sexual behavior, some people still don’t get it. She warns that people coming on to her like she’s some kind of “sexual wonder dog” won’t make it to first base.
Bright insists, and many of her friends confirm, that every night is not orgy night at the Bright household. “I can’t say often enough that I fall asleep before everybody,” she says, pointing out that she’s a single parent. “I’m the one on weekend nights watching reruns on TV.”
Bright jokes that lately her hectic schedule keeps her from enjoying the kind of lifestyle she advocates--a condition she calls “busyogamous.” Even when she does slow down enough to find a partner, her open-book approach to her own sex life can get in the way. The fact that she shares her sex life with a rapidly expanding public doesn’t always sit well with a partner-to-be. “The times when I felt the most vulnerable is when somebody close to me rejected me for my sex work,” she says. “That was very painful. Because I am intensely loyal to the people I love.”
Because criticism of the philosophy of Susie Bright veers very close to criticism of the life of Susie Bright, she is also remarkably vulnerable to rejection from her audience. At a speech recently at UC Berkeley, the room was filled with highly politicized, academic feminist types. Bright was asked a question she has heard countless times before, about how race and class issues affect the question of feminist pornography. Afterward, some audience members said they felt that Bright’s response--a slightly off-the-point look at pornography in different cultures--didn’t really address the issue.
When later informed that her answer was found wanting, Bright reacted as if she’d been slapped. “Time and time again, there’s some sanctimonious prude coming in under the guise of leftist politics saying that bread issues supersede sexual issues and that sexual issues are a luxury,” she said, half fuming, half crying. “And that’s part of their conservatism.”
It would seem that after so many trips around the lecture circuit, Bright would be inured to this type of negative feedback. “No, I’m not,” she says. “Because people go into it behind my back,” she adds, apparently mystified that everyone with a bone to pick hadn’t come up to her book-signing table afterward to hash the whole thing out. “I feel like I’m dealing with a lot of dishonesty. I was dealing with race and class issues in pornography when they were picking their noses.”
In the end, it isn’t easy being Susie Bright, although onstage she makes it look that way. And it’s in being Susie Bright--not the construction of her arguments--that her real significance lies. People would be hard-pressed to find any discrepancies between the values Susie Bright lives by and the ones she espouses. Unlike many of today’s media darlings, she practices what she preaches, literally.
“The biggest question that we get here at GV is some variation on ‘am I normal?’ ” says Good Vibrations representative Laura Miller, a friend of Bright. “We’re all raised to believe that our sexuality is unacceptable, and we may be open about some parts of it, but there’s always one part that you feel completely ashamed of. What Bright does is treat sexuality, fantasy, whatever, as something completely normal and acceptable. And she makes people feel accepted.”
Maybe that’s why, when she cracked open the backstage door at the 92nd Street Y, people in the audience gasped as if they had caught a glimpse of Axl Rose. Or why the crowd at Wellesley endured the hourlong delay in the chilly New England night, waiting for Bright to appear.
It could also explain why even the Berkeley student who complained loudest about Bright’s weak “race and class” answer ran up to a friend right after the conference and squealed, “Guess who I just saw speak? Susie Bright!”