Review of Susie Bright's Sexwise

By continuing to browse this web site you are certifying your agreement to its terms of use; please read them if you have not done so already.


A Review of Susie Bright's Sexwise

by Susie Bright

San Francisco and Pittsburgh, PA: Cleis Press

Review Copyright © 1995 by William A. Henkin

Originally published in Spectator



A reviewer should make his biases clear from the git-go, so let's get one thing straight – or bent, or queer, or something: I'm a Susie Bright fan. The first time I saw her by-line in the New York Times Book Review I whooped so loudly my downstairs neighbor brought her cell-phone out onto her deck and stared up through my window as if I might be beating off. I thought the long-trumpeted sexual revolution had at last arrived on the doorstep of modestly mainstream America. It hadn't, of course, as anyone who's been watching the news lately knows; but at least it was and is alive, and Susie Bright is living proof. On top of that, she's one of the few popular sex writers I don't feel compelled to edit as I wend my way from sentence to paragraph to book: all on her own she's a witty phrase-maker, a woman of thoughtful reflections, and one of that creamy new breed heralded a decade ago by Pat Califia, a literate pornographer. O my boots! If only she were Speaker of the House and the newt were a lesbian single mom I might believe America could still survive as a decent nation. Under the circumstances, however, she makes a grand companion as we hurtle toward the Apocalypse.

In some respects Susie Bright's Sexwise – the title's an assertion, as well as a statement of authorship – is simply a collection of her occasional writings: book reviews, interviews, profiles, and musings, nearly all of which have been published previously in Esquire, Future Sex, Playboy, the Realist, the San Francisco Review of Books, the New York Times Book Review, the East Bay Express, The Village Voice, the San Francisco Examiner, Out!, or Herotica 2. The girl gets around, you see, in more than those erotic ways she writes about.

But this is an unusual "occasional" collection. Occasional collections – groups of loosely associated essays and the like by a single author – are generally reserved for those aging luminaries whose minor pieces some editor believes will be of value to future historians and biographers raking over the coals of lost lives, lost generations, or lost civilizations. Now and then some very hot novelist can piggy-back such a collection onto a zillion-dollar contract for her next blockbusting bestseller. Poets bidding for Laureatehood are sometimes similarly honored.

Susie Bright's Sexwise is different. Its twenty-one occasional pieces transcend the occasions for which they were composed; they're gathered into four chapter-like sections and contained in a single volume so that they can all finally be read by folks who missed their periodical appearances. But the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. To speak a little purpley, when collected together into their four brightly burning fascicles these twenty-one separate flaming faggots form a single literary bonfire illuminating the unlikeliest dark corners of sexual liberation. Just consider who's covered in the book's subtitle alone: Dan Quayle, Catherine MacKinnon, Stephen King, Camille Paglia, Nicholson Baker, Madonna, the Black Panthers, and the GOP. Most of these entities are shadowed realms so unredeemed from pretense and bigotry that even the joys of sex have failed to penetrate their body armor, while the others are all but religiously misunderstood.

In her Introduction to the volume Bright considers the qualities and quantities of her own sex life since she took her first job in the sex industry, working at Good Vibrations, San Francisco's venerable sex-help emporium. She sees that her sex life has improved over these fourteen years for several reasons. Getting older helped: it allowed her to see "that puberty was not the ideal erotic vantage point." Sexual mentors helped her learn that "sexual illumination is as precious as any human connection." And motherhood really helped: "feeling my sexuality connect with creation was thrilling, controlling that occasion was righteous, and as I say in my guide to dating mommies, if you can keep us awake, we're the love goddesses." Then, under these reasons lies


the very real gender and sexual revolution that started in the 1960s and has built momentum with each decade. Every time sexual speech has emerged from persecution and hiding, every time sexuality has been considered in public policy and dignified debate, my life has improved in spades. For sexual discussion to move so quickly from the criminal and pathological to the realm of the creative and political is phenomenal, a triumph of honesty and democracy over hypocrisy and elitism....

History, unfortunately, has not been a series of triumphs for ever-growing enlightenment. Sexual bigotry is still very much a religion, and the extent to which zealots and defenders of the faith will fight for their prejudices is always mind-boggling....

Frankly, I'm sure my sex life could be better – so much better than I could possibly imagine – if their hands had never been around my throat.


Well, their hands have been around her throat, as they have been around all our throats, so Susie Bright had to struggle for her sexual freedom as we have all had to struggle for ours, and her book is a wonderful advertisement for that struggle. For instance, reflecting on that book we've all seen advertised for the hopeful and the hopeless among men, How to Pick Up Girls, she notes that she could really teach this lesson. After all, she proposes in "How to Make Love to a Woman: Hands-on Advice from a Woman Who Does," "Lesbians and straight men do have a lot in common. Both are hung up on girls." She recommends cruising – not girl-watching, but looking at a woman you find attractive, on the grounds that she will be pleased with the attention if she's attracted to you. And –


If she doesn't want you, she'll complain to her friends about how you "objectified" and "degraded" her, but ignore all that crap. Calling a man a sexist interloper is just a trendy way of stating an old-fashioned sentiment: "He's not my type." When a dyke gets an unwanted ogling from another dyke, we don't use political pejoratives. We just say, "Over my dead body."


Picking up girls is the easy part, Bright says. "It's holding on to affection and lust that's unteachable."

Along with the personal advice on queer motherhood that figures prominently in the book's first section, "Sex and the Single Mom," one differently-oriented essay is especially important in this here-we-go-again pre-election year. Even though "Adult Children of Family Values, or How Bush Lost the Election" concerns the infamous Family Values Night of the GOP's 1992 national convention, Bright's insightful warnings will likely be painfully appropriate this year too, when lots of politicians will pretend they're arguing about the economy and world domination when their hidden agendas, that come from the mouth of the Christian Coalition's Ralph Reed, are really about coercing behaviors in the name of some God-forsaken shell of morality.


I don't know where the Republican Party would be without "The Children".... the centerpiece of the Republican platform to turn this country around. As Governor John Ashcroft of Missouri said, if our children are not instilled with a moral purpose, "they will turn to the selfish gratification of drugs, promiscuity, rioting ... and even mindless TV."

I closed my eyes for a moment to imagine such gluttony and realized that the hedonists passing across my mind's eye were not tiny tots or even petulant teenagers, but great big grown-ups. When it comes to drugs, sex, violence, and even passing out cold in front of the television set, you can't beat the over-eighteen crowd.

"The Children" doesn't mean the little ones who have to be in bed by nine – it means us, the big guys. In the GOP family values tent, George and Babs are Mom and Dad, the Reagans are doting grandparents, and we voters are the babies. William Bennett, former drug czar and Education Secretary, spelled this out Wednesday Night. "There are things children simply should not see," he said. But Bennett's not talking about your baby niece, he's talking about you, adult citizen.


That's you, adult citizen: you reading this review. Susie Bright says the current GOP doesn't trust you to behave like a grown-up in your own life. I believe she's right and she and I both believe the GOP is wrong. Whose side are you on?

Later in the book, in the section called "Sex Lives of the Rich and Famous," Bright takes on a subject that may seem different, but may not be very different. Bright is one of the few adults I know of who has a good word to say for Madonna's Sex. In fact, in "A Pornographic Girl" she claims to have been "first in line to purchase a fifty-dollar copy." So what, she asks, made so many people indignant about the material girl's book? It began "with an apparently innocent penny-pinching reproach: This book costs too much. Who would pay fifty dollars for a book?"


The people who would not pay fifty dollars for a book were the very group that was trashing Sex as they left trendy cafes with sixty-dollar margarita bills ... who sniffed at the idea of erotica but spent forty dollars on cat calendars.... Let's be candid: the reason there was a public outcry about Sex is that Americans don't think sex should be discussed in the light of day....

Some artists were in a state of shock over the news that Madonna had taken their cutting-edge erotic tour de force and turned it into profitable shelf space at Crown Books. I sympathized with those unheralded pioneers, because they're my comrades. But we were no different from some Harlem vogue diva watching MTV with his mouth hanging open at Madonna's Hollywood-ization of his original achievement.

The biggest, most profound problem with Madonna's sexual encyclopedia ... was that it was produced with a set of instructions straight from the censor's little black book ... from her publisher [so].... Instead of going all the way, we get kinky foreplay.


But that, says our author, is our culture, not the girl.


She possesses the outspoken feminist idealism and compassionate idealism that has made liberal heroines out of Susan Sarnadon, Whoopi Goldberg, and Jane Fonda. The popularity they enjoy with the politically correct has eluded Madonna for one reason only: she is a "sex maniac." And being a very public and willing sex maniac is the most original, radical, and courageous thing that Madonna Ciccone has ever done.


The real problem with Susie Bright's Sexwise is that her pieces hang together so well they're hard to quote out of context without losing the thrust and poetry of her message. So when I want to refer to a couple of her bon mots I end up quoting a whole paragraph or two, and regretting that I can't quote her whole essay. How do you take one cutting out of "Dan Quayle's Dick" to convey the ghastly reality of this Jeff Stryker manqué fantasy in which Bright's "orgasm is just one curve in the coaster" to the ex V-P? Or is it a fantasy?


I was in Washington, D.C., for an anarchist queer conference, with lots of little genderfuck numbers running around.... Everyone was crashing at a circle of old Victorians near Rock Creek Park. That's where I had to take Dan. Obviously, one can't take the risk of registering in a motel with him. Just slipping away from the Secret Service is insane enough for a man like him. That's how bad he wanted it....

He sucks the cum out of me, licking me like a bowl of chocolate, holding my clit hostage.... What are the qualifications of a great fuck? Spelling ain't one of 'em. Neither is any kind of brains.... Like so many other cruelly teased bimbos, Danny is, bottom line, a very physical and sensual animal who is at his happiest driving balls into holes....

C'mon, I don't want him anywhere near the White House. But wet dreams like this don't visit that often. I only want Dan Quayle sweat-soaked, the cum drained out of him, chained to my bed, just a heartbeat away if I need him.


Three of my very favorite selections in this book are "A Taste of Power," Bright's interview with Elaine Brown, former Chair(wo)man of the Black Panther Party; her interview with that other, best-selling literary pornographer, Erica Jong, "Better the Devil You Know"; and her op-ed-ish essay on anti-porn-monger Catherine MacKinnon, "The Prime of Miss Kitty MacKinnon." The three pieces explore the ramparts of feminism without Having To Be Right. There's a lot of freedom to be had out from under that umbrella.

Erica Jong turns out to be a friend of Andrea Dworkin's, and has deep respect for her intellect and her ability as a writer. But she almost seems upset when she objects to the image of feminism Dworkin and her friend MacKinnon have promulgated. Says Jong,


Most feminists would understand that the First Amendment is our tool. Most feminists would never have joined forces with the Meese Commission as they [Dworkin and MacKinnon] did. I think that was an incredibly naive act, a crazy alliance of the evangelical right with the forces of Dworkin-MacKinnon. What could they have been thinking? Had they never read the history of censorship? Didn't they know that censorship is always used politically and that it is always used against dissidents? The first dissidents it's used against are sexual dissidents. You look at the Weimar Republic, you look at the rise of National Socialism [Nazism], you look at censorship going back to Zola and D.H. Lawrence, and it is always about putting down the sexual dissident. So I think Andrea was hopelessly naive.


Jong's position is common in the feminist circles I know best, but Bright's is less usual.


If Andrea Dworkin wanted to write pornography, she could just blow everybody else out of the water. If she would take the sexual power that she fights against so much, and move it into her own erotic identity, she'd be unstoppable....

[T]he whole act of rape is crossing someone else boundaries and doing what you will with them, with no compassion or feeling about what they want.... For a butch woman, which Andrea is, getting violated in that way takes on a meaning it doesn't have for other women.... When a butch woman like that gets assaulted by a man, there is not only the assault on the body... it's also that her sexual identity has been humiliated in a very profound kind of way.


Elaine Brown, too, addresses feminism, but in a very different vein, learning to stand up for herself in a political party that began in classically macho mode. most women in the world, I had sought power and affirmation and validation and identity through a man. Only when I took over the Party and had no man to back up my decisions, then a man could threaten to isolate me, and he did it by trying to use the stigma of drugs and lesbianism.... I took a couple of brothers over and explained ... in the male language he could understand, "Don't you even speak my name.... Because we are going to be in your ass" .... It's moments like that that I had a taste of power.... Not because I had those brothers, but because I understood what the deal was, and I could deal with it.


One of the most telling remarks that ever came out of Catherine MacKinnon's mouth was her explanation of her relationship with the psychoanalyst and former Projects Director the Sigmund Freud Archives, Jeffrey Masson, a man whose reputation includes a colorful sexual past. As Bright recounts, Dinitia Smith, writing for New York magazine, asked MacKinnon how she could justify marriage since she had written that equal relationships between men and women are impossible in an unequal society. MacKinnon explained, "Does one not have any relationships simply because society is hierarchical? We do our best. He's not not a man, and I'm not not a woman."

"Can MacKinnon extend the same generosity and opportunity to other women to discover how they can be sexually satisfied in a hierarchical society?" Bright wants to know.


Can other relationships... be given a chance? .... But she's already been asked to listen to other women's ideas of sexual equality and liberation, and she has rejected them.... Counselor MacKinnon has not respected sexual speech; she has not found her sexual voice, except to say, quite sincerely, that she is "not not a woman." And perhaps, for Catherine MacKinnon, that is not at all a small thing to admit.


As Wilhelm Reich knew, if you control a person's sexuality, you control the person; and as psychologists have argued for decades, the need to control another often bespeaks a fear of control over oneself. Susie Bright is 'way beyond Catherine MacKinnon because she's free. Not just her literary excellence, but her compassion too shows through every portion of her book. Her work and public life are about sexual freedom and so they are about freedom altogether. This is not just, as Pooh would say, a Good Thing; this is an essential thing and maybe even a holy thing. We all need our own Sexwise as we all need our own freedom, for until we are free, to whom do our lives belong?


This document is in the following section of this site: Main Documents > Contributing Authors > William Henkin

If you're new to this site, we recommend you visit its home page for a better sense of all it has to offer.