SUSIE BRIGHT'S FULL EXPOSURE
Copyright © 1999 David Steinberg
Susie Bright has just come out with a new book, Full Exposure: Opening Up to Your Sexual Creativity and Erotic Expression (Harper San Francisco, $22.00), her first book-length discourse on sexual issues. In it, she offers a conversational tour of her sexual perspectives, a sexual philosophy in effect, drawn from her long experience as a sexual explorer, observer, commentator, and activist. She emphasizes acknowledging and exploring who we really are as sexual people, separate from the roles, labels, and expectations of friends, of society, and of a commercial behemoth anxious to exchange prepackaged sexual power, identity, and validity for cold hard cash.
"There is no such thing as a person without an erotic story, [without] a personal erotic identity, what you might call a sexual philosophy," Bright begins the book. "It's the big 'What If?' of our sexual lives." The key to sexual fulfillment, she says, lies in giving our erotic stories the respect and attention they deserve, particularly the parts that express unconscious feelings and desires that we have been taught to ignore and suppress.
"I'm writing this book to reach out to every person who ever thought, 'There's more to sex than anyone admits.' I want to tell them how much I agree and how much we could increase the richness of this realization if we didn't try to excuse it or hide it or give it another name."
As always, Bright is insightful, personal, entertaining, and an unflagging advocate for everyone -- women most of all -- to move beyond sexual shame and embrace the full power, depth, and breadth of their sexual wishes and desires. "Sexuality," she insists, "is not a frill, not a luxury appearance. It's a part of your life whether you're flush or famished, living under dictators or parliamentarians. It has its own unique relationship to history, and it will not shut up."
I had a chance to talk with Susie Bright recently about her new book, her intentions for it, and her experience of writing in a style quite different from her more familiar pithy essays.
DAVID: It took me a while to figure out how to read your book because it was so different in style from other books you've written. This book is not a collection of essays. It's more like hanging out with Susie Bright while she talks in a meandering way about various clusters of topics and thoughts. Is that how you intended for it to read?
SUSIE: It was a stipulation of my contract that I write a continuous book, rather than a series of essays. It was also a challenge for myself that I had been avoiding for a while. Previously, I had always written essays or short stories, pieces with the journalistic demand that you make your point, argue it, and get out in 2000 words or less. The idea for this book was not to reach the end so quickly, but rather for it to unfold in much the way that a novel unfolds. I wanted it to feel continuous as you go from one chapter to the next.
I wanted to act as if I were taking people into my parlor, saying, "Haven't you always wished you could talk about sex outside some very political, pedantic, defensive atmosphere full of arguments about who's right and who's wrong. Don't you wish you could just talk about sexual honesty, about what's happened to you, what you might want to do, what you're afraid of?" I wanted to just go from there, where no one's backing anyone into a corner, but there's still a lot of room for consciousness-raising.
D: Were you nervous about taking on this new pace?
S: Well, since I had never written to keep a thread going for so long before, there was this sense of, "Can I do it? Can I do it?" But by the time I was halfway through, I felt like I could write like this forever. It appealed to me.
D: How did you decide which would be the major issues of the book?
S: I abandoned the idea that I could objectively decide what was most important, and decided instead to just deal with what was most important to me: family and sexuality, spirituality and sexuality, disclosure and sexuality. Those were the biggest themes to me, and I felt that if I could get a good grip on them in this book I would have accomplished something.
D: Sexual individuality seems like another main focus.
S: Yes. I guess I shouldn't say "disclosure" -- it sounds like a bank statement. What I mean by that is the sense of saying, "Look, this is who I am. I'm really not like any sexuality that's on the shelf to be bought." Authentic sexuality just isn't like that.
I go on tirades in the book about advertising and titillation, about how there is no honest or individual discussion of sex in mainstream entertainment or culture. The classic thing is for women to follow the clarion call of commercialized beauty trying to find some sense of sexual power. As long as you keep buying the right makeup, the right outfit, you can keep some sense of being a sexual person going. But it's so false and so plastic, beyond any feminist critique. It's deeper than a feminist issue. It's just an incredible distraction from finding out what's really inside yourself.
Just this morning I was reading Joani Blank's, Kids' First Book About Sex, the part that talks about what a sexy person is. Essentially it says that a sexy person is someone who likes touching and being touched, who thinks well of themself, and who likes their body. It sounds so dumb and simple, but those three sentences sum it all up. How many people can say that they really feel those three things?
D: You were saying that you specifically wanted this book to be conversational rather than argumentative.
S: Conversational rather than confrontational. People who know me are not surprised by the tone of this book because it reads a lot like talking to me. But people who haven't met me, who have read one of my political essays or heard some rumor about me, have a much rougher, harder image of what I'm like. The truth is that the sexier, sassier part of me is much more flagrant in my writing than I feel in person.
For this book, I wanted the scare-you-out-of-your-shoes factor to not even be an issue. And I didn't want to get caught up in buzzwords, which is why I deal with discarding language and labels so early in the book. Are they gay? Are they straight? Are they into s/m? Did she use the word "cunt?" It's such a waste of time to worry about that kind of thing. As I say at the beginning of the book, you do have an erotic story inside you. As soon as you open the door, it's going to spill out, so let's not get hung up on the words and the categories, let's just let it all out of the bag.
D: If this book is a conversation, who is it a conversation with? Who do you see as your audience?
S: My most fervent fans tend to be 20-year-old young women and 40-year-old men. They both so desperately want to be free, to say, "Here I am, and I'm not going to let anybody tell me what to do any more." It's coming from different places in the middle-aged men than the young women, but the feeling is much the same.
Many middle-aged men feel that they've been living a lie and they've had it up to here with the double life. They don't feel like conforming any more. They don't want to apologize. They want to come out of the closet and acknowledge that they like sex, that they like porn, that it's not a crime to want more than one sexual partner, that monogamy isn't what it's cracked up to be.
The young women are coming from the place of just having an orgasm for the first time. They are barely out of their family's protection. They're determined to lose their virginity, or they've just lost it. They are highly dubious of romance. They don't want to be like mom, don't want to be tied down.
D: What about the 40-year-old women and the 20-year old men?
S: The toughest crowd for me to crack is straight women my own age. Why? Because I'm stealing their daughters and their husbands. They say, "You're encouraging my daughter to take risks I don't want her to take, and you're making my husband think he can do whatever he wants, after all I've done to keep the family together." I think I'm threatening to women my own age, straight women, who feel that I'm being irresponsible, really irresponsible.
The young men simply have no interest in me. They're interested in cute young women that they want to impress. They say that their masculinity and sexuality are fine, thank you. It's that macho, young Turk thing. The only younger men who are interested in me are the ones who are attracted to feminism and sensitivity at an early age.
D: Why don't the middle-aged women see you as an opportunity for liberation like the men do?
S: Some of them do, believe me. But most heterosexual women my age -- well, first of all, they're still just furious about pornography and feel like I'm simply a traitor. I'm talking about women who are really holding up their end of the Madonna-whore bargain. They've rejected the whore and they're going to be the woman whom everyone respects. They've made a lot of sacrifices to put their virtue up on a platter, and then I come along and say, "Screw your virtue, it's just getting in the way." I insult all the sacrifices and investments they've made for the last thirty years.
I answer by saying, "I know that's how it feels at first, but the truth will set you free. It's not too late. You can still rip all this up and have your erotic self-determination, your independence, your own choices." But that's a hard message for many women to hear.
D: Where do you stand with the lesbian community?
S: I still feel a lot of fondness, love, connection -- and nostalgia -- for and from the lesbian community. A lot of people still think I'm totally lesbian. It doesn't matter how many heterosexual fuck stories I write in Salon. People believe that my lesbian work -- books like "Nothing But the Girl" or "Susie Sexpert's Lesbian Sex World" -- couldn't be as strong as it is if I were bisexual.
There are lesbians who are outraged by my bisexuality, but they hated me before I was bisexual. They hated me for being a femme. They hated me for being identified with s/m. They hated me for making porn movies. They hated On Our Backs. When I was the biggest fucking dyke I could be, they rejected me.
They were against what they considered to be straight-acting. If you're a femme and you're with a butch, you're aping heterosexual relationship. If you think that anybody would really want to make their own porn movie about being a lesbian, you're just brainwashed by the man. So, when they catch me in bed having intercourse with a real live man, it's just one more nail in my coffin as far as they're concerned.
D: In this book, there's no sense of you being a lesbian at all.
S: Really??! Oh my god! Well that's a surprise. But wait, there's that long story I tell about my friend who joins the Zendick group and how we go on a voyage to deprogram her.
D: Well, there may be a story here and there, but overall there are as many stories about sex with men as there are about sex with women. You didn't choose intentionally to move beyond your lesbian identification?
S: No, it wasn't self-conscious. What was self-conscious was going over what I had written and asking, "What would a gay man think, reading this? Would he feel like he'd been pushed completely out of the picture? If you were a lesbian reading this, could you identify with any of it?"
D: But that's about how you see your audience, rather than how they see you.
S: No, I didn't think about how I would be seen. I'm not going to go in and brag about my lesbian qualifications. Why would I want to do that? Besides, it's much more complicated now than whether or not you're a lesbian. You've got the guy who is mister gay man on campus who has bisexual fantasies that are bothering him. You've got the young lesbian who's fighting with her older lesbian mom about what it means to be gay. It's fucking complicated now.
Sometimes there's a particularly lesbian issue that comes up. I've always felt that there are things going on in the lesbian world that are really interesting and telling about the rest of humanity. Sometimes I'm the only person who talks about those things because lesbians are so timid about asserting themselves.
D: Maybe at this point you can reach more people by not being seen as a lesbian.
S: Well, my audience was never entirely lesbian. Ever since we started On Our Back , there has been this sexual bohemia building -- the dawning of queerness, the dawning of pansexual perversity. From the very first issue of On Our Backs, we got letters and phone calls from non-lesbians saying, "Oh my God, this is so great!" I remember that when we first got Utne Reader to advertise us, I wanted to say, "The most intelligent magazine about sex just happens to be about lesbians."
So, right from the start there was a whole group of people who were attracted to sex in spite of the Reagan administration. It was the new sexual underground. They got the point right away that labels don't matter and said, "Let's talk about sex in a different way than we've talked about it before."
That group has exploded, both in numbers and literature, and they've always known where I was coming from. All sorts of different folks. They congregated initially San Francisco, but now they're everywhere. They're the people who are going to poetry slams, the people who are interested in a certain kind of pagan spirituality, merged with sexuality. They're the faeries and the freaks, and the 90s hippies and artists. Everyone who, when Nancy Reagan said, "Just Say No" wanted to say "Yes" louder than ever.
Those are my friends, and it just so happens that instead of being stamped into extinction we've grown in number and are having even more influence on society than our numbers justify.
The kind of things these people have in common, aside from wanting to express themselves sexually, is that they feel passionate about the arts and individuality in the arts, and they think the two-party system is just one big voice saying the same thing over and over again. They find all the vice campaigns to be obnoxious -- the anti-drug propaganda as much as the anti-sex propaganda. They have a consciousness about environmental issues. They're turned off to mainstream feminism, but feel very powerfully about being sick of gender, gender traps, and gender expectations.
So, it's not just a bunch of horny people running around wanting to go to bed with everybody, although when people on the outside look at us, that's what they think. You could find people in this counterculture who are quite ascetic in some ways, but whose sexual philosophy includes tremendous tolerance and openness.
D: So you're talking about a group of people who are sexually diverse, and tolerant of diversity in other people. Isn't that essentially what you advocate: creative, individual sexual expression?
S: That and placing your imagination and your unconscious at the top of the list instead of pressing them down. I say several times in the book that if I never go to bed with anybody ever again, I'm still going to be a wild woman in my own mind.
D: Was the final book different from what you thought it was going to be when you started?
S: Yes. I was pretty fearful when I started, but when it was done, I really liked it. At first, I was afraid to be bossy. I thought it would come off wrong. But in the end the book has subtlety, and feeling, and revelation. I think that comes from giving up the breakneck speed of writing like a journalist, relaxing, and getting to explore things a little more. Memories that I thought I knew backwards and forwards took on new meanings when I took the time to write them down. By the time I got to the end of the book, I felt that I had really been on the couch. And I didn't wonder any more what I could possibly have to say to anybody.
Books where you take on the whole American sexual gestalt and try to talk to everybody can be really intimidating. I had to talk to people who had never heard of me before, who are attracted to this whole business of sexual openness but who are really nervous about it. But I also didn't want to bore all my old friends, and it's not news to them that I'm advocating sexual authenticity and honesty.
D: Why did you choose to take on such a broad book?
S: Well, the sense that I can actually make a difference in the national conversation about sexual expression and sex education is thrilling. I like having influence. I wish I were in the New York Times every day telling people what I think. I started out writing for the converted, for everyone who know me, my little milieu. But then things that I wrote became influential -- got quoted and discussed in other places, influenced other people. So I jumped at the chance to write a book where I get to take this very complex situation and say what I think the priorities are, and hopefully make an argument that will inspire other people to say, "Yes, she's right, those are my priorities too."
[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at email@example.com. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
If you're new to this site, we recommend you visit its home page for a better sense of all it has to offer.