Susie Bright is in demand these days, writing weekly columns on the Net, editing both the Best American Erotica series and the annual Herotica collections, making public appearances around the country, and, of course, writing books. Her newest, Full Exposure, attempts to capture the meaning and the power of erotic expression. By challenging the status quo in most aspects of our public lives, her book raises important questions about the way we choose to live and communicate.
Usually, we conduct these interviews in person. This time, however, due to an ill-timed bout of the flu, we tried something a little different: a back and forth conversation via email. We've cleaned up the typos and "creative" punctuation at no extra charge.
Dave: For lack of a more subtle way to start this conversation, I'm going to tell you about my experience this morning on the bus.
I was finishing your book on the way to work - I take the bus - and you know how people are always curious about what the person next to them is reading? Well, the bus was full, it was rush hour. I'd been reading for about five minutes when I turned a page to see - in bold print at the top of the left hand page: Make a recipe for fantasy revelation. The paragraph below the header began, "Masturbate."
I thought, Okay, I really should close the book and read the last few pages when I get to work. The woman sitting next to me is going to think I'm some kind of freak. But that would have gone against everything you'd been saying in the previous 150 pages - basically, to speak openly about sex and eroticism - so I kept the book open and read on. But I couldn't help wondering what the woman next to me must have been thinking.
Bright: I love that you're reading my book on the bus! You can't really predict what the young woman was thinking, and it was certainly a harmless way to have sexual question posed in a public place. She might be running out to find a copy right now!
I think a lot of people bring their favorite book onto public transit and hope someone will be nosy and look over their shoulder. It's activism for the shy!
Dave: I do find it's an interesting experiment, actually. I'm always reading different books for this job - everything from children's books to, well, yours - and the reactions from people are always interesting.
Another book I was reading this week was Barbara Kingsolver's collection of essays, High Tide in Tucson. One passage jumped out at me in relation to what I was reading in your book. Bemoaning the contradictions inherent in raising a girl in contemporary society, Kingsolver writes:
Bright: When her book came out, we were both on tour, and simultaneously invited to speak at an independent bookseller's BREAKFAST in Oakland. I had to go on first, at EIGHT A.M., and of course, talk about sex. She hugged me afterwards and told me how brave I was. I think the audience was brave to eat that Hilton breakfast, for that matter. I'm sure we all would have rather been in bed, having sex, or at least a decent cup of coffee.
As for young people, they have been turned into the fetish du jour. Even the word "children" sounds vaguely pornographic these days, as they are alternately idolized for their nubile forms, vilified for creating sexual chaos, and patronized as the ultimate victims, the gossamer innocents who engender sexual criminality by their very existence.
Dave: Another quote from your book: "Our culture uses sex in the most cynical way to 'sell' anything - even though we blanch when sex is presented simply, or sold for itself."
It's true, sex sells everything. This isn't a new concept, but it seems lately to have reached absurd proportions. Yet the definitions of what is sexy seem to have hardly expanded at all - at least in the mainstream media. Is popular culture providing better images these days? Everybody on t.v. and in the movies and magazines is still unreasonably thin, fit, and wealthy - that's still what we're supposed to believe makes you popular and attractive.
Bright: I actually think the popular youth culture is more diverse. The Gap uses butch girls and chunky models sometimes, Vogue and Rolling Stone play around with cultural diversity as the sexy new thing now, too. The image of the "nerd" is now sexy. There are now sexy clothes in over size 14, with Emme as their superstar spokeswoman.
But that's just advertising getting smart, finding new skin to press, new angles to get the money out of your pocket. What's shocking is that nobody mentions that NONE of these clothes will actually MAKE you sexy, and no amount of buying ANYTHING will make you a successful lover, a creative erotic person, a hot babe, or anything else.
Dave: Regarding tolerance: All categorical divisions of people - hetero/homo, black/white, male/female, jew/christian - are drawn by the differences between us. Inevitably, people wind up rationalizing their own lifestyle and, at times, defending it, at the expense of alternatives. What if, instead, we learned to celebrate the similarities, the passions we all share (albeit each in our own unique way)? Are humans simply too deeply preconditioned to think this way?
Bright: Oh, I don't think it's hopeless at all, if that's what you're saying. I mean, just look at the crowd who came to see me in Portland. They were all ages and types and sexual points of view. There are plenty of people who have learned the thrill of tolerance and have no inclination to turn back!
Dave: In Chapter Fourteen, you write, "Why are so many spiritual movements obsessed with eradicating the sexual?...[R]epression of the body is prerequisite to subordination."
To me, that passage strikes at the heart of the whole book. Sex is free expression. It's a language we all speak. It demands (and rewards) creativity. Sexuality offers power. Power leads to control.
"Sexuality is the soul of the creative process and erotic expression of any kind is a personal revolution," you write. Exactly! But revolutions, of any kind, are not popular with authority.
Bright: Yes, it's too bad everyone can't take their control and/or victim fantasies and just act them out in a nice little S/M scenario, where it would come to a tidy and consensual end upon afterglow!
Dave: You explain, "I like any group that calls for a reassessment of my assumptions." Well, this is essentially the threat you pose to authority.
Bright: Yeah, that's me. The status quo has always given me the creeps.
Dave: Plenty of couples have trouble communicating openly about issues of sexuality. What's a good way to break the ice? Where should they start?
Bright: May I offer my book, or even my web site, as an ice breaker? I just got interviewed today by someone who said they were reading my book on an airplane, and their seatmate finally couldn't hold herself back and just burst into a conversation. I think it's great to use books, movies, art - all our cultural obsessions - to begin a conversation, to feel someone out.
Dave: Have you read Nicholson Baker's novel, Vox? I was reminded of it by the passage you wrote about the lack of words we have to express sex - the part in his novel where the characters share their own made-up words to describe a woman masturbating.
Bright: Oh, yes, I not only read it, I began a friendship with him based upon it. We had all sorts of arguments about what kind of vocabulary sex calls for. I like made-up words, I really do; the best thing about language is its reinvention.
Dave: In one of my favorite parts of the book, you talk about the importance of choosing the right words for an audience when talking about sex: "cock" or "penis," "hard-on" or "erection." And you give an example from your own experience when you learned that choosing the wrong words could immediately alienate the person you were talking to - whichever words happened to make them uncomfortable.
Besides the fact that this is a great point, I had to laugh because it reminded me of a girl I had a crush on when I was eleven or twelve years old. But ultimately, I thought she was . . . I don't know what I thought she was, but I was really turned off by the fact that she used the word "bum" to describe her ass. Even "butt" would have been better than "bum."
Bright: Ha! Was she British? Yes, I know the way people can just completely TURN OFF to you if they think you use a sexual word that either grosses them out, or seems too pretentious.
Dave: You write: "Think about other controversial or sometimes painful aspects of life, and you don't see people so upset about the words we use to describe them. No one says, 'I can't abide the word war,' or rails that 'the word torture is so cruel on the tongue,' or proclaims, 'I don't allow anyone to say taxes in my home.' "
Yes. You still can't say the F word on the radio. And yet, to use an example from the heart of popular culture, Dave Matthews can sing "you come crash into me, baby / and I come into you / Hike up your skirt a little more / and show the world to me."
Every minute of every day, we're bombarded with lustful, erotic imagery. So why can't we talk about it publicly? And do you have any advice for people who want to talk about it, but can't break through the fear of what people will think of them?
Bright: Oh, I like that song. It is the world being shown when a woman lifts her skirt. I appreciate the metaphors as well as the plain facts. As for advice for the shy, I just think a little inspiration and courage is called for. You don't have to get on a soapbox; you just have to take a tiny chance with one person, a friend, or maybe another seatmate on the airplane!
What's the result of NEVER speaking your mind? That's what we ought to be concerned about.
Dave and Susie Bright began sending emails back and forth prior to her appearance in Portland on September 29, 1999. Their email exchange continued through the following week.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State