Big Sex Little Death: A Memoir
by Susie Bright
Reviewed by Peter S. Scholtes
How many erotic minds did Susie Bright open? Her influence on the happiest cultural sea change of the past quarter-century -- the broadening American attitude toward sex, sexuality, and homosexuality -- was profound, if indirect. After editing the pioneering lesbian erotic magazine On Our Backs in the 1980s, she published a collection of carnal advice columns in 1990, Susie Sexpert's Lesbian Sex World (Cleis Press), which established her as an uncommon voice of reason on a subject -- sex -- that causes so many thoughtful people to lose their heads.
Bright rejected shame and timidity posing as egalitarian enlightenment. She wrote candidly about fisting, butch-femme role-playing, and kink. She said she aspired to be the Pauline Kael of porn, and you can hear in her writing some of that other Californian's provocative, hip-motherly tone. She became bohemia's great sex educator instead: radical and feminist in the tradition of Ellen Willis, defending dirty fantasy for its own sake, but in blunt, cheerful prose. Four more collections of essays followed in the '90s alone, joining two erotic anthology series she launched and edited. If her attitude is tough to distinguish now from the prevailing sensibility on campus, that's a measure of how much the margins define thought in America.
Not that Bright takes credit for any of that in Big Sex Little Death, her new memoir, which ends in the '90s with her moving to Santa Cruz (with her male partner and daughter) to teach a university course on pornography. The book is an intimate account of the history she helped make, but it's like an epic shot entirely in close-up, skimping on context, and without any pretension that her story matters to anyone but her. The mind changing she takes pride in is all individual, like her one-on-one interactions with customers walking into Good Vibrations, the San Francisco vibrator store where she worked in the '80s. "One little chat," she writes, "and they wouldn't think they needed to rely on someone else for their orgasm."
Bright had been a revolutionary before she was a sexual revolutionary. Leaving an abusive mother in Canada who once threatened her with murder-suicide ("I'm driving us into the river"), she moved to live with her father in Los Angeles in the early '70s and attended University High School, where she became a "score girl" for the swim team and joined the socialist newspaper The Red Tide. She started having sex with men and women -- one of each, together, her first time. Before a swim banquet at the Playboy club, she had never been on a date: "I just went to meetings and demos and ended up in bed with my friends."
In this radical milieu, where "everyone was down with women's liberation and nonmonogamy," Bright saw utopia. "No one would bother to be jealous. Who would have the time? Sex would be friendly and kind and fun. You'd get to see what everyone was like in bed."
Bright found kindness, at first, in the International Socialists, a small but national Trotskyist organization that emphasized forming industrial unions where there were none and reforming existing ones, such as the then-notorious Teamsters. Bright's labor organizing brought her to African American communities in Detroit and Louisville. But she doesn't shape her story enough to say exactly how she got "an FBI file three inches thick" there. Her most vivid descriptions are emotional. Expelled in the mid-'70s, along with half of the group's membership, she writes, "I was accused of joining or leading a cult of personality. Which one? I didn't know what my personality was anymore."
Easing other people's minds about sex became Bright's mission. She remembered a fellow student in one of her women's studies classes who raised her hand and confessed to "rape fantasies" only to be told by classmates that she'd been brainwashed by the patriarchy. Bright kept quiet about her own taboo daydreams, and her sense that the term her fellow students used was something of a misnomer by definition: "In fantasy, I got only as scared as I wanted to be. I was only as subservient or sadistic as I cared to conjure. It started and ended with my trigger finger. Contrary to my real life, fantasies were...mine."
Yet this battle with the literal-minded strain of anti-sexism took on the anguish of a sectarian split in feminism, particularly as On Our Backs -- its very title a tweak of the anti-porn women's publication off our backs -- forced the issue. Bright writes that some women's bookstores, such as A Room of One's Own in Madison, Wisconsin, "issued press releases in which they accused us of being virulent racists and anti-Semitists, of practicing female genocide, of endorsing white slavery, of being pimps masquerading as women." Death threats and protests came, eventually followed by curiosity over what all the fuss had been about.
In the end, as Bright writes, "Madison Avenue took the sizzle of the lesbian feminist sex wars and put it in their own steak. How do you get from Patti Smith to Girls Gone Wild?" (Short version: Nobody and the Internet won.)
Yet there was more in those dirty pictures. Bright writes that "male magazines' centerfolds of female models were about: Am I pretty? Am I darling?" By contrast, "the great relief of dyke porn was that all that went out the window. We had an objective on our minds; we didn't need to be reassured that we were 'hot.' We had a sexual story to tell. We asked each participant, 'What's yours?'"
Bright must sense that this epiphany is the heart of her story, the point of her musical, but she has so many other passions and loves to honor: her parents, who get many, many chapters before our main character enters the picture, plus numerous lovers, friends, and benefactors to whom she owes a debt of description. This cascade of personal history becomes sprawling -- there still seems to be something of the young Susie pleasing everyone here. But her story is far from over, and it's too good to pass up for being less than perfect.