Susie Bright's State of The Nation

July 26, 2010

Susie Bright has spent decades campaigning for a woman’s right to orgasm. Now she is analysing Britain’s sexual issues

Susie Bright is talking about sex. For 30 years she has done little else. America’s most controversial feminist is holding court on a gold throne under a curtain of bondage ropes in a packed room at Coco de Mer, an exclusive sex shop owned by Samantha Roddick. Before her in the audience is an old friend — let’s call her Jane. The two women are discussing Bright’s review of the Sexual State of the Nation, a UK version of her original Sexual State of the Union address, which was targeted at Americans.

Jane is nearly 70, and yearns for the kind of feminist community that existed in the old days. Also, she can’t get any sex. “What am I going to do, go to a lesbian nightclub?” she pleads to the audience. “Should I do it on my own? That’s fine, I love it. But what am I going to do politically?” There is a gasp as she falls suddenly backwards, literally carried away by her argument. “I was almost killed,” she calls out, from under a rail of pointy conical corsets.
“Oh my God that was almost the end of Jane,” Bright says, agog on stage. “She was talking about sex and the older woman and then that’s it — impaled on a coat hanger at Coco de Mer.”

Such a flamboyant and ironic demise would be in keeping, one day, for Bright herself. She is the woman who first introduced America to the joys of the Rabbit vibrator — and then denounced all battery-powered devices, telling women to buy vibrators that plugged directly into the mains. She is also the woman whose conversion to pornography led some of her former feminist sisters to try to kill her, and whose personal loathing for priggish Republican moralising didn’t stop her saying that she would like to lock Sarah Palin in a room and seduce her. “That woman is an ovarian storm,” Bright marvels. “She’s so fertile.”

After an absence of 20 years, Bright is back in London, to record two of her radio shows In Bed with Susie Bright, and to give the Sexual State of the Nation talk.

For three decades she has been lecturing, educating, and sometimes appalling her audience in the name of levering women out of the dark closet of prudery. The remarkable range of her message now encompasses a downloadable weekly podcast, bestselling books, several collections of women’s erotica, and even a card game suggesting wild fantasises that might be hovering, undiscovered, in your subconscious.

As the first, and leading, “sex positive” feminist in America, she has become a legendary figure; emerging, and then breaking, from the women’s movement of the 1970s to encourage a generation of women to fight for equality and explore and enjoy pleasure. Describing herself as a “rootin’ tootin’ revolutionary”, she has coined such memorable catchphrases as “clits up”.

Since her last visit to Britain much has changed, she says: “Twenty years ago I had to be practically smuggled into the country for an event with the British Film Institute. A lot of my work was banned and censored, even though it didn’t even contain pictures. Those were the bad old days.”
Bright is energetic and engaging, and occasionally uncomfortably frank on topics such as the sexual pleasure of giving birth — but let no one mistake the importance that she attaches to her crusade.

“Sex is such an urgent message from our body that sometimes we call it our soul,” she writes. “Lust carries risks, sexual intimacy has consequences; it is nature, not a gadget with a warranty. Nobody would go through it if the rewards were not so magnificent.” A philosophy of chastity and prudery is “at its very core, an affront to our survival”.

In the gap between Bright’s visits to the UK, new Labour dawned, died and now the Con Dems, as she calls them, are in charge. “I don’t know what I would say to him,” she admits, asked what she would do if David Cameron heard her Sexual State of the Nation review and requested a discussion. “The British are famous for being polite and a little arch and saying, ‘Oh, really?’ They might not be as confrontational, I don’t know whether he would say, ‘I think she’s got a point but obviously this would never fly in my party’, or would he be like, ‘Sheila Jefferies [the renowned anti-porn British feminist who is the ideological opposite of Bright] is my best friend and I think you’re an outrage’?”

Bright adds that she is not intrinsically against conservative people: “I have notions of having a conservative point of view. I let myself be a blabbermouth and I speak openly about many aspects of my sexual history. I use myself as a role model in a way. But being sexually tolerant and thoughtful does not mean that you’re necessarily a blabby show off. You could be quiet, private, you could have a sedate life with other people, perhaps you just masturbate every once in a while, who knows, that’s not the point. It’s how you consider the world and whether you treat people with compassion and consideration and you have a imaginative appreciation of how things work and what human potential is. To me, that would be sexually radical.”

Now 52, Bright came of age in 1970s Los Angeles when being radical was the only non-radical option. She lost her virginity in a threesome with an out-of-work soap opera star and her own best friend in the same week that she raised her feminist consciousness with her high school revolutionary movement, Red Tide.

“The school ran something called Girls Week, which was powder-puff football, mother-and-daughter fashion shows, things like that. And we said, ‘Oh no, we’re having nothing like that, we’re going to have self-defence and rape crisis and birth control and we want a lesbian panel and we want radical folk music and we’re going to demonstrate and we’re taking over a janitor’s closet and turning it into an abortion referral centre’. Sexual liberation and women’s liberation were always like this. It’s my birth right — I started to have sex and I went to my first feminine activist meeting the same week.”

For Bright, a bookish girl who had never held hands and “went to bed at night kissing the pillow,” the experience was transformative. She describes kissing her best friend as like an electric shock. “I remember thinking, is it because it’s her, is it because it’s a girl, or is it because it’s my first kiss? And I still can’t answer that question.” She was less enamoured of the soap star: “When you’re a young revolutionary you’re the first to criticise everybody and their choices. So it wasn’t a great love affair, I didn’t esteem him.”

Still the experience thrilled her, she says. “The ego and the power rush was remarkable; I had never seen a man be vulnerable like that.”

In light of these eye-opening developments, Bright burnished her revolutionary credentials by dropping out of high school and running away to Detroit to organise a general strike. While the largely African-American workforce remained unmoved by her efforts, she remembers her open talk about sex and bisexuality shocked them: “There’d be this hushed voice and then one of the new kids would say, ‘Are you serious? In Detroit we don’t talk like that.’ Well, you’d better start talking like that, I thought, and I knew more than ever that I had to get to San Francisco. The mecca.”

In California, however, Bright evolved a new strand of feminist thinking that put her at odds with her sisterhood. “Andrea Dworkin was writing about pornography, and saying this is wrong. And I was reading it and thinking, this is kind of hot!” Once Bright broke ranks and started to publish erotica and pornography by and for women, she found large parts of the movement quickly turning against her. One woman tried to stab her with a pair of scissors while she was pregnant.

Arriving at an event for college students, Bright was confronted with an apparently blood-soaked banner that read “First there was slavery in the Roman Empire. Then there was the Holocaust. Now Susie Bright speaks at the University of Minnesota”.

“Feel my power,” Bright says, rolling her eyes. “I tried to have ideological discussions with them; they sank like a lead balloon. Eventually I realised that a lot of it was competition — like there were only five chairs in the room for feminists and I wasn’t going to get a sixth.”

Undeterred she carved her own niche, working in the first women-friendly sex shop, Good Vibrations, editing the women’s sex magazine On Our Backs, publishing the first of many collections of women’s erotica, and teaching a course at the University of California that she calls Porn 101. While she remains every bit the intellectual heavyweight — her blog has academic footnotes — it is her nickname, Susie Sexpert, that has made her notorious. Now, however, she is keen to emphasise that’s it not about how many sexual positions you indulge in or “Whether I can throw my legs over my head” but “finding a real, honest connection with someone, understanding that sex is about the mind.”

Bright appears to have a sunny personality and a life free of deep personal trauma. She loved her parents, and misses them desperately. She was not abused and her recently completed memoir has no tales of uncontrollable neurosis, addiction or alcoholism. “I can’t say that I was in the rathole and I pulled myself out,” Bright says, “I wasn’t even halfway down any rathole.”
She is close to her 20-year-old daughter, Aretha, and the two write a mother-daughter sex advice column together, though never discuss their own sex lives with each other. Aretha is in the audience for Bright’s London Sexual State of the Nation address. She groans, rolls her eyes and hisses “Oh God” when someone in the audience asks about her mother’s views on monogamy.

Bright, who is enshrined on stage on a gold throne, laughs at her daughter’s reaction and cheerfully tells everyone that she has never been married, or in a monogamous relationship, but that her partner, Aretha’s father Jon, is her best friend and lover of many years: “It’s not like you go home and say, ‘Honey the 14th orgy was so much better than the 13th’.”

You may not like me or the way I live my life, Bright seems to say, but don’t be a liar or a hypocrite. In particular she dislikes the media for blaming feminism for the downfall of Western civilisation, then using women’s rights as a smokescreen for politics: “A 14-year-old girl is running around in hotpants, it’s the end of the world! Then, ‘Oh no! Women in Afghanistan aren’t allowed to wear hotpants. We must have a war to give them the same freedoms we have’.”

The discussion of the evening focuses on her views on prostitution, trafficking, chastity and plastic surgery as they relate to Britain. But she refuses to be polemic on any issue, and regrets the lack of thoughtfulness that dominates debates about sex and politics. A little drama is injected when a man shouts at her and then storms out over her comments on teenage purity (if he finds that offensive, he should read some of her more outspoken writing on the subject).

Bright urges the audience to get down and dirty, “Ask me anything, be vulgar!” But, being British, no one dares. Or perhaps it’s because, in our sex-saturated world, there are few questions left to ask.

Bright would not deny that there is far more to life, but according to the surveys that she publishes on her website, college audiences are more uneducated about sex than ever.
“I’ve never had a man come up to me and say he didn’t know where his penis was and that he’d never had an orgasm,” she says. “If that doesn’t sum up the double standard I don’t know what does. I’ll never be tired of opening up the map to someone and saying ‘Here, aren’t you glad to know’.

Comments (1)

Posted by: Elizabeth Head over 8 years ago

We may live in a ‘sex saturated world’, but our attitudes to such a wide and wonderful subject are still mired in self-limiting emotions like guilt, anxiety and fear. We shout about (what we see as) the negatives but don’t tackle the positives. We’ve a long way to go, baby. Sorry I couldn’t be there – I have many questions. Thank you for the article.

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