“Most people unfamiliar with my work imagine that anyone with the youthful nickname of Susie Sexpert must be an adolescent airhead, a happy but too-dim nympho, someone who set out to shock her strict parents—or, alternatively, was raised in a den of hedonists,” Susie Bright writes in the preface to her memoir Big Sex, Little Death.
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Nothing could be further from the truth. Born to a pair of globe-trotting linguists who came home to roost on the West Coast, Bright came of age at the heart of the women’s movement, finding a cause that claimed both her youthful idealism and verve for social justice. One of the country’s foremost sex activists and educators, as well as the longtime editor of The Best American Erotica series, Bright’s story is one of the ever-changing role of women in society that will inspire a new generation of women to speak up for equality and empowerment. Here, the sexpert weighs in with Kirkus about the memoir racket, what she learned working behind the counter at a sex-toy shop and where to scare up good erotica. (Hint: It’ll have you looking at your next dental appointment in a whole new light.)
Why did you decide to write a memoir?
I hate to admit that being flattered, begged and cajoled was the thing that finally got me writing…but very often when you’re a working writer, you’re like a dog that responds to deadlines. I had been thinking about it in the back of my mind. I was 50 years old, I had a life story to tell at this point. My parents had passed away just recently, and I find that there’s things you don’t begin to understand about your parents and family life until your parents pass away. Being able to put those pieces together—I had a more honest, accurate sense of my background. In order to write a memoir, you have to have the conceit that you have something to say about your own history.
When I started writing this book, I went onto Amazon to check out other women’s memoirs. It was dispiriting. They were all diet books or celebrity tell-alls—in which they don’t actually tell us anything, they’re about as bland as a box of Kleenex—or stories of overcoming family or origin issues.
You were politically active from a young age.
I remember my first day in high school in West Los Angeles. I’d just returned to America from Canada, where I’d been living with my mother for a few years. There was a petition circulating around campus demanding information and access to birth control. I was shocked. I wasn’t new to feminism, my father got me a subscription to Ms. Magazine when I was 12. But I was a virgin and didn’t know anything about these issues. But I was with it. The women’s movement had its genesis in Los Angeles and I was there. We walked out of jobs, schools, took over Main Boulevard in West L.A. and shut it down, completely. The cause was women’s liberation—every part of it. Abortion, equal rights, sexual liberty. We wanted sex on our own terms. Sex was part of feminism from day one.
You used to work at Good Vibrations, the legendary San Francisco sex shop. What did you learn there?
When I started working there in 1981, there were three of us—a manager and two employees. I worked as a counter girl. There were five vibrators for sale and lubricant. And we had a lot of educational material for sale. But then I noticed a change, and it was almost as if it were happening in weeks. The women that had used to come in were downtrodden, because their psychiatrist had sent them or their husband had died. They’d come in thinking, “I’m a desperate, at a dead end. Only a loser like me would have to come to a vibrator store to ask for help.” And I’d say, “What I’m about to show you isn’t for losers.” But then women started coming in, saying things like, “Oh my God, I have to get my hands on the Magic Wand. All the girls at work are talking about it.” These women were in no way downtrodden or ashamed. After that, we expanded our stock.
Then we started publishing a series of women’s erotica [On Our Backs]. I went around asking everyone I knew—if I went to the dentist, I’d ask the hygienist, “Do you write erotica?” Publishers at the time said that women wanted romance, not sex. If only I got a check for how wrong they were. A lot of feminists were wary at first. And we just said, “Don’t. It’s going to be great.” You cannot wait until someone sends you an envelope that says the revolution is here.
Where’s feminism at today? Is it still relevant?
I don’t like that question. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth. As long as women are being treated as second-class citizens, there is a need. To be understood as a woman in full, it’s an eternal, ethical and human concept. The feminist movement or its ideology gives women a way to speak out. The movement wasn’t intended as a drawing-room conversation, but a matter of life and death.