The New York Times called Susie Bright "the avatar of American Erotica." She was co-founder and editor of the first Women's sex magazine, On Our Backs: Entertainment for the Adventurous Lesbian, from 1984-1991. Since then, she's written and edited about a zillion books, and taught many courses on sexuality. Currently, she posts regularly on her own blog. Her audio show, In Bed With Susie Bright, is distributed by Audible.com. She was a sex-scene choreographer and consultant for the Wachowski Brothers' first film, Bound, in which she also had a cameo role.
Susie appeared on two consecutive episodes of The RU Sirius Show, primarily to discuss the anthology, The Best American Erotica 2007, which includes stories by Dennis Cooper and the late Octavia Butler, among many others. (She's been editing the Erotica series since 1993.) We did, of course, digress quite a bit from the main topic.
As with the audio interview, we are running these text edits in two segments, so click here for the second half.
RU Sirius Show co-host Diana Brown joined me in interviewing Susie Bright about her "Ted Haggard Betting Pool," teen sex, and other illicit thoughts.
To listen the full interview in MP3, click here.
RU SIRIUS: The introduction to The Best American Erotica 2007 is quite an intense little piece. Would you please read a segment from it?
SUSIE BRIGHT: Sure. I called it "The Lolita Backlash." Every year, the stories in the book tend to magnetize to a certain theme. And this year, it had to do with a rather vicious generation gap.
When was the moment when our youth become self-aware of their charms, as well as its desperation? It seems younger now, although that could just be my mother talking. But look at our 21st century culture. Every teenager knows the time to launch a career as a porn star is in the weeks following high school graduation. Celebrity journalism shows us that Hercules and Aphrodite will both be toppled in their early 20s without massive intervention. It's no wonder the commodification of good looks and muscles has wrought an erotic backlash.
Virginity. Authenticity. The natural pearl. This is what is idealized today, as well as commercialized beyond all recognition. Fake sex — titillation — is for sale; real sex is elusive and underground.
Take this state of affairs, and couple it with a pox of unprecedented meddling in people's personal lives by the religious right, and we have a toxic brew. Privacy, freedom, and nature are gasping for breath. Hypocrites alone have something to crow about.
In my fifteen years of editing BAE, I have never seen such a yowling, lustful, spitting breach between young and old.
Of course, such observations are taboo. Lower your voice! Young people aren't supposed to have a sexual bone in their bodies, right? And their elders, if they are immune to beauty, and make all the rules, should be able to keep it in their pants. What a squawk.
There is so much guilt and fear about the obvious — that young people do have hormones, and old people aren't altogether blind — that helpful discussion in the public sphere has shriveled. It is left to fiction for the truth to come out.
The truth looks like this: any conflict has the potential to become erotic. That might get complicated, tragic, or unpredictable. Eros is kissing cousins with aggravation. The conscience of our society drives us to protect our young, to provide for them, to cheer and cherish their independence. But we wouldn't need any conscience if it wasn't a challenge, if it didn't demand sacrifice. The temptations include neglect, exploitation, coercion, and dependence.
RU: So the introduction to your book — and much of the fiction in the book — broaches the highly taboo subject of adolescent sex; and adolescent sex as it relates to adults. We had Tim Cavanaugh on the show — he was the editor of Reason magazine's blog at the time. I asked him if they'd ever dealt with the age of consent. And he admitted they hadn't. It was clear that this is kind of the third rail for some libertarians. Do you worry about Fox News noticing your book? I think this is probably a bigger taboo than murder in America now.
SB: How interesting. When I was in my twenties, I was invited on the Phil Donahue Show. He was sort of Oprah before Oprah.
So I was brought in with a bisexual male friend of mine to represent bisexuality. We were told we'd talk about what we noticed sexually about the differences between sleeping with men and sleeping with women. And they made it sound like it was not pejorative or prejudiced or trying to start a fire — just, you know, "What do you notice?" And we thought that would be a lot of fun. So we got picked up in one of those big limos and taken to the studio. And inside the limo was this very pink, perspiring couple from Florida. And I said, "You're going to be on the show too?" And they said, "Yes. We're from Exodus." Now Exodus, at the time, was the premier gay conversion group. So it was one of those "gotcha" shows.
RU: (Mockingly) Woo-hoo! Gay conversion — it's coming back!
SB: It's coming back stronger than ever. They've got it down to three weeks now — a three week spa.
DIANA BROWN: Does it come with a French manicure?
SB: So on Donahue's show, he basically tried to get the bible couple to freak out on us — about how we're heathens — and vice versa. It was so humiliating. We didn't talk about anything that I had planned to talk about. And at one point, I just opened my big mouth and said, "I came of age in the seventies, and I lost my virginity shortly before my 16th birthday with an unemployed soap opera actor."
DB: Like you were supposed to in America in the seventies!
SB: Yes! It's a banal story. Exactly. Everybody did that.
RU: ...Since the seventies.
DB: I think it's in the handbook!
SB: So, all of the sudden Phil turns. He's thrilled. And he says, "So you were a victim of child abuse!"
DB: Did he cut to a commercial at that moment?
SB: I just thought, "You son of a bitch." What a gratuitous dig. And, you know, neither I nor anybody in my family feels any regrets or fears. It's not like, "Gee, Susie was in an awful lot of trouble or panic or danger." I wasn't.
Of course, this is a tricky subject and there has to be sensitivity to the psychological and physical development of young people. And some people are such old souls so young. And other people are just crawling out of their egg at age twenty-five. You also have quite a noticeable difference in terms of adolescent girls and boys. I see my daughter and her friends, and some kind of look ten and some kind of look twenty-something — and they're all around sixteen. They are so different. The ones who suffer the most are the ones who look ten, but emotionally and mentally they want to do everything. And then you'll hear about a girl who had breasts when she was ten, and everyone was sexualizing her. And she just wanted to climb a tree and be left alone. There are so many misunderstandings. And adults are constantly projecting their notions of what they want on them. In my case — and in a lot of cases, I was the one who was interested and curious and seeking sex.
RU: You hear that story all the time.
SB: Problems come from older people who don't have empathy and compassion and respect. You get someone who decides; "Yeah! Girls want me!" (Laughter) "That teenaged girl over there? She digs me." That kind of narcissism is the problem.
We don't even talk about whether the sex in these scenarios is consensual. Is there coercion involved? What is the power relationship between these people? We fixate on stereotypes and miss the big picture. And another thing that doesn't get brought up is that, overwhelmingly, sexual abuse and that type of violence happens within families. If you could stop that, it would really be remarkable.
We have this idea, fostered by J. Edgar Hoover, that there are these monsters out there — strangers are going to come up and offer your child a lollipop. We're seeing that replayed now around the internet. There's a wonderful social scientist, Michael Males, who just had an opinion article in the New York Times. He's proved that your kid is safer alone on MySpace than in any shopping mall in America. I just loved reading his facts and figures, because it all makes sense to me.
RU: It seems so obvious, if you think about it.
SB: Yeah, it sure does. And of course, the guy who was running the predator arrest campaign for Homeland Security was exposing himself to 16-year-old girls at the mall. I'm not making this shit up! With all the fuss about Scooter Libby and Cheney, other things have been glossed over.
RU: Were they caught together?
SB: (Laughs) It fascinated me how it came out that officials who are supposedly in charge of protecting children turn out to be really creepy, totally non-consensual predators.
RU: Well, they're the ones who are attracted to that. I mean, just like a certain percentage of criminal sadists are attracted to law enforcement.
DB: The mice are guarding the cheese.
SB: That's a good way of putting it. So when people ask me about public policy, I think about the big picture. If this country had more active democracy; if we had decent health care and universal sex education, things would be better for young people. Anything you can do to give them power is going to work out. Anything you can do to foster good family relationships and support education is going to help. None of this is on the agenda for the United States right now.
DB: Well, you're doing something for young people on your web site — the Ted Haggard Betting Pool. And it's not just a snarky little jab at this fool Ted Haggard, who is all over the media. Proceeds of this Betting Pool are going to benefit a San Francisco youth group called LYRIC.
SB: Yes. LYRIC is a youth group. They do community support and activism for young people who realize that they're sexually different, whatever that might mean to them. And nobody makes you fill out a form to explain yourself. If you know that you're sexually different and you want a place where you don't have to be alone — and where you don't have to be stigmatized and shamed — you can go to them. And you might get support in terms of work and family that you won't get elsewhere. They're role models for young people getting together and doing it for themselves, while having adult advocates who have a lot of integrity. So I love them.
And when this whole mess with Reverend Ted Haggard happened... I mean, there you have the evangelical minister to end all evangelical ministers — the guy who could tell George Bush what to do — and he gets caught sucking cock on a regular basis.
RU: On crank.
SB: On crank.
RU: It's the only way to do it.
SB: No one wants to do it without meth anymore, apparently.
DB: "Cock on crank." I like the alliteration of it.
SB: And instead of copping to it, he said, "Hey. I was always heterosexual. It was just stress" — or whatever it was. And his church gave him a huge check, since they're hemorrhaging money. He signed a confidentiality agreement and was given a plane ticket to get out of town. And, of course, now the headlines are "Ted Haggard says he's 100% heterosexual."
DB: Didn't he go to a three-week spa?
SB: He went to a three-week spa to get over his homosexuality (which he wasn't really anyway.) I mean, the contradictions are endless.
RU: I love that. I mean, who's going into rehab today? It's become a daily thing now.
SB: So everyone I know was saying, "When do you think he'll slip?" So I said, "Let's do a betting pool." So some of us have started a site called "Bet on Ted." You just pick your date. We're going to give it a year. Any time this year. And to win, something has to happen with Ted that gets into the news or into the courts. We've come up with a list of things — all of them involve Ted cracking, and it hitting a news report. If you have the lucky date, then you win half the pot and the other half goes to our worthy cause: LYRIC. If nobody gets the right date — or Ted sneaks by all year and nothing comes out — then the whole pot will go to LYRIC too. So bet on Ted! I'm hoping we get somewhere with it.
One of my friends who wanted to bet said, "Can we send in a ringer?" And I said, "Yeah! Make it happen!"
DB: A hooker with a heart of gold that will bring him across.
RU: I bet a lot of people are trying to reel him in, at this point. It's his lucky year, now!
DB: We're Ted fishing, now!
RU: Ted's going to get a lot of action this year... thanks to Susie Bright.
DB: (Makes a fly-casting sound.) What are we using for bait?
SB: One thing that's interesting: remember I told you about those founders of Exodus that I met at the "Donahue Show." The founders of Exodus finally did do the right thing. They fled Exodus, so to speak. They exited Exodus and said, "We are gay, God damn it! We're sorry we just did this to everybody." Virtually all the founders of all these horrible conversion therapies have recanted after a certain amount of time.
RU: It seems, in the thesis and antithesis of sexual revolution and then backlash; we've ended up in an incredibly tangled state of how we — as a culture — think about sexuality. We almost embrace the most intense kinds of sexual sophistication, and there's all this pornography around, and then there's the most intense kinds of Puritanism. And it's like it's all converged into one confused human being.
SB: Well, a lot of that porn is really about titillation and guilt. There's this, "Taste me! Taste me!" factor where you never really get to taste me. You know? "Come closer! I'll give you this little bit." But then once you get there, you're going to need to get a little bit more... and a little bit more. And you're always going to have to shell out. That's how they sell it. And it's also how they inspire political fear. It's a come-on! It's a con job. What you don't get is sexual honesty and real candor, where you really come through.
RU: They're creating people who behave that way! The relationship between the stripper and the paying customer — a lot of people relate to each other that way.
SB: I suppose so, except with real strippers, real love lives — it doesn't work like that. Even if you try to live in a fake persona, you can't maintain it all the time. It's impossible.
RU: There is a lovely story towards the end of the book — "The Wish Girls" — that gets underneath the emptiness behind those images.
SB: Yeah, that was a great story by a new author — Matthew Addison. His character is about thirty. When he was a teenager, he had an "I Dream of Jeannie" moment where he wished there were two hot, bouncy, magazine-y babes who would appear and be his love slaves. And he got his wish! They're the wish girls! Now, they've been around for fifteen years, and they do the same exact positions. And he was naive when he ordered them. And now he thinks, "Why did I make them identical except for their hair color? I wish one was 5'2" and one was 5'9"!" It drives him nuts that they're so limited. He yearns for more, but on the other hand — they bend over and get in position #19 and position #32 just like clockwork. And he feels guilty for his boredom and ennui with them. So what's in store for him next? Read the story.
RU: On the other hand, there's another story in there involving some porn stars and they're having a pretty interesting time, and their sex is pretty hot and so forth. Do you feel like there's a clear dividing line? Can you say, "This is bad porn; and this is good porn?" I'm suspicious of people judging what gets other people off.
SB: Well, I never walk into a room and say "(gasp) What!? That turns you on? You're gross." I mean, that would be the infantile...
SB: When it comes to "good porn" and "bad porn," you'll frequently see something that has obviously been made with the sloppiest intentions: "Fuck it. Let's get this done and get a quick buck." But as you watch it, there will be one 10-minute scene where the people in front of the camera actually had a moment. And it's caught there, because that's what the camera lens does. Other times, you'll be watching something that has been made with such high ideals, and you'll be, like: "I can't even keep my eyes open."
RU: There is this kind of a superior attitude of people who are sort of into underground sexuality...
DB: "More kinkier than thou."
SB: Yeah, but you have the same kind of conversations in every part of the art world — in music and painting and everything else. You have your little factions. You have auteurs. You have people who put a signature on the work they do and the moment you see it, you can tell it's one of their films.
I'll tell you an interesting story about this: one of the most important pornographers in history died recently — Gary Graver. He worked on some of the most influential films, including Bound. He inspired my choreography of the sex scenes for Bound. And his obit was in the New York Times, Variety, and every place else. But they didn't mention that he was a pornographer! His porn name was Robert McCallum. So they focused largely on the fact that he was Orson Welles' cameraman for thirty years. And he helped fund a lot of Orson's projects when Orson didn't have a dime coming in. It was the porn that let him do that! So I wrote a bunch of letters... "Why are you not saying... I mean, you talked about all of his exploitation work, his horror flicks, his slasher films. None of those are going to get any rave reviews."
It's laughable. He shot Steven Spielberg's first movie — he worked with everybody. His family certainly knows what he was doing. So why didn't they include that? And I got responses that showed the double standard that rules the land. It was like, "Well, we wouldn't do that. Why would we besmirch him?" Besmirch? They're the New York Times! If somebody murdered someone, but later discovered the cure for cancer, they would still mention that they served time for that murder. I mean, they dig up dirt! It's not all: "He had a wonderful life, and everything went swell!"
RU: Like Larry King interviewing Adolf Hilter... "You were a vegetarian, right?"
SB: Exactly! So why would they report on people's immorality, gambling, criminality, lawsuits — but they wouldn't mention that Gary Gravers did some of the most significant porn films of all time — films that are still for sale and have sold in every format.
RU: Before we wrap up, has it been a good life, being a "sexpert" for thirty years? Is it a big responsibility? Is it a lot of fun? Do you wish you were a fucking fishermen — like John Lennon used to say about being in The Beatles?
SB: On a personal level, sometimes I wish to be unknown. Having some celebrity around my sexuality can be weird. When it comes to sexual and personal attention, you're always afraid of people's agendas. I locked myself in the bathroom of the last sex party I went to, because somebody who I thought was interested in me really wanted me to read their manuscript.
RU: Well, that's scary for anybody — when somebody approaches you with a manuscript!
SB: It's like: "I don't want to see a manuscript, I want to fuck!" But in terms of having social influence — and I bet John Lennon would have said the same thing — you never get sick of influencing a conversation.
RU: Do you ever think it would've been cool to become famous as a writer about a different topic, like television or quantum physics or something like that?
SB: I do write about all kinds of subjects. And I have a few readers who know that part of me. I wrote for political publications for many years before my writing about sex started becoming commercially successful.
RU: Do you go off on many topics on your audio show?
SB: I certainly do. In fact...
RU: ...You get complaints? People like their narrowcasting!
SB: Sometimes I get complaints. I've got this one Republican listener. He writes me over and over again. He wants to discuss his marital situation at length. I keep quoting my favorite dominatrix to him: "We're not spanking Republicans any more. We're not servicing you with sex tips until you realize that this stuff that you're doing in bed, and your voting/political behavior are at odds. You're hurting people." Ow!
RU: We can't spank Ann Coulter?
SB: God, no! I wouldn't touch her with a 10-foot pole!
RU: Michelle Malkin? I do have my fantasies.
Click here for Part II
Drugs and Sex and Susie Bright
Why Sarah's Sex Life Matters
World Sex Laws
Violet Blue SHOCKER: "I'd Do Bruce Campbell"
The Perversions of Perverted Justice