Bright on

Dyke porn pioneer Susie Bright opens up with Big Sex Little Death

On Our Backs and beyond: Susie Bright's memoir covers key moments in SF's sexual liberation.

QUEER Heady, hilarious, heartbreaking: Big Sex Little Death explores legendary sex writer, educator, and instigator Susie Bright's coming of age from the 1960s to the present. Bright's memoir focuses on her involvement with The Red Tide, a radical high school newspaper in Los Angeles in the 1970s, and her subsequent membership in a socialist sect that sends her halfway across the country. Her union organizing stint lasts until the Party leadership expels her for "joining or leading a cult of personality." Personality is certainly one of Bright's strong points, so perhaps we should be grateful for this particular falling out. It eventually leads to Bright's role in founding the first lesbian porn magazine, On Our Backs, in San Francisco in 1981, as well as her pioneering work as a fiery spokesperson for free speech and sexual liberation. I spoke with her over the phone about sex and memory and writing.

SFBG You do such a great job of talking about your sexual coming of age as a teenager: describing your sluttiness without shame, your curiosity about bodies and pleasure and the intricacies of sexual positioning.

Susie Bright I think it's because I wrote my memoir like a storyteller, like a poet — not a polemicist. I wasn't ashamed; it never occurred to me. Margaret Mead would have found my little teenage tribe to be quite poignant.

SFBG There's a tendency for many sex-positive spokespeople to glamorize even the most annoying, mundane, or gross sexual experiences as somehow — well — positive. Sometimes this sex-positive rhetoric ends up making those of us who don't always succeed at having a wonderful sex life feel like failures ...

SB I think bad sex — obnoxious, absurd, BIG FAIL sex — is funny, nostalgic, and more endearing as you grow older. It also goes hand in hand with adventurous, rapturous, mind-blowing sex. You actually know the difference. You've spanned the spectrum, you've lived. The big bummer with American sex right now is the unrelenting banality and flat-out scarcity.

SFBG The most striking part of Big Sex Little Death for me is the way you describe betrayal in the social and political realms you choose to inhabit — places that initially give you so much hope. Like when you helped to start On Our Backs, the first lesbian porn magazine, in the early '80s. Feminist bookstores refused to carry it, claiming that you were aiding the patriarchy.

SB It was more than that. The whole mainstream feminist movement was calling for our heads. Or, as Barbara Grier of Naiad Press put it, "Everyone I know thinks y'all should be assassinated."

It's been a part of every civil rights and social justice movement that I've been a part of. We know it — we talk about how the powers that be would prefer to let the weak fight among themselves. We see how divide-and-conquer tactics are so effective, but it's very hard to resist.

What kills me is the blindness, even years after the fact. Sometimes it's comical. I got a letter from an ambitious writer the other day who told me that in the '80s she fought the sex-positive On Our Backs types tooth and nail, no tactic too dirty. "We" were pimping the patriarchy and she was on point to take us down. She asked me if I found it amusing that she's now in a submissive relationship with a man — no! Then she asked me if I would blurb her new book.

Someone asked me on this tour if I ever got an apology, and I was startled. No, not for the bombings or the death threats or the bannings or the locked doors or the bizarre libels and slanders. No way.

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