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If You Knew Susie

Susie Bright
Flag Girl: Susie Bright's newest book makes censors on both the left and right nervous.

Sexpert, author and film buff Susie Bright provokes prudes and feminists alike with her pro-sex, anti-intolerance essays

By Eileen Murphy

IF TRUTH-IN-LABELING laws were enforced, Susie Bright's Sexual State of the Union would be titled Common Sense, so persuasive is the author's voice, so sane and reasonable is her vision. Bright creates a world in which people are free to express and explore themselves--and to make life decisions based on experience rather than limited choices. That world exists for only 251 pages, but it's a helluva place to visit.

After years as an underground figure, self-described "sex educator" Bright and her vision have made it to the big time. Although she has written or edited 11 books plus numerous magazine and journal articles, Susie Bright's Sexual State of the Union is her first book with a major publishing house.

And although she's appeared in films before, last year she made it to the mainstream by serving as "sexual consultant" on Bound. She even had a cameo in the film (she's the woman Gina Gershon hits on in the lesbian bar). I talked with Bright during her tour to promote her new book, a collection of essays dealing with everything from gender identity to the Internet. I asked if she was pleased to be riding on the current wave of lesbian chic.

"Before there was lesbian chic there was lesbian invisibility," Bright points out. "I'd rather be visible. I know how much I felt like I suffered when the media only discussed the gay community in terms of gay men. But lesbian chic is just another signal of exploitation, like when feminists were portrayed only as bra-burners."

The writer has secured some identity in the public consciousness, but that doesn't mean she's become a household name. In her own words, she's "an alternative voice" even when that voice is broadcast over the standard channels. Calling her mainstream is "the same as saying that John Waters makes Hollywood movies."

Bright's alternative voice makes her a strange commodity. Although her views are feminist in the strictest sense of the word--meaning that she supports equal rights and treatment for women--her positive take on pornography has made her persona non grata in the feminist community. The Rush Limbaughs and Newt Gingriches of the world seldom pay Bright any mind; she says that her harshest criticism comes from other feminists, particularly young women.

In an essay titled "Talking in the Dark," Bright recalls a visit to Antioch College in Ohio, where she had been invited to speak. Her reputation preceded her, and "the most articulate of the undergrad anti-porn organizers ... told everyone that [Bright] was going to 'attract disturbed and perverted men' to the campus who would try to assault the women after [the] lecture concluded."

Bright says that such incidents have become commonplace for her, but she is troubled by how misguided she believes these young women are in their criticism of her.

"A lot of young women--and I used to be one of them--are angry about the power struggles," she says. "They come up to me and tell me that they hate pornography. I ask, 'Why?' and a woman will tell me that there's a guy in her office who bothers her and makes comments and stares at her all day. I wait for her to say something about how he watches pornography all day or makes her watch pornography, but that's not it. Instead of confronting [this guy] on the terms of his sexual harassment, she blames it on pornography."


Susie Bright has own home page.
Simon and Schuster has page about her book.


BRIGHT'S ABILITY to see what's underneath someone's argument is what makes her such a formidable thinker. Most of her opinions are pro something rather than anti anything, but Bright isn't afraid to call a spade a spade.

In her diatribe against organized religion, "Little Faith," she explains that her concerns center on the habit of intolerance practiced by most religious groups: "Sure, I learned the golden rule, too, and the kindness of Jesus, and I sang 'They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love, by Our Love'--but who the hell recognizes Christians by their love anymore, if they ever did?

"Christians are meanies, like the other big religions of the world. ... The loving, generous and truth-demanding principles of Christianity and many other world religions are always deep-sixed for me because of their stipulated intolerance. Whether they want to save me because of compassion or slay me for being an infidel, the policy of live and let live is not in the Holy Book vocabulary."

Although Bright can sound pretty intolerant herself in her writing, she struggles to get everybody out of everyone else's business. She's pro-education, anti-control. Her central argument is that most people who want to restrict the behavior of others don't have any idea what they are talking about, especially when it comes to sex.

"People get away with such murder about sexual topics because so few people know anything about it," she insists. "It's as if people are stranded on an island and don't know anything about other people. They haven't seen pornography, but they can tell you everything that's wrong with it."

Bright laughs as she says, "I don't let my daughter give a dissertation about food when all she eats are hot dogs."

As anyone who has read any of Bright's books can tell you, the woman does know about sex. (Bright got her start as a "sex educator" when she worked at the San Francisco sex shop Good Vibrations and gave guidance to her shoppers; later she helped create and wrote a sex-advice column for On Our Backs, "the magazine for the adventurous lesbian.")

Then and now, her advice is peppered with anecdotes from her own life. Bright says experience isn't enough--it's experience followed by thought that allows us to make new discoveries. She laughs at the thought that she must be pretty sick of sex by now.

"I don't think that I have sex as much as many of my readers think I do," she admits. "I spend a lot more time thinking and writing about sex than I do huffing and puffing."

Besides, Bright says the act of creating is pretty sexy in and of itself. "If you're really pouring it on, you get a hard-on about it. Creativity is lusty by its nature."

ALL THAT creativity is apparent in the love scenes of Bound (released last year and now available on video). Bright's involvement in the film gave it an authenticity that most lesbian-tinted films lack. She speaks about Bound with excitement and pride--as the film's sexual consultant, she had the opportunity to create the kind of love scenes she'd been craving as a film viewer.

Bright says her involvement in the film began when Larry and Andy Wachowski (the brothers who wrote, directed, and produced Bound) wrote her a fan letter. She got a copy of the script and was enthusiastic.

"I couldn't put the script down," she says, and she was full of ideas for changes. "I told them, 'You haven't detailed the kind of sex these two lovers have.' " She sent the filmmakers clips from her favorite alternative erotic films and gave them tips. "This isn't the kind of movie where I wanted to see simulated oral sex--we need to know that the two women are fucking each other."

Her insistence on realistic love scenes made the film noir intensely erotic--and a surprise hit. Bright sees that sort of realistic, intelligent eroticism as empowering for women, not exploitative. She loves for people to get turned on, and she wants them to explore that both mentally and physically.

"I come from a long line of pro-sex feminism," she says. "But it's not enough to know where your clitoris is; now sexual empowerment has to take place above the neck."

Susie Bright's Sexual State of the Union by Susie Bright; Simon & Schuster; 251 pages; $23 cloth.

Bright appears Monday (April 7) at 8pm at Printers Inc. Bookstore, 310 California Ave., Palo Alto. (415/327-6500)

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From the April 3-9, 1997 issue of Metro

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