Erotic Pioneer Susie Bright on Sex, Money, and Memoirs

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Susie Bright has had a slew of jobs during her life, but the title “sexpert” seems to fit her best. The co-founder of On Our Backs , the first erotica magazine run by women, has an abundance of life experience to share in her new memoir, Big Sex Little Death . New York readers have the opportunity to see Doug Henwood interview Bright at The Strand this Thursday at 7pm, so head over and razz her about the book. In the meantime, click through for Bright’s thoughts on everything from regulating sex workers to the Egyptian protests.

What were your hesitations about writing a memoir?

Memoir is a drama. Of course there are going to be conflicts, and of course your family of origin in a memoir is going to weigh heavily on that drama. Many of those books I do like, but in some of them the redemption is so much like an early episode of VH-1 Behind the Music — am I dating myself when I say that? “It was going so well, until Boris hit bottom.” You’re just like, oh god, I saw that coming a mile away. All the problems are made to sound so banal — they’re not. Tragedies really are tragedies. Sometimes you feel like there’s a play by numbers thing going on, and I was like, that must not happen. I must not reduce the drama of my life. I don’t want people to see it coming.

If you were growing up today, what protests would you be involved in?

The things I want to do today are in some respects the same as what I wanted to do at 16. If you called me up a month ago and asked me where I wanted to be, I would have said, “I want to be in Tahrir Square right now.” Then I would’ve said “I want to be in Madison and I want to be in Egypt.” Every friend, every connection I had in those places I was like, talk to me, talk to me, talk to me. I knew it was the real thing. I could feel it in my cunt. It’s not a revolution that’s going to happen; it’s a revolution that’s happening right now, and it’s as much a sexual revolution as a democratic revolution. The two things kind of go hand in hand.

There’s new blood in protest movements but the things that are sectarian, fussy, and politically correct — they’re as tired and as annoying as ever.

How did you start at Good Vibrations?

I decided to apply to move the cones on the Golden Gate Bridge and Good Vibrations simultaneously. Good Vibrations happened to be a much happier choice for me because I was so interested in learning more deeply about sexuality. There is no tryout room now. It was so different then, it was so altruistic. Joanie hired me and said, “I don’t care if you make a dime all day. This is about sex education.” To have any sort of job where I got to put people’s education and needs first, and not trying to force a pair of Ben Wa balls down their vagina, you know, that was great. It was thrilling. We knew we were on the cutting edge of something, and I was all too willing to take it further.

What was your first high-paying job?

I got hired by Penthouse forum to write a monthly column for them in ‘86. That was my first major gig, and I was just so stunned. In fact, people would be stunned today. If somebody said I will pay you $1800 to write a 500 to 700 word column once a month, today you’d be like, oh my god, who gets to do that anymore? It was more than enough money. Oh my god. I went on a shoe shopping spree, and I was handing out money to my friends, like, “Hey, you have a problem? Let me pay your gas bill!” I felt so fucking rich.

In the book you mention hanging out with strippers and sex workers, and some of them weren’t really able to control their finances. Why was that the case?

When you’re in an industry that’s on the cusp of illegality, it’s such a crazy world. It creates this twilight zone. As long as the law criminalizes sex workers, you’re going to find an entrepreneurial force that is more vulnerable and more fragile. If people could be openly seeking legal rights, if you could enforce normal work rules and business practices, it would simply be another part of the entertainment business. You would have a kind of balance… If our society had a sane view of sexuality, you would say as casually that you worked in sexual services as normally as you would in any other occupation. It’s the prudery that’s killing everyone.

Last question: Why are nerds so often drawn to sexual subcultures?

Are you calling me a nerd? I’m going to give you an unusual answer. Until a few weeks ago I had very bad cataracts and my vision was really taking a tumble, and so even though I’m pretty young for it, I had cataracts surgery. While they were taking the cataracts out they also implanted these lenses so I can see distance, which I’ve never really been able to see before. I was a little girl who didn’t get diagnosed with being nearsighted until I was pretty old. I would call it Susieworld. Susieworld is the world where things are very close. I was horsing around with my lover shortly after my operation and we were in bed; I pulled the covers over my head and went down between his legs and said, “Oh my god, I can’t see your cock!” We were laughing, but it was really profound. I always felt at ease with sex because I could see really, really well. Everything is very close up. I loved reading because I cold hold the book right up to my face. I always liked being up close, and I’m having this whole revolution of sight and how it is actually connected to my sexuality. Thank god I had all that practice.