In Bed With the Humanists

Photo by Scott Weldon

SUSIE BRIGHT is an acclaimed sex writer, feminist, and civil rights activist. From 1984-1991 she published On Our Backs, the first lesbian sex magazine produced by women, for which she wrote the “Susie Sexpert” advice column.  Bright served as a contributing editor for the New York Times Book Review and San Francisco Review of Books and was considered the first mainstream critic to cover erotic cinema and the sex industry. Her own books include the bestsellers, The Sexual State of the Union and Full Exposure, and her 2011 memoir Big Sex Little Death. Bright edited The Best American Erotica series  for fifteen years and has a long-running weekly program on called In Bed with Susie Bright. The following was adapted from her remarks in acceptance of the Humanist Feminist Award from the American Humanist Association at its annual conference, held this year in Charleston, South Carolina, in June.

As you can imagine, when one is asked to attend the American Humanist Association conference and accept an award, there’s a little bit of gloating. You know, wanting to brag to everybody you ever knew. On the other hand—and I suppose this affects everyone, but particularly if you’re raised working-class Irish Catholic—there’s a sense of, “Oh, no, no, no. I’m not worthy. How dare you give yourself airs. Don’t tell anyone about this. You’re just making yourself proud.”

It reminds me of a conversation I once had with my late Aunt Molly. As usual, she was acting like I was a waste of space and asked, “So what are making of yourself now?” I dared to be proud, to be a writer. “I publish a magazine called On Our Backs,” I told her. “It’s a feminist lesbian erotic magazine, sex and politics. I’m a writer.”

She recoiled. “Any Irishman is a writer! What else are you doing?”

I loved her backhanded compliments. They were always so good.

It’s humbling when people ask, “Why did you become a radical?” “Weren’t you afraid?” I often contemplate my immediate elders and ancestors. What were my parents like? Why aren’t they here in my place?

My mother was the first of her  generation to not  die in childbirth, from just having baby after baby—because of the church’s edicts on birth control. Everything in her young life was the church. She was the first person in her family to marry out of her faith and, worse yet, to divorce. She liked to chuckle and tell me how she was considered a very smart young girl, who received a scholarship to a small Catholic college. She quickly realized from their parochialism that she had to transfer out. She decided to go to the University of Minnesota, the closest public university. The nuns pulled her aside and said, “Betty Jo, if you go to Dinkytown, you will go straight to hell.” She had a wonderful time there!

Decades later, I found myself at the height of what some people called the “feminist sex wars,” which seems rather quaint now. A lot of it had to do with censorship within our own movement—what can be said and cannot be said. Being politically incorrect was as bad as being banished to Dinkytown hell.

I’m sure you’ve seen this in your own activism as well, where there are difficult things to say and you want to question the extent of what we can discuss. Do we all have to wait for paradise or a complete social revolution before we can have a bracing discussion of sexuality, race, class, how we should live, the environment?

I thought to myself, I want to talk about those pieces. And those pieces amounted to an often heartbreaking but heartening discussion of the feminist movement, which led me to speak around the country.

Susie Bright (left) poses with fellow awardee Sylvia Earle (right). (Photo by Scott Weldon)

I took a traveling film and slide show to the University of Minnesota one year, my mom’s alma mater. It was humorously called “All Girl Action”: the history of the lesbian image in cinema. It addressed the tokenization of homosexuality in Hollywood, where lesbians traditionally appeared as a caricature. At that time, gay women were portrayed as either soft-focused nymphs braiding their hair—or tragic characters about to commit suicide or homicide because they were hopeless psychopaths. Good times!

The purpose of my presentation was to expand and look at what women were really saying, about all sexual ideas and preferences. Authentic stories of love, erotic appetite.

The surprise of the evening was that my appearance was greeted by a militant picket line. Now, that wasn’t the end of the world. (Talk about being proud—I’ve been picketed personally by the late Fred Phelps and his family. An honor, to be sure.) But this time I was met by a campus group that was handing out a flyer warning: “First, there was slavery in the Roman Empire. Then, the Holocaust. And now, Susie Bright comes to the University of Minnesota.”

Another time during that same period, I was at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, about to begin speaking about the history and significance of the clitoris. The local fire department came in and shut the show down, responding to a bomb threat. They took me to the police station where a group of officers asked, “Who are you and why does anyone want to blow you up?

I’m sure they were puzzled by my appearance. I look like Susie Sorority of the silent majority. I was in tears,  because how dare they stop my talk. I said, “It doesn’t make any sense. I’m here to talk about the clitoris and female orgasm and women’s right to be equal in every way. I turned to one officer who was still looking a little unclear, and I said, “Let me put it this way: I never met a man who didn’t know where his penis was and hadn’t had an orgasm. Let that sink in.”

I started doing sexual data surveys when I myself was in college, and I’d ask, “Have you ever had an orgasm?” I noticed that the boys would chuckle and the girls would either be very emphatic—“Yes, I have!” like they’d slayed the dragon—or they weren’t so sure.

You could see that difference between the young men who just took it for granted and women who, unless they grew up in an extremely bohemian climate, had probably been raised like me—meaning you don’t ask about what’s “down there.” You don’t address yourself sexually. A woman is to be decorative and pleasing and should hope to make a family, that’s the traditional curse. The romance novel “ideal” is a watering down of very ugly religious standards for women. It may sound cute for pop culture and secular society, but it’s the same yoke around your neck.

I think about these things now that I’m older. I’m almost sixty. I’ve seen what it’s like to be a feminist as a teenager, when the world was opening up to me, and then through raising a child, and now, at a time in my life when many of my mentors, peers, and lovers are dying.

The reason I came to know of the American Humanist Association is because one of my oldest friends, Greta Christina, has been such a big part of the progressive feminist movement. I remember when Greta confided to me that she’d been thinking about writing a book called Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God.

I was so inspired. I said, “Would you please write that, if only for me? Of course I knew it would speak to millions. Like many, I’m in that part of life where hospice, caregiving, or saying goodbye is a daily part of family relations. Death and sex are both plagued with religious superstition and shame. It fills me with “atheist rage” but also profound loneliness. How do I honor and grieve my loved ones in death, when I wasn’t brought up with any relevant tradition to speak to it? My experience with sexuality is giving me a path, to see clearly where others obscure.

I know the AHA doesn’t call the Feminist Humanist Award a lifetime award, but for me it does represent a lifetime of believing in women, loving women, and the importance of looking critically. You must tear open the envelope. Don’t steam it open—tear it open, see what’s inside. Don’t be afraid to say the most difficult thing.

I want to thank you for giving me this chance to meet all of you and a beautiful piece of art, my “trophy,” that I can look at and remember, on behalf of my family and my community. I’m honored. Thank you very much.

Excerpt from the Q&A

Q: Susie, you are very brave. How do you manage fear when there is so much fear in the air?

Susie Bright: I don’t have a therapeutically sound answer for how to handle fear. I unfortunately get a lot of energy from being outraged, which isn’t good for my health. Once I have the sense of what’s not fair, of inequality, I get on my horse and GO. I think if organizing has brought anything to me, it has been the power of many, versus my sense that it was all on me. When I was sitting in that jail cell for protesting, who bailed me out? Sometimes it was a stranger but they were always my comrade. It was the power of finding connection and intimacy with those around me who were awakening and understanding things that even I didn’t know yet.

Some of the kindest things, like empathy, are what make you brave. If you find it unbearable to see someone else suffer, when you know that you could do something about it, you begin to act. You witness how the powerful have treated the world, and how our hubris has neglected and abused the very place that we come from.

I am not fearless. Anybody who is around this long and has been through a few shocking situations, you do inevitably grapple with PTSD. I’ve often thought of my dad, Bill Bright, because he never discouraged me, even when I put myself in harm’s way politically. He never said, “But you’ll get arrested!” He never said, “You might get killed for your protest, for your curiosity!” He understood why I committed. He loved me more than anything, but he didn’t treat me like a cloistered egg. I resolved to be like that, too. I never want to be the one saying, “No, no. I’m locking the innocents in the closet out of protective concern.”

Q: Today is the fifty-fourth anniversary of John Kennedy signing the Equal Pay Act. I think it’s seventy-nine cents for women compared to men in an equal position. What keeps you going? What stops you from being discouraged?

A: You guys ask tough questions! I am discouraged by facts like these, there’s no denying it. I will say that I’ve been lucky to have had a writing career all these years that supported my activism. It was a great stroke of opportunity and seizing the time.

You think back to when sci-fi was getting popularized in pulp novels—you couldn’t get it at the library or a trade bookstore. It was considered beneath respect. My dad had to rent science fiction novels for ten cents a day in the same kind of stores where men looked at nudie magazines. But as we know, sci-fi flourished. It led to the kind of literary and philosophical pioneers who became founders of groups like the humanists.

Similarly, I never thought my interest in women’s sexuality and women’s erotic stories would see the mainstream. I didn’t know we would be so influential.

Being with people in the thick of it, is what keeps me going. I didn’t move to a tree house far away from the city—even though it has its appeal. I have always stayed with the moving, changing, ever-diverging crowd. They inspire me.

At the risk of sounding truly romantic, beauty is inspiring to me. Whether that is the beauty of somebody I meet, the poetry, what I see in nature—it gets under my skin. Music. All those things keep me going. When I find myself very discouraged, depressed, and all the rest of it, I tell myself, you need to go outside. See somebody. Read a poem out loud that makes you shiver. Listen to something, really listen: whether it’s a bird song or your own song.