Sunday, June 19, 2011

Bomb Threats and Female Orgasms: The Life of Susie Bright

Susie Bright -- the sex-positive feminist, bisexual, sex educator, proponent of kink and women-created pornography -- has a memoir that starts out unexpectedly.

In "Big Sex, Little Death," she offers bits of her childhood and then many chapters on her communist activism, starting when she was around age 15. What I thought the memoir would be like started on page 213, when Susie auditions to be a part of a Cal State Long Beach lesbian drama collective. But her commie days end up being really fascinating; comrades infiltrating unions in Detroit, battling the KKK in Louieville, and practicing a lot of free love. Being part of a persecuted political class (she had an FBI file) also gave her strength.

By the time Susie starts devoting her life to female sexuality -- working at Good Vibrations, co-founding On Our Backs (a lesbian-made porn mag for lesbians), speaking and teaching about female orgasms -- she is ready to navigate the backlash. From everyone. You would expect right wing groups to protest On Our Backs (OOB) as "filth" in the 80s and 90s, but would you expect printers to have to accept bribes to publish it? That feminist academics would lobby to have the publication banned in Canada? That OOB couldn't open a business bank account or credit card in San Francisco? That Susie would receive bomb threats when she spoke about female orgasm on college campuses in Western Massachusetts? That they would receive hate mail from lesbians?
"Pick up a copy of Penthouse magazine if you want to see what a good-looking woman looks like! No lesbian in her right mind wants to be portrayed as an ugly butch."
Was the text of one of the milder hate mail letters they received. But that was exactly the point: the models in the magazine (many of whom were friends and acquaintances of Susie and the other publishers) got to choose how they wanted to be portrayed. Butchy Honey Lee wears a white shirt, stomach sticking out over her underwear elastic, eyes aggressive. Punk rock strippers do their thing. One of the models who went fully nude asked to be powdered porcelain white for the shoot.

There was considerable and vocal protest of OOB from the feminist and lesbian community. Meanwhile, the gay and the hetero male porn industries moved along without a hitch, bringing in lots of dough, and at least in the hetero industry, arguably exploiting a lot of women (how many Hustler girls get to choose how they are portrayed?). OOB was woefully in debt. They were doing it for the pleasure and empowerment of lesbians. OOB closed down after six years.

Susie explains that the challenge was that so many of OOB's readers and admirers were in the closet, whether it be the gay one, the kink one, the S&M fantasies one, or one of the many others that exist:
"We didn't have lawyers and civil rights leaders pressing our cause [of free speech]. Most of our audience, no matter how sympathetic, was made up of men and women who didn't admit to their sexual preferences in public. They dreamed only of being out of the closet. They weren't going to make a phone call."
In "Big Sex, Little Death," Susie writes with wit, glee and a hint of disappointment that OOB didn't launch the revolution she was hoping for. But it certainly got things moving and forced the public to recognize that yes, lesbians have sex, and yes, they have lots of fantasies and erotic potential and it hopefully helped some people see that lesbians have the right to be themselves in their beds and in the pages of porn magazines.

For those of you mourning the demise of OOB like I am, check out "Nothing But the Girl," a photo book by OOB photographers and co-edited by Susie.


  1. Hey, Judy, thanks for the review; it was really interesting to see the memoir thru your eyes. One note: OOB did continue in the hands of a few other owners and staffs, with their own stories to tell, for a few more years. Nan Kinney still runs Fatale Video. But the original years are quite a tale, as you saw! Thank you for your close reading...and i love NBTG, too. My homage!

  2. Thank you for your comment Susie, and thank you also for all that you have done to bring female sexuality into focus--it's so important. Your personal story is amazing and I look forward to reading some of your other books!