First appeared in the Boston Book Review.
Susie Bright is a performance artist, author of books about sexual politics and sexual mores, editor of anthologies of erotica, and columnist for Salon, Her newest book is "Full Exposure Opening up to Sexual Creativity and Erotic Expression."
Titillation makes an art form out of teasing -- and teasing is perfectly sweet, but it can never be called satisfying eroticism, because its very nature is to withhold what we dream of and place it permanently out of reach. . . .
Commercial titillation has the gimmicky personality that fits perfectly with our obsession with making real sexual pleasure either an enigma or a sham. Titillation is the American standard: first offer a peek, then slap the hand that seeks to touch.
"Full Exposure Opening up to Sexual Creativity and Erotic Expression."
SB: Oh, deep down.
HB: Could you exist anywhere else?
SB: No. Sometimes I think southern France. But no. I've spent about half my life in southern California, and the other half surfing around the Bay area. I have my LA.. personality and my San Francisco personality. I spent a lot of time in Southern California on this book tour and got into a lot of stuff that would be considered silly in northern California.
Boston's always good to me. New York is extremely intimidating. There's this whole: "No sex, please. We have a brain," kind of feeling. "Come on out of your hot tub, Susie, we have moved on."
HB: So you've answered my question, which was, could someone with your views and your kind of activism . . .
SB: Have grown up here? No.
HB: Or even have maintained what you call erotic advocacy on the East Coast.
SB: Or even in the mid-west. I went back to Detroit where I spent my seventeenth and eighteenth years as a labor organizer. First time I've been back there since 1977. I remembered how lonely I felt there and how everything was just so tough. But the thing I love about Detroit is that you can take class consciousness for granted. People are down for it. That's a problem for California and a lot of places that don't have any relation to the industrial revolution any more.
In the Midwest people aren't embarrassed to line up and get your autograph. They're not afraid to show a little warmth. They don't think that's going to take something away from them. They're less superficial than a Californian and not as grudging as an East Coaster.
HB: You were just on Christopher Lydon's radio program and accused him of secretly wanting to be slapped around by a woman. Listeners could hear him blush. It reminds me of a moment in a documentary I saw about Rush Limbaugh, a time early in his career when he was an unknown working at a radio station. He fouled up somehow and said to a blond production assistant, oh, god, I should be spanked. You could tell he would have liked nothing better. I'm sure Limbaugh's a closet masochist. I'm not convinced about Christopher Lydon.
SB: Well, neither am I. It was a great radio moment though, just to take a pro like him aback for even a second.
What you are picking up on in the Rush Limbaugh story is the classic Freudian slip. When it comes to sex, people's questions say a lot about them. Like last night at MIT, this one young man was in a tizzy, wanting to know -- and this is a question I commonly get asked -- is there anything I think is wrong? Are there any boundaries? Is there anything that shouldn't be done? This guy could barely spit it out he was so upset.
I was giving my various Susie philosophical answers, and he interrupted and said, "Let's just cut to the chase. Do you think sex with animals is OK?" Where does that come from? For him, sex with animals is strange and unspeakable, and that in itself is a curiosity to me. Why that and not rape, say, or incest or vomit or clothespins? Who knows what anybody would pick as the living end, the place they can't go?
HB: How did you answer?
SB: I said that it would depend on the person and on the animal. If you grew up on a sheep farm, you'd have a different perspective. He went purple in the face. But the audience burst into applause, not because they are all fucking poodles but because they wanted some relief from the tension. Someone said to me afterwards, I'm sure he's just from some right-wing newspaper that wants to have a headline saying, Susie Bright condones sex with gold fish.
HB: But your writing brings out a worry lots of people feel: are all my fantasies OK? Should I live them all out?
SB: Those are two different questions. There are three kinds of fantasies. Number 1, the fantasies you would do in a minute if you had the chance. Number 2, the fantasies you would do under very particular conditions and only under those conditions. Number 3, the fantasies that are physically or ethically impossible to perform in real life. All three of those gestate in our minds all the time. I believe in complete freedom to think about whatever you want. You can think about murdering your boss or fucking your boss. You can think about fucking bunny rabbits.
We have this fear of make believe in the sexual realm that we don't have in other things. Children and adults dream up all kinds of Walter Mitty scenarios, and we don't say, well, don't think about that.
HB: Aren't sexual fantasies more obsessive?
SB: Compared to other kinds of fantasy? No. What becomes more obsessive are things that are repressed. That could be a sexual fantasy or something else. Repression increases obsession. But a sexual fantasy being more obsessive than a work fantasy or a death fantasy -- no, not in and of itself.
HB: How do you account for the Internet having a huge fantasy driven libido?
SB: I would say the Internet has a huge obsession with money. I get more scams for money and more indications of cash lust online than I do of pornography. Nevertheless I'm not surprised that people are interested in sex on the Internet. Sex has led the way in every communications technology. People involved in sex on the Internet figured out things big businesses are copying and marketing.
Talk to Gutenberg. The same thing happened with the printing press. I'm sure there were plenty of people who were like, goddamn it, this printing press, we thought it was going to be for the Bible, but instead we've got all this French porn. Print immediately became a venue for erotic and scatological information. And what was the first film ever made? It was of a kiss. The first Edison short was a sexual moment. So don't be surprised about the Internet.
The thing I hope for about sex on the Internet is that we'll get out of the fecal identification stage we're in now. Right now, people get their ya-yas about all these porn sites that don't really appeal to anyone's true sexual preference but invite you to peek as if you were rubbernecking at a car accident: come, look, there's someone with a corn cob up their butt.
Here I am, Susie Sexpert, and how often do I encounter sex on the Internet if I'm not looking for it? I remember years ago, when things where more primitive online, being told, oh there's all this hot storytelling on usenet groups, just go to alt dot sex dot weirdo. Now, I love sex stories. I collect erotic fiction. That's what I acquire and publish. So I was a little bummed out that the stories were like letters to Penthouse. I finally came to a story that did turn me on but how could I scroll and read and touch myself at the same time? I can do it holding a book, I've mastered that. But I cannot operate correctly with laptop.
HB: You can always download.
SB: I like some spontaneity with my pornography. Screw downloading.
HB: There are good stories. Sometimes they are well-crafted, but sometimes the spelling's off, there's no sense of syntax, no craft, no disguise; you see right into the writer's libido.
SB: About spelling I don't give a shit. For me, what would be bad writing would be tedious and formulaic. Raw and unschooled could be great. In fact, I publish lots of people in Best American Erotic whose story in the original form was a mess. But it doesn't matter. It's a great story, just wash its little face off, let's publish it.
HB: You refuse to make a distinction between porn and erotica. That's a distinction some people like to enforce, as in erotica is good, but porn is the dark side, fetishized and masculine.
SB: But everyone knows there's no consensus about how these terms can be applied. They're a way of separating and degrading people's opinions about sexual expression, instead of finding points in common.
HB: My sexual appetite is clean. Yours is kinky and dirty.
SB: And then of course there's the rebellious people who say, I'm kinky and hip and you're such a vanilla square I'm going to throw up. The backlash, "I'm porn positive." It's the same kind of status-clutching politics.
HB: I really like your discussion of titillation. I always think of this country as puritanical, on the one hand, and obsessed with sex, on the other. Titillation is the unsatisfying compromise.
SB: I've a collector's interest in titillation porn, the Russ Meyers, the pin-ups, the Vargas Girls, Betty Page. I've always appreciated it as an aesthetic. But contemporary titillation is an evil force. It's lost it's cute quality. It's entirely based on pushing anxiety buttons and upping the ante and never getting to a place where you are satisfied, or even sexual. It's the promise of sexuality that is never delivered. You just keep getting the cattle prod.
It used to be, I'll show you some cleavage and you'll think we're going someplace and there'll actually be sex. That's classic titillation. Show a little, come closer, and there'll be more. But now it's come closer and I'll slap you and send you back to get more money or lose more weight or whatever stupid thing you're supposed to do that's going to make you sexy enough to be a fantasy creature. The fantasy creature never gets there. And the actual people modeling to be the fantasy creature, they're all anorexic mental cases trying to look like they're 12 when they're really 20. They've been hungry for 15 years. They have never had an orgasm. They're not having their periods. Who are we kidding?
HB: What do you feel about the accent on women's athleticism?
SB: I just was at a college campus and saw these girlfriends embracing and talking about having dinner the next night, Platonic friends, sweet girlfriends, reminding me of my best friend when I was their age. And they had skateboards slung around their backpacks. Wow, skateboards. You get a little thrill, like the first time I saw women playing electric guitar. It's a physical rush. Doesn't matter if it's the Williams sisters or those soccer players or women boxers, it's their confidence in themselves, beyond being alluring sex objects, their confidence in their strength, a certain kind of aggression, a certain kind of daring.
HB: What does it do to gender relations?
SB: I'd like to know. I haven't had a lover from that particular group. What are they like? It's not like they're full-time amazons. When I talk to women like that who are my friends, some of them talk about being shy and having fantasies about curling up in a little ball and being babied.
But thank goodness for people like me who are girl sloth instead of girl jock. They're not necessarily attracted to their own kind. They might be attracted to soft people with no muscle tone.
HB: So it would be productive for you to continue to stay out of the gym?
HB: You seem to feel we've gone downhill on sexual matters since the '60s.
SB: Not entirely. There are lots of conversations going on now people couldn't have dreamed of in the '60s. I mean, everybody knows what a clitoris is now, we don't have to discuss that anymore. Or the assumption that you can have sex outside of marriage. OK, fine, moving on. Or getting off on, I am gay, I am coming out of the closet. That was so incredible in the '70s but we've moved on beyond that, too. Of course we have. It would be so dull if we were just considering the same concept for 20 and 30 years.
What I miss about the '60s was its position as a Renaissance period, not only with sex but with everything -- music and theater, art and film, and the idea that what the world needs now is love. That was the idealism and utopianism of the day. I like the anti-money energy, the pro-peace, pro-love energy. I don't like ethnic cleansing. I don't like Wall Street. I'm pretty sick of ironies. It was great to be alive in a time when we had counter-culture dominance for five minutes there. It was fun.
HB: You raise the question in "Full Exposure" about why some of your friends and comrades in erotic advocacy quit. I didn't feel you really answered that one.
SB: When I was thinking of actual people, I didn't feel like blowing their cover. I hinted at broader issues by saying, are they sick of erotic intimacy? Sick of feeling desired? No, nobody gets tired of those things. So what do people get tired of? Feeling so profoundly rejected. There's a despair and discouragement that comes from the conventions that people expect around sex. Often I can see myself going there. Sometimes I've been treated so cruelly for my interest in sexuality, and that's certainly gotten me down.
HB: My assumption was that the people you were alluding to weren't tired of sex but tired of advocating it.
SB: There used to be this joke when I worked at Good Vibrations. There was a whole year when none of us got laid.
HB: I know environmentalists who never go outdoors.
SB: It was our dirty little secret. We had a lot of joy in our work, we loved helping people all day. These days, I get consistent intellectual satisfaction from doing my work in erotica and sexual politics. That pretty much always feel good. If all I was doing was answering people's questions -- what do I do with my Herpes sore? -- that would be really boring. But luckily, I've been able to do more complex work than home repair on the libido. Critical thinking about sex, and that is always interesting to me.
In my own sex life, sometimes I've been discouraged because, hey, I haven't been horny in a long time, what's wrong with me? Am I just a workaholic? I wonder about myself. Sometimes I have bad sex with people but that doesn't bother me so much. I take it in stride. I look forward to a better connection next time. But for me the dilemma has to do with the way I get disconnected from my body. It's the same thing that makes me girl sloth, that makes me not athletic. I become such a brainiac I forget to sleep, forget to eat, forget about being horny, won't take a walk. It's like me and the computer screen, and I stop paying attention to everything else. And then I feel funny afterwards and can't quite put my finger on what the problem is.
HB: You write, "Most Americans I talk to act as if monogamy is God's natural law -- but that's what most of the world thought about slavery for centuries as well." I take it you aren't monogamous?
SB: No. People look to me for leadership because they know that I've never had a monogamous relationship. It's not because I read a book about it and decided to follow that path. I feel like I'm hard-wired that way. I get very indignant that my love and loyalty to someone should be tested on the basis of physical fidelity. It offends me.
I came of age at a time when monogamy was not the ideal. And I wasn't romantically inclined about sex. I wasn't looking for Mr. and Ms. Right. I was interested in sexual adventure. I wanted to learn, to feel, I used to have a list. It was always so concrete -- certain acts and certain places. Oh, I've never done it on a beach so I must do it on a beach. I had a very competitive feeling about it when I was a teenager. I'd been so sheltered. I couldn't wait to be an adult.
HB: What do you see your role as?
SB: Erotic advocate!.
HB: You don't like the phrase?
SB: Sounds like Ralph Nader. My role? I identify as a writer more than anything else. I'm fortunate enough to make my living from it. I wrote constantly before it was my profession, and I'm sure I always will. I inspire myself by wanting to write about things that seem difficult,
HB: Why are we so conflicted about sex, so ashamed about so much of it?
SB: Let's use me as a guinea pig. The first thing is my religious background. I had a deep sense of sin about sex, deep, deep, deep. I bought the whole farm on that subject and it was just excruciating for me to not believe. In some ways, science saved my ass. Thank god I live in the time that I do. Otherwise I would have stayed in that dark ages mentality forever.
HB: What about science helped you?
SB: That there is an explanation for the way the world works that is not based on god faith. Evolution, mathematics, physics, the whole thing. It was an alternative to the superstition that festers in religion. And then, I had a very conventional feminine upbringing, so there was the notion of being a good girl and ofyour virtue as a woman as the only thing you have. To be profoundly influenced by that and then turn my back on it was also a great source of conflict. And then the American work ethic, the money chase. It made me conflicted about sex because you become conflicted about pleasure. If you pursue pleasure, will you become debauched, will you fall into bacchanalian disarray and never get off your couch again?
And this is the way that sex is still a conflict for me. I can't lie on the couch. I have to be producing. I worry too much about producing and proving it and being on the line and relating to fear, fear, fear, I must do this or the house will fall down. I hate that about myself. I consider it a libido killer. I handled the religion thing pretty well. I handled the feminine thing. Those were enormous. But now I have to deal with feeling that you are only a measure of your work. Motivating through fear, using adrenaline to get through every situation.