S: We’ve always been comfortable talking. Period. We like to talk about the news, and gossip, other people’s dilemmas, lots of “what if?” scenarios.
I know many families that are close like that. You share a sense of humor and proportion. Sex enters the family conversation without a blaring headline or parade. I couldn’t tell you, “Oh, we discussed sex for ten minutes on Wednesday”-- it’s not like that; it’s just a part of life.
What was it like to write Mother/Daughter Sex Advice?
A: It’s super fun. We are good at going back and forth between us, and we make each other laugh at lot. It’s easy to share my opinion with my mom, and I always like to hear what she has to say, too.
S: It was fun; it was time-consuming. I’ve written many advice columns. The letters themselves, the “problems,” were pretty familiar. What was inspiring was hearing Aretha’s take on it, her way of “teaching sex-ed,” or counseling someone who came to us. She has a method and feel for it that’s different from me— it made me wake up out of my sexpert-ennui.
Aretha had so many of the best lines, the funniest or most astute observations. She was indefatigably compassionate but also willing to give a good kick in the pants to those who needed it. She is a workhorse and never cuts away from something difficult. I’m so ready for her to take over publishing and I’ll go lie down in a hammock.
How much do you know about eachother's sex lives? Do you share everything?
A: No we don’t share everything. My mom likes to know that I’m being safe and that I’m comfortable. I would be the same way with my daughter.
S: GAK. No!
I care about her being happy. I want to know if she’s lonely, feeling blue about a relationship, or if she was ever hurt— or needed someone to step up.
She’s past the age where she’s going to ask me some childlike technical question. She’s an ace researcher already.
When I saw how much of an advocate she was for our readers-- how she wasn’t going to let them endure some dumb relationship that they got no sexual respect or gratification from— I was touched. I knew she got to that perspective on her own; it wasn’t me preaching.
Now that we have more separate lives I feel more free to share an old memory... “When I was young!” It might’ve been embarrassing to say in earlier years. Now she’ll laugh at it, or find it perceptive or nostalgic. That’s when you know it’s the right time.
Are there any sexual topics that you won't talk about together?
A: I can’t think of anything specific that would be off-limits.
S: In theory, no. From the intellectual point of view, there’s nothing I won’t talk about with anyone. There’s no word or phrase— “GREEN EGGS AND HAM!”— that you can’t say in front of me.
Is it every weird/ do you ever feel squeamish talking about sex together?
A: Not really.
S: S: Think about what parents go through. We change a million dirty diapers before our kids even become verbal. They throw up on us. They nurse. We stay awake all night with them crying. First them, then us. “Squeamish” isn’t in my vocabulary anymore.
Have I ever felt embarrassed or self-conscious? Sure. Has Aretha ever made a “TMI” cutthroat motion across her neck because I made a risqué joke? Yes.
We aren’t saints or a plastic model of family dynamics. The thing is, there’s a lot of trust and respect between us, so we get OVER the bumps. There’s a way to recover from awkward moments.
Aretha, what was it like growing up with a mom like Susie Bright?
A: It was seriously awesome. My mom is the best mom ever.
Susie, what do you think about Aretha's knowledge on sex?
S: I was one of those parents who loved my daughter’s college education. I learned vicariously. She took a Variations in Human Sexuality class that examined the entire natural world of species sexuality. One day we went to the zoo, just on a lark, and it was the best zoo tour I’ve ever had in my life. She knew which rhino was in heat. She pointed out the gay swans. I had no idea about the spider monkeys.
She brings popular culture into my life that I’m unaware of, and she always has an interesting sexual critique of it.
Aretha, have you felt encouraged— or pressured— to follow in your mother's footsteps? As a writer? As a sex educator?
A: I have never felt pressured, but of course I have been encouraged to be a good writer, if even to just to have the talent to shine in school or professionally in other fields. I enjoy writing and reading tremendously, so it's never been a problem for me.
No one ever said anything to me about being a sex educator, but as someone who often had all the resources and means for sex ed, I just sort of naturally began to help people. Trips to planned parenthood or supplying pregnancy tests/contraceptives to girlfriends who had conservative parents was how I started out.
Do you think that mothers and daughters everywhere should discuss sex together?
A: Well, I would say that I wish mothers and daughters could talk about sex together, if they wanted to. I wish it wasn’t such a taboo subject in the first place.
S: I don’t like “should’s.” Families, including sons, fathers, everyone-- are already discussing sex, communicating through words, symbols, actions, or silences, how they value sex. It’s an unavoidable part of life, it IS life.
If I have something new to offer, it’s this: in American culture, the role of mothers has been to WARN daughters about sex, to protect them from pregnancy and disease, to protect their “virtue.” I’m suggesting an alternative. There’s a lot more to sex than hymens and eggs and illness.
What is your relationship like, outside of giving sex advice?
A: We are super close.
S: Peanut Butter and Jelly.
What do you two like to do together?
A: We can pretty much hang out doing anything… my mom won’t go to horror movies though, so I take my dad to those when I’m visiting in Santa Cruz.
We can sit on the bed together and just talk about everything that’s going on in our lives and around the world— plus celebrity gossip— for hours.
Since I moved to SF we usually see each other when I visit in Santa Cruz or she comes up to see me. The last time she visited we went to Tartine and had a lovely breakfast, then went to the Gay & Lesbian History museum in the Castro, then went clothes shopping for St. Patrick’s Day. Great day!
S: Everything, in reasonable amounts! Obviously, we’re close. I love doing all kinds of stuff with her, from the cozy to the adventurous.
I remember when she was little, and I realized she was reading storybooks, just learning to decode them. She was READING and she LOVED it. And I went to my room and had a little cry, because I was so happy I would share that with her the rest of our lives.
Aretha, what would your family say if you turned out to be conservative, anti-feminist, sexually buttoned-down-- something the opposite of them?
A: Well, that was never going to happen. But to play the hypothetical game, I'm 100% sure my family would still love me and everything. Now, if I was running for office...
Have you thought about what you'll teach your daughter/son about sex?
A: I like the way I grew up with it… it wasn’t a big “lesson” that happened in one day. I have been learning about sex my whole life, and it was a natural topic to talk about with family.
And what does your dad think about all this? Any other family members weighing in?
A: My dad thinks our book is awesome, and he's always been supportive in everything I do! All our friends and family members have been enthusiastic as well.
How old were you both when you wrote the columns for "Mother/Daughter Sex Advice"?
A: I was 19 and Susie was 51 years old.
Is the Mother/Daughter sex advice column going to come back in the future?
A: The million dollar question…
S: I bet we’ll get a lot more questions with this book… every time I mention it, someone asks me something anew. Aretha says she could answer hundreds a day, bring them on. I would like the Federal Government to subsidize that.