Why was now the right time for you to write your memoir, Big Sex Little Death?
I always had an autobiography on my mind. If you’ve read my books over the years, you could say it’s been one long saga in progress!
Once I committed with Seal Press to do BSLD, the reason to nail it, to sprint to the finish line, was because, today, the rewriting of the feminist and queer sexual revolution by conservatives, centrists, and shame-gloaters is REVOLTING.
It’s Revisionism Uber Alles.
Someone has to set the record right... More than one someone, actually.
I want every woman who’s had an abortion without falling to pieces, who has no regrets in her sexual imagination, who’s raised strong capable children without superstition, who’s shared comradeship with lovers and relished the poetry of erotic illumination— I want all these women to start typing… NOW.
You dropped out of high school to live on your own and be an organizer—working, having sexual relationships, and getting involved in activism that at times was extremely dangerous.
Did that feel natural to you to be taking a route that was very much off the beaten path?
The crucible of Vietnam and civil rights movements— on every front— made my path more than natural, it was fundamental.
Besides, 17-year-olds are capable of anything; they can stay up all night…I am perplexed by the infantilization of young adults by the leisure class.
I thought some of the most interesting parts were about the death threats and hate mail you got while at On Our Backs. They reminded me of the Dorothy Allison poem “The Women Who Hate Me.”
Ha! That’s funny, I had Allison’s poem on my night table for many years, as did many dyke-outliers.
When I started my memoir I wrote Dorothy and told her I was thinking of quoting her poem. But it was really her title that most unsettled and captivated me. I ended up just letting it work on my dream life, and it did its best work there.
The vitriol you faced seemed, at first, more unexpected than some of the opposition you got as a socialist organizer. Was it more painful to face that kind of hostility from women you’d expected to be on your side?
I never had a reasonable expectation that the Democratic-Party-leader, courtside feminist establishment would be on my side. Since when, historically, has there ever been any illusions about peace, love, and harmony in feminist movement? As a group, we’ve been fighting about “free love” since DAY ONE.
But, yes, it was still shocking to be the target of their infantry’s violence. The sex war scene was all very “Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” where the charismatic professor gins her “special girls” up into a frenzy to go off and join Mussolini.
I wouldn’t compare it as being worse or less than what I faced in the labor movement, or as a Red. There were too many guns, knives, heavy objects and flushed-face freakouts all the way around.
I remember well the psycho in Kentucky who pulled up in his car as I handed out a flyer about “maternity leave contract issues”-- so wholesome!-- in front of an auto plant employee parking lot. He pulled up close, lowered the window, and I drew near, because he had a big grin in his face. "Finally," I thought, "someone nice enough to talk to." When I was right up next to him, he drew a pistol, stuck it in my stomach, and said, “Get your nigger-loving communist ass off this lot.”
—Different style than the bomb-making, knife-wielding womens’ studies students. Everybody’s got their personal nut on.
By the way, Rachel, since we both have worked for Penthouse magazines, I have to tell you, I wrote that Kentucky story for my 1980's Penthouse Forum column and my editor changed the phrase to “liberal-leaning communist ass” because he said we couldn't’ say “nigger-loving communist ass”!
A them I noticed was this "casting out"— whether by your mother, the I.S., or the women with whom you started On Our Backs. You were accused of being the betrayer. Do you see a connection between those actions?
“Everybody’s out to get me!” God, I hope it isn't that bad.
My mom, who died in 2004, isn’t the same as Gloria Steinem or Andrea Dworkin— she loved me unconditionally. The dangers she placed me in were only the same as she put herself.
Even though Gloria and I share the same birthdate, I don’t think she loves me ! ;-)
Politics is a different matter. The struggle to name a solution, to lead, is fierce. Plus, every group who’s been marginalized by oppression has a nasty cannibalistic streak. We scrounge over crumbs. We always tell ourselves, “stay tight, don’t let The Man divide us,” but the internalized madness is quite daunting.
You know, everyone’s history has bitter stings, everyone gets thrown out of paradise. They are formative experiences, and certainly part of any narrative. But they aren’t the only climaxes. The embraces, the deep loves and kinships are just as powerful. I hope that comes across in my story!
You started a print magazine in 1983, just as personal computers were becoming popular— and before internet publishing.
There’s a moment where OOB co-founder and publisher Debi Sundahl tells you that Steve Jobs is frightening the horses by putting the means of production into individuals’ hands. But you faced many financial hurdles simply because you were publishing a sex magazine.
I understand the moral opposition, but on the business side, money is money. Why were business so threatened by the magazine?
You have to mention the part in the story where Debi talked about Steve so much, that I was under the impression he was one of her clients at the O’Farrell theater! That was a lovely naive fantasy. She was the original Apple early adopter when it came to publishing.
Back to your question:
Extreme male chauvinism in publishing and magazine distribution was one heavy issue. They could only see us “girls” as something to exploit, or to punish/save. It was their knee-jerk Madonna/Whore reaction THEN, and in many ways, it still IS. Look at the position of women in journalism. NAU-ZEE-ATE-ING.
Secondly, corruption was rife in magazine printing and distribution. We could’ve laundered our way in and out of many difficult situations, but we didn’t always have the cash. People have no idea how sleazy this business is. --Or maybe they do, and I was just the last to know?
I’m curious about your book tour audiences. Is there a typical Susie Bright fan? Do you feel this book is more geared toward those who lived through the seventies and eighties along with you?
An enthusiastic reader just wrote on my Facebook Wall, “Keep stickin’ it to the squares, Susie!” -- that cracked me up.
It’s amazing how untypical my readers are; I never know who’s walking through the door. It’s anyone who’s ever had a searing moment of self-contemplation, who’s ever laughed in bed, who’s ever sat down in street and said “ENOUGH!”
A lot of people who come to my memoir events want to talk to me about their place in my memoir— it's like everyone is a chapter I need to read. I just met a woman in DC who was raised by evangelical Christian missionaries, traveling the globe, and as a teenager, she kept my copies of my books locked in a file drawer that her parents had no idea about. —All these years later we're having kim chee and Korean BBQ together.
As for generations, of course if you were “there,” it’s one thing, but young people are always looking at the primary sources of history, particularly those revolutionary times which are freighted with mythology, like the cultural revolution of my generation. I always have looked into the past for answers, myself.
What advice do you have for those who want to go into the field of sexuality?
Is there a certain personality type that’s best suited to facing the kinds of sex-negative slings and arrows that come with it?
Well, I'm so ridiculously over-sensitive that I’d say the door is wide open for all kinds. Big crybabies and people who pee in their pants laughing are welcome. Empathy is all you need.
Has American culture become more knowledgeable and open-minded about sex? In some ways we have, but in other respects we're regressing. Are you optimistic?
Better? Yes. Worse? Yes. To quote my favorite Roland Barthes exclamation:
"I am reduced to endurance.... I suffer without adjustment, I persist without intensity, always bewildered, never discouraged. I am a Daruma doll, a legless toy endlessly poked and pushed, but finally regaining its balance, assured by an inner balancing pin.
"But WHAT is my balancing pin? The force of love?
"...Such is life, falling over seven times and getting up eight."
Obviously, “optimism” isn’t what’s required. Activism is.
What’s next for you?
I'm working on a book with you!
I get to be the "guest judge" on your edition of Best Sex Writing 2012. I can't wait to see the finalists you're culling right now.
(Deadline for submissions— non-fiction personal essays and reportage on the current sexual zeitgeist— is May 1, and you can read all the little details here._
For myself, I have a new Sex Journal out, a "guided," not-so-blank book for people who have always thought it would be interesting to write down their sex history.
I'm beginning a book which only has a nickname so far: Mom’s Sex Diary. It’s about how parents evolve sexually from their own pregnancies to witnessing their childrens’ puberty. Raising kids changes your sex life... and foretells their future love lives. Lots of ground to cover! I'm doing workshops on that very subject right now, just to hear what's on people's minds... here's the schedule so far.
Then, of course there’s a second memoir, more dirt. I’ll call it, Sticking it to the Squares, Part Deux!
Rachel Kramer Bussel is the Senior Editor at Penthouse Variations, sex columnist for SexIs Magazine, and has edited 38 anthologies, including Gotta Have It, Surrender, Best Bondage Erotica 2011, Orgasmic, Fast Girls, Spanked, Bottoms Up and Best Sex Writing 2008, 2009 and 2010.
Parts of this interview, and Rachel's review of Big Sex Little Death, were first printed in SexIsPhoto Credit: Stacie Joy. Rachel and Susie from RKB's legendary "In The Flesh" series in 2009, at the Happy Ending Lounge, in NYC.