“Silent gratitude isn’t much use to anyone.”
Susie's Thanksgiving Hall of Fame:
“Silent gratitude isn’t much use to anyone.”
Susie's Thanksgiving Hall of Fame:
Erotica is dead.
I've felt her cold little fingers tap-tap-tapping on my shoulder all year long, occasionally reaching over to pinch my tits and laugh at my irritation. Then just to show how really far gone she is, when Erotica got sick of all my denials and rationalizations, she'd take my head away from my computer screen, turn me toward a full moon shining outside my window, and begin to HOWL.
Best American Erotica 1996
Introduction by Susie Bright
You see, when I say erotica is dead, I certainly don't mean lifeless, quiet, or finite. I don't mean that the literary lovers are all wearing black, that what once was a stroke book is now a vale of tears. It's just that certain tenets of the genre have finally kicked the bucket.
Chief among those dead mysteries is "What is the difference between erotica and pornography?" No one can stay awake for that one anymore.
There's a new question about sex writing and it comes straight from the authors to the readers: "Did I move you?"
The Erotic vs. Porn debate is the modern version of an ancient set of class distinctions that are also wisely bowing out of the picture. That old chestnut was whether REAL literature could be sexually explicit, or if REAL porn could be literary.
A lot of writers have been in hiding for years over this taboo, their pseudonyms hovering like protective cover.
But now the bell has tolled. Those pretensions and snobberies are yesterday's hangover and no one wants to hear them anymore. The questions readers put to writers today are: Were you honest? Was it real? The sex doesn't always have to get us off, each and every one, but we damn well better believe it had its author by the short and curlies.
Erotica's death is a rebirth, a bonfire of old values and a kick in the pants to the end of the century. The artists writing about sex today are writing more prolifically and competitively about sex than ever before.
There is a spontaneous consensus gathering that contemporary erotic writing is not about a warm, trusting glow or "expert" lovemaking, but about the hair-raising, erection-bolting, clittingling chills coming at you from behind. Erotica is dead, not like a doornail, but like a grip that you can't shake.
Some of the new school of erotic writing does flat-out embrace horror and the supernatural.
In past editions of The Best American Erotica, we've seen Anne Rice's notorious vampires, Nick Baker's antihero possessed by a horny succubus, a werewolf making his match, and assorted other blood-loving Casanovas. Their adventures were a pure gothic delight-- and so romantic we couldn't help but fall in love with them too.
But now, naturally, the ante has been raised. Many characters in this volume of The Best American Erotica 1996 are non-gothics, as alive as you and me, but like their supernatural predecessors they are not afforded redemption. The flame is never extinguished. Neither the protagonist nor the reader ever makes it off the hot seat.
When I first read Lucy Taylor (her story "Choke Hold" represents her work here), she had me so bug-eyed I didn't know whether to call a cop, a priest, or just turn the vibrator up a notch.Taylor's work represents a new genre-- erotic horror-- that takes every precious notion of the intact body and punches right through it.
Another example this year is Aaron Travis's story "The Hit," which mixes a grisly crime thriller with hungry sadomasochism. (Travis is famous Roman historian Steven Saylor's pen name in erotic fiction).
Travis told me his story was rejected by the gay leather mags that he routinely publishes in-- not because of the sex, but because of the "crime"-- the moral outrage out of the bed rather than in it.Travis was ahead of his time, a predictor to the pop cult sensations of films like Pulp Fiction.
Another prime example is this past year's most talked-about erotic crossover novel, in the cut, by Susanna Moore. Moore is just as relentless as Travis in her deliberate-- and heterosexual, this time-- mixture of suspense, fatal attractions, and the erotic persuasion of submission and domination.
The power of sexual desire to take us out of ourselves, our normal behavior, is legendary. The very nonsense of "normalcy" is really what the erotic funeral is all about here, because authors of the new school are spitting on the grave of conventionality, of moribund expectations.
Sometimes I think this volume is one angry answer to that chart-topping rightwing bestseller, The Book of Virtues, by William Bennett. Bennett, the "Drug Czar" under President George Bush, offers a list of character traits that make a man great, the qualities that make for a stand-up sort of life.
He's got the WASP work ethic down to a "T," but his list is a list for a toy soldier, not a person. It completely omits the fire that makes us creative: our sexuality, our erotic thumbprint our desires so fierce they defy what is expected of us.
If William Bennett were to critique the turn in erotic fiction today, I think they would say that the reason there is so much PERVERSION, VIOLENCE, and CYNICISM man in today's fiction is that "this whole country has gone to hell" in a handbasket woven of MORAL DECAY. If everyone would just take a good hot BATH and refresh themselves in the Ten Commandments, GET A JOB AND STOP BELLYACHING, then we would see stories about good old-fashioned romance and marriages that last.
But there are no jobs— not the way Americans ever understood a "job" to be, a place of security and opportunity. The very notion of "job" sounds like a retro item, something to pitied and escaped from, as writer Doug Tierney's protagonist does in "The Portable Girlfriend."
As for bellies aching-- well, they are. We have the ache of need and betrayal among the have-nots, and the ache of fear and loathing among the haves. Bellies are churning, period.
"Perversion" is the right-wing code word for gender chaos, the alarm that boys and girls are not keeping their pink and blue uniforms on at all times. Ken and Barbie don't live here anymore, and there's no putting that fragile little relationship back together again. Women have had it with the Madonna/Whore game, and authors in this volume like Amelia Copeland, Camille Roy, Linda Smukler, and Shar Rednour prove it.
Over on the boy side, there's a similar antipathy for the double standard. Men know that the only thing more terrifying than being swept away is to never have been lifted off their feet. See this year's authors Estabrook, Robert Glück, and David Shields for more persuasion. Word is out; to succumb is bliss.
Next up on the conservative's naughty list of literary topics is "violence." Liberals are similarly alarmed. Sex-and violence is that two-headed dog with a wet and very sensitive nose that won't go away. Every time we try to push him away, say he's not right, he comes back even more persistently-- he can smell you and knows you're hiding something.
You've heard all the standard explanations about the whys and wherefores of sex and violence's allure. Wonder why they still leave you doubting? That's because no one has really got this number pinned— not the shrinks, not the cops, not the media executives. They're equally desperate to keep the lid on, with their various punishments, medications, and dubious statistical reports. Whatever their lid is, their suppression has become one of the most important elements in proving the power of sensation's appeal.
The erotic combination of sex and violence has this in common: they both assume an entrance into our body.
Before sex, before a violent act, our bodies are closed, there is no tear in the fabric, we are intact-- a safe, but impenetrably blank, place to be. It's only when a thread comes undone, when we unravel, that our peril and pleasure spill out: the come, the blood, the tears, the shit, the cries. We can't not be affected, and of course, our real bodies can only spill so much.
In our erotic storytelling, though, we spill over and over, on a vicarious level that we can't live without.
Finally, we have the smudge mark of cynicism, the black humor in erotica that I find so prevalent in all fiction these days. Cynicism begs the question "Ask me if I care?" and the thing to pay attention to is not the question, but the begging.
My favorite book title in 1996 was The New Fuck YOU: Adventures in Lesbian Reading (from which I've excerpted "Morning Love" by Linda Smukler, in this volume). I can't help but smile every time I pass the title on my bookshelf. My sex pistol is in my own pocket, loaded, ready to squirt at all the lies and delusions I'm asked to digest on a daily basis about what is great literature, great beauty, great politics, great religions.
Mainstream media agit-prop has reached surreal proportions. Who honestly believes that supermodels are the essence of feminine power, or that the White House is the leader of democracy, or that Christianity is about the righteousness of one man over another?
Our literary cynicism is a necessity-- because the gap between the advertisement of our culture and what's really going down is so gigantic that all we can do is free-fall, laughing and bellowing all the way down.
Some corners of our erotic minds are still soft and precious. In a story like Bonny Finberg's "Light," the erotic experience is about being so innocent, such a pure infant in the world, that all love is erotic, all body is sensuality, there are no definitions yet. Sometimes erotic love is that
Continued in Best American Erotica 1996, "Introduction"
Photo: Phyllis Christopher, Nothing But The Girl
Graver was beloved in Hollywood. He learned filmmaking in Vietnam, in the Navy Combat Camera Crew. He worked for Roger Corman, shot countless horror classics, and photographed Ronnie Howard's first spin as a director in 1977's original Grand Theft Auto!
Just a few years ago, he appeared at American Cinematheque with Peter Bogdanovich and Oya Kodar, Welles' executrix and last lover, to show fragments of Orson Welles late, unfinished movies. He didn't have much time left.
But the talented D.P. had a secret. It's one of those old-fashioned secrets that half of Hollywood takes it for granted, while the other half is so intent on keeping it under wraps that it appears nowhere in the man's obituary.
Graver was memorialized everywhere, acclaimed in every paper from New York to L.A. But nowhere is it mentioned that for twenty years, Gary Graver directed and shot more than 135 erotic, X-rated films— several of which are considered among the best "adult" movies ever made: 3 AM, Amanda By Night, and V:The Hot One. The man is an Adult Industry Hall-of-Famer. The idea that people involved in Gary's legacy are covering up his true accomplishments because they're so prejudiced against sex is both mysterious and pathetic.
In porn, Gary Graver was known as Robert McCallum. He worked in the sex biz for twenty years, and as porn critic Mark Kernes wrote in AVN:
Nearly all of McCallum's better hardcore movies have been available continuously on videotape and later DVD since they were completed – which is more than can be said for many of his mainstream productions. In that sense, it could be argued that Graver's legacy in the adult industry is on a par with the bulk of his Hollywood accomplishments.
I worshiped Robert McCallum's work; I studied his porn like it was D.H. Lawrence with a lens. His first explicit feature, 3 A.M., became my inspiration for my own first big-feature erotic screenplay— the scenes between lesbian lovers "Violet and Corky" in the Wachowski Brother's Bound.
If you look at Bound, and then go watch McCallum's 3AM shower scene between Georgina Spelvin and Judith Hamilton, you will see where I got all my thrills. Georgina was the best actress porn ever had (Devil in Miss Jones) and Judith was her real girlfriend at the time. I sent a copy of that tape to Larry and Andy Wachowski, with the note: "watch the master at work."
As critic Jim Holliday wrote in Only The Best: "[3AM] succeeds not only as a sex film, but on a much higher level as well. In addition to the great acting and the solid story, there is a character development seldom seen in erotic films."
Graver's best porn work was from the era in the late 70s and early 80s when X-rated movies were still "allowed" to be heavy, to be dark. 3AM and V don't have sunny endings. The level of emotion, and in both these cases, loss, is something you'd never see in the perky popcorn of today's XXX. His cinematic style, the eroticism created by his camera and lighting, is unsurpassed. None of the contemporary young directors or actors in adult would even know how to pull it off. It's practically a lost art at this point, just like Orson's movie that is never going to be finished now.
Is Gary's surviving family ashamed of his erotic work? Does the Times think his full resumé is beyond the pale? What gives? It seems like a strange omission in today's film-geek atmosphere. What did Orson think of his blue work? Did Gary use the porn money to further Welles' unfinished work, or was it just the fun of sex, drugs, and rocknroll? Did Gary ever go on the record about his whole career; did he talk about his best erotic work?
Graver's horror movies were sometimes just as "silly," for better or worse, as anything he ever did with actors fucking on camera, and yet all his exploitation flicks are still on his official CV. I'd rather see 3 A.M. over Satan's Sadists any day of the week!
It's understood in Hollywood today that most of the legends have worked both sides of high and low culture. It's considered backward to think there's a definitive aesthetic difference! Can you imagine John Water's disowning Pink Flamingos?
Ten years ago when I choreographed and consulted on Bound, I wrote a story about how we put the erotic scenes and characters together.
I offer my essay here again, as my homage to Gary Graver's/Robert McCallum's legacy: how to show two beautiful, complicated women make love, and never let anyone forget it.
Sex Consultant to the Wachowski's on "Bound"
I've given a lot of tips to people about their love life over the years— but I can't say I've ever had the chance to watch and see if they actually followed my instructions to the letter.
That's what I found so satisfying about getting a job as a cinematic sex consultant— for once I got to ensure that all those techniques I raved about, my emphasis on the perfect caress— were played out to my most exacting standards. Yeah, it was sweet all right; I don't think I'll ever be satisfied with handing out free—not to mention unverified)— bedroom advice ever again.
I was the "technical consultant" to a movie that soaked many a critic’s wet test: Bound, starring Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly. It was the first-time feature from Matrix writer/directors Larry and Andy Wachowski, a film noir thriller about a pair of lesbian lovers who try to double-cross the mob.
What was so “technical” about this film? There's quite a bit of suspense and graphic violence— and I'm the kind of girl who can't even handle the buildup of a surprise birthday cake.
No, my expertise was developing the characters of the butch/femme lovers: Corky (a James Dean look-alike, recently paroled) and luscious Violet (a curvy mobster mistress).
It all started two years before the picture’s release with a modest little fan letter. I got a package from Larry and Andy, attached to a script, saying that they loved my writing. They held my early bible on dyke sex, Susie Sexpert's Lesbian Sex World, in high esteem. They said they would be honored if I would consider making a cameo appearance in their new film.
"That's nice," I thought— and not to sound spoiled, but this invitation didn't electrify me. It seems everybody is making their own movie today— including me. I've been part of many an amateur production with untrained enthusiasm. I frequently get asked to pull my dress up over my head on camera, or write dialog for some experimental performance art. I once lent out my Spain-autographed thigh-high leather boots for a comrade's dominatrix documentary. While I applaud my friends' virtuosity, working on their movies was a grind, and I've become more discriminating.
Here's what was intriguing about Andy and Larry’s letter: the letterhead didn't sport their name. Instead, it was embossed: "Dino De Laurentis Studios." Quite a calling card. I decided to postpone loading the dishwasher and sat down with the script.
I didn't budge for the next hour except to scream between pages. It was one diabolical setup. The action was razor tight, the characters were whispering in my ears. This was fantastic writing. There was only one thing missing.
I wrote back to Mr. and Mr. Wachowski:
"Your script is outstanding. I'd be delighted to play your bar girl cameo. But if you don't think I'm too presumptuous, could I be your lesbian-sex consultant? I notice that whenever the two lovers fall into an embrace, it doesn't say exactly what happens next. On behalf of every movie-goer who can't live through another cornball lesbian love scene, could I please, please, give you my words of advice on what two women like this would do in bed together?"
They said yes. They may have even said, "Yahoo!...."
Continued in Susie Sexpert's Lesbian Sex World, "Sex Consultant to the Stars"
That's Gary with Orson, then Gina and Jennifer in a promo still from Bound, and finally below, a polaroid of me on the set before my big cameo with my one-word line: "Hello." Didn't Marilyn start that way too?
Susie interviews Tristan Taormino about her book, Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships.
SB: Were you always "open-minded: about relationships, so to speak, or did you go thru a sea change?
TT:I was schooled in lots of things by my first serious girlfriend in college—sex, porn, BDSM, and you in fact (she spearheaded the effort to bring you to speak at Wesleyan her senior year)—and the concept of open relationships is certainly something that registered on my radar once I came out, began reading On Our Backs and lots of sex-positive stuff.
After my GF graduated and I had two years of school left, we decided to open our relationship because she moved to LA. It ended up being disastrous. She started seeing someone out there who I was insanely jealous of.
I hooked up with a woman for a while but it wasn't very serious. I went to LA to spend the summer living with my girlfriend, and the deal was she had to end her thing with the other woman, which she did but it felt unresolved. Then our relationship unraveled big time. I cheated on her and it was a mess.
I have been in more than my fair share of long-distance relationships since then, and almost by necessity they were open because of geography. There was a time after I settled in NYC where I can remember having like 4 people, a fuck buddy, a girlfriend, a friend with benefits, and a pet—they all knew about each other and it was really fun.
It wasn't until I met a partner, let's call her Max, when I feel like I really needed to develop serious open relationship skills.
When we met, Max had a close friend/fuck buddy/partner in crime and I began seeing them as a team. She also had a long-term Daddy who lived on the West Coast. So I was walking into a major poly situation unlike any other I'd been in.
We were together for several years, during which we were in what I call "an accidental quad" with another couple for a while, and we each had other partners, some for sex, some for BDSM, some serious and ongoing. I met and began seeing my current partner during my relationship with Max.
TT: In some ways, queer people can have an easier time considering open relationships because they are already on the fringe, the margins. They have already questioned their sexuality and deviated from the norm, so deviating from the norm of relationships doesn't seem so scary.
Of course, that doesn't apply to all queers. Straight people have so many more expectations of monogamy, marriage, nuclear family, kids, etc. placed on them, I think. So, when straight people create relationships that are nonmonogamous, it can be harder for them.
Another obvious difference is the ways in which people of different sexual orientations incorporate what I will call public or social sex in their lives. I mean how many gay male couples do you know who are monogamous and sex at the bathhouse is acceptable or "doesn't count."
Gay men have a long history of public, semi-public, and social sex that many can easily incorporate into their relationships. Queer women are behind them, but have also developed spaces for meeting and playing with other queer women.
Straight people have few options if they do not identify as swingers to interact in social sex spaces, so if they want "just sex," it's harder to seek that out, I think.
SB: What's the worst jealous tantrum you ever had, if you've had one?
TT: Susie, I am embarrassed to say that I have had some major doozies.
Two incidents come to mind that were so intense that I can't even talk about them publicly, partly to protect other people's privacy and partly because they are still incredibly painful for me to even recall.
I will say this: when things have gone awry for me, in hindsight, I think it's often been avoidable. I am often too quick to say "YES" to my partner's request to do something with someone else. It's like I want to facilitate his pleasure and happiness and not be jealous, so I jump right to "Sure, that's great! Go for it!" without actually thinking it through.
So I have learned to actually thoughtfully consider something before responding. I also have not listened to my instincts/inner voice in the past. Something doesn't feel right or good or safe for me, but instead of speaking up, I suck it up.
That always has ended in disaster for me. I find that if I trust someone who my partner wants to hook up with, then I don't feel threatened, jealous, or worried at all. But when I have a bad feeling, it's usually right on.
SB: What do sex workers understand about open relationships that others don't?
TT: It's interesting that you ask that. I had to cut a lot from the original manuscript, including a chapter about open relationships in specific populations with a big section on sex workers. I think that sex workers know a lot about open relationships. Several of my interviewees were sex workers, including an escort, several professional dominatrixes and porn performers and two phone sex operators.
Here's a snip of what got cut from the book:
Sex workers have different styles of open relationships, here are some examples:
-- Partnered Non-Monogamy: One partner has sex for work as well as sex with other people, and the civilian partner has sex with other people.
-- Monogamy/Non-Monogamy Combo: Both partners agree that the sex worker partner can have sex with other people, however as part of work only. The civilian partner has no interest in having additional sexual partners.
-- Sex Worker Monogamy: While the behavior in this style is identical to the behavior in Monogamy/Non-Monogamy Combo, the way partners conceptualize the relationship is what differs. Both partners consider their relationship monogamous because they consider the one partner’s sex work “work,” and see it as something entirely different and separate from the sex they have with each other.
Sex workers’ attitudes about sex, monogamy, relationships, and sex work are as varied as the different kinds of sex workers there are. Some sex workers make a clear delineation between ‘work sex’ and ‘non-work sex’ and rigidly define both.
To them, work sex is a job, an economic exchange, a performance devoid of physical and emotional intimacy; non-work sex is about love, desire, commitment, physical and emotional intimacy—it’s "real."
Others draw a distinction between the two, but have a more complex view of work sex vs. non-work sex. They allow themselves to enjoy pleasure, experience intimacy, and express themselves authentically during their sex work when possible. Yet, they still distinguish their work from the sex they have outside work: while there may be friendship and fun at work, there isn’t romance, commitment, or deep intimacy.
For others, both the definitions and the lines between sex and work sex are much more nuanced. These folks may be swingers, sexually adventurous, and/or exhibitionists, and for them, their work is ideally (although not always) an extension of their sexuality.
Sex workers do not always have complete control when it comes to setting their work agenda; for example, a director tells a porn performer what to do or an escort fulfills a client’s fantasy to his specifications.
This is one way that they can separate their work sex from sex in their personal life, since what they do is not based on their own desire, so they see it differently.
However, sex workers do have choices, and often they or their partners will set limits as part of negotiating non-monogamy. Those limits may be about who a sex worker works with or what they do in a session.
A solid percentage of female porn performers who only have on-camera sex with other women do so as part of an agreement with their male civilian partners. I recognize that this is a problematic double standard: female performers can have sex with other women, but not other men. It reeks of misogyny and homophobia and reflects an idea that women having sex with other women “isn’t really sex” or isn’t considered the same thing as sex with men.
But whatever the values behind it, it’s a rule that seems to work for a lot of people in porn. Frequently, adult performers tell me that they won’t work with certain co-stars if their partner objects; one male performer said, “I let my wife know who I am going to work with. There are certain women she doesn’t like, and I won’t do scenes with them. It doesn’t matter to me. Gotta keep her happy.”
Photo: Carolinian Online
What gives? Little Miss Angel only showed up for a film shoot where everything went VERY wrong.
But Miss Dare's enemies are in for a surprise. Our plucky heroine gets out of that Honda trunk like Houdini, and is determined to find WHO screwed her over and MAKE THEM PAY.
That's the opening of a new audiobook, "Money Shot," that I just recorded for Audible.com's British Empire division!
It was my first time reading a book— this one by the Edgar-nominee Christa Faust— where I was the "actress" rather than the author!
It was fun to play all the characters, from mobsters to anorexic crackheads-- with feeling! Now YOU can do me the great favor of listening and telling me how I performed! If you like fast sleazy pulp mysteries, I am sure you will enjoy it.
After my three-day recording session in London, I did an interview with AudibleUK to talk about the "behind-the-scenes" of voice actors and "playing porn star."
1. What do you like about Money Shot?
It's an ex-porn star turned Avenging Aphrodite... all without the help of a plastic surgeon.
2. What do you think of Angel Dare as a heroine?
She's part of a lively scene of new pulp-noir protagonists who shake up the usual scenario of private-dicks-with-a-chip-on-their-shoulders... in this case, setting the mystery in the San Fernando Valley porn biz, with a woman who both calls and delivers the shots.
3. What do you think you bring to the narration?
I'm an honoured member in the elite "X-Rated Hall of Fame, 4th Estate Division"-- seriously, I have the plaque! I covered the porn business since its pre-VHS, 35mm days, so I know the turf well.
4. What is it that you love about hard boiled/ noir crime fiction?
My audiobook dream would be to recreate "Red Harvest" by Dashiel Hammett with all the bells and whistles - one of the most devastating portraits of American violence and perverted justice ever written. It's our bloody version of existential angst, and I was raised on it!
5. As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
Movie star, ballerina, Joan of Arc, Studs Terkel, braless hussy!
6. If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
Both my parents happily quoted poetry on long car rides, sang every lyric ever written, edited and taught languages all their lives. The apple fell real close!
7. How did you find the narrating experience different from your own shows?
I had to discipline myself - I wanted to go off the reservation! I'm going to host one of my own In Bed With Susie Bright shows next month, where I'll talk about my own experiences with "true crime" in the porn biz, and how they stack up with Angel Dare's! That will be fun.
8. Do you do any exercises to warm up your voice before a reading?
Ha! When I was a teenager and got my first acting job, we had a director who made us enunciate, at the top of our lungs: "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins, my sin, my soul, Lo-Leeee-TAAAA!" Seriously, I just do everything I can to prepare the text beforehand, and then protect my vocal cords. My secret weapons: ibuprofen and pear juice.
9. What do you like about listening to books rather than reading?
Oh, the theatre of it! In the right hands, it's as much of a creative production as any stage show. I worked with producer Stefan Rudnicki on 15 editions of The Best American Erotica series, and we went over every story and actor like it was our Oscar moment... I know how much goes into these productions when you're working with the best people.
10. What are you listening to on your iPod right now?
Books? "Hardtime," Jean Smart reading one of Sara Paretsky's "V.I. Warshawski" novels.
A History Of On Our Backs:
Entertainment for the Adventurous Lesbian
The Original: 1984-1990
January, 2009: I wrote this very brief history because when I checked online for a history of On Our Backs, there was nothing at all.
OOB was an influential and remarkable part of lesbian, feminist, and publishing history. I had to cobble something together, and this was a start.
I was the editor in chief from our first year, 1984, until early 1991.
The magazine itself has been long out of business. It had two owners and several staffs after I left. Hopefully, others will write their story someday!
There is a complete set of On Our Backs magazines at Brown University library, available to scholars to review at the library.
Update, 3.25.11: I have written a more complete and intimate history of my time at On Our Backs, called “Big Sex Little Death.”
For a photographic history of OOB, I'd suggest the book Jill Posener and I edited, "Nothing But the Girl."
Update, 9.1.11: OOB staffers, models, and contributors, from 1983-1991: We have created a private Facebook group. Please contact Susie or Lulu or Nan, at their FB addresses, if you would like to join us.
If you know of any other histories of On Our Backs in print, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I moved to San Francisco in 1980, where I lived the life of the femme diva starlet in an anarchist commune in the barrio. In other words, typical City living.
One night, I read a poem comparing fisting my girlfriend to quantum physics at Modern Times bookstore in their newly title queer poets series. Queer was a subversive word at that time. Afterwards, this blonde chick with a pageboy slipped me a personal letter. She said she loved my poetry, and invited me to be a part of the first issue of On Our Backs, "entertainment for the adventurous lesbian."
If anyone has ever been seduced by the mere title of a promise, that was me. I had been a voracious teen reader of OFF our Backs, the feminist newsweekly, and it had broken my heart when their staff turned so viciously against sexual liberation. This new magazine offered the perfect antidote.
That blonde with the blunt cut falling over her eyes was Myrna Elana, one of the cofounders of On Our Backs. Her "work wife" and partner in crime was Debi Sundahl-- they worked in the peep shows and strip clubs of the Tenderloin district, and shared a Victorian in the Haight Ashbury with Debi's lover, Nan.
In the beginning, i was just a contributor waiting for the bells to go off. But after several months of silence, I sought out these mysterious OOB girls. When I found them, I told them I had been part of a high school underground newspaper, and I could perform any shit work connected with getting a magazine out--- what could I do to help? I could see they were overwhelmed.
The main problem was... you guessed it... money. They asked me to be the "Advertising Director," which if you knew my communist past, was a real laugh. But I worked at Good Vibrations at the time-- in fact, I was the only employee at Good Vibrations.
I earnestly called all the vendors I did business with, and asked them to take out little $25 and $50 ads in our debut issue. Hey, buy the whole page for $100! I remember our two big advertisers were Last Gasp Comix-- Ron Turner told me it was a "fine lesbian humor magazine" and just handed me cash-- and the Mitchell Brothers Theater-- Debi, as well as many of our first models, all worked in their sex club, or starred in their movies.
Kathy Andrew of Stormy Leather, the first woman to tailor leatherwear for women, was another one of our first advertisers. Kathy had an antique sewing machine that she operated like a crazed elf in a leaking basement on Sanchez St. Gosnell Duncan, who invented the silicon dildo, paid us to do a crazy beach/mermaid photo shoot with his "products". It was the first national advertising for dildos, and every issue he let us do another “campaign”, culminating in our Mapplethorpe-esque Perfect Moment where we modeled his favorite item, "The Susie," with a callalily and a beautiful round mirror.
My lover Honey Lee Cottrell, shot most of our first photography for the first issues, including those ads for Gosnell. When I think back, she might have worked harder than any of us-- the photo shoots were so hard to arrange, and then there was endless printing in the Harvey Milk public photo labs. She and HER ex-lover, Tee Corinne, had literally invented lesbian erotic photography in the 1970s. Morgan Gwenwald in New York was another pioneer.
You look at the first lesbian sex books, "Sapphistry" by Tee and Pat Califia, and "Coming to Power" by the Samois collective, and there you’ll find the first lesbian women opening showing their bodies and their sexuality.
It was no coincidence that the S/M, punk-era women were the first to show their faces to the public... they were the first to have the nerve. It was as if you had to be a career whore, a dedicated outcast, to show your face in a lesbian magazine... let alone your pussy.
When OOB debuted, some readers complained that they wanted to see vanilla, "bank-teller" type babes in the pictures. We replied, "Well, come on down and let us shoot you!" ---Because the punk strippers didn't want to put on bank teller outfits, they wanted to express themselves.
I'd like to mention some of the models that changed the way lesbians think about themselves: Terri and Caerage--- the most beautiful punk /butch -femme couple ever. Rachel and Elexis-- who turned the black lesbian community upside down. Kitty Tsui did the same in Pacific/Asian dyke culture. Pepper, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Ramona were the darlings of the first lesbian burlesque--- the girls would drown them in flowers and shots. Cassie and Raven, both now deceased, ( breast cancer and suicide, respectively) were the sexist women I ever laid eyes on. They started the first women's escort service and without a doubt could make ANY woman’s dream come true between the two of them. I haven’t seen such sexual charisma since.
I'm not kidding about the revolutionary effect they had on strangers lives. ONe woman told me she took one look at the OOB cover of Rachel and Elexis, packed her bags in Minnesota that evening, and moved to California. That story was multiplied many times.
Expressing yourself was what it was all about. I look back on that first year and just sigh at all that talent, and the rage that had pent it all up. Dorothy Allison, Joan Nestle, Pat Califia, Sarah Schulman, Sapphire, myself--- we couldn't be published in the lesbian presses because of our politics and sexuality, and we couldn't be published in the mainstream world because of its overt homophobia and misogyny. These were some of the best American writers of their generation!
Honey Lee and I were very close to Nan and Debbie, like a little family. There weren't a lot of butch femme younger couples at the time— in fact, we felt like the new demonstration. Even though Honey and Nan weren't technically "editors" they worked on the magazine all the time. When Nan got mildly injured at her day job we were delighted, because she got disability leave, and she never went back. She took over magazine distribution and embarked on the first lesbian porn video production with Deb.
Myrna and Debi had a falling out after the first issue, and I honestly don't know to this day what it was all about. I could see that Myrna was not into working 24/7 on On OUr Backs like the rest of us, which in hindsight, might have been wise of her! But she dropped out, in any case, and I became editor.
I remember writing my first sex column “Toys For Us”-- that was fun. Those columns eventually became the basis for “Susie Sexpert’s Lesbian Sex World.”
In my first paragraph, I tried to convince dykes to get over their sex toy phobias, especially about penetration. I said, "penetration is only as heterosexual as kissing is". I teased everyone about how they could revolutionize their sex life with a little humor and playfulness. My sentiments were quite spontaneous, but I realize now it was a novel approach. People had been SO GRIM about vibrators and sex toys-- they were called "marital aids," at the time, as if they were some kind of awful crutch. Only hookers and sex workers called them “toys!”
Everyone thought sad, dirty old men were the customer base for such “aids”. I had lesbians come into my sex toy shop and actually start CRYING about how they worried that they were going to be kicked out of the gay universe because they wanted to get fucked. No one would believe it now.
The early OOB writers came from a few places, including a lot of classified ads we placed around lesbian journals that would take us. We inherited the Samois mailing list, which was huge at the time. Even though Samois was a lesbian S/M group, it ended up attracting every kind of women who was into sex on any level, because there was nowhere else to go! Plus, it was stuffed with intellectuals and artists. The east coast counterpart was in New York, the Lesbian Sex Mafia (LSM).
The gay men who edited Drummer were our mentors in many ways. John Rowberry, John Preston, Jack Fritscher. They had patience and wisdom for everything from printer nightmares to diva models who suddenly acted like they were going to run for Miss America.
The magazine started out with three pieces of fiction, one major feature, a few columns of advice and reviews, and three pictorials. Just like Playboy! We even had a "Bulldagger of the Month" in our first issue.
We were so controversial in the beginning, it completely defined us. There were about three women's bookstores in the whole country who would sell us. Instead, we were distributed by gay men’s bookshops, anarchist/commie bookstores, the underground comix people, and a few old porn purveyors who thought we were a kick in the pants. Prominent women's bookstores either banned us, or carried one copy with a big sign on it about how treacherous and gynocidal we were. Just try and ask them for a copy!
It was bittersweet when I watched all those same bookstores go out of business as the years went by. Part of their misfortune was tied to the overall demise of independent bookstores --- but to some degree they had alienated their natural audience by being such elitists and censors. They never relented. I loved the stubbornness of lesbian separatism, I even miss it now, but the anti-sex germ within it was nothing but pure destruction.
We thought our scene was awfully smart. I remember composing an ad for UTNE Reader, which read: "The most intelligent sex magazine in the world just happens to be lesbian." That was truly our point of view. We were witty and incisive and outrageous. The men's' sex magazines were a torpid bore, straight women hadn't crawled out of their egg yet, and the academics were only talking theory while we were DOING IT. We attracted subscribers from a new hip strata of the counter culture.
Here's another marvel: On Our Backs is the first-- the very first-- national magazine produced with desktop publishing. Debi was the Mac visionary. She though Steve Jobs was a genius and bought us their first personal computer. I remember SOBBING because I thought I wouldn't be able to operate it because I was no good at MATH! That makes me laugh so hard now. We used PageMaker 1.0 to design and typeset the magazine. It had TWO fonts, HElvetica and Palatino. It just cracks me up to think of our design disadvantages. But there was no way to pay the printer bills otherwise. But Apple put us into the nascent geek world, and as everyone discovered, geeks were very sex-positive, in fact, they came up with the word.
Nowadays a gay or sex magazine can make credible ad sales. But in the early 80s, it was like soliciting charitable contributions. No one except the old school porn boys were making any money in the sex biz and they didn't understand our audience or mission. We got most of our content for little or nothing. I worked for free until the very end. We all made our nut in other ways.
But because it was a sex magazine, we had to pay a premium to find a printer who would take us. This is the most clear example of how sexual expression is suppressed--- he who owns the press makes the rules. We had to pay 5-10 times the amount a normal magazine would pay who didn't have "dirty pictures." I am still furious about this discrimination to this very day.
The printers were afraid they'd be closed down by the federal government if they printed porn. In truth, they hadn't been bothered since the early 60s. It's just that the same old farts ran the place, like elephants, and they never got over the McCarthy era. Never. I found that being treated like a pariah as a pornographer in America was very much like how I'd been treated as a socialist in America.
I still remember a few other benchmarks... one was that that we were the first lesbian press of ANY kind to run a real article about AIDS, and its risk to lesbians. The leading lights of the lesbian movement had their heads in the sand when it came to this disease. The standard issue was "lesbians cant' get it." Period. What did they know?
I can't believe how irresponsible they were. AIDS also inspired great dread among dykes because it exposed the fact that the majority of lesbians had had some intercourse with men since the epidemic started. In fact, lesbians at that time were more likely to have sex with "high risk men"-- ie, gay or bi men-- than exclusively straight women were. (This was before AIDS became such a big issue for hets as well).
Anyway, we ran the story that no one wanted to tell. ANother instance of speaking the unspeakable was something a bit more fun. At the end of the 80s, I met a number of dykes who told me they liked to watch gay pron. Funky! I thought it was a hoot, since I'd never tried it. But when I started talking about, I found that many lesbians thought this was another new low in dyke aesthetics. We decided to do an article about dykes digging gay porn, and Honey Lee shot our first pictorial with a real PENIS... two gay guys doing it on the floor while Kitty and BC watched.
Not long after that story, we ran the first lesbian story about female to male transsexuality, and Loren Cameron and Justin Green posed for Honey Lee again. I had no idea what a huge story that would end up being... how many women would be inspired and touched by their words.
On a more practical level, I would easily claim that On Our Backs created the first mainstream acceptance of "women's erotica', the practical steps to finding one's g-spot, and having a free 'n' easy attitude toward dildos and vibrators. We taught the world how to use a strap-on. We made sex fun and smart for women, something that was entirely in a female self-interest. It went way beyond homosexuality, it was really feminist sex liberation.
Lesbians have often asked me if I have any regrets about On Our Backs, and why I ended up leaving my work there after 6+ years.
My regret is that very subject, the leaving. It was brutal. I couldn't' read On Our Backs at all for a few years after I left, it made me so upset. They might have been great issues, btu I was still heartbroken.
In retrospect, I see that when I had my daughter in 1990, even though I planned to go right back to work, I was naive about how my life would change, as many new moms are.
I had a real baby on my hands, and yet OOB had always been my “baby” as well. It was really rough to divide my time without feeling like I was l was an utter failure at both responsibilities.
At the same time, my business co-partner, and best friend, Debi, was going off in her own new directions. At the time I would have told you, “She’s nuts, she’s inside her office screaming about wallpapering her bedroom!”-- but nowadays I wouldn’t presume to judge.
We were all way overdue for a first-rate nervous breakdown. The entire lesbian establishment hated our guts. Mainstream publishers and pornographers ignored us or cheated us. The money pressure was hideous and any moment I expected to be taken away to debtors prison. We had a couple thousand starry-eyed fans who had no idea what kind of trouble we were in, and we didn’t want to spoil their illusion. The reality of our impossibility was devastating, and it didn’t help anymore to hear we were “ahead of our time.”
When I decided I needed to change the balance of my tightrope act in favor of Mommy-ness, Debi hit the roof. She hit the roof, of the roof, of the roof. If only I had let her wrap herself in wallpaper first, maybe I could have avoided the whole thing!
Debi served me with a subpoena for subordinating my corporate responsibility. She had a meeting with me and a lawyer where she said she wanted me to pack my bags in a week (I had in mind a yearlong, find-the-new-editor process) and she wanted a stipulation that I could never write professionally again, at least without paying a hefty portion of my income.
To this day, I have no idea why she went so vengeful I walked out with nothing but my baby in my arms, but that was the reason I had to leave anyway. I don’t regret it, because my motherhood improved about 5000%-- I actually took care of her and saw her little face when I wasn’t one my way to or from work, crabby and exhausted.
But my OOB breakup was gutwrenching. We really did love each other, and I guess that was what made it so bewildering. If everyone had taken a chill pill, I would have loved to work 20 hours a week and find the next new hottie editor. My only solace when I look back on this nightmare is that I hear many other creative teams have had similar fireworks when they broke up. So we were not unique!
Debbie got married to a man, then divorced, and continued to promote her Female Ejaculation video along with other sex education and spiritual projects. She had always wanted the magazine to make money-- real money-- and it must have galled her to ultimately sell the whole operation for a pittance. She realized that videos were where the profits were. I never saw her again after the lawyer nonsense.
Nan got a new girlfriend and moved to Minnesota, working at one of the women's bookstores that used to be a hard ass about On Our Backs, but then changed their ways! She looked me up one year a decade later and when we reunited, we hugged each other for an eternity. She and her lover Christi Cassidy, run Fatale Video, still the original lesbian video company.
Nan and I, along with Debi and Honey, are the only ones who truly know the hair-raising, insane stunts we pulled, day after day, to put out our beloved bit of revolution.
Honey Lee and I broke up after 7 years, and subsequently I was a most fickle and gadabout gal about town for a few years before I settled down with my current lover, Jon. My “baby” is now a grown-up artist herself. and her godmother, Honey Lee, taught her a great deal about photography and film, just as she did with me.
I’m very close to many of the artists I met through OOB-- they’re my family. Aretha has shown photo prints from the early On Our Backs to show her classes. I’m so touched she sees the beauty and authenticity in those things that made me feel so powerful in the very beginning.
Photos, top to bottom:
"Two Days on a Porn Set"
...It is silent, except for squishy sex sounds and some undirected heavy breathing. This is the John Leslie magic in action. I start to fade out on the familiar chorus.
Maggie has the most natural good looks of the group, so I hope she doesn’t get infected with their pseudo-anorexia. I imagine them downing their vitamins with Hostess Twinkies when no one’s looking.
I ask Clarice what her background is. “I’m perfectly healthy.” She says, knocking on wood, “And I don’t fuck just anybody. No bisexuals.”
“I didn’t mean your health background, I mean your professional background,” I explain. Folks here are likely to interpret the most innocent question as an AIDS interrogation. I can’t believe she knocked on wood! How’s she going to know bisexuals when she sees them— does she think they’re going to hand her a card?
I follower her dizzying life story by trying to look into her eyes instead of listening to the familiar tale of woe. Once again, someone who was at the pinnacle of near-success, practically hot-tubbing with Liz Taylor, had it all fall apart because some villain slipped her a fast one.
Contined in "Susie Bright's Erotic Screen, Volume 1"
Take Mark Herster, for instance (not his real name). Mark grew up with his mother, who never mentioned her husband again after their early divorce. Mark grew up to be a troublemaker, a dreamer, and like many such a young men making a last ditch attempt at self-discipline, he joined the service.
He was thrown out of the Navy before a year was up and hit rock bottom. Then came a drug habit and hustling on Hollywood Boulevard. One particularly ugly afternoon he walked into a watering hole on the Strip to see if there was some old queen he could shake a few bucks out of. An older man who fit that description brought him a beer and invited him to sit down. Mark got a creepy feeling the way the old man was looking at him – it wasn’t as a lover or as a trick.
“You’re my son.” The grayhair announced. “Your mother always sent me photos.” Which he proceeded to pull out of his wallet.
Mark felt like throwing up. He ran out of the bar and got blind drunk for a week. When he returned to the bar, his father was there waiting for him. “Go into business with me,” his dad said. “I need someone I can trust.”
Contined in "Susie Bright's Erotic Screen, Volume 1"
Half a Million paid downloads— thousands of subscribers.
It's literally the longest-running sex discussion in history!
In Bed With Susie Bright is turning a page.
Ten years ago, I started an original weekly program with the brand-new entrepeneurs at Audible, before the iPod was even invented. I remember struggling to tell people what I was doing: "It's like the radio— except we can say whatever we want!"
To celebrate today's milestone, Audible is giving my 500th episode away free* to everyone!
Listen to the messages my subscribers have been leaving on the phone:
It’s thanks to my smarty-pants, endlessly erotic and perceptive listeners that I’ve lasted so long!
For our free episode, I'm airing excerpts of a few of my favorite interviews and "listener confessions" over the years, plus the best of the "Try This At Home" mailbag.
Even my long-silent producer and engineer have secretly recorded something I haven't heard yet!
On this show, you'll hear, among others:
Erica Jong: She made the ultimate anti-cougar comment: "You can't be their nurse and you can't be their purse."
Jamie Gillis: The Shakespearean, Columbia-grad porn legend, who spoke so candidly with me before he died of cancer last year.
Katha Pollitt: talking about how our daughters can drive us crazy...
Dan Savage: Someone has to torment me about being bisexual, right? ;-)
Betty Dodson: The most outrageous answers EVER to dealing with menopause.
Bill Bright: My linguist dad shares some truly outrageous Coyote stories and memories of the original Tijuana Bibles.
My podcast has been supported by listener subscriptions since the day it debuted. This is the very thing that "everyone says" can't be done, but we've done it. A subscription to IBWSB is $24.95 a year, for 52 weekly episodes, or people buy them a la carte.
But this week, it's on me.
—Share it with anyone you'd like to get in bed with!
*Yes, free, no strings attached. If you're already an Audible member, the link will take you right to the download.
If you've never used Audible before, it's a huge audiobook and audio spoken word site. You'll be smitten.
If you don't have an account, during "checkout" you'll need to provide a username, email, password, physical address, and phone number. If you already have an Amazon account, you can shortcut the process by entering your Amazon credentials. Either way, you won't have to provide a credit card number. Then you just complete checkout and download away!
Susie's Primary Sources on Vintage Erotica Before the Internet