Beyond Unapologetic: Susie Bright's "Big Sex, Little Death"

August 25, 2011   •   By Saskia Vogel

SUSIE BRIGHT, THE GODMOTHER OF EROTICA, hasn’t written a memoir about sex in Big Sex Little Death, despite its subtitle. Memoirs of women’s sexual lives often seem to turn sex into a dirty or pathological event, and this whether they are ostensibly written to inform or to arouse. Classic erotic memoirs treated sex like a dangerous appendage to an otherwise (or potentially) virtuous life. In La Celestina, a landmark play in early modern Spain, a frontispiece gives moral justification to the reader who is about to read a then-scandalous tale about star-crossed lovers and a witchy midwife who provides all manner of remedies, including abortions. The first pornographic (fictional) memoir written in German, Josefine Mutzenbacher: The Life Story of a Viennese Whore as Told by Herself (probably written by Felix Salten, the author of Bambi, in 1906) includes not one but three notes meant to excuse the text and absolve the reader: you are not reading a pornographic book about an underage sex kitten, the prefaces reassure, but a psychological inquiry into the mind of a lost girl. More recently, there’s Tiger, Tiger by Margaux Fragoso, the memoir of a child’s relationship with a pedophile who endeared himself to her and her mentally unstable mother. His home is initially a refuge from her abusive father, but soon becomes a space of manipulation, love and desire. Fragoso’s daring account deftly handles her taboo subject, exploring the anger she feels as well as the love. In a sanitizing afterword, she explains that she sought various treatments and is on the path of healing, and thus undermines the boldness of her story. 

In Big Sex Little Death, Bright puts sex in its place. She treats sexual freedom and sexual speech as neither degradation nor liberation, but as litmus tests for a liberal society. The book is a funny and considered reflection on her life as a sexual radical and activist, a story of growing from the daughter of an abusive mother to a teenager scrounging together enough money to attend “commie camp” for the workers movement in Detroit. Already working for the underground socialist periodical The Red Tide in high school, she soon thereafter experiences the troubles and joys of running On Our Backs, the first “for-lesbians, by-lesbians” erotic magazine.

Sex, when it first hits Bright’s pages, does so with the force of desire itself: its presence is primal and unexpected. In high school, Bright attends a party at the Playboy Club and is magnetically drawn to the tail of a Bunny. She wants nothing more than to touch it. She fondly recalls the female lover who helped her stretch her sexual boundaries across gender and other conventions, but Bright’s politics and keen observations about society, parenting, and sexual ethics make clear her belief that despite her role as a sexual icon, sex is just one aspect of a rich life.

In the late 1960s, Bright was a firebrand at school, speaking out against sexual assaults on campus and correcting her peers’ misconceptions about birth control. She tells the story of a teacher who is supposed to discipline her but doesn’t; self-censorship on her part, she suggests, was necessary to function in daily, mainstream life, but it was also necessary for those authority figures who wanted to show their solidarity with Bright. Not taking action against undesirable speech was one way for them to support her quietly.

In a section that discusses her experience as the co-founder of a sex-positive erotic lesbian magazine On Our Backs, Bright explores how sex radicals aren’t all on the same side, and how sometimes more than time needs to pass for something to change. On Our Backs featured lesbian women who wanted to express themselves erotically, exploring their personal fantasies. The magazine was liberating to some, demeaning and exploitative to others; one lesbian-owned sex shop refused to stock it, until the owner of the shop who said she would stock it “over her dead body” passed away.

Bright’s rip-roaring path to adulthood aside, her sexual ethics, approach to parenting, and ideas about sex and the body are bids for a saner society, one where a person can speak out about matters of sex and the body without making apologies first. As a mother, Bright vows to respect her daughter’s bodily integrity by never making physical contact to punish or discipline. As her daughter grows into a teenager, Bright asserts the importance of privacy at a time when many parents might be inclined to tighten the reins. She thus manages to end her family’s cycle of abuse. One glimpses the kind of America that is possible if we had a culture that didn’t need to sanitize sexuality and, like Susie Bright, celebrated our many forms of freedom, some of which happen to involve sex.