The Beatrice Interview

Susie Bright

"Why would it be confusing or distressing if a girl knew what was happening to her body?"

interviewed by Ron Hogan

Susie Bright is a one-woman force for sexual revolution, and her Sexual State of the Union is the biggest, boldest version of her manifesto to date. In a series of intensely personal essays, Bright discusses topics ranging from her first encounters with pornography to her feelings about 'alternative' weddings. Her straightforward style has drawn fire from conservatives and liberals, both of whom attack her for degrading society by promoting smut. Anybody who's read Bright's work, however, knows that her work is about upgrading society by refusing to pretend that sexuality doesn't exist (or that we can ignore it without consequence).

In person, Bright is friendly and engaging, eager to turn the tables on me during the interview by asking questions about my life. Over breakfast, she ended up eliciting from me the details of my online romantic history, speaking about her own life with equal candor. (Most of our conversation, in fact, was a huge digression from the interview we were ostensibly there to conduct, and I've whittled it way down from the transcript.) It began when I tell her that reading Sexual State of the Union was a life-affirming experience...

SB: Had you read my small press work before?

RH: Only in short chunks. This was the first book of yours that I had read from cover to cover.

SB: Why did you find it 'life-affirming'?

RH: It was your call for honesty, really. The recognition that we have to be honest about desire, about the ways that people are trying to repress desire. There's a real crisis going on, and we have to confront it directly and openly. You're one of the few people who's saying it so bluntly. And you advocate a commitment to honesty not just in sexuality, but in all forms of intimacy, because you recognize that intimacy can't really exist without honesty.

SB: Asking people to be honest sounds like such a cliché. You hear it so often that it starts to lose its value. And then you get excuses: "Oh, sometimes white lies are okay... I don't want to hurt their feelings... people don't always know what's best for them..." There was a study recently that indicated girls are experiencing signs of puberty, such as breast development and pubic hair, at younger ages than ever before; girls seven and eight years old are starting to experience these signs. The article in which I learned about this survey said, "This may cause confusion and distress for many young girls." Well, why would it be confusing or distressing if a girl knew what was happening to her body? If she knew that these were natual parts of her sexual development? It's only a freakout if you've been told a bunch of bullshit by your parents about sin and shame. I have a little girl who's about to turn seven, and she knows a lot about her body and the changes that she can expect. I'm proud of that.

There's no reason to be troubled by your sexual body if you understand sex is a natural part of life. And that's one of the reasons I wrote this book; mainstream news just presents these dogeared items of sexual repression over and over again. All that article had to do was quote one person saying that we could address sex education earlier in kids' lives...but people hear that, and it's like, "You want my daughter to be sexual? She's just a little girl!" As if sex education was like starting a bordello.

RH: The chapters on online sexuality were very powerful, particularly the two that recounted the story of the scam artist who seduced women on the Well. But I was also surprised to learn that the notorious Marty Rimm had sent you email.

SB: Oh, GOD, right! I should print that out and frame it. What a deranged guy he is. I wonder what he's up to now...I'll bet you anything that he's still looking at online porn.

RH: One great thing about those chapters is that the issues you raise about dealing with sexuality online tie in so well to the overall themes of honesty and communication. Granted there are moments of duplicity and deceit...

SB: ...but there are also moments of genuine emotional connection, and everyone on the Well was moved by those connections. One of the double-take experiences for me in that whole saga was when I met the 'cybercad' and had sex with him. There was much less of a connection that the one we'd developed through our personas online. I would never say that the correspondence between us online was entirely 'fake,' or that what he experienced with the other women on the Well was fake. Getting infatuated with somebody is always a charade. It's always something that happens before you really know a person, and though you may come to love them deeply with all their faults, in the beginning you hold an image in your mind which you either hold on to or reject once you find out more about the person.

RH: In the "born again virgins" chapter, you do a great job of nailing that tendency people have of rejecting their own desires, and the subtle shift from regret or shame over one's sexual life to persecuting others who won't stop doing the things that make one so ashamed...

SB: I had some specific people in mind when I wrote that chapter, people I knew in high school who at some point decided to live as if their entire sexual history simply never existed. But it's a common thing. Look at Donna Rice, still out there selling her body, only now it's for 'family values' to get porn off the net. Born again virgin.

RH: Our society's willful inability to discuss sexual issues is amazing. When you think that it took nearly a year just for one sitcom star to come out...

SB: Am I the only one who was turned off by the Ellen Degeneres marketing campaign? I suppose I should be angry that it had to be such a big deal for Hollywood and television to take this step, but then when it's all so carefully orchestrated, it just feels like a Nike ad. It felt like hype, like a career move. I don't consider Ellen Degeneres brave. It would have been brave of her to come out a long time ago, before she could get on the cover of Time. That would have shown some integrity. And sometimes I feel like this will turn out to be just the first of a series of carefully orchestrated celebrity 'coming out' stories, the new equivalent of the "Betty Ford rehabilitation" story. So Ellen's out now. There's always some new wall that needs to be broken down. Let's see an openly lesbian actress play a heterosexual lead. Let's get a male hunk, a living star with romantic appeal, who's brave enough to come out as bisexual or gay. Those are things that would take real nerve... but patience has always been a hard quality for me. Things don't move fast enough in our culture, and compromise is very hard to accept.

RH: Luckily, you can avoid compromise and spread the message yourself. You launched your own website earlier this year. What can we expect to find on it?

SB: It's a one-stop archive. You can see everything I've ever done. It tells people about my background and has some of my favorite stories that I've written over the years, plus links to artists and projects that I've worked on. There's a photo gallery, a syllabus of the class that I'm teaching. You'll be able to purchase some of the things I've worked on.

I'd like to get more stories on there. I'd like to answer questions, since I'm getting a lot of interesting email. But there's no promise to the reader right now as to how it would grow, because it's a huge commitment and I have to take stock and find out how much I'm capable of giving.

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All materials copyright © 1997 Ron Hogan