Tuesday, June 19, 2012

booknotes: big sex, little death

About a year after its debut, I finally got around to obtaining a copy of Susie Bright's Big Sex, Little Death: A Memoir (Seal Press, 2011) from our local library network.  Bright, for those of you unfamiliar with the name, is a sexuality educator, poet, and activist. She is perhaps most famous (or infamous) in feminist circles as one of the founding editors of On Our Backs, a magazine for lesbian erotica that first appeared in 1984 and became a major player in the lesbian/feminist "sex wars" of the 80s. Bright, along with Carol Queen, Gayle Rubin, Pat Califia, and a handful of other queer folks of varying stripes, were instrumental in articulating a vision of human sexuality and erotic imagination that ran counter to the anti-pornography stance of feminist activists such as Gail Dines, Katherine Mackinnon, and Andrea Dworkin.* As proponents of what eventually became identified as "sex-positive feminism," Bright and company were banned from college campuses, received death threats, and -- in a classic example of Godwin's Law -- were accused of being sexist Nazis, promoting female genocide. Toward the end of Big Sex, Bright writes about visiting the University of Minnesota to speak about "lesbian eroticism in cinema," only to find herself rushed by a young woman in the restroom "carrying something sharp in her hand." The would-be attacker stuttered to a halt when she took in Bright's advanced state of pregnancy, which somehow hadn't registered during the lecture. "In my protestors' minds, I was killing women with my wicked ways, not creating new life" (221).

Unlike Carol Queen's Real Live Nude Girl or Gayle Rubin's recently-released anthologyBig Sex, Little Death actually has relatively little to say about sex.  Or, at least, its primary purpose is not to articulate a politics of sex, or even focus on Bright's personal experience with sexuality. When sex enters the narrative it does so episodically, with Bright talking about her adolescent sexual fumblings (and, many would argue, the sexual abuse -- or at least exploitation -- she suffered at the hands of older male leftist organizers), or her on-the-ground frustration with the sexual policing within lesbian feminist circles of the Seventies and Eighties.

These are glances only, rather than a narrative through-line, and at times I found myself frustrated by the lack of reflection from now-Susie on then-Susie's sexual experiences and what meaning she has made out of them. She describes for example, how at age fifteen she and her friend-cum-lover Danielle (also fifteen) "seduced" older men, sometimes for fun, sometimes for cash. She describes the sexual availability she was expected to sustain within the socialist groups she was active in as a teenager and into her early twenties, and in contrast to Jeanne Cordova (in When We Were Outlaws) doesn't spend much ink considering how those sexual dynamics contributed to the way she was used and abused as a youthful activist. While I appreciate the philosophy of being gentle with one's younger self, at times it feels like Susie-Bright-the-adult has abdicated the role of narrator to such an extent that injuries done to her are overlooked in the memoir as they were unacknowledged at the time.

The most difficult to read -- and also most deftly-handled -- passages of Big Sex are those dealing with Bright's relationship with her parents, and to a lesser extent the way in which those deeply troubled interactions shaped her own choices as a parent. Her mother struggled with an undiagnosed mental illness that, together with her own neglected, poverty-ridden childhood, seems to have left her with very little in the way of emotional and material resources. She repeatedly tried to commit suicide and once attempted murder-suicide with adolescent Susie in the car, only to crash the car before they reach the river, and abandon injured Susie to make her own way home. Explanations for the behavior (e.g. untreated mental illness and lack of social support) don't lessen the reality that Susie grew up with incredibly shitty, near-fatal, parenting from her mother and more benign neglect from her father. And despite my own lack of personal triggers regarding family abuse, there were a couple of times when I almost had to put the book down out of anger and sadness that anyone has to live through that sort of experience -- particularly as a child dependent on their abuser.

When, at thirty-two, Bright faces an unplanned pregnancy, she's surprised by the depth of her desire to carry to term:
The real reason I couldn't imagine having a baby was that I was afraid of my temper, afraid of doing those things for which you can't ever fully apologize. I knew that my mom had been "sorry" that she had hit me (after all, it wasn't as badly as she'd been hit). She didn't remember threatening me (after all, we did survive). Maybe it was my fault sometimes; isn't that what kids think? Mommy, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. It changed nothing for her. But then, her actions had very little to do with me (287-288).
The desire to give birth, coupled with the fear she would replicate her own mother's abusive behavior, leads Bright on a very intentional path toward parenting differently from the way her mother parented. While obviously we only have her perspective on her daughter's childhood, it sounds from Big Sex like Bright created a family realm that helped her manage her temper in a way that would not spread the damage to yet another generation. And that's always a beautiful, courageous thing to see happen.

Overall, I highly recommend this memoir for anyone interested in another eyewitness account of the turbulent era of imploding social change activism during 70s and 80s, when internal dissent combined with a resurgent conservatism and mainstream hostility to turn leftists against each other in unhelpful ways. Yet in the midst of this strife, creative things happened and people came of age to become a new generation of movers and shakers in ways that, hopefully -- as in Susie Bright's own familial life -- will not spread the damage of generations before. One of the things that gives me heart, as a thirtysomething feminist, is the way in which forty- and fiftysomething activists are refusing to eat their young, working hard to break the pattern of generational strife and ideological antagonism of their own coming-of-age.


*When Andrea Dworkin passed away in 2005, Susie Bright wrote a beautiful remembrance of her that both paid homage to the important theoretical and political work Dworkin had done, and acknowledged the lingering scars of that period.

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