Thursday, April 28, 2011

Review: Big Sex, Little Death

Big Sex, Little Death
by Susie Bright
Seal Press, 2011

Some people are just extraordinary. There's no other way to say it. Some people, for some reason, have the courage to live big adventurous lives. I've met a few of them and I'm convinced it isn't something they do on purpose. They've never made a conscious decision to be that way and frequently they don't even realize they are that way. If you ask them they'll say that it's chance that has always led them to the center of things. They don't see that they have some sort of internal compass that points them towards adventure and a personal gravity that draws others into their orbit. Susie Bright is one of those people (though I'm ninety-nine percent sure she's one of the ones who would deny it).

Her new book, Big Sex, Little Death, is a memoir of the first half of her life. It begins with her childhood and ends shortly after the birth of her daughter in the early 1990s. In a way, it's a shame it doesn't go further, but then Susie has written a great deal about the other parts of her life in other books and her excellent blog. Those were the days when she was "Susie Sexpert" -- a nickname she now dislikes -- the one who kept us apprised of the Sexual State of the Union, told the Wachowski Brothers and two straight girls how to finger fuck, and still makes sure we had top quality stories to read while we masturbate. That was the Susie Bright I was familiar with. For the purpose of this review, let's call that one Susie Version Four. Even though I read her blog quasi-religiously I didn't know how much of the picture I was missing until Big Sex, Little Death came along.

This book deals almost entirely with Susies One through Three. Susie One was a bookish young girl whose college professor parents met living in India. She was raised in California. After her parents divorced her mom took her to live in Edmonton, Alberta. Unfortunately, her mother's bitterness about the glass ceiling that kept women from getting very far in the world of academia translated to some borderline abusive, borderline suicidal behavior, so Susie learned to walk on egg shells. After Susie was injured in one of her mother's quasi-suicide attempts -- one of the most shocking moments in the book, to which I can't do justice in this summary -- her mother wisely sent her back to California to live with her father. The sheltered girl transfers to a high school in Los Angeles, and within a year has blossomed into Susie Two, who joins a student communist group called the Red Tide and starts experimenting with casual sex. Eventually she drops out of high school to become a Socialist labor organizer in Detroit and Louisville, where she is threatened with guns, witnesses a stabbing and has her apartment vandalized by the KKK. But a Party schism (what a cliché!) sends her packing. In San Francisco, she becomes Susie Three, a lesbian, a vibrator expert in a feminist sex toy store, and front line infrantrywoman in a feminist culture war. As a contributor and editor of On Our Backs, the first lesbian porn magazine, she's accused of helping the patriarchy enslave women by the sex-negative, second-generation feminist movement.

I bought this book because I was interested in Susie's life as a sex-positive celebrity. Interestingly enough, that's the part I found to be the least spellbinding. I was most enraptured by the stories about her childhood and about her political awakening. Those were the moments when I felt like, after all these years of learning about what Susie does, I was finally learning who she is. Throughout the book, Susie comes off as strong, intelligent, adventurous and endearingly vulnerable. She seems to always be in just a little over her head -- so reliably over her head, in fact, that you can only conclude that that's where she wants to be.

There is one thing in this book that I did find a little bit shocking. No, it wasn't the fact that, at sixteen, Susie was running around having casual sex with all of the International Socialists. Susie's mostly regret-free sexual adventures were fun to read, and (dare I admit it?) pretty hot. No, the thing that shocked me was none of the intelligent, serious thirty-year-old Socialist men she meets seems to have any problem having sex with someone so young. Maybe I'm being extremely naïve, but this seemed like a huge generational difference. I remember being hit on by a seventeen-year-old one time and being quite frankly frozen with inhibition -- and I was only twenty-three at the time! I feel like I grew up in a generation where it's generally held that high schoolers should fuck high schoolers, college students should fuck college students, and after that, anything goes. At almost thirty, I'd feel wrong hitting on a college girl. It's hard to believe things were so different just thirty years ago.

That's my only complaint. It's not really about the book at all, and it's probably just my latent sex-negativity talking. Besides that recurring "yuck" moment, I can recommend this book with my whole heart. Get a copy. If you know any feminists, get them a copy too. (Mother's Day is coming up!)


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