XXX: Sex Critic Susie Bright on Being Wrong

What it means to make mistakes.
Sept. 28 2010 11:15 AM

XXX: Sex Critic Susie Bright on Being Wrong

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Gentle readers, a survey: Are you appalled or aroused by the idea of a threesome? Do you share Christine O'Donnell's views on masturbation, or are your browser's other open windows showing porn? Have you ever regretted a sexual experience? Do you sometimes wonder if you're doing it "wrong"? Have you figured out yet where babies come from?
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As these questions suggest, there's a rich area of overlap between my area of expertise (wrongness) and that of famed "sexpert" Susie Bright. One of the country's foremost sex educators, activists, and writers, Bright is an outspoken advocate of sexual equality and freedom. She was one of the co-founders of On Our Backs , the first sex magazine by, for, and about women, as well as the founder and longtime editor of The Best American Erotica series. Her memoir, Big Sex Little Death , will be published in April 2011. In this interview, she and I talk about why the Vatican is the original sexpert, whether anti-sex crusaders are also anti-intellectual, and which physical activity is (to her own surprise) making Bright sweat these days.

***

Let's talk about the morning after, which I think of as one of the really iconic moments of personal wrongness.

[Laughs.] I think of the morning after as being a classic case of ambivalence, rather than flat-out regret. I mean, clearly you wouldn't have gone for it if you weren't aware of your self-interest. I'm always aware of my self-interest. The reasons that you shouldn't have done it, or you should have done it a little differently—all those "woulda, coulda, shouldas" can prey on your mind in a terrible way.

But I often think people are a bit cruel to themselves about how they evaluate a sexual experience. Just because your mother might not have approved or you're not going to get married—just because it doesn't meet someone else's standards—doesn't mean it didn't have its fabulous, transcendent, insightful, awesome moments. So I guess I hold those "morning after" situations a little more gently. Sometimes I wish things had gone differently, but to denounce it and say, "This should never have happened"—rarely have I gone there.

Lucky you. Sex and relationships can be so complex and messy that I think a lot of people do wind up going there at some point in their lives—waking up after a sexual experience, literally or figuratively, and thinking, "Oh, man, that was the wrong decision."

I think the most painful situation in my own life was when I was much younger, a teenager, and I went to bed with a best friend's lover. It was so impulsive, and right in the middle of it he started crying, and I was like, "Oh my God, this is terrible." I had great esteem for their love; it wasn't like I was trying to take something away or break them up or hurt anyone. It was a messy, intoxicated, going-with-the-flow kind of moment.

When I think back on it, it just seems like that foolish, impulsive, youthful moment. The ability to imagine the frustrations and hurt feelings that lie ahead—that comes so much easier when you're more mature and you've been there, done that. I didn't even have to get to 18 before I understood that the consequences of interrupting people's marriages in various ways are toxic. Just don't do it. Don't mess with it. You'll be sorry.

I'm interested in this idea of impulsiveness. In looking at why we get things wrong, I thought a lot about all the various ways we make decisions—by impulse, by consulting other people, by trying to assemble the evidence and conduct some kind of rational assessment. I assume that impulsivity governs sexual decisions more than other kinds, and I wonder if you think that makes us more or less likely to regret them. 

I don't know. I think there are so many appetites and pleasures and needs that we act on quickly, and yet there isn't a sense of social stigma and shame around them. I had something to eat the other night that made me terribly sick to my stomach, and I suffered for it for a day afterward. But no one's going to say, "Shame on you, Susie! How could you have done that?" Instead we laugh, we indulge. We're much more forgiving; you know, live and learn.

I've taken huge sexual risks and often it's turned out awesome. So it's not like I regret my impulses or think, "Oh, if only I'd thought everything out and planned every move." People who think they can do that about sex are in for a serious surprise.

I hear a fair number of coming out stories that are almost like conversion stories. Like: I thought for sure I was going to get married in my mom's wedding dress, or maybe I even did get married in my mom's wedding dress—

And then I saw the light!

Right, exactly. And my whole original vision of my life and what it was going to be like fell out from under me. Was it like that for you?

No. I'm just the opposite. I imagined that one would simply be attracted to people for all kinds of reasons and there wouldn't be a final determination. That's just me. I think I'm dead in the middle of the Kinsey spectrum . I have always felt attracted to both men and women. My first sexual experience, I went from never having kissed anyone, never having held hands, nothing, just me reading a story book and kissing my pillow, to a threesome where I did everything, all in one afternoon during the World Series.

Is this where I make a joke about third base?

Ha. But you know, the interesting thing about it was it did kind of confirm my notion of what sex would be like: I'm with a man and I'm with a woman and I really like both of them and I'm attracted to both of them and it feels good.

Only later on did I begin to realize for some people, it's definitely not about being in the middle [of the Kinsey scale]. The notion that everyone is bisexual—or for that matter that everyone is anything, any fixed anything—that's baloney. Any sex educator worth their salt knows that you can't pigeonhole people. Including yourself. You're dead if you do. If you think, "Oh, well, you're set in stone, now we're going to predict everything from here on out"-you can't do that. You'll end up lying to yourself and everybody else.

I was thinking about your somewhat funny identity as an expert in sex—which I say as someone who has a somewhat funny identity as an expert in wrongness—

Just don't let anyone call you a wrongpert.

Ha. Why not? "Wrongpert." I love it. It's certainly no worse than "wrongologist," which I've been called so much that I gave in and started using it myself.

Agh. It's like this feminine diminutive that's the kiss of death. You'll notice that men who take an intellectual or professional interest in sexual education do not get called "sexperts," for the good reason that it makes you sound like an idiot. I rue the day that my friends came up with that nickname. Someone just asked me the other day, "Were you the first sexpert?" And I'm like, "Oh, God, now we're going to do origin of the species?"

It has been impossible in this puritan country to be a scholar and an intellectual about sex. Do that at your peril. Look what happened to Kinsey; it wasn't all accolades and flowers. People who've taken sex seriously haven't gotten the same kind of recognition as, say, linguistics or mathematicians. It's an essential of human nature, but if people have a moral agenda against it, they will trivialize it. Like "sexpert."

The linguistics analogy is interesting. It's so acceptable to study language in order to better understand the human mind and the human animal. And yet somehow sex, which is just as intrinsic to who we are, doesn't have anything like that kind of highly respected, longstanding, institutionalized field of inquiry.

That's because the church has said that it is in charge of rigorous sexual analysis. The Vatican is the original sexpert. It's always the religious institution that tries to set the agenda. It's like: "We've decided what the natural laws are and here's what you can and cannot do. We've looked at everything and we've considered what is deviant and what is not, and now you can go forth and play our little game." When their authority is checked, that's when they respond by trivializing the insurgents, the provocateurs, the questioners.

So how do you deal with people like that—people who think everything about you and the work you do is wrong? Or do you just choose not to deal with them at all?

Yeah, great question. I mean, some of them are so unhinged. They take a violent attitude; they're on a crusade, and they're going to gore me with their sword of righteousness. The people who tend to go after you hammer and tong tend to be the manipulated rank and file of a rather cynical leader who is sitting at home counting their banknotes. The people at the top—at best they're indifferent, at worst they're the grossest, most frightening hypocrites. And they have whole troops of little people to get their hands dirty. That part is frightening.

One thing that's interesting to me is that even when that hypocrisy is exposed, it doesn't seem to do much to change the minds of their followers—which I suppose is in keeping with what we know about how hard it is to overturn entrenched belief systems.

We've seen so many of them exposed in recent years—the men of C Street , the people who railed against sexual liberty and freedoms while privately carrying on like a Roman orgy. One disappointment, to those of us who have been fighting the good fight, is that you think that when people like David Vitter get exposed, their rank and file is going to be disgusted and walk away from them. But lots of times, they don't. It's like they're so wedded to the orthodoxy that if they question it, they're going to crumble. And they don't want to crumble. They don't want to have a psychotic break right now, right there on the kitchen floor.

Something has to be there for them to hold onto. And what do you give them? Especially when you say, "You know what, you're never going to be that certain again." When people ask me, "What is your vision of sexual liberation?" as if I'm going to hand them some new crucifix—you've got to be out of your mind. Maturity means taking a respectful attitude toward uncertainty. You can be honest. You can stop lying to yourself. You can find ethics that way. But if you think you're going to just wrap your lasso around the next big truth, you're out of your mind.

I understand the attraction to certainty, but why this certainty? Why the conviction that sexuality is so dangerous, so corrosive, in need of constant controlling?

Yeah, that's the question, isn't it? The thing keep asking everyone these days is: Why is it that some aspects of science are quite readily embraced by almost everyone, but not this one? There's a big surge of popularity in favor of gravity, for instance. Yet when it comes to the things we have learned about our sexual anatomy and physiology, there is this deliberate rejection of scientific knowledge. It gets discussed, it gets proven it, and then we go right back to the Garden of Eden. Nobody wants to hear it. Women have libidos? No, no, no. Women don't like sex. They're not visual. They just want to settle down and have children. And men just want that piece of tail and they want it now and it's not emotional.

I'm very curious, what is the stake in this false consciousness? I am appalled that I'm still going out to this day to college campuses and people are like, "I don't know, does the clitoris exist?" Or "I just don't know why I'd feel attracted to more than one person during my lifetime." Or "Is it bad that I find pictures of naked people arousing?" Why are we still having these discussions?

Is it your sense that some things are getting better? On the one hand, the political, legal, and cultural situation for queer and transgendered people has clearly improved. On the other hand, you've got Christine O'Donnell saying masturbation is the evil to end all evils.

Exactly. I'm so glad you brought her up. This is the most popular sentiment about masturbation in the media right now—this dingbat, this professional moron. She gets paid to be an idiot. She gets run for office by a bunch of callous cynics who have their own financial interests at heart, and I guarantee you they're masturbating up a storm and fucking anything that moves. And yet this is now the voice of authority on human sexuality. Are you kidding me?

So I guess you're saying things are not getting better.

We're in retrograde right now. Sexual knowledge is the privilege of the highly literate, the highly educated, the bohemian. It's esoteric.

Some people actually glorify that esoteric status—as if being in the dark or thinking that sex is dirty and bad is an important part of what makes sex sexy. Do you think there's anything to that?

They don't have a leg to stand on. I've raised kids who don't believe in sin and hell and don't think that sex is intrinsically shameful, and they have just as much mystery and intrigue and romance in their lives as anybody else. You don't become a robot if you're raised with access to knowledge and a critical mind. There's so much we don't know. It's like astronomy: We have not visited other planets, we don't have a clue.

Who do you think should—

Be president? Me.

Ha. Duly noted. But actually, I was going to ask who you think should teach kids about sex and what we should be teaching them.

I would question your phrasing. Sex is part of life. It's not a vocational school. Who should teach our kids science? Who should teach them ethics? Who should teach them the practical skills in life? Sexuality enters into all those things. Clearly I believe in education and public libraries and institutions of public learning across the board, I believe in a clear-minded, matter-of-fact, calm discussion of how bodies work. But it's not like, "OK, children, turn to Page 46, we're going to be learning how to masturbate today."

Thanks to this great new textbook by Christine O'Donnell.

Ha. But what I'm saying is, we all need to be take responsibility for educating our kids and ourselves about sex. We need to get over this culture of prudery. It's prudery that kills people, not sexual education. When you look at what happens with AIDS and other places where sex was targeted as the illness, the vermin, the terror—over and over again, that kind of destruction is based on profound ignorance.

It sounds like what you're saying is that the anti-sex impulse is also anti-intellectual.

Of course it is. It's pro-ignorance, it's anti-literacy. I used to describe my speaking tours as erotic literacy campaigns. I remember one of the first ladies, I think it was Nancy Reagan, was really big on literacy, and I was like: I'm going to be the first lady of erotic literacy. They're anti-democratic and anti-intellectual, and they're elitist. I can't repeat that enough. The enforcement of sexual ignorance by all those self-appointed moral guardians is the epitome of elitism. That is why I despise them, more than anything. They believe there's a different set of rules for them than for everyone else. They want access to everything because they can handle it, but they don't think you can, and they want to decide who's in and who's out.

That's anti-intellectual, but it's also anti-democratic. I always found sexual politics to be a cornerstone of democracy. Sexual speech is the first speech that's repressed.

What do you think parenting has taught you about being wrong?

Being a parent taught me a lot about uncertainty. There's your own more or less constant uncertainty, of course. But also, kids yearn so much for absolutes: Is it all good or is it all bad? You can be the kind of parent where you're like, "OK, little honeybear, here's the thing that 's 100 percent good; you just hang on to that." But hopefully you take a more nuanced view. You tell them, you have to look at the situation. You have to look at the clues, you have to scour the ground. You have to honor context and complexity.

There's this line I read on your Web site: "I had sworn on a stack of Communist Manifestos I would never go to college, so in the beginning, I was quite chagrined"-which I think is the most hilarious 20-word encapsulation of an ethos and an identity I can possibly imagine. And obviously that's something you were wrong about-

[laughing] College is a bourgeois illusion. I still believe that. All the reasons that I feared and loathed it were true. But I went anyway, and there turned out to be some good things, too.

Here's why I bring it up: Is there anything you swear by today that you can imagine someday deciding you were wrong about?

[laughing more] Well, come on, how would I know?

Yeah, yeah, I know, that's whole thing about wrongness: Of course we can't know which of our current beliefs we're wrong about, or we wouldn't believe them. But I still think it's an important exercise to stop and think: OK, which of my convictions can I even vaguely imagine relinquishing? We've all been wrong about some of our past beliefs, after all, so presumably we'll be wrong about some of our present ones as well.

OK, OK. Can I tell you something that's been recent? I have to have some hindsight. There's no way I'm going to guess what the next incredible humiliation is going to be.

Sure, go ahead.

I never thought I would be athletic or take an interest in exercise or raising my heart rate other than dancing and having sex. Sometimes I admired other people's physical prowess, but I was just like, "It hurts, it's bullshit, it's so stupid—

It's a bourgeois institution.

[Laughing] It just wasn't for me. I thought: I'm a bookworm, and I will never do that. And that has been proved wrong. I can't believe I'm a runner. I still cannot believe that's me. I never sweated like this in my life. I was 50 when I started becoming athletically active, and it's been quite a shock to me.

How did that change come about?

I lost both my parents in a short period of time, and the stress of their loss and seeing them go through the end of their life was so intense. There wasn't enough valium in the world to control my anxiety. And one day without even thinking about it, I just started running. I wanted to run until I couldn't think anymore. I just wanted to run and run and run and run and run. It was blind. I didn't think about it, I didn't call somebody and ask them how to do it, I didn't have on the right shoes, I just ran. And then finally I was gasping and drooling and fell on the ground, and I thought: Wow, I think I need to do this tomorrow. 

So it was a reaction to extreme stress and grief at first. And then it was, "Do I want to spend my 50s having heart attacks and getting diabetes?" I looked around me at everybody in their 50s, and there was the group that was barely hanging on, and then there were these other people who were having a very full life, who seemed able to have all kinds of physical pleasure. And I didn't want to be the person who was constantly in pain. So this has been a big revelation to me.

I love that story. In one sense, it's kind of a small thing to be wrong about, and yet in another sense it's really sweeping. Whether we're an athlete or a bookworm-things like that are so fundamental to our identities, and they can feel so unchanging. And then they do change, and so do our social lives, our communities, our bodies, our sense of who we are.

Yeah. That kind of release and challenge is now a huge source of strength to me, emotionally as much or even more so than physically. So that was a great thing to find out that I was wrong about. That's my favorite mistake.

What a lovely note to end on. One final question: If you could hear anyone else interviewed about being wrong, who would it be?

Oh, wow. Right, I saw this on some of your other interviews. It's tempting to pick somebody you really can't stand because you want to see them on the hot seat. Didn't someone say Dick Cheney?

Yeah, some Bush administration officials have made cameo appearances right about now.

OK, so my real choice. Huh. I'm the worst person for this. I could never be a judge in a contest or a beauty pageant because I get overwhelmed by the idea that we should just pick one. I can't bear to pick a winner. I want everybody to be recognized for their own special wrongness.

 

Kathryn Schulz  is the author of  Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error . She can be reached at  kathryn@beingwrongbook.com . You can follow her on Facebook  here , and on Twitter  here .

This blog features Q&As in which notable people discuss their relationship to being wrong. You can read past interviews with Nobel Prize winner Barry Marshall , Innocence Project Co-Founder Peter Neufeld , marriage counselor Harville Hendrix , Google research director  Peter Norvig , Wikipedia co-founder  Larry Sanger , NASA astronaut-turned-medical-error-guru  James Bagian , hedge-fund manager  Victor Niederhoffer , mountaineer  Ed Viesturs This American Life  host  Ira Glass , celebrity chef  Anthony Bourdain Sports Illustrated  senior writer  Joe Posnanski , education scholar and activist  Diane Ravitch , and criminal defense lawyer and pundit  Alan Dershowitz .

 

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