The Sexual State of the Unionby Susie Bright
Lust brings out the liar in everyone. Every erection has Pinocchio written up and down its lengthyes, everybody wants to be REAL, a real boy, an honest woman, unafraid and uprightbut then desire, the ultimate honesty, does us in. Desire doesn't give a whit about shame. Our secrets, our exaggerations and distractions, it's all just a lot of twisting in
Lust brings out the liar in everyone. Every erection has Pinocchio written up and down its lengthyes, everybody wants to be REAL, a real boy, an honest woman, unafraid and uprightbut then desire, the ultimate honesty, does us in. Desire doesn't give a whit about shame. Our secrets, our exaggerations and distractions, it's all just a lot of twisting in the wind as far as sex is concernedwhat we want WILL come out.
"Is our sexuality a basic, good, and precious thing that somehow became terribly misunderstood? Or is there something really evil out there in Sex Land that attaches itself to our libidos and is only held back by vigilance and caution?" asks Susie Bright in her bestselling book The Sexual State of the Union. Bright pushes the borders of propriety until they blur and become irrelevant in the face of our inherent need to touch and be touched. With candor and passion, Susie Bright proves that sexual knowledge can indeed be salvation and inspiration.
With her usual panache, Bright (The Best American Erotica 1994, etc.) delivers an update on sex in America today. She acknowledges that sexual liberationists have won the feminist sex wars; in visits to college campuses around the country, she has found that students no longer assume feminists oppose erotica. In other pieces, she continues to skewer the religious right, inferring that pornographic fantasies underlie their sexually repressive politics. At her best when she combines personal experience with social observation, she describes her first encounters with pornography as well as celebrating other widely maligned erotic experiencessex with strangers, anal sex, sex on the Internet, and sadomasochism. Bright is endearing about her own mistakes; having, as a lesbian, mentally as well as physically separated sex from reproduction, she once had unprotected sex with a man and got pregnant. She cringes now at her impracticality yet celebrates that liberatory mindset, the impulse to view sex as, above all, intimate and pleasurable. She champions tolerance of all things sexual, yet is honest about her own limits. Sometimes Bright can be politically unsophisticated, asserting, for instance, in a somewhat unimaginative anti-religion rant, that churches "will never play a part in the leadership of social change," when in fact, they do, all over the world. In another lapse, she reports that "feminism as an intellectual movement has been largely torpedoed by stupid sex questions"; manyprobably including Bright herself, in a more reflective momentwould argue that debates over sexuality have strengthened feminism, not weakened it.
An honest spokeswoman for a thoughtful, inclusive politics of liberation, Bright deserves her growing popularity and influence; this collection, while not as pioneering as some of her earlier work, offers a sound and refreshingly hopeful commentary on the state of our erotic mores.
Erica Jong Susie Bright is the genuine article...She proves the point that the muse screws, that all creativity is inevitably sexual, and that the juciest people write the most delectable books.
Armistead Maupin Susie Bright is a true American original. She cuts through the crap of modern Calvinism with disarming candor and humor and yes, elegance. We're so lucky to have her.
- Simon & Schuster
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Read an Excerpt
From the Introduction: The Wrong Question
When we talk about sex to each other, one-on-one, we open a well-worn box of lovers' lies: fake orgasms, promises of fidelity, boastful exploits. But on a social stage, lying about sex grows to such a grandiose level that instead of just answering with fibs and falsehoods, our collective breath doesn't even pose an honest question. The very premises of our education, our media, our aesthetics, assume tremendous beliefs about sexuality that aren't any more real than a flat earth. Instead, double standards and things that go bump in the night are the order of the day, the order of our childhoods, our daily bread.
My childhood was filled with pious and common messages about sin, femininity, romance, and virginity. I'm glad the nuns in my parochial school took off their habits; that was "the beginning of the end," just like the pope predicted. It was the sixties, we let our hair down, and the lies about good girls and bad girls fell from our heads like useless hairpins. I learned what the word "hypocrisy" meant in those years, what a social lie can do to a person. It made a tremendous impression on me, especially when I'm confronted with some of the whoppers that are served up today.
Today, I see a magazine headline that impeaches pregnant teenagers for their promiscuity and irresponsible decision makingwhat a tough little accusation that is. Everyone who actually works with pregnant teenagers or is related to a pregnant teenagernot to mention a pregnant teenager herselfknows that the girl-teen was probably knocked up by a full-grown man who is way past his adolescent angst. These men, these fathers, are like ghosts, who go unmentioned by the politician or the talk show host.
It would be interesting, of course, to find out how many of our social critics and leaders have had sex with teenagers themselvesor had sex when they WERE teenagers. But that's not the question being asked. We don't ask political pundits about their sex lives: we listen to them question ours. The result? Something as idiotic as the Bad Teen Question hangs around like a foul smell, a blame game with a voiceless target.
Blame 'n' Shame is the spinning bottle of sexual politics. It's such a winner because it covers all the essentials with a mountain of blankets, each embroidered with somebody else's sins. The naked truth, when it drags up questions that are not doused with shame and blame, is usually not as attractive to the public appetiteit doesn't fit the "How could you?!" agenda.
"I could, and I did, and you would too, if you had half a chance" is the answer that bears repeating, but it takes a lot of guts to say it out loud. The class yell of the sexually repressed society"Tha - at's sick! "is an appropriate insult from those who put sex and pathology in the same bed. We know how to say no to sex in fifty different languages, in every mood, place, and time, but it's clear why it rings so hollow and aching sometimeswe never learned to say yes to sex, without duress, without a fall from grace.
Disease, in particular the specter of AIDS in our current consciousness, is a virtual geyser of opportunities for people to make moral conclusions out of ignorance. The fear-mongers' sense of righteousness and revenge is so cruel and omnipresent that even those who do become sick and helpless may turn on themselves and say, "What have I done to deserve this?"
Nothing, nothing at all.
"What have I done?" is not the real question. What has stopped us from discovering the origins of HIVa far better and more difficult questionis not lack of money but lack of consciousness. We've been so busy praying for special favors and redemption, feeling unique, posting the blame, that the truth and the mysteries of our bodies become ever more elusive. Someday there's likely to be a scientific explanation for AIDS, and as with every great epidemic, people will look at the past and sigh, "If only it hadn't been for the politicsit was right under our noses." The "fag disease" has nothing to do with men desiring other men. In both plagues, transmission and proximityyour zip codehave had nothing to do with grace.
Sex is such an urgent message from our body that sometimes we call it our soul. Lust carries risks, sexual intimacy has consequences; it IS nature, not a gadget with a warranty. Nobody would go through it if the rewards were not so magnificent: the knowledge of one's body, the basic connection with another person. Without eroticism there is no love: even love between parent and child begins with such bliss, the end of the spectrum that begins at nurture and need. The most outstanding result of lust is new life, both in real births and in the birth of our creativity, and such events are nothing short of a sensation. Of course it's worth it, and what's more, what the puritans and their gong shows don't seem to realize is that it's inevitable. Their prudery is killing people, both metaphorically and literally, but they cannot mandate their vision of purity because it is, at its very core, an affront to our survival.
The ills and superstitions of our erotic poverty have been an enormous burden to bear. Double-talk and the bogeyman are the staples of public sexual debate. Someone is always trying to shut someone else up when it comes to sex, trying to keep it "out of the home," when it should be perfectly obvious that sex is home, chez nouswe don't need an outside line.
Now that technology spawns new litters of communication devices like rabbits, there are plenty of jobs and speaking opportunities for the censorship-minded. The latest burn-and-ban crusade takes place on the Internet, the marvel of millions of people gathered together on the same party line. What an opportunity to connect with a perfect stranger, to talk about perfect sex, to even have virtual sex on line! Yet if the censors have their wayour elected leaders, our school boards and administrators, our captains of media and entertainmentonly THEY will get to stay on the line, while everyone else is going to have their toe tagged if they get caught thinking and talking about something that somebody else doesn't like.
The critical issue here isn't SEX, the issue is ELITISM. Some people think they are morally and intellectually qualified to view everything and then decide what's appropriate for the peasants. They talk about protecting children, with "children" as a code word for anyone they consider their inferior.
Last year I read an article by Marcelle Lean, a woman who sat for six years on the Ontario Film Board, a privileged group of prominent citizens who check out every new film entering the province. After viewing each movie, this group has a discussion about the film's merits, whether it should be seen by other Canadians, and whether any warnings should be carried along with its release. Her story revealed that she is part of the most fascinating weekly movie discussion group in the country. She adores movies and she loves to discuss them with a similarly motivated group. Her board has intense debates about sex, violence, role models, and politicsand she considers herself a more enriched person because of it, even when her opinion doesn't carry the majority.
At some point, Lean had to wonder aloud what it would be like if everyone in Ontario were allowed to have the same freedom of discussion that she enjoys! But this was a moot point; the people of Ontario were being treated like children who cannot be allowed to make a meal for themselves because they'll surely burn down the house.
The same situation exists in the United States, although the chain of bureaucracy is different. We have the Motion Pictures Rating Board, which reigns like an imperial wizard over the fortunes of any film's potential distribution. The fear of what the MPRB will censor and consequently suppress is so omnipresent that moviemakers take it upon themselves to precensor their content, and actors take it upon themselves to precensor what roles they will play, and so on down the line, until all we are left with is the pabulum and toothless clichés that pass for entertainment.
Now ratings are coming to television, and we are to receive a little content-buster called a V-chip that has the capability to scan and filter out things as banal as whether an actress takes off her top. After all, we know what the sight of nipples can do to a civilized society! Such discriminations are exasperating. If I serve someone a remarkable meal, would it be appropriate for them to inquire whether I was wearing my underwear or not? My own daughter asks that question at mealtime occasionally, but she's only six, so it's good for a laugh; we forgive her for being preoccupied with what she thinks of as daring sexual knowledge. Little does she know that her perceptions would qualify her as a new ratings commissar.
Copyright © 1997 by Susie Bright
Meet the Author
Susie Bright is the editor of The Best American Erotica series and host of the weekly audio show In Bed with Susie Bright on Audible.com. She has been a columnist for Playboy and Salon, and has been profiled in USA TODAY, Los Angeles Times, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, and Vanity Fair, among other publications. An international lecturer on sexuality and feminism, she won the 2004 Writer of the Year Award at the Erotic Awards in London. Ms. Bright lives in Santa Cruz, California.
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