Susie Bright, Good Vibrations and the Politics of Sexual Representation

by Lynn Comella, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, US.

Susie Bright was not yet the nationally known author and trailblazer Susie Sexpert when she walked through the doors of Good Vibrations for the first time in 1980. She was 22 years old and lived around the corner from the store at Twentieth and Valencia Streets. Bright remembers that initial visit vividly. Honey Lee Cottrell, who would later become Bright’s lover and collaborator, was working behind the counter. Cottrell, a butch lesbian with prematurely greying hair, was opening envelopes that contained a single quarter – the amount that the store’s founder, Joani Blank, was charging at the time for an itemised list of vibrators that doubled as the company’s mail-order catalogue. [1]

Bright watched curiously as Cottrell opened the envelopes and stacked the quarters, one on top of the other, next to the cash register. ‘Why don’t you just put them in the register?’ she finally asked. ‘We don’t know how to record it’, Cottrell replied. ‘It’s not a sale and no one can figure out what it is, so we just pile them up on the side and Joani says she will deal with it later’.

There was a quaintness, and even quirkiness, about Good Vibrations in 1980. A large wooden and glass case housed Blank’s collection of antique vibrators, taking up most of the space in the tiny store. The product inventory was still very small and included only a few different models of vibrators and a small selection of books. ‘I loved the attitude and the point of it all’, Bright recollected. ‘And I loved the idea that you could just pick up a vibrator and hold it outside of your jeans for one second and know how you felt about it. You could break through all this apprehension and all this cerebral bullshit that people have about good/bad/I don’t like it’. [2]

Bright bought her first vibrator that day. She went home and, according to her, had her ‘own personal revolution’. For Bright, using a vibrator was a revelation, a ‘visceral leap in consciousness’ that fundamentally changed how she thought about her body. Until then, she hadn’t really understood why anyone would need to buy anything, or use anything mechanical, to have an orgasm. It had never occurred to her to use anything other than her fingers to masturbate (although admittedly it seemed to take forever for her to have an orgasm that way). Vibrators changed that. With a vibrator, Bright was able to have an orgasm in less than thirty seconds – ‘just like any teenage boy’.

‘It was so funny’, she told me. ‘I just wouldn’t come out of my room. I had vibrator races for about three days [to see how fast I could come]’. [3]

Not long afterward, Bright learned that Good Vibrations had an opening for a sales clerk. Back in San Francisco after an aborted trip to Alaska, where she had gone to make money fishing, Bright was sleeping in a storefront on Valencia Street and needed a job. She had two job interviews scheduled, she recalled: one was at the Golden Gate Bridge for work putting up traffic cones to mark the lanes, and the other was at Good Vibrations.

Bright was completely captivated by the thought of working at the feminist vibrator store. She recalled that Blank explicitly told her during her interview, ‘I don’t care if you don’t sell a damn thing all day. This is about education and it’s about providing an alternative place for women to explore their sexual self-interests’. Despite their 20-year age difference, Bright felt she had met a kindred spirit. ‘I just loved [Blank’s] zeal and her determination. And she was charming and charismatic, and a lot of the things she said about how to talk to people and answer their questions were just the kinds of things I would say. We just clicked, and I know it was fun for her to meet a young woman who just “got it” so delightfully’. [4]

Bright got the job not because she was a retail guru, she explained, but because she so thoroughly understood Blank’s vision for the store.

‘I knew that [Good Vibrations] wasn’t just some store, the same way that Modern Times wasn’t just a commie-anarchist bookstore. They had a bigger purpose’, Bright said. ‘And the fact that they were a retailer was secondary to that’. [5]

Blank likely saw in Bright someone who shared her passion and political vision. Bright had come of age at the height of the women’s liberation movement in the early 1970s. Feminism, she would later tell me, was ‘her mother’s milk’. She cut her teeth on Marxism while still in high school and spent much of her teenage years as part of the American New Left, where she was active in labour and community organising. She participated in feminist consciousness-raising groups and speculum-wielding women’s self-help collectives where performing cervical self-exams to learn about their bodies was de rigueur. [6] Along with her friends, she took over a janitor’s closet in high school and turned it into a birth control centre. ‘I thought of myself as an activist and, very earnestly, a revolutionary’, Bright explained. [7]

Fig_2.3
Susie Bright. 1992. Photo credit: Phyllis Christopher.

By the time Bright began selling vibrators at Good Vibrations in the early 1980s, debates about pornography, homosexuality, and AIDS were reaching a fever pitch in the Reagan-era culture wars, and Bright soon found herself in the middle of heated feminist battles regarding sexual expression and representation.

In 1976, Bay Area feminists founded Women against Violence in Pornography and Media (WAVPM), one of the first organisations in the country dedicated to fighting media sexism and violence, which quickly narrowed its focus to pornography. The group staged anti-pornography protests outside the Mitchell Brothers Theater in San Francisco, a venue known for live sex shows; it also held regular strolls through North Beach, drawing attention to the massage parlours, adult stores, and porn theatres that dotted the neighbourhood. The idea that pornography was a tool of patriarchal oppression and gender discrimination was gaining traction among feminists, and calls for legal remedies to mitigate what some saw as its harmful social effects were mounting. [8]

The ascendency of anti-pornography feminism and its emphasis on sexual violence and danger meant that by the early 1980s there was dwindling cultural space for feminists to talk about – and indeed champion – the more positive and life-affirming aspects of sexuality and pleasure. And it wasn’t just pornography that was in the line of feminist fire. As the anti-pornography campaign gained steam, both in the Bay Area and elsewhere, a hierarchy of good and bad sexual expression was also being constructed. At a time when the New Right was flexing its conservative muscles, the stakes regarding sexuality, especially for women and sexual minorities, could not have been higher.

[…]

Even the dildo was a source of feminist debate and consternation, especially among lesbians. According to Heather Findlay, ‘No other sex toy has generated the quantity and quality of discussion among mostly urban, middle-class white lesbians as the dildo’. [9] Some lesbians viewed dildos as ‘male-identified’ and thus fundamentally incompatible with ‘women-identified’ sexuality. As one recalled in an essay in the book Coming to Power, dildos were a ‘no-no’ because they were ‘men’s ideas about what lesbians did’. [10] Using them, or fantasising about using them, made you a Bad Lesbian. Feminist sex educators had likely and unwittingly contributed to the dildo’s image problem by working so hard in the 1970s to decentre the idea that the vaginal orgasm was the be-all and end-all of female sexuality. Blank, who initially didn’t sell dildos at Good Vibrations, noted,

‘[My view on dildos] wasn’t so much anti-dildo as it was pro-clit’. [11]

On Our Backs (OOB), a sex magazine for the ‘adventurous lesbian’, offered a radical, pro-sex counterpoint to the anti-pornography, anti-BDSM, and anti-dildo feminist factions, reclaiming these things as symbols of lesbian lust and defiance. (Indeed, the publication’s title was a cheeky spin on the radical feminist newspaper off our backs.) ‘We made a conscious decision to express the political nature of sex in an entertainment format in an effort to put the fun and diversity back into lesbian life’, OOB publishers Debi Sundahl and Nan Kinney wrote in an editors’ note. [12]

Bright was working as the manager at Good Vibrations when she helped start OOB in 1984. The magazine featured pictorials of lesbians with dildos and strap-ons, dyke leather daddies and their femmes, floggers and nipple clamps, threesomes, vibrators, and public sex – images that defied stereotypes about the kind of sex lesbians were having. Bright also penned a regular column for the magazine called ‘Toys for Us’. Part lesbian Consumer Reports and part Dear Abby, the column discussed various issues affecting lesbian lives, from AIDS and safe sex to dildos and vaginal fisting. [13] In the magazine’s inaugural issue, Bright chimed in on the great dildo debates and offered a particularly memorable bon mot when she wrote that ‘penetration is only as heterosexual as kissing’. [14]

on_our_backs_cover_spring_1985
An early cover of On Our Backs. Photo credit: Honey Lee Cottrell. Models: Raven and Cassie.

Bright’s work on behalf of OOB in the 1980s, as both a writer and an editor, was an important node of articulation between Good Vibrations and the wider sex-positive community. On Our Backs took its readers into the heart of San Francisco’s lesbian and queer sex scene, forming an imagined sexual community among lesbians in far-flung places. As Shar Rednour, who worked at OOB and its sister company Fatale Media in the 1990s, recalled,

‘The reality of lesbian sex – what it actually looked like and the pleasure it could produce – were simply not images that were readily available or accessible in the 1980s and 1990s’. [15]

The magazine’s features, fiction, columns, and pictorials were printed alongside ads for Good Vibrations, Stormy Leather, the Lusty Lady – a well-known San Francisco peep show – and Fatale Video. The magazine helped create a lesbian market and distribution network, and connected readers to many of San Francisco’s most culturally influential sex businesses. At the height of the feminist sex wars, OOB was a sex-positive megaphone that didn’t shy away from frank discussions and portrayals of lesbian sex or sexual consumerism.

[…]

Bright’s contributions to Good Vibrations throughout the 1980s were considerable. She wrote most of the copy for the company’s first mail-order catalogue, a little booklet with illustrations by Marcia Quackenbush that was published in 1985. The catalogue was jam-packed with information about the differences between electric versus battery-operated vibrators, notes about the G-spot, dildo harnesses, and lubricants, and a list of books from Down There Press. It was a far cry from the company’s previous single-sheet mail-order form. Together with Blank, she created the Herotica book series featuring erotic fiction from a female point of view, which Bright would later describe as another ‘shot across the bow’. She also convinced Blank to begin carrying explicit erotic videos and encouraged her to add quality dildos to the store’s product mix. In many ways, Bright carried Blank along with her into a new era of feminist sexual politics.

[…]

During Bright’s time at Good Vibrations, where she worked and managed the store from 1981 to 1986, she saw the business’s profit margins grow and its vibrator and dildo inventory expand to include more innovative, thoughtful, and colourful designs. Bright’s strength, she readily admitted, was not the business end of managing a retail store, like tracking inventory; but she excelled at talking to people about sex and was good at selling vibrators. ‘I knew what we grossed every day, but I had no idea what that looked like over time. What was the overhead? What was the profit? I couldn’t tell you. I didn’t inquire’. Bright did not inquire, in part, because the business’s emphasis was education, not sales. ‘I considered myself running a sex education kiosk. I didn’t have to sell anything, right?’ [16]

Notes

[1] Susie Bright. 2010. Telephone interview with author. June 18.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Susie Bright. 2011. Big Sex Little Death: A Memoir. Berkeley: Seal.

[7] Bright, interview.

[8] For a detailed history of anti-pornography feminist organising, see Carolyn Bronstein, Battling Pornography: The American Feminist Anti-pornography Movement, 1976–1986 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[9] Heather Findlay. 1992. ‘Freud’s “Fetishism” and the Lesbian Dildo Debates’. Feminist Studies 18 (3), 563.

[10] Sophie Schmuckler. 1981. ‘How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Dildo’. In Samois, ed. Coming to Power: Writings and Graphics on Lesbian S/M. Boston: Alyson, 102.

[11] As quoted in Jill Nagle. 1998. ‘My Big Fat Dick’. On Our Backs. June–July, 29.

[12] Debi Sundahl and Nan Kinney. 1989. ‘From the Desk of the Publishers’. On Our Backs. September–October, 4.

[13] As described by Susie Bright. 1990. Susie Sexpert’s Lesbian Sex World. Pittsburgh: Cleis, 16.

[14] Susie Bright. 1984. ‘Toys for Us’. On Our Backs. Summer, 13.

[15] Shar Rednour and Jackie Strano. 2015. ‘Steamy, Hot, and Political: Creating Radical Dyke Porn’. In Lynn Comella and Shira Tarrant, eds. New Views on Pornography: Sexuality, Politics, and the Law. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 176.

[16] Bright, interview.

Acknowledgements

This article is an excerpt from Lynn Comella. 2017. Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure. Durham and London: Duke University Press. To purchase Lynn’s book with a 30% discount, visit the Duke University Press website and enter the code E17COMEL (code valid from 21 August 2017).  

Copyright Duke University Press 2017.

Contributor

lynn_comella_by_krystal_ramirez_landscape

Lynn Comella, Ph.D. is an associate professor of gender and sexuality studies in the department of interdisciplinary, gender, and ethnic studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. An expert on the adult entertainment industry, her research explores a number of broad sociological themes, including the relationship between sexual politics and consumer culture. She is the author of Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure (2017) and co-editor of New Views on Pornography: Sexuality, Politics, and the Law (2015).

lynn.comella@unlv.edu / @LynnComella

Photo credit: Krystal Ramirez.

5 thoughts on “Susie Bright, Good Vibrations and the Politics of Sexual Representation

  1. Thank you for the excerpt! I knew you’d like a credit for the photograph of the Spring 1985 On Our Backs cover: Photograph by Honey Lee Cottrell. Models: Raven and Cassie. We were experimenting with a “LIFE” magazine design inspiration. You can view/research Honey Lee’s archives and the OOB archives at the Cornell Library Human Sexuality Collection. Thank you, Lynn. I wish everyone else in the story was alive to read this, but I am very lucky I am!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. It’s great to hear about the pioneering work of Joani Blank, and whose spirit and energy has truly touched many and helped change the world. I was saddened to hear that she passed away last year. It’s gratifying to know that her work continues – to helping make the world more loving by helping people to better love themselves. Besides starting Good Vibrations, she did a lot of work with groups like HAI (Human Awareness Institute) to help people learn how to open their hearts.
    Thanks for helping keep the flame alive.
    Vincent

    Like

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