Legendary sexpert Susie Bright and her 22 year old daughter Aretha Bright recently published “Mother/Daughter Sex Advice,” a collection of sex advice columns they wrote for Jezebel with an intergenerational perspective that is both hilarious and insightful. I had the chance to catch up with them about the book, and what’s its like to have an open dialogue about sex with a parent (especially when that parent is a celebrity sex writer!)
Ages: 52 (Susie) and 22 (Aretha)
Location: Santa Cruz, San Francisco
I recall seeing Susie speak about Big Sex Little Death, and saying that Aretha requested that Susie end the memoir at the point that Aretha was born. Why was this?
Aretha: I remember being miffed that there weren’t any Aretha “teenage years” included.
Susie: Ha! Well, at the time, you were very strict: “No blabbing about me, it’s my life.” I agreed; I think that once kids reach puberty, (upper grade school), it’s time to stop telling stories about them, it’s their life, not your little scrapbook. I did include a couple stories with Aretha’s permission, like the time she brought home the girl from school who thought she was pregnant.
What was the impetus for starting the Mother/Daughter advice column?
Susie: Jezebel asked me for an advice column. I was wising off to Aretha about some of the reader questions I got, and she came up with these reactions that made me pause: Whoa, she’s more on this generation’s level than I am. I tended to be “Exasperated Boomer Feminist Tells Everyone to DTMFA”– Aretha was so much more patient and sympathetic. These girls were trying to cope with guys who are usually five years behind them emotionally. Welcome to high school.
I think a lot of people think that it’s inappropriate for parents and their children to have an open dialogue about sex as adults. Clearly you two have appropriate boundaries in place, so why do you think this is still so taboo in our culture?
Aretha: Where do you even begin? There’s so many reasons.
Susie: For me, those taboos primarily had to do with being raised in a religion, Roman Catholic, that condemned sexuality outside of procreation, that promoted women’s subjugation. And being Irish Catholic, you just never talk about anything emotional or sensitive anyway— everything is done with teasing and dissing.
There’s been a lot written for parents about how to talk to young children and teens about sex, but not about how to discuss sex with an adult child as a peer. What advice do you have for parents and their adult children to have healthy, open discussions about sex?
Aretha: The first step to having healthy, open discussions about sex w/ your adult children is to have established a history of age-appropriate discussions w/ them throughout their childhood and adolescence.
Susie: I think it’s not just you and your parents, all alone, it’s your whole world, your peers, your parents peers, etc. If you live in a lively community with all kinds of different people in it, you’re going to have that richness. If you live in a fishbowl, it’s hell.
Aretha, did you tell Susie when you became sexually active, and how did she respond? Were you comfortable talking to your mother about becoming sexually active as a teen? My mom literally had a psychic dream about me losing my virginity the day it happened, but I didn’t admit that her instincts were on until years later. I’ve observed a lot of otherwise sex-positive parents can become uptight when it’s actually their kid beginning to have sex.
Aretha: I think my mom has always been concerned that whoever I was with treated me well, but she’s never been uptight about me having sex. She didn’t “have a cow” when I lost my virginity. When I told her, she was calm and asked if I used protection (I did).
One of the best parts of your column was getting a perspective on sex from two generations of women. Are there any areas where you have strongly divergent attitudes towards sex?
Susie: Aretha is getting married! I never have. Call me a freakin’ hippie.
Were there any questions you found difficult to answer? Were there any you particularly enjoyed answering?
Aretha: Oh, we mostly rolled on the bed cracking up and then got serious when it came to write the final draft. The hardest ones are when someone’s writing you, who’s obviously in serious pain, and you know they need some loving help, STAT!
Do you feel like working on this column together brought you closer? Did you learn some new things about and from each other?
Susie: Absolutely. I think you see that on the page, we published our surprised reactions to each other! It was great for me as a writer, to see Aretha come of age, publishing-wise. Very PROUD!
Aretha: I can’t believe my mom has been answering these crazy questions all these years.
Susie, if your 19 year old self met 19 year old Aretha (the age Aretha was when the advice column began), do you think you’d be friends? (like that old Francine Pascal novel “Hanging out with Cici”…)
Susie: Oh yes. We would have realized we have the same sense of humor and affection. We’re both really loyal. I would have been scared of her at first b/c she’s so pretty. Maybe she would have thought I was a bit of a loudmouth. We’re both really bossy so there might have been a few tiffs. Some things never change!