By Jillian Keenan (New York: Harper Collins, 2016)
"What you blush to tell….is the most important part of the whole matter." Ars Amatoria
"If love be rough with you, be rough with love." Romeo & Juliet
Full disclosure: I checked this book out of the library because of its title. I figured, it could be awful but, with that title, I had to give it a chance.
It got off to a bad start: I was annoyed by the author's trigger warning -- until I read her snarky send-up of the concept.
The book starts, implausibly, in Oman, where the author is taking a gap year from Stanford to find herself, although, at first, she thinks she is there to escape herself. Until she finds herself face-to-face with a goat, as one does, and thinks: "If I were going to walk by myself, at night, into the middle of the desert, wearing cartoon duck pajamas and an abaya, just to scream the name of one of Shakespeare's least lovable male characters, it might as well be on the same day that I tried to find spanking porn in an Islamic public Internet café. Go big or go home, right?" (pp. 6-7)
Keenan is an insightful and observant scholar of Shakespeare, with a unique take on his work. She captures the evergreen appeal of the Bard: the sensuality in the rhythm of his words. "Wordplay is sex play" (p. 77) is my mantra, which could explain why I like Shakespeare. But this book isn't really about Shakespeare; it's about coming to terms with having a fetish.
The term "fetish" is often used loosely to mean anything you like, even in a non-sexual way. For example, I like magazines and subscribe to an obscene number of them, so I joke that I have a "magazine fetish". But a true fetish is something its victim cannot get off without. It is not a part of their sexuality; it displaces their sexuality, and Keenan worried it might disrupt intimacy in other ways, too: "My fetish makes gender irrelevant. It makes conventional physical attractiveness irrelevant. It makes even sex irrelevant. Does it make love irrelevant, too?" (p. 276) She does a stark and sobering job of explaining how a fetish is not a choice, it is an obsession. There is nothing casual about a fetish and it is extremely limiting. Fetishes are generally a turn-off for those who do not share them. The Internet has enabled the author to find fellow fetishists, and willing partners to indulge her kink, but absent the Internet she could have been suicidally-depressed or celibate. It sounds funny that she needs to be spanked, but it isn't humorous to her. I am guilty of using the term "fetish" as loosely as anyone but I am grateful not to have any true fetishes, nor would I wish one on anyone.
Keenan's fetish troubled her because of its anti-feminist connotations and connections to domestic violence. The book chronicles her coming to terms, and finding partners, including, eventually, a husband, who indulge her kink. Fetishes are not usually reciprocal; she had no use for a partner who also liked being spanked. She needed to find people who liked to spank and who were otherwise suitable partners. It's hard enough to find someone compatible without the added complication of a fetish. She could not be happy with a great guy who was perfect in every way but took no pleasure in applying her hairbrush to her behind, nor with a jerk who was great with a paddle.
Keenan never fully psychoanalyses where her fetish originates. She avoids pointing the finger at her volatile, physically and emotionally abusive mother. ("I had understood ever since I was nine….that I wasn't entitled to anything." p. 200) She poignantly opines that we learn how to love from observing our parents – something she was unable to do. She seeks love in the normal way that is simply part of human nature ("Love is dangerous, but I think that's how love has to be sometimes. Love is a miracle." p. 152), but she needs her kink catered to because it is "the only thing that could free me from the confines of my neurotic, self-conscious, insecure mind and release me into my body" (p. 77). If I could apply a little amateur psychoanalysis to her, I'd note that people who are into BDSM often have something in their past that has caused them to disconnect to survive. They have difficulty with feelings because they have become so good at blocking them out for self-protection. Pain is the one thing that breaks through. This is why people cut themselves. (If you've seen the movie Secretary you know that the main character is scarred from cutting herself.) "Pain is not the opposite of pleasure. The opposite of pleasure is numbness." (p. 102) BDSM is self-medication; it's a coping strategy.
I used to write an advice column in the persona of a dominatrix. It was just a lark but I received genuine pleas for advice from people like Keenan, who wanted to hurt themselves or who wanted other people to hurt them. I made myself despised in the BDSM world because, whilst these people wanted to know how to find someone who would tie them up & carve knife art into their backs, I advised them to seek therapy to deal with the underlying issues. The mentality in the BDSM world is that you can't control what turns you on; it's formed in early childhood and it's fixed and immutable by adulthood, and therapy doesn't always work so it's as healthy a coping mechanism as any. I don't agree that it's always healthy. I'm open to being proven wrong, and I don't see anything unhealthy about indulging in the lighter end of the BDSM spectrum with your partner if it appeals to both of you (I've applied my hand to someone's ass on a few occasions – it makes a satisfying sound when you do it right), but I don't think self-medicating with hardcore BDSM is any healthier than using drugs or alcohol for the same purpose.
This book is about the author's journey to acceptance of her fetish, and how Shakespeare helped. She starts off with the obvious point that we can't view Shakespeare's plays through the lens of modern sensibilities. Demetrius telling Helena she is foolish to risk her honour by meeting him alone is a rape threat; Oberon giving Titania the potion to make her fall for Bottom ("of course that's his name" p. 23) is tantamount to using a date rape drug. (Just imagine applying this same exercise to opera – Tristan and Isolde would fill a book on its own.)
Keenan sees a solution to the problem of consent in Shakespeare: What if the characters are kinky? What if Helena isn't pathetic and self-debasing, but a sexual masochist? What if, given their lack of power, Shakespeare's women are topping from the bottom – e.g., What if Kate's shrewishness is a deliberate protection from her father marrying her off against her will? "Characters," she notes, "are like clouds: we all see different animals hidden in them." (p. 21)
Using Shakespeare as a medium to work through her issues was a brilliant move. She stumbled on it after a few false starts: "When beginning to explore a divergent sexual identity, do not turn to French cinema." (p. 38) Good advice. But why no Much Ado amongst the featured plays? You could hardly pick a more appropriate one for expounding on honour, shaming, and issues of dominance/submission between the sexes. Beatrice, to no-one's surprise, is my favourite Shakespearean character and the delicious wordplay of her sparring with Benedick is perfect for this.
As I said, I am grateful not to suffer the limitations of any fetish (no, ice cream doesn't count). The closest I came to observing one was back when City Boy and I attended play parties. We were monogamous, so we went for the voyeurism and exhibitionism, not to interact with anyone. But I dressed as a dom and one night a young Australian man asked if he could lick my boots. I consented, and quickly regretted it. He knelt at my feet and licked with a cringe-inducing self-debasement, paying special attention to the soles. Considering this was NYC, and I'd taken the subway there, I found this nauseating. He did this for a long time, clearly getting off on it, whilst I remained transfixed in fascinated horror. City Boy, missing my obvious disgust, accused me of enjoying it but I would have had no qualms about admitting it if I had. Owning up to enjoying a dominant role is generally easier than admitting to submissive tendencies; except in extreme form, it doesn't carry the same baggage, as Keenan discovered. I don't have a submissive bone in my body but, had I any submissive tendencies, I'd face the same feminist barriers to admitting them as the author and I doubt I'd have her courage to go public.
There are few things less appealing than other people's fetishes but, if "Sex with Shakespeare" is any guide, that does not necessarily apply to books about fetishes. I recommend this one to Shakespearean scholars and to anyone exploring their sexuality. Even if you don't have a specific fetish like Keenan, it takes a great deal of vulnerability, of courage to risk rejection and ridicule, to share what turns you on. You can't achieve true intimacy without vulnerability so some people simply live without it. The author stood up to her fears -- or, should I say, bent over – it stung a bit and raised a few welts of self-doubt, but she wound up rosy-cheeked and happy in the end.