2016 (William Morrow/HarperCollins Publishers)
Earlier this month (Friday, 20 January 2023), various folks announced on social media platforms that it was International Fetish Day. Understood to be an opportunity to increase awareness and visibility of the BDSM community, I was intrigued to learn that the day originated as more of a local affair 15 years ago, and one with a very distinct political component to it.
When folks in the United Kingdom organized the first National Fetish Day in 2008, it wasn´t only about encouraging the fetish community to be more open about their sexuality; the primary purpose was to protest a new law criminalizing the possession of "extreme pornography." This new legislation arose in the aftermath of the horrific murder of Jane Longhurst, when her convicted killer, Graham Coutts, claimed during trial that he had a fetish for strangulation, and that Jane had died "accidentally" through erotic asphyxiation. And while no evidence was ever provided that the two had ever been lovers, the public quickly invented its own lurid narrative, about fetishists and other "deviants", essentially equating the practice of BDSM with nonconsensual violence, even murder. Spearheaded by the victim´s mother, Liz Longhurst, alongside other members of the British government, the new law originally hoped to ban all "extreme internet sites promoting violence against women in the name of sexual gratification". When that effort failed, the possession of "extreme pornographic material" became a crime in 2008, one punishable up to three years in prison.
Critics citing numerous studies in Denmark, Japan, and the US proving that the availability of pornography actually lessens the prevalence of violence against women fell on deaf ears. Public discourse surrounding BDSM continues to slip frequently into sensationalism, prejudice, and ignorance, with (mis)representations in popular culture only adding to the problem. The Jane Longhurst case, and the subsequent public response in the UK, reminds me of any number of other "moral panics" here in the US: from the PMRC Senate hearings about "rock porn" 35 years ago to our current cultural war against public libraries for carrying titles such as Gender Queer. In each of these cases and more, depictions of human sexuality becomes a powder keg, especially if one dares to enter the zone of such "taboo" and less-understood activities such as BDSM and fetishism.
In this regard, this memoir by Jillian Keenan is a welcome dose of intelligence, wit, and candor. As she explains frequently in Sex With Shakespeare, her sexual identity is a fetish. Keenan is into spanking (but cringes at the term "spanko"); like, really really into spanking. For her, as well as for others with this particular fetish, she doesn´t see spanking as a part of sexual intercourse, like "I like to get spanked while having vaginal intercourse"; rather, the spanking itself is the thing, is the primary and most complete experience of sexual gratification. Spanking is not "part" of what turns her on, or what she fantasizes about; it is what gets her off, far more than anything else. Keenan enjoys having her bare bottom spanked by men and women (though all of the relationships recounted in this book are heterosexual), but also objects made out of plastic, wood, and leather. While she has experienced more familiar sexual practices with various partners, Keenan would much rather consent to another adult hit her repeatedly on the ass, often to the point of bruising, and sometimes, even to the point of drawing blood. For her, even talking about certain acts related to spanking--the distinct kind of wordplay that gets Keenan into the proper headspace--can feel so potent and powerful that it feels equal to the act of the sexual punishment itself. At one point in her book, she describes how she had to break up with one man (who shares her fetish) but with whom she had never had physical contact with, because their conversation about spanking felt like a betrayal to her primary relationship with another man (who isn´t a fetishist) . Words matter.
Speaking of words: in addition to spanking, Keenan is into William Shakespeare. Like, really into his plays, his characters, his incredible use of language in articulating the human condition--including the sexual and the kinky. If there is a religion worshipping the Bard (as I am convinced there already is), she must be its high priestess. In Sex With Shakespeare, she aims to for more than detailing her personal narrative of describing her "coming out" as a spanking fetishist to her lovers and to the world (as well as, and most importantly, to herself); Keenan also aspires to link the evolution of her thought and sexual experiences with key characters and scenes from various Shakespearean plays. Each chapter of her memoir centers on specific people and scenes from one of the Bard´s best known plays--A Midsummer Night´s Dream, Othello, Hamlet, King Lear, and more--thus creating parallels between these poetic comedies and tragedies with her own contemporary life. Further, at some point within each chapter, typically during an epiphany about her sexuality and her sense of self, Keenan playfully dramatizes this moment through an imagined dialogue between her and Kate, Cleopatra, Ophelia, or some other figure frrom the Shakespearean canon. It´s a clever conceit, demonstrating once again the presence of language within her life and especially within her sexual identity and fetish.
For readers previously unfamiliar with the works of William Shakespeare, Keenan´s memoir will be a delightful and informed introduction; for those who know and enjoy his plays, her chapters provide both concise summaries of the the plays at hand, as well as references to a number of contemporary critics of these plays.
Some readers may feel like the memoir leans too heavily on Shakespeare, and the author´s passion for his work; some may wish there was more about her fetish, about spanking, about how she has navigated this in her intimate relationships. If that is you, I invite you to check out Keenan´s YouTube channel, which contains dozens of informative and fun videos. This book is, after all, subtitled "Here`s much to do with a pain, but more with love"--a riff on the famous line from the opening of Romeo and Juliet. In many ways, Sex With Shakespeare accomplishes her goal: she twins her loves together, creating an engaging memoir about a less-understood sexual expression and identity, as well as sharing some of her identification with and love for some of the greatest plays ever created.