Sex with Shakespeare by Jillian Keenan


[This is the text of the book review from episode 42 of the show.]

This week’s book is Sex with Shakespeare: Here’s Much to Do with Pain but More with Love by Jillian Keenan.

I received this book as a gift from a listener who is a very kind, gentle Englishman. Thank you, friend. I loved it, just as you thought I would.

The listener of my show had mentioned Sex with Shakespeare and how it was about spanking and Shakespeare and he thought I would like it and a few weeks went by and I was listening to an episode of Why Are People Into That?! Tina Horn was interviewing Jillian Keenan about spanking and she mentioned she was writing a book about Shakespeare (I was listening to a quite old episode).

Horn also mentioned an article Keenan had written for Slate about whether or not BDSM was a sexual orientation.

They discussed this a bit. The premise is that, for some people, being kinky is as part of your identity as any other part of yourself. Some people it’s just a fun thing they do sometimes to spice things up, but for others, it’s immutable.

That would certainly explain the people (ahem) for whom kinky proclivities have been present long before they had words for it or even what we’d think of as budding sexuality. I was walking to my coffee shop, listening on my headphones and nearly stopped walking this concept (which seems rather obvious in retrospect) so blew my mind.

The ramifications for kink being an orientation, though, that would be something. Where they couldn’t take your kids away from you for being kinky anymore than they’d take your kids for being straight.

You’d start a new job and someone would find out you were single. ‘I should set you up with my brother!’
‘Oh, I’m an asexual lesbian service-submissive.’
‘Oh, he’s vanilla. Are you any good with leather, though, because these boots look like hell!’

So that was my introduction to Jillian Keenan. I liked her from the interview and this book is great.

Sex with Shakespeare is a memoir of the author working to accept her orientation as a spankophile. (She hates the word ‘spanko’ and thinks it sounds like a processed food product.) For, if ever someone was oriented towards kink, it is she.

Spanking is the only thing that interests her, sexually. It’s what she thinks about every day, and has done since she was very young. Single digits young.

But she’s not comfortable with this side of herself—she’s not, ‘I am kinky, hear me squeal.’ She tries to be vanilla and that’s not a great time.

But I’m getting ahead of everything.

The reason the book is titled Sex with Shakespeare is because Keenan is a Shakespearean scholar. The book is divided into five acts acts and within most acts are a few chapters, each named after a play. The author uses that particular play to examine whatever part of her life she’s talking about at that time.

It’s much more interesting, poetic and less-snooze-worthy than I’m making it sound.

One thing Keenan does that I sympathise with is she has conversations with various characters as though they’re actually there with her.

There’s a hilarious argument that nearly turns into a fist fight in the back of a cab between herself and about ten characters. Something that can only happen when everyone you’re arguing with is fictional. She calls Lady Macbeth ‘Purell’ at one point and I laughed out loud. Nice. Keenan is a funny lady.

I so identified with this habit because my entire life I’ve created characters—usually when writing—that are so real to me that I’ve had conversations with them in the car, or the store, (which I keep in my head) but then I’ve gone to open the car door for them. Then remembered I was alone and had to pretend I was putting my bag on the passenger’s seat so I didn’t look like I’d completely lost my mind.

Her characters recognise they are fictional and reference it occasionally, as do mine. Freakin’ self-aware imaginary friends. Mumble grumble.

This book is one way to learn about several of the plays—as she gives a plot synopsis of quite a few of them, as well as some rather interesting readings of certain plots. You don’t have to already know Shakespeare to read this—she explains everything.

I realised while reading this that I had neither read nor seen Hamlet. Somehow. I knew all the plot points and the big soliloquies and slings and arrows and all that, but I’ve never seen the thing.

Plays mentioned: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, Hamlet, Cymbeline, Love’s Labour Lost, Antony and Cleopatra, Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, As You Like It.

If nothing else, you will come out the other side knowing more about many plays than you did before. Probably. I don’t know what you know. She makes some compelling cases for certain female characters being masochists or submissives, though. It may change how you look at fusty old classics. Keenan also tells you about many of the sex jokes.

She didn’t cover my favourite, though. Titus Andronicus. Now that is a play. It’s the first tragedy and it’s as though the man thought he would get to write another so crammed everything in that one—human sacrifice, multiple mutilations, rape, cannibalism. Jeez, dude. Relax.

If I ever have Keenan on the show we’ll talk about spanking because oh yeah we will, but I want to know her thoughts on Tamora. Tamora is one of my favourite fictional characters ever. She could eat Lady Purell for breakfast and not belch. She’s my woman.

Let’s do some quotes.

We start out in Oman, where the author has taken some time out from university. She’s trying to rid herself of her impulses. She says:

In Notes from the Underground, Dostoevsky wrote: “There are things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself, and every decent man has a number of such things stored away in his mind.”

Look, lady, if you’re going to quote Dostoevsky at me in the first chapter I’m going to buy you a Valentine. Watch yourself. She continues:

That’s true. Here’s what I, for decades, was afraid to tell myself: I’m obsessed with spanking.
My fetish is my sexual orientation, or maybe just my orientation. It isn’t something I chose, or an experimental phase, or a “preference,” or a trend that I opted into. It’s the core of my sexuality, and an innate, unchosen, and lifelong center of my identity. … If I had to give up sex—all kinds of sex—or spanking, I’d flush sex like a drug smuggler ditching his stash in an airport bathroom. My fetish isn’t something I do. It’s something I am.

I’m not sure something can be a fetish if it’s an orientation. But, simultaneously, the definition of a fetish includes being unable to have sex without the fetish. However, if it replaces sex… It bears more thought.

After introducing us to why she’s writing the book and how entrenched her interest in spanking is (and how Helena and Demetrius are a couple of assholes in some kind of D/s weirdness in A Midsummer’s Night Dream), we’re off to the second act.

In which she talks about the way her fetish (I’ll use the word she does) was present from very early on:

In one mortifying childhood memory, I told a friend that I wanted to rewatch the paddling scene in Dead Poets Society three or four times because I was “curious about the sound editing” of that moment. I did lots of “book reports” and elementary school projects on corporal punishment. Many, many “book reports” on corporal punishment.

Oh god. I wrote all of my book reports every year on Edgar Allan Poe while wearing all black like some Lydia Deets freak before she was a thing and here’s Keenan and her reports on caning techniques from eighteenth-century Britain.

As mentioned in the earlier section of the episode, the author came to kink through the bedroom. She met someone and had her first spanking after nil proper negotiation. She observes:

If I’m honest, that first spanking, as cathartic as it was, was also a mild disappointment. It just didn’t quite match my fantasies. (Fetishes are nothing if not detailed to the point of absurdity.) It didn’t hurt as much as I wanted it to, for one. John, to his credit, had proceeded with caution—it was our first time, and it’s far better to hurt someone too little than to hurt her too much.


Then there’s also some nerdage. (Ha! Some!)

There is an artery in the pelvic region called the common iliac artery, which supplies blood to both the genitals and the butt; when blood rushes down that artery to one of the two regions, it also rushes to the other region and can cause a kind of blood engorgement.

Her husband (not the first-spanking guy) is a doctor and she learned this from him—she discusses it in the interview with Tina Horn.

First-spanking guy, whose name is John, introduced her to Russian literature saying:

“Promise me you’ll start with The Brothers Karamazov,” John told me. “You’ll love it.” And I did love it. Masochists love Russian novelists.

Oh. Perhaps I am a masochist. That was the first Russian novel I read as well, though Crime and Punishment is my favourite. Dammit.

In this chapter she points out something people really need to realise, which is that Romeo and Juliet is not a love story—it’s about a thirteen and seventeen year old who throw a hissy and several people die because they’re impulsive. Keenan calls it a ‘bloodbath’. Yeah.

She also calls Hamlet a douchebag. Yeah. From what I know of him—a waffling douchbag. He can’t make a decision so everyone dies. That’s not a spoiler—everyone knows that.

There is one piece of information that’s incorrect and I’m going to be that person. She says:

According to the Internet, figging began life as a disciplinary tactic in ancient Greece, and was widely used in Victorian England to dissuade spanking victims from clenching their butt cheeks during their punishments. (That’s probably apocryphal; I can’t bring myself to make the phone calls necessary to confirm the historical origins of anal ginger play.)

Everything I’ve heard or read says figging originated in Victorian England and involved inserted peeled ginger in older horses’ backsides so they’d appear spritely when at market. Which I’m sure worked quite well.

There are a few older poems about kink or same-sex love that I don’t have time to read, but they’ll go into a poetry for Patrons segment because they are naughty and HOT. People knew what kink was and gay people were.

In Act Four, we’re up to Macbeth, which I’m not superstitious so I’ll say if I want. She’s in Singapore now where they have very restrictive laws about LGBT people. The law is called 377A. There are still gay clubs, though. You just have to know how to find them and, apparently, the law is rarely enforced. She says this:

Whenever Singaporean friends tried to defend 377A, they always emphasized the fact that it is rarely enforced. “Homosexuals can do whatever they want,” a colleague once told me. “They just have to keep it private.” … I recognized the expression. “Privacy” is one of the most potent and insidious weapons a sexual majority can use against people with nonnormative sexual identities. “Privacy” sounds good. It sounds responsible and mature. But “privacy” is tied up with isolation and shame. It drives people underground. It puts people in danger.

Well, what does that sound like?! It’s cool. It’s cool. I’m fine.

She continues:

Sexuality doesn’t just appear at age eighteen. Like everyone else, kinky kids grow up with questions about our emerging sexualities. The difference is that, unlike people who grow up with normative sexual orientations, we can’t turn to pop culture for answers. There are almost no books, TV shows, or movies that show people like us, or relationships like the ones I craved, in a healthy or positive light. Our fear and shame doesn’t just come from negative messages; it comes from the lack of positive ones. When culture insists that people keep their “private” lives “private,” those who fall outside the norm fall through the cracks. We have no way to learn how to explore our fantasies safely. One thing we do have is the Internet. Sexual minorities feel “private” online. Predators feel “private” online, too.

We take risks because the isolation and emptiness of the alternative is worse.

This is the time in the story—after many, many years—she got around to Googling ‘spanking fetish’. It didn’t go well. Because there are always going to be Judgersons. I’m sorry she didn’t find Fet or a munch rather than a bunch of shaming dickweasels.

She again talks about the silence we impose upon ourselves:

The hardest part of “coming out kinky,” if such a thing even exists, isn’t coming out to other people. Beyond sexual or romantic partners, coming out to others isn’t even necessary. The hardest part is coming out to ourselves. Many never do. I didn’t share my obsession publicly in the hope that other fetishists would do the same. I did it in the hope that, despite our national epidemic of sexual repression, a few others might feel empowered to confess their desires to themselves.

Coming out to others make not be necessary, but if everyone who had a kink or fetish were to be out—if the truly vanilla people out there saw just how common kink was they wouldn’t be so threatened. They’d see we’re not shadowy monsters. The concept of coming out not being necessary falls into the ‘privacy’ idea.

There were many more quotes that were worthy but I don’t want to keep you here for another half hour.

It seemed the author was still struggling with her orientation—even though she’d written a book in her own name and published articles about spanking and everything. There was an undercurrent of … not shame so much, just… a difficulty with who she is. That is no judgment. I struggle with parts of myself all the time. At once, it clearly makes her so happy and answers a profound need, but she also seems torn by the possible motivations for her desire. Some people would say, ‘This shame proves you have something to be ashamed of,’ but it’s more—if someone receives the message that there’s something wrong with the very core of who they are withstanding that requires a diamond-based constitution.

Sex with Shakespeare is, at times, laugh out loud funny and at other times, poignant. Then other times heartbreaking. If you’re interested in spanking, Shakespeare or memoirs of kinky people, this is a must-read 5/5.

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