Sharing A Fetish, With Help From Shakespeare

Image: Courtesy of Harper Collins.
If you: have ever been either bewitched or bewildered by Shakespeare's work; are kinky or have a fetish, or are merely curious about sexuality; or enjoy personal essay as well as magical realism and literary criticism, then Jillian Keenan's Sex with Shakespeare: Here's Much to Do with Pain, but More with Love is for you.

Out today, the book weaves together Keenan’s account of grappling with childhood abuse and her sexual identity, her imagined encounters with Shakespearian characters, and analyses of 14 of the Bard’s plays for a memoir that cannot be described with that label alone. As Keenan — who first wrote publicly about her spanking fetish in a 2012 installation of The New York Times' Modern Love column — builds toward the book’s core revelations about kink, trauma, and love, her company includes the impatient Lady Macbeth, straight-talking Cleopatra, reticent Cordelia, and, of course, Keenan’s real-life friends, family, and partners. We spoke with Keenan about the book, how to reveal a fetish, and why The Merchant of Venice's Portia is her professional inspiration.

Read on for the interview, then peek at an excerpt of the book.
What motivated you to write this book?
"It is the book that I needed to read when I was 12 years old and 15 years old and 20 years old and 25 years old. I needed some book that, first, would reassure me that I wasn’t alone, and that there was nothing unique about my fetish, that I wasn’t the only one who was struggling with this identity... There are people right now who need this book, and I hope that this can give them the reassurance that they need."

Tell me about the role that Shakespeare plays in your life.
"I’ve been thinking about Shakespeare every day since I was 15 years old and fell in love with the character of Caliban. Shakespeare is still with me… I‘ve been thinking a lot about Portia from The Merchant of Venice, a female character who has a very climactic moment professionally as an attorney and succeeds in brilliant fashion — so of course, I’ve been looking to her as an example of someone who is at a critical point in her career, which I believe I am too, and pulls it off with grace and confidence. I’ve also been thinking a lot about Lady Macbeth, who says 'Screw your courage to the sticking place,' because that’s a line that I’ve had to remind myself of pretty much every hour of every day for the last week or so."
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I needed some book that would reassure me that I wasn’t alone, that I wasn’t the only one who was struggling with this identity

What has the response to Sex with Shakespeare been like so far?
"I think any work of this kind is going to solicit a very mixed response. I’m grateful to anyone who takes the time to read my book, but I would also say that I wrote this book for two groups of people: The first is kinky fetishists who share my fetish, who share my identity and have never seen that point on the human spectrum reflected in a healthy and non-stigmatizing and honest way in literature, film, or television… The second group is survivors of child abuse, and the letters that I get from them always break my heart, and I am grateful for those, too.

"There's no national conversation happening about child abuse, whatsoever… Children don’t have Twitter accounts, and they don’t have money, and they don’t have political clout, and they don’t have votes, so this conversation just isn’t happening. If something I write can, in any small way, make survivors of child abuse feel like someone has not forgotten about their pain, that would certainly be very gratifying to me... As I navigate the wide variety of responses that early copies of my book have begun to solicit, I just keep reminding myself to not forget whom I wrote this book for, and elevate their voices over the rest of the noise."

For me, one of the most powerful parts of the book is the arc of revealing your spanking fetish to your partner, David. What's your advice on how to tell your partner about your kink or fetish, especially if you're in a relationship with someone vanilla?
"The truth is, it is extremely difficult. If the relationship is based on all the cliché things we’ve heard a million times it should be based on, like trust and honesty and communication, then it can work, but it takes time and energy from both people involved. It takes hours and weeks and months and years of conversation. Ultimately, in my experience, it can be worth it. I would tell people in this situation that I empathize with them 100%, and to not get discouraged if it’s not as simple as just outing yourself to your partner. There was definitely a period when I thought that by writing the first article I wrote for The New York Times, the article where I outed myself, I thought, Okay, that’s done, I’ve outed myself, so everything is solved, but that was not the case at all. Outing yourself is only the beginning: That’s where the work starts, not where it ends."
Photo: Courtesy of Marion Ettlinger.
What do you hope that even people who aren't kinky or haven't experienced abuse will take away from the book?
"Even among sex-positive people and even among open-minded, nonjudgmental people, there are a lot of misconceptions about what it is to have a fetish — there’s a lot of misconceptions about BDSM. Certainly, there’s this widespread idea that anyone who falls under this BDSM umbrella is therefore interested in everything, that we all wear black leather, and we’re all into suspension, and we’re all interested in bondage, and we’re all interested in the same kinds of spankings — that we all eat from every station at the buffet.

"But that’s not true, and I think, as I’ve written in the book and elsewhere, the problem with that misconception is that it kind of erases fetishists. In recent years, I’ve started using the term 'kink' and the term 'fetish' differently. I’ve started using the term 'kink' to describe people who are generally kinky and into a lot of different things, and I’ve since decided that 'kink' is something that can be discovered later in life. A person can wake up at age 40 or 50 or 60 and say, 'I want to try something new with my partner or partners' and they can experiment with kink and fall in love with it... It’s not necessarily something they identify as innate, although it can be. A fetish is never chosen — you don’t wake up one day and think, You know what would be fun? I’m going to choose to be obsessed with something every second of every day for my entire life.
"A few of my vanilla friends told me that even though they don’t share my fetish, the book did inspire them to talk with their partners more openly about other details of their sexuality. Everyone has things that they are ashamed to share with their partners, or afraid to share. You don’t have to have a fetish to feel ashamed, so I would hope that anyone who reads this book would come away from this book feeling that there is really nothing to be ashamed of."

Any parting shots?
"Although this book does touch on some very serious themes — pain and stigma and isolation and loneliness and abuse — I really want to emphasize that I want this to be a joyful book and a joyful reading experience for people. Fetish is a joyful thing; it’s a joyful part of my life. Shakespeare is certainly joyful and a joyful part of my life. Maybe the most important message that I want to send is the joy of books and the joy of our bodies — both in our heads and in the rest of our bodies, life can be a really joyful, fulfilling experience that doesn’t need to be bogged down with shame."
From Sex with Shakespeare: Here's Much to Do with Pain, but More with Love
Sex is one thing.

The idea of sex is something else.

"This is hard to show you," I told David as I slid my laptop, with its essay full of secrets, across the bed. "Also, I’m worried that my paragraph structure is confusing."

David began to read.

I sat next to him. This was uncomfortable. I didn’t want to read over his shoulder, but I wasn’t sure what else to do with my eyes. I looked at David. His Adam’s apple moved. He had swallowed as he read.

I climbed off the bed and walked into the bathroom. I splashed water onto my face. Just as I had done years earlier, in Spain, before I bent over to inhale that first line of cocaine, I glanced up at the mirror above the sink.

Acts of self-destruction are supposed to follow a dramatic moment with a mirror, right?

I turned off the faucet.

Back in the bedroom, David had finished reading. I leaned against the door frame.

"So," I said.

David climbed off the mattress and wrapped his arms around my waist. I stiffened. "I love you," he said. "You’re so brave." He paused for a second, then added: "And there’s nothing wrong with your paragraph structure."

Weeks later, when that essay (with David’s encouragement) appeared in the Modern Love column of the New York Times, it ended with those words. The response was overwhelming. Hundreds of emails poured into my inbox from people around the world. I heard from people of all ages and backgrounds, with stories, questions, and fears just like mine. I got an email from a woman close to my age who wrote to me from her refugee camp to ask how she should tell her boyfriend, also a refugee, about her own spanking fetish. (Before her country fell into brutal civil war, she had been an English teacher, which is why she was able to read my New York Times article.) We struck up a friendship.

"I’m always happy to talk about spanking," I wrote to her one day. "But I feel embarrassed to focus on that when you face such bigger problems."

"I have many problems in my life, yes," she replied. "But it is the loneliness that is the worst. It is the feeling I am broken." Her words took my breath away.
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