Jessica Gross | Longreads | April 2016 | 23 minutes (5,803 words)
In 2012, Jillian Keenan came out as a spanking fetishist in a “Modern Love” essay for The New York Times. It marked the beginning of not only her involvement in the spanking community, but her freelance career as well. Since then, Keenan has written a series of controversial polemics—a case for legalizing polyamory, an argument that spanking is a sex act—as well as reported from countries across the globe.
In her new memoir, Sex With Shakespeare, Keenan examines her own relationships with both spanking and love through the lens of her longstanding obsession with Shakespeare. His characters, who appear in dialogue with Keenan, have as forceful a presence as the people in her life. I visited Keenan at her home in New York City, where we spoke about the difference between fetish and kink, her view of her fetish as innate, and her firm belief that spanking children is an act of sexual abuse.
This book struck me as such an empathetic text. I feel like sometimes, in our current cultural climate, there’s a lot of anger at and dismissal of anyone who’s ignorant about a topic, and I really appreciated that you treated the reader who didn’t know anything about fetishes with a lot of respect. Was that something you thought about as you were writing it? Or is that just how you feel, and it came out naturally as you were writing?
It’s not something I thought of consciously, but I’m thrilled to hear that’s what came across. I was conscious of the fact that, in my opinion, there’s nothing unique about the experience of feeling isolated. Whereas maybe most people don’t feel ashamed or isolated because they think about spanking all the time, I think that probably everyone has something in their lives—whether in their sex lives or in another part of their lives—that they feel insecure about or ashamed of or fearful about.
I didn’t want to act as if the experience of feeling lonely and ashamed is something that I needed to explain to people. I think that everyone already knows what that feels like. I was just trying to tell a story about the specifics of why I felt that way, and how I worked through it to the extent that I did.
Right. It also feels like part of your vision here is, “It’s okay that you don’t know, so I’m going to explain what a fetish is.” You offer an explanation of terms very early in the book, which is really inclusive. It’s as if this book is designed for people who don’t necessarily know anything about fetishes or BDSM or kink.
Or even for people within the communities. I think that if we had 10 members of the BDSM communities in this apartment, we’d probably have 11 different definitions for the terms that I use. I felt like I had to clarify what the terms mean to me, and the sense in which I would use them in the book, if only to have all my cards on the table. So I didn’t include this description only for people who might know nothing, but also for people who have very strong opinions about this. Because no two people have the same experience, of course.
One thing that surprised me, as someone who is outside of this community and doesn’t know a tremendous amount about it, was that, as you describe it, spanking is the paramount activity to you, whereas sex is kind of take-it-or-leave-it in comparison.
I think that one of the most common misconceptions about fetish is that it is merely a side dish to sex, and that sex is the ultimate goal. And while that may be true for some people, in the spanking fetishist community, the spanko community, most people who share my fetish feel the same way I do: sex is almost irrelevant.
There was a moment when I was hanging out with some friends of mine from the fetish community and we were talking about a spanking party we had gone to, because I’ve started attending these parties from time to time—
What is that like?
We just hang out with our friends; these parties are oftentimes very banal. I think people imagine leather clothing and, I don’t know, shocking things. But we just play board games and talk and it’s very normal—except someone’s getting beaten in the corner or in the other room.
Just like at a regular party, where people go hook up in the bathroom?
Yeah, but it’s not even like hooking up. It’s like a yoga party. Some people might be drinking wine and playing Scrabble, and then someone would be doing Downward Facing Dog in the corner.
Or, I think the best analogy I can think of is massage or dance. Dancing with a partner can be very erotic and very sexual. Or you and I could dance right now and it would be totally fun and platonic and we would just be dancing. Or like getting a massage: a massage can be foreplay and can lead to sex, or a massage can be something you do with a stranger, if you hire a professional masseur. So I think spanking is the same way. It can be erotic, but it also can be very, very platonic and physical.
But anyway, once, when I was hanging out with my friends, I kind of sheepishly mentioned that I had been scared to go to parties at first because I thought that even within my own fetish community, I was the unusually asexual one. I thought a party would be much more sexual, in the normative sense, than it turned out to be. Everyone else said that they had felt exactly the same way. It’s a sexuality party, but not a sex party.
Can you talk about how you came to know about and be involved in the spanking community? Did it all come about as a result of your “Modern Love” piece?
I had been aware of parties ever since I was a teenager. There’s a big party in Las Vegas that happens every year, and in college I would look at the website every once in a while and think, “Should I drive down?” I went to college in California, so it would have been possible. But I never went, because it was too freaking scary.
After the “Modern Love” piece ran, I thought, “Well, I’m out now, so I should go to a party.” So a couple weeks later, I got dressed up and I got cookies and I went down to the LGBT Center in Manhattan, which at the time was a space that hosted one of the bigger parties. I thought, “I’m going to do this. There’s no reason to be nervous. My cards are on the table; I’m out now.”
I got into the hallway and I couldn’t go inside. No matter how much I had prepped myself for the idea of going and just checking it out and chatting with some people, I hadn’t anticipated the slapping sounds I would hear coming from inside the room. There was something about that sound that was terrifying and paralytic and overwhelming, and I just stood in the lobby of the LGBT Center holding my cookies for about 40 minutes. And then I left.
So what do you think that was about?
I think there definitely is a difference between the idea of something and its reality. At that point, I didn’t have any other friends who were spanking fetishists. It would be months before I would make my first spanking fetishist friend, Cyan; I didn’t have a single other friend who was like me. I really wanted that, so I thought this party would be a place to meet some friends, and we could, I don’t know, compare notes about looking up these words in the dictionary and the weird things that we did when we were kids.
When I had imagined the party, I just imagined myself chatting and sharing the cookies that I brought and maybe having a glass of wine, although I have since learned that for good reason, they don’t serve alcohol at these types of parties. I knew in theory that people would be playing, but when I heard the sounds, it just was very, very overwhelming. It was way too much. I didn’t even try to go to a party again for about two years.
At that point, I thought, “Okay, I should suck it up and try again. This time, I know what sounds to expect, so maybe I won’t be freaked out.” I tweeted something to that effect and Abby, who is mentioned in the book, sent me an email offering to meet up at a bar just to chat sometime, and to take me to a party. It made it much easier to go to my first party, having a friend I’d met and gotten to know in a vanilla context. And I’ve since made some great friends in the community.
Has that made a big difference?
Yes. I think that it’s been good for me. I think it’s been good for my marriage. But at the same time, while I’m very grateful to have made friends in the community, I think having these friendships has also somewhat softened the intensity of all of this. When I was talking to Cyan, for example, it felt like this crazy thing. And my relationship with John [her first boyfriend, also a spanking fetishist] felt like this crazy miraculous coincidence.
When you think you’re the only one for so long, finding someone else who feels the same way about these things feels like this really sharp-edged surprise. And having a variety of friends in the community and knowing people all over the country and world who share this experience hasn’t decreased the value of that, but it’s decreased the scarcity, certainly. So now, if Abby and I want to talk about spanking, it no longer needs to be this stay-up-all-night-texting-about-it-until-dawn kind of thing.
Last year, I interviewed Rachel Hills, who argues in her book The Sex Myth that that we’ve gone from a culture that prizes virginity and purity, and shuns promiscuity, to the opposite end of the spectrum: the disdain is now directed toward people who have vanilla tastes or don’t sleep around. Being promiscuous or adventurous in bed—up to a point—is upheld. In your book, you write, “the term vanilla—the most common way to describe people who aren’t kinky—does not imply that a person is boring or conservative.” Doesn’t it, though, in our culture?
Certainly, there are people who use the term “vanilla” that way. But to my mind, vanilla just means a non-fetishist. Honestly—and I reserve the right to change my mind about this as time passes—I sometimes think that the difference between vanilla and non-vanilla is whether or not you think about sex when you masturbate. My impression is that the majority of people think about sex when they masturbate, so that would be the normative sexual identity. Whereas if you think about something other than sex, whether it’s spanking or rubber or tickling, you’re non-vanilla. Certainly many, many, many people in the BDSM communities would vehemently disagree with that definition. But I will say this: In the spanking community, at least, there are a number of partners, like [her husband] David, who identify as vanilla. I think when people hook up with one of us or marry one of us or get into a relationship with one of us, and really see what it is that we’re into, they realize that there is a difference between people for whom sex is the center of their sex lives and people for whom something other than sex is the center of their sex lives.
I can see how vanilla would be implied to be insulting. But if you think about it, there’s an implied insult in “straight.” If someone is straight, it almost implies that they’re boring: “You’re so straight, that’s so boring.” But nobody understands it that way, as far as I know—I’ve never personally met someone who understands “straight” to be insulting. They’re just like, “Yeah, straight, I’m into people of the opposite gender.” So I would like to see vanilla, or whatever term we land on, be understood that way. “Straight” is not boring, it’s just what you’re into. And “vanilla” isn’t boring, it’s just what you’re into.
In the book, you detail the distinction between what spanking means to vanilla people, and what it is to a fetishist to be spanked. This was surprising to me to read. I pictured that spanking fetishists just really enjoy a swat during sex, but as you describe it, that is the vanilla version, and not at all what you mean.
Right. I think a lot of people who perceive or use “vanilla” in a derogatory way imagine that vanilla is just missionary-style sex. Whereas as far as I’m concerned, someone can tie their partner up and have sex and, I don’t know, be wearing a Darth Vader costume, but if the sex is the point then, to my mind, that’s a category that I’m not in.
About a year and a half ago, I wrote an article for Slate saying that I understand my fetish to be my sexual orientation. When I go back and read that article now, I can see myself doing a little bit of rhetorical tap dancing. I argue that this is my sexual orientation in that it’s innate, unchosen and life-long, but I don’t want to be exclusive, because there’s some people for whom it is not innate and chosen and life-long, and I’m not trying to exclude them from the umbrella of kink. I’m not trying to exclude them from BDSM communities. If a woman discovers rope bondage in her forties and loves it, that’s fine.
I think my problem when I wrote that article was that I was using the term “kink” as a catchall. Now, as I’ve been talking to more people and gotten involved in the community and met more spanking fetishists, but also as I have made friends in the BDSM community, I’ve realized it would have been more useful in that article if I had separated the terms kink and fetish.
A kinky person is maybe that person who’s wearing the Darth Vader suit and tying up his partner and having sex, and that doesn’t necessarily have to be life-long. Whereas fetish—I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard from my friends about how early this starts. So I think it cannot be anything other than an orientation.
In the book, I mention that a friend of mine was dating a guy from the BDSM scene—not the spanking scene, just the BDSM scene. She once complained, “I need a real spanko spanking.” So the point of that comment, and the reason I included it and enjoyed it so much, is that the distinction is not necessarily between vanilla people and non-vanilla people. It’s that we all fall in different categories and there are ways that any subculture cannot necessarily and automatically understand another subculture. BDSM spankings are very different than the kinds of spankings that people in my scene give and what we’re into.
I’m going to get so much shit from people in the community, because you can’t make generalizations. But in my experience, people in the BDSM scene tend to enjoy eating from all parts of the buffet. They want a diverse and bountiful plate of food. Whereas people in my community have just parked at one station and are just eating that. We really like macaroni and cheese and we’ll eat macaroni and cheese until we are turning orange. The BDSM scene, in my experience, does tend to be more focused on sex.
In the book, you describe your belief that your fetish is innate, that it started very early in your childhood—before, in fact, a severe spanking you received from your mother. Can you talk about innateness versus causality, and why it’s so important to you to set the record straight that fetishes are not caused by trauma?
It is incredibly important to me to be clear about the fact that this fetish is not caused by childhood trauma. This is the knot that I tried to untie for about 20 years. There was a time that the psychoanalytic establishment believed that homosexuality was the symptom of some kind of underlying disease, and that it was a problem that therefore needed to be fixed. I think that is where we are right now with this fetish. I think the message that this sexuality or this identity—because, as I made clear, it’s not really about sex—is not the shards of something that broke, or the symptom of a disease. Because if fetishism was caused by childhood trauma, then it would be something that should be cured, that should be corrected, that should be fixed.
In my opinion, we do have a really serious disease in this country, in this world, which is the very common and institutionalized oppression of children. It’s remarkable to me that we have this social justice movement happening in certain circles, and certainly online, that is very focused on consent and human rights and all these buzz words and yet never, ever do I see the fact that there is one demographic that it is still perfectly legal to assault. If there were any other demographic where it was legal to beat them, I think that there would be an outcry.
But children do not have votes, they don’t have money, they don’t have Twitter accounts, for the most part, so they can’t complain, and nobody complains on their behalf. If it’s not okay to assault people on the basis of race or gender, why is it okay to assault on the basis of age? That is the problem. That is what needs to be fixed and corrected, not natural and healthy variations on the human sexual spectrum.
I think the best comparison that I have ever thought of is spousal rape. I find it very easy to imagine that when the debate about criminalizing spousal rape started, some people said, “What are you talking about? My husband has sex with me when I don’t want him to sometimes, but he’s my husband, it’s fine, it’s his right.” A few nights ago, I was tweeting about this, and someone that I respect a lot tweeted back that context matters, and that spankings in the context of parental discipline are not assaults. I could have very easily said, “Yeah, context matters. Non-consensual sex in the context of marriage isn’t rape.” I mean, you can do that for almost anything that is arguably a consent violation. “Non-consensual sex in the context of a date isn’t rape.”
You could make the argument that if context matters, then consent doesn’t. But obviously, I’m not of that opinion. I think that consent matters. Consent is complicated with the matter of children; you know children probably don’t consent to getting a vaccination, but I’m in favor of vaccinating children. Certainly, this is a very detailed and nuanced conversation. But I do think that when it comes to the issue of ripping off a child’s underwear and accessing a part of their body that is widely understood to be sexual, and violently causing blood to rush to their genitals as they scream in pain and fear, this seems pretty cut and dried to me. But the vast, vast majority of people in the world disagree, and as much as I would love to see this tide change, I suspect I will not live to see that.
Can you describe the sexuality of spanking in a biological sense, in terms of the blood flow to the butt and the groin?
Right. So the common iliac artery splits. When someone’s getting a spanking, their butt turns red. That’s because blood is flowing down the common iliac artery to that region. But the other half of the artery goes to the genitals. So when blood is rushing to your butt, it’s also rushing to your genitals. This is why from time to time I and some of my friends can orgasm only from a spanking. It’s just because blood flow is happening there.
I got a really upsetting email from a mother once who was responding to an article I had written for Slate about how spanking children is sexually problematic. And I’ve got to give her credit, she did not approach me from a combative perspective. She emailed me and said, “I spank my children, but your article has given me pause.” The reason it gave her pause is because she had given her 11-year-old son a spanking and when he stood up, crying, she said that despite the fact that he was crying and clearly upset, he had an erection. An erection is blood flow. So if you’re causing blood to rush to one part, you’re causing blood to rush to the other part.
Also, studies have found that children who are spanked or hit regularly experience a surge of the sex hormone oxytocin when they sense danger. Oxytocin has been found to be a powerful painkiller, so it makes sense that if a child habitually expects physical pain when their parents are angry, then when their parents are angry, that sex hormone would surge.
People argue that you do other things with your butt. You sit on it. Well, you do other things with your penis and vagina, too. But they’re still sexual. Every time a friend is like, “No, butts aren’t sexual,” I want to say, “Then let me touch it right now. Get naked.” [She reaches out to graze my elbow] I just non-consensually touched your elbow and I feel like I did not sexually violate you. But I would not non-consensually touch your ass. And I think that most people understand the distinction between touching someone’s elbow and touching someone’s ass. Yet for some reason, when I have this conversation, they forget this distinction. And they suddenly think it’s totally out there and extreme for me to even suggest that butts are a sexual body part. What? So I think next time someone says that to me, I’m going to be like, “Prove it. Let’s tweet a picture of your non-sexual body part right now.” [Laughter] Possibly out there, there is someone for whom the elbow is a very sexual body part, and I should not non-consensually touch it. But I am in confident saying that that elbow fetishist is a minority of a minority of a minority. If you Google the word spanking, it’s pretty damn clear that this is not an unusual fetish or identity. So I think it’s really problematic that that so many parents spank their children.
That said, it obviously doesn’t cause this fetish. I have a lot of friends who are spanking fetishists like me and did all the same things that I did from as early an age—looking up words in the dictionary, obsessing about Boy by Roald Dahl—who were never spanked as children.
So the distinction you’re making is almost the reversal of the common understanding: rather than spanking causing a spanking fetish, it’s that someone might have been born with a spanking fetish, and so to spank them as a childhood punishment is sexual abuse.
Yes. One hundred percent yes. My earliest memories of eroticizing spanking are from age two or three. More and more, science agrees that a child’s sexual identity doesn’t just magically appear at age 18. I think that I was born with it. Children have emerging sexual identities, and it doesn’t matter that this is a minority identity or an uncommon one. If even one percent of children experience spanking as a sex act, then we as a culture are sexually violating too many children. I do understand that what I say in that chapter in particular will be very controversial.
Why is that controversial?
I’m going to get controversy from both sides, right? Some people are going to be outraged and appalled that I think that non-consensually inflicting an act of BDSM on a child is sexually inappropriate. Some people will find that claim to be outrageous. But on the other side of the spectrum, some people will be really outraged that I say in this chapter that my experience of sexual assault is relative and that sexual assault is a relative thing.
I had non-consensual sex once in the sense that a man held me down while I was crying and saying “I don’t want to have sex,” and had sex with me. To be clear, I was pissed off about this. It made me mad. But it absolutely did not traumatize me. I suppose technically this experience makes me a rape survivor. But I feel like it’s almost inconsiderate for me to identify as a rape survivor, because I don’t want to apply that term to what was a truly minor, minor experience in my life. I’ve been more upset about many, many, many other things in my life than I was about this experience of non-consensual sex.
Of course, this is not to say that other people should feel as I did. Of course they shouldn’t. Anyone who has something non-consensually done to them is entitled to react in the way that they react. But I’m entitled to my experience, too, and I’m entitled to the reaction that I had. And my reaction was just that it was not very upsetting for me because that’s not my sexuality. And so it didn’t really feel like a sexual violation. Whereas being spanked non-consensually did.
By your mother.
Yes. She’s the only person who has ever non-consensually spanked me, because I’ve been very lucky to meet friends and boyfriends and partners who have only hit me consensually. And that’s a totally different experience; it’s as different as sex and rape. So yes.
There’s nothing wrong with my sexual identity, but there are things that are very wrong with how we treat children in the world. And so I’m trying to flip the conversation.
I do wonder if there’s a little more gray area in your understanding of your fetish as innate. To reject the simple cause-and-effect storyline that being spanked caused you to crave spankings is one thing. But it strikes me that your fetish could have stemmed, at least in part, from your childhood and the way in which you were raised, and also be healthy and fine. In my view, everyone’s sexuality has something to do something with their relationship with their parents, and that doesn’t mean it’s wrong or needs to be fixed.
You write in the book, “The first person I loved was also the first person I feared.” You describe your mother as unpredictable, volatile. This is armchair psychoanalysis here, but I wondered if the appeal of rules and punishment in a sexual setting could have to do with the appeal of knowing exactly what is going to happen. Rules make this consensual punishment predictable and safe in a way that was not at all true of your relationship with your mother.
I think that what you’re saying is totally possible. Maybe it really is just as simple as that—
Or a combination of factors.
Exactly. Maybe when I say that I feel I was born this way, it’s just as simple as, I have an unusually high concentration of nerve endings in my butt. A friend once said, “Honestly, touching my butt is like touching my elbow. My butt, I get nothing there.” Whereas my butt—in the book I call it the big clitoris on the back of my pelvis. There are a lot of nerve endings back there. So maybe I have an unusually high number of nerve endings there, and then my fetish is sort of a complicated cocktail of my butt being erotic and wanting some predictability in my childhood. Maybe that is it.
But it really doesn’t matter. It was more important in my life to realize what didn’t cause it, which was childhood trauma. What did cause it, who knows. What does matter is that sexuality develops in children earlier than people want to admit and therefore I think we owe it to our children as a culture to have difficult and complicated conversations about consent and how we can and should extend consent rights in some contexts to children.
Early in the book, you write, “My commitments to peace, women’s rights, gender equality, and nonviolence seemed absurd alongside the dark and frightening underworld of my fetish.” Could just talk about how you resolved that?
Well, at the point that I felt that way, I still thought that something was wrong with me. Masochism was, and still is, listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, so I essentially thought that I had a mental disorder. And it felt hypocritical to fantasize about being beaten and then profess these beliefs in gender equality and nonviolence.
But, of course, this was before I heard anyone ever talk about consent. It’s such a magical word; it really changes everything. Of course I’m allowed to believe in nonviolence and gender equality but then, you know, get spankings from my husband, in the same way that a woman who enjoys consensual sex is allowed to have a problem with non-consensual sex.
It seems so obvious now to say that consent changes everything. But when you are 21 years old and coming out of decades of shame and self-loathing and fear—it wasn’t obvious at the time. So it felt inconsistent, even though, of course, it wasn’t.
Throughout the book, you explain your relationships with spanking and love through your obsession with Shakespeare. You write yourself in literal conversation with the characters in these plays you know so intimately. How much of what you wanted to do was to make Shakespeare accessible, and how did you come to this style of…
Yes, magical realism, exactly.
I think Shakespeare is super fun and entertaining. I think Shakespeare is like a soap opera. I mean, the stuff is juicy and sexy and violent and has ghosts and murderers. So it does bug me when I see Shakespeare portrayed by academics or critics as this kind of aloof, ivory-tower thing, because I don’t see Shakespeare that way. So if I accomplished ruffling Shakespeare’s hair a little bit in this book, I would certainly be delighted. Of course I don’t want to imply I think I’m the first or only person to embrace the sexual side of Shakespeare. I’m certainly not. And I’m certainly not even close to the first writer to want Shakespeare to be accessible and sexy and fun. But if I have been another in the long line of writers who tried to remind everyone how cool Shakespeare already is, then I would be delighted.
The magical realism thing happened pretty early on in the process. It was even in my book proposal. At some point, I realized that if I was going to be in conversation with these characters, I needed to be in conversation with these characters. I often find these characters just come to mind as a reference point in just this way.
I compare Shakespeare to the Bible a lot in that they’re both such rich texts. I think that in Shakespeare, people find what they’re looking for, just as everyone from very conservative religious people to very progressive, open-minded religious people can find evidence for their interpretation of the Bible in the text. If I wanted to write a book called, instead of Sex With Shakespeare, This Green Sofa With Shakespeare [gestures to the sofa we’re sitting on], I probably could have found enough material in the Shakespearean canon to write that book because that’s how rich the Shakespearean canon is. So characters come to mind in relation to everything, because everything is in Shakespeare. No matter what’s happening in my life, there’s something in Shakespeare that relates to it. Just like many people feel that no matter what’s happening in their life, there’s something in the Bible that relates to it.
These characters do feel like friends to me, and I interact with them the same way that I interact with friends. I turn to them sometimes when I’m lonely. I get mad at them sometimes, and I fight with them. And the characters, of course, as do all literary characters in all literature, grow and change as I grow and change. When I talk to Lady Macbeth now, we don’t have the same conversations that we did five years ago. I wanted to do justice to how meaningful these relationships are for me. And I felt that the best way to do that was to describe them the same way I describe [my best friend] Peng.
At the end of the book, you have a very sexy, graphic sex scene with one of Shakespeare’s characters. Did that feel like a natural and necessary place to go, or did you have any conflicts about taking it that far?
I’ll tell you the truth. People will probably make assumptions when they hear this, but every once in a while, when I’m writing, I black out. Not because of alcohol, I just black out. When I wrote that scene, David and I had just flown back from the Caucuses. I was super jet-lagged, so freaking tired. But I had plans to go with Peng to Escape The Room in midtown. I texted Peng, “I’m not coming. I’m just off a 12-hour flight, I need to crash, I can’t Escape the Room right now.” And she was like, “No, you get down here now.” She would have none of it.
The weather was nice, and I had a song that I wanted to listen to, so I just decided to walk. I don’t remember walking. All I know is when I got there I had a version of this scene tapped out in the notes section of my phone.
I’m always quite pleased with what I produce when I get into these rare moments of flow. It’s fun—it’s the only time I get to read my own writing as anyone else reads it, because I don’t remember producing it. When I read that scene, it really surprised me. I did not at all see that coming. Writing is very hard, but when these moments of flow happen, it’s really nice: I blink and then I have 20 pages. And I’m like, “Oh, shit, that’s awesome. I can go party.”
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Jessica Gross is a writer based in New York City.