Sex With Shakespeare is a memoir of Jillian Keenan coming to terms with her spanking fetish, often explored and dissected through the language of Shakespeare. Each chapter finds Keenan at some juncture in her life—time spent abroad, college, on foreign exchange, in various relationships—expressed though a different Shakespeare play—Othello, Hamlet, As You Like It. Keenen deftly interprets the Bard, touching on the broad themes of each play before diving into specific character desires and monologues to put her own desires into literary context. Most enjoyable for the Shakespeare fan is when she brings the plays she’s studying off the page to have conversations with key characters, often at times of personal crisis.
“Do you worry that you belittle Shakespeare by appropriating us into your reductive little narrative like this?” asks Lady Macbeth two-thirds of the way through the book. Keenan is frank about her sexual desires, her love life, and her mental health, but it’s her sly sense of humor that makes this memoir so much better than it needs to be. For all that this book can, and probably will be, broadly painted as about “a woman with a spanking fetish,” there’s nothing so strange about a story of a woman coming to terms with her sexuality and her identity. Keenan’s excellent writing and humor make this a book enjoyable for fetishists and vanillas alike—especially if you like Shakespeare.
The Shakespeare conceit gives the story a backbone and a strong, humorous momentum, serving as the medium through which Keenan untangles her fetish. “This story is about the Shakespeare Thing,” Keenan writes early on. “And the Spanking Thing. But most of all, it’s about the Love Thing.” Shakespeare and love are well-trod territories, but for many readers this book may well be the first time they’ll read about what it’s like to have a fetish—conversely, it may be the first time a fetishist sees their own identity so rawly displayed, without shame. This is an important book to have been written and to be read: As society at large accepts more and more binary-breaking gender and sexual identities, those with fetishes are one of the few remaining punching bags. Even vanillas who think themselves progressive because they read Savage Love have a lot to learn from Keenan. Case in point: “There is a significant difference between [fetish and kink.] Put simply, it’s possible to opt into kink. But fetishes are not chosen… [For people with fetishes] our fetish is our baseline. It is our first, and most fundamental, need. This is about identities, not activities.”
Keenan doesn’t shy away from the unsavory aspects of her fetish, namely that it can be viewed as a form of eroticized violence. She examines, in her words, “our fetish’s most challenging details: its intersections with misogyny and heteronormativity; its relationship to child abuse and spousal battery; its place within the broader BDSM community; its comparison to self-mutilation.” How can Keenan be a feminist and want to get violently spanked? It’s here that culture at large might be most unforgiving, still wrapped up in unhelpful reductive understanding about sex and desire. What’s abuse to one person is another person’s fetish, a core part of her identity and not something she can change about herself. Understanding a fetish—which is an outcome of reading Sex With Shakespeare—gently forces the reader to navigate their own understanding of sex and identity. It’s a powerful tool in the growing arsenal of identity acceptance.