Jillian Keenan wants us to talk, and she wants to put the conversation in motion with her memoir, Sex With Shakespeare: Here’s Much to Do with Pain, But More with Love. In 2012, by way of a New York Times Modern Love essay, Keenan, a journalist, outed herself as a spanking fetishist. It took her years to come to terms with this innate part of her sexuality and she did it with the help of the Bard. Here, Keenan spoke with us about her journey, her fetish, and why she sees Sex with Shakespeare as a book about human rights and children’s rights.
Nicole Guappone: How did you decide on how much to explain to this book’s readers who come from different spaces—whether they be academic or kink?
Jillian Keenan: I wanted this book to be accessible to anyone who’s interested in reading it, so I didn’t want to assume a base-level familiarity of Shakespeare or of kink. There were moments when I tried to fill in some basic information and some terminology that I thought would be useful for enjoying this book. I think people who are interested in Shakespeare and who pick up this book for that reason are also interested in how Shakespeare interacts with our lives and how it influences our understanding of ourselves. I also think that people who are interested in sexuality and human development will be interested in different ways that a person comes to terms with a non-normative sexual identity, and in my case that happened to be with Shakespeare.
NG: You write about coming to terms with the politics and realities of your fetish—its “intersections with misogyny and heteronormativity; its relationship to child abuse and spousal battery; its comparison to self-mutilation.” Do you think these conversations are necessary for a healthy kink or fetish-heavy relationship?
My sexual orientation was never a choice.
JK: These are certainly conversations that we have in the BDSM community from time to time. But I think it’s also important to be clear that my sexual orientation was never a choice. It’s important to remember that when an ideology is focused on human equality, as feminism is, do we really want to preclude people from subscribing to that ideology on the basis of something that is innate, unchosen, and lifelong as, in my case, this fetish is? I do think it’s possible for my healthy, natural, and unchosen adult identity to coexist with my feminism. And I would say this: I am dismayed by the extent to which I have seen feminists and feminism comment on my sexuality without commenting on the nonconsensual ways we use spanking to violate children’s bodies.
I think that if feminism is as concerned with consent rights as it purports to be, then there is a very serious conversation about the legality of spanking children that we need to be having. And so far, I do not think that “mainstream” feminism has called attention to this issue to the extent that I wish they would. I’m sure every person who believes in equal rights would say that they would be disgusted if it were still legal to beat people on the basis of race or gender. But it is legal to beat people on the basis of age. Why is that different? I think that mainstream feminism needs to redirect its focus from my consensual adult life onto a real crisis that is nonconsensually happening to a forgotten demographic.
There is a very serious conversation about the legality of spanking children that we need to be having.
NG: You advocate for children’s rights in this book and you also say that “children have emerging sexual identities.” Have you had any push-back from that—to me, very true—statement?
JK: A few years ago, I wrote an article for Slate entitled, “Spanking Is a Sex Act,” where I detailed the biological, physiological, cultural, and really deep historical reasons that spanking is a sex act. And absolutely I get push-back. Studies vary and you can’t trust parents to accurately self-report these things, right? Because plenty of people do things to their children that they don’t admit. The most recent study that I’ve seen suggests that 70-80% of parents spank their children, and certainly an even larger percentage of adults were spanked as children. Understandably, people don’t want to have conversations about whether they either do something sexually problematic to their children or that their parents did something sexually problematic to them as children.
I’ve gotten heartbreaking and devastating emails from people who have confirmed to me that my experience is not unique. To this day, I occasionally get emails from both adults and, unfortunately, from children who have, I think, been as young as eleven. And I also get emails from parents. Once, a mother who had been doing some Google searches came across some of my writing on the subject. She told me in her email that she had given her twelve year old son a spanking on his—her words—“bare bottom,” and she had been surprised and dismayed to see that despite the fact that he was screaming and crying, when he stood up after the spanking, he had an erection. My god. This is legal and undiscussed and someone needs to discuss it. It’s a conversation we need to have.
NG: You describe privacy in the book as a “weapon a sexual majority can use against people with nonnormative sexual identities.” I think there is a difference between that kind of privacy and the boundaries we sometimes need to make for ourselves as writers (and/or as kinksters). How do you find a balance writing within or through those two types of privacy?
JK: Yes, I think that there are two kinds of privacy. The first is the kind of privacy you’re talking about in your own life—a privacy that is chosen, a privacy that a person chooses for him- or herself—which is totally understandable. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the second kind of privacy that is less discussed is the privacy that is inflicted. I believe that there is a tendency for a sexual majority that doesn’t want to hear things, to say, “Keep it private, that should be kept to yourself, you should be ashamed to talk about this.” This kind of privacy is very closely mixed with shame. It is shame’s twin. And when a majority heaps shame onto a minority under the umbrella of “privacy,” it seems okay. It seems healthy and mature. They say, “We’re not inflicting shame on you, we’re just supporting privacy. Privacy is a good thing.” And because privacy is such a “good thing,” it’s hard to fight back against that. Fighting back against shame is one thing, but fighting against privacy makes you seem like an over-sharer or an exhibitionist in some way. But as I described in the book, this shame wrapped up with so-called “privacy,” is really dangerous because it pushes people into hiding.
Now, I would never say that all sexual minorities should reject privacy or disclose every little detail about themselves—absolutely not, that’s not true. People are entitled to embrace the first kind of privacy, which is chosen, not imposed by society. But I do think that a few people, just a few, in these situations, do need to out themselves and do need to overshare, and be exhibitionists, reject shame, reject privacy. People had to do it for the LGBT community and now I’m trying to do so for fetishists and, in my case, particularly for spanking fetishists.
This kind of privacy is very closely mixed with shame. It is shame’s twin.
NG: What do you hope your readers will get from this book?
JK: I know that this book will help some people. I’m so grateful for the people who’ve already taken the time to tell me that things I’ve written in the past have helped them. I want people who felt sexually violated by childhood spankings to know that they are not alone and they are not gross or messed up or excessively sensitive or easily damaged for feeling that way. That is a natural response to being ritualistically hit on a sexual part of the human body. And they are not the problem, our culture is the problem. I want them to know that.
There are a lot of fetishists out there who are suffering from shame and fear. They are afraid that they are “fucked up” or that there’s something wrong with them. They don’t realize that this is a healthy, natural point on the human sexual spectrum. I want people to know that there’s nothing to be ashamed of.
I also think there are vast misconceptions about fetishism. I think people think of fetishism as a sort of “side dish” to normative sexuality, which is really not the case at all. I tell people that spanking occupies a space in my life that sex occupies in the lives of the majority, which is to say I never fantasize about sex, I have no interest in looking at videos of people having sex. I couldn’t be more bored by that. What I do watch is spanking videos. I fantasize about spanking. I think there’s a tendency for people to dismiss fetish as a minor preference when that is not the case. People have—and still do—lose jobs, lose security clearances, lose child custody battles, etc., because they were outed as a fetishist. So I do think some people tend to think that being outed doesn’t matter because it’s just like a hobby— “Can’t you just put that hobby on the back burner for awhile?”—when it is really not as simple as that. I wanted to illustrate what it really is like to have a fetish.
I think that underneath everything, in my mind at least, this book is about human rights and children’s rights and there’s a conversation that needs to happen and I will be humbled and terrified and gratified if my book were some small part of inspiring more people to have that conversation.
Nicole Guappone is an MFA candidate in the nonfiction writing program at Columbia College Chicago. She has been previously published on Femsplain and contributes interviews to The Rumpus. She also contributed to the anthology The View From Here: Stories About Chicago Neighborhoods. Nicole lives in Chicago with her partner and their cat. Her Twitter handle is @nicoleguappone.
Top photo: Bifurcated Girls Spank, from Vanity Fair's Bifurcated Girls Special Issue, June 6, 1903, via Wikimedia Commons
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Nicole Guappone is an MFA candidate in the nonfiction writing program at Columbia College Chicago. She is an assistant editor for Hotel Amerika and editorial assistant for The Review Review. She has been previously published on Femsplain and contributes interviews to The Rumpus. She also contributed to the anthology The View From Here: Stories About Chicago Neighborhoods. Nicole lives in Chicago with her partner and their cat. Her Twitter handle is @nicoleguappone.
Photo credit: Chuck Fong