Book Review: Sex with Shakespeare

Image description: the book sets in a black background illuminated by the round orb of a lamp light. The book is white with orange and black text and a simple illustrated theatre mask in the center printed with black, orange, and green.

Sex with Shakespeare: Here’s Much to Do with Pain, but More with Love (William Morrow, 2016) by Jillian Keenan is a book I wish I had read sooner than I did.

This book is a memoir and in this memoir the author uses characters and scenarios in Shakespeare to untangle and come to terms with her sexual identity. Her sexual identity is tethered to one particular fetish – spanking –and in this the author explores a lot of issues that come along with having a kink.

This book read very personally for me for a lot of reasons. It was really eerie but interesting how many ways the author’s experience really mirrors a lot of my own.

The first thing that struck me about the book is how she uses the characters in Shakespeare to tell her story. The narration is almost like magic realism in the ways the characters appear to her. She talks to them, asks them for advice, and they give her advice even when she doesn’t want to hear it.

Reading and writing are very important in my own life and it was interesting to see her view characters in this way. I have often looked to fictional characters and stories to help me along with things I’ve really struggled with and I’ve often thought I was wrong for doing so. Why would I look to people and places that were literally made up in people’s heads to tackle real world problems? But Keenan really shows with texture and compassion how we can garner truths from these works and use the lessons therein to cope with and scaffold our own lives. It was endearing and fortifying to read this perspective.

Another aspect of the book I related to was that the author does have a medical condition that impacts her life. As a person with a visible physical disability, I latched on to that aspect of the memoir, though her condition doesn’t take as big of a role in the book as some of the other themes in her life. Though she doesn’t talk about it extensively, it is there.

The third, and most obvious thing I related to is that I am kinky. The details are different but the core is the same. There are a lot of things that the author wrote about coming to terms with her fetish that felt like she was lifting memories from my own mind and putting them to the page. I thought it was interesting that two people who grew up in different places and circumstances could share so much in unraveling the fetish and the roots of our sexuality.

I didn’t relate to absolutely everything in the book. Keenan has lived all over the world and she writes about living in different countries. She also went to Stanford and she has written for the New York Times. Some of her story was just bigger and wider in scope than I could even imagine. It was kind of like the outside looking in but it was interesting to read about those aspects of her life as well.

I also didn’t agree with how she handled all the situations in the book. At times I felt like I was reading from the corner of my eye thinking, “Let’s not do this, I’m worried for you right now.” But honestly that’s something that happens with every single memoir I read. Her life certainly isn’t flawless, but I finished the book with an overall feeling she learned things and her life is better from those lessons. I think hers is a good experience to read about and see what you can take from it and apply that to your own particular journey.

I thought this book was very well written. I mean, there is a lot going on here. She writes about her life and all the people in it – an abusive mother, long term boyfriends, her sexual identity, and later on her relationship with her husband. On top of this she adds the layer of Shakespeare where she explains the characters, what their plays are about, and the context of the plays. And then comes her interpretation and how she is applying these characters to her life and how that symbolism goes into what’s going on in her story.

That sounds like a lot and I would say that it should have been a mess and readers wouldn’t be able to focus on what was going on. But the entire book was well written and flowed well. You can tell the author knows how to write and you can tell the author knows how to work really well with the editorial process that goes along with putting a book together.

If I could go back in a time machine right now this is the book I would hand to my eighteen year old self. In an interview with the author she said she wrote this book because she feels there are other people out there that would benefit from her story and these things that she struggled with for so long. And I can definitely say that I was one of those people. I came to terms with my sexuality and my kink before I read this book, but in reading this book I can say I genuinely wish that I had this book when I was younger.

If you have a spanking fetish you should probably read this book. I would say especially so if you’re if you’re coming from a feminine perspective like the author. But if you really have any fetish or kink you feel you need help untangling this book is a really entertaining and insightful book to help you with that. And if you like Shakespeare, that’s a plump cherry on top.

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