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This Woman Will Change the Way You Think About Spanking

This Woman Will Change the Way You Think About Spanking: © Superstock / Alamy Stock Photo

© Superstock / Alamy Stock Photo

Writer Jillian Keenan has an obsession with spanking.

But those words don’t really begin to describe the relationship between spanking and Keenan’s identity. She’s not “obsessed” with spanking in the same way she’s obsessed with Shakespeare: Spanking is the core of her sexual identity, something it took her a long time to understand and even more work to accept.

And as odd as it may sound, it was ultimately Keenan’s love of Shakespeare that gave her a means to explore her relationship to BDSM—a term for a spectrum of sexual identities including bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism—and her spanking fetish.

This journey is the subject of her new memoir Sex with Shakespeare: Here’s Much to Do with Pain, but More with Love, which is as much an examination of 14 of the bard’s plays as it is of sexuality, consent and love. We caught up with Keenan to chat about some of the book’s challenging and revelatory notions of sex and privacy, kink and identity, and fetishism in the modern age.


What don’t most people understand about fetishism and kink?
People don’t even realize that there is no one single BDSM community, but rather, many BDSM communities. At best, BDSM is a tree that has a bunch of different branches. And some of those branches are totally unrelated to each other. There are some things in common, but as I wrote in the book, just because I’m on this BDSM tree doesn’t mean that a dungeon is exactly the right place for me. Not every branch on the BDSM tree is quite my place.

Are there other aspects people don’t get?
I think one of the biggest misperceptions is that BDSM or fetish is just a side dish to sex, or a form of foreplay. That could not be further from the truth. For me and my friends in the “spanko” community, sex is almost irrelevant. I don’t get spankings because they turn me on and then lead to sex. Absolutely not. In most cases, I prefer to keep the two things entirely separate. As I wrote in the book, spanking for us is like dance or a massage—it can be erotic, and it can lead to something sexual, but it certainly doesn’t have to. I think a lot of people are surprised by that. But if I go to a spa and get a massage, no one is surprised that I don’t then want to have sex with my massage therapist. Because people understand that it’s physically gratifying in a non-sexual way, that massages are relaxing and they help you de-stress or whatever. Spankings are the same way. They can be erotic but they don’t have to be. And the same applies for other details of BDSM. Our interests—our need for these activities isn’t necessarily a sexual need. It’s possible to be asexual and kinky at the same time, and many people are.

Marion Ettlinger

Marion Ettlinger

You write in the book that your fetish is not a choice, it’s a sexual orientation and a part of your identity. Could you explain what you mean when you write you are “obsessed” with spanking?
Spanking occupies the place in my life that sex occupies in most people’s lives. That is—I never, ever fantasize about sex. I fantasize about spanking. When I was a kid, I never reacted with interest or curiosity or intrigue when I saw sex on movies or TV shows. I was totally indifferent toward portrayals of sex. What I reacted to were portrayals of spanking. I never hid nude pictures in my room or did secretive Google searches for sex-related terms. What I hid in my room was spanking stories, and the things that I secretly did internet searches for were spanking terms. When I masturbate, I think exclusively about spanking. I’ve tried to masturbate to the thought of sex, because in years past I thought I was really messed up and did try to “cure” myself—so I thought, ‘Ok, I’m supposed to think about sex when I masturbate, I’m supposed to focus on sex, this is what is supposed to interest me.’ So I tried, I really did. I tried to masturbate to the thought of sex. But as I wrote in the book, I found the experience as unsatisfying as the thought of masturbating to toothpaste. When I say that spanking is my orientation, I would say that that’s because spanking occupies the place in my life that sex occupies in most people’s lives.

Are there ways fetishism is misrepresented in pop culture?
I think that there’s a big misperception, which was supported unfortunately by a recent pop-cultural depiction of BDSM that kink is a result of childhood trauma. And not only is that misperception inaccurate and not founded in science—in fact, multiple scientific studies have failed to find causal correlation between kink and childhood trauma—it’s also very damaging to people like me. It sends us the message that we are messed up, and therefore something needs to be fixed or cured. So that’s a big one.

And how did Shakespeare’s work allow for you to see a representation of your sexual identity that was more accurate, or more honest?
I think the Shakespearean canon is profound and so rich, that any of us could find ourselves reflected there. This is, to quote Shakespeare when speaking about Shakespeare, a body of work as boundless as the sea. The more you give to it, the more you dive into the text, the more you wrestle with it, the more you have, the more you get from it. For both are infinite. I think that anyone could do what I did with Shakespeare for their own lives and their own sexualities, because the spectrum of human identities he included in his work is so vast that I honestly believe that we’re all in there somewhere, we just have to look closely enough.

Do you have any speculations about the sex life of the bard himself?
I mean, I’m not too worried about Shakespeare’s sex life. There’s a lot of theories…he wrote a number of sonnets to a woman, he wrote even more sonnets to a man. But is that evidence of Shakespeare’s bisexuality? Some people say yes, some people say no—after all, there’s no reason to believe the sonnets are autobiographical. And during Shakespeare’s time, they didn’t even have these terms. So it’s possible that in Shakespeare’s life they understood sexuality as something more fluid and undefined. But honestly I don’t particularly care. I do like to believe that if Shakespeare could come back, and I could meet him, we could have some consensual fun together. [Laughs]

How has the internet helped people with non-normative sexual identities come to accept and understand them?
In some ways, it’s been a phenomenally good thing. I joke that I’m a little bit obsessed with older spanking fetishists, because I admire them so much for working through the shame and fear that they felt in a time before the internet. I asked an older friend once, ‘What did you do before the internet?’ And she said, ‘The brave ones looked for personal ads, and the rest of us were just lonely.’ So in many ways, the internet has been an extraordinary thing simply because it has given people with non-normative identities a forum to realize they are not alone. That is an incredibly good thing, and can’t be underestimated.

[*Sex with Shakespeare*](https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25817303-sex-with-shakespeare)

Sex with Shakespeare

But it’s a mixed bag?
The flip side is that—and this isn’t the internet’s fault, this is the fault of stigma and the resulting shame—because the people with non-normative identities feel so ashamed and humiliated at the thought of ever being outed for their fetish or non-normative sexualities, they bury themselves very deeply. I have friends who have layers and layers and layers of pseudonyms. They have pseudonyms for their pseudonyms. That’s how terrified they are that their identities will be outed. And when you’re on the internet dealing with on the one hand, such a great deal of longing and need, but on the other hand, such a thick veil of stigma that comes under the gaze of privacy…it really can put people in danger. I have friends who at alarmingly early ages needed to explore this side of their identities, but when they did so, they were doing it from behind this veil and the people they were communicating with were also veiled. And so when sexual minorities are private online, predators are private online, too. While everyone is entitled to self-imposed privacy, the danger is when stigma imposes privacy.

There’s a scene in the book where you and your partner fear someone who sees you through a window might interpret a private, consensual sexual act as domestic violence. What are the political aspects of your fetish?
Well as I write in the book, at first I was terrified that the person who saw my ex-boyfriend spanking me through the window would call the police. She didn’t. But after the fog cleared, I realized she absolutely should have called the police. She had no way of knowing whether what she had seen was consensual. And it was, in fact, incredibly sad that she didn’t call the police, because what she was witnessing very well could have been domestic violence. She had no way of knowing. At that point in my life, I was still trying to convince myself that my personal life was personal, and that I didn’t need to disclose my fetish to anyone, ever. A that point I was barely even disclosing it to my boyfriend, I was pretending that I was doing these things for his benefit, when in fact I was obviously doing them for my own but I was too ashamed to tell even my own boyfriend how incredibly gratified I was by these experiences.

So what changed for you, then?
I was really, veraciously trying to convince myself that my personal life was personal. But at that moment, when this woman saw us through the window and did not call the police, that was the first moment that I began to entertain the theory that the second-wave feminist movement had a point when they insisted that the personal is political. I do believe that my personal life is political. I do not believe that everyone’s is. As I said, privacy should be self-imposed, so if people want to self-impose privacy that is their choice and they’re totally entitled to it. But I believe that I do have a political obligation to out myself for various reasons; The politics of which I speak are multifaceted. That moment was significant because I think it was the very first step toward a path that led to eventually outing myself in this national way.

Can you be a feminist and still desire being dominated by men?
I think I first felt guilty about how my identity interacted with my commitment to gender equality for obvious reasons, because my fetish plays with, in most cases, female submission and male dominance—although not exclusively so. My fetish is so central to my orientation that it overrides even gender. For a long time I thought I was bisexual, but then a few years ago, I realized that it’s not accurate to say that I’m attracted to men and women. It is accurate to say that I am attracted to neither gender. I’m attracted to spanking, and the gender of the person who is spanking me is irrelevant. I joked once on Twitter that I could get a spanking from a pear tree and be happy. So it’s not that I’m attracted to both genders, it’s just that I’m gender irrelevant. So in some ways, my fetish doesn’t need to reflect problematic gender dynamics, but sometimes it does. But because my identity is innate and lifelong, it wasn’t a choice. So I resist the idea that anything innate could preclude me from an ideology of gender equality. I can believe in gender equality and still be myself.

What has the response been like to the book, so far?
It is early, but I’ve already started to get a few emails, which I’ve gotten permission to share:

So obviously, that was an extraordinary email and very gratifying—she’s clearly a very intelligent young woman and writer, and that’s exactly the type of response I hoped to get.

What was it like to write this book about your sex life and sexual identity, something you once kept so hidden?
Even though this isn’t my first time writing about my fetish, it is my first time writing about my fetish in such explicit detail. It was my first time writing truthfully and provocatively about how my childhood experiences interacted with my emerging sexual identity. So as recently as one week ago, I was melodramatically sitting on the banks of the Hudson river feeling like I couldn’t breathe because I was so scared. And I am still scared. I’m scared of how this book might impact my professional life, I’m scared of how it might affect my personal life. I’m scared of hate mail. But I wrote it because I think it’s worth all of that nonsense. Sometimes the most valuable things are the most frightening.

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