xoBOOKS: 'Sex with Shakespeare' is the Bravest Book I've Ever Read

I am as blown away by Jillian Keenan's openness now as I was when I read the essay in which she revealed she's a spanking fetishist.
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Nicole Im
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I am as blown away by Jillian Keenan's openness now as I was when I read the essay in which she revealed she's a spanking fetishist.

Coming out is a multi-layered process, and each reveal takes an incredible amount of courage. I first discovered Jillian Keenan in a 2012 New York Times essay in which she revealed herself as a spanking fetishist. I was blown away by her bravery. Now, four years later, Jillian's debut memoir, Sex with Shakespeare: Here's Much to Do with Pain, But More with Love, revisits and expands upon the questions posed in her original essay about love, desire, communication, and of course, spanking. 

Jillian considers her fetish to be her orientation. "It's the core of my sexuality," she writes, "and an innate, unchosen, and lifelong center of my identity." Through a fascinating exploration of 14 Shakespeare plays, Jillian shares her story of how the Bard helped her come to understand and accept her own sexuality.

Sex with Shakespeare: Here's Much to Do with Pain, But More with Love by Jillian Keenan, $25.99

Sex with Shakespeare: Here's Much to Do with Pain, But More with Love by Jillian Keenan, $25.99

Jillian covers a topic so rarely discussed, and never in such depth and detail. Her book will resonate with spanking enthusiasts but will also be relatable to anyone who's struggled with aspects of their sexual identity or who has ever questioned the origins of their desire. This book is for anyone who believes human sexuality encompasses so much more than what mainstream media portrays it to be and for those who believe that non-normative identities deserve a well-rounded discussion led with insight and intelligence. Jillian writes fearlessly, with hard-won wisdom and good humor. The result is a captivating, thought-provoking, emotionally resonant read that I greatly enjoyed.

I've heard before that literature is meant as a dialogue, but it wasn't until Sex with Shakespeare that I understood just how fantastical an experience it could be to engage with your favorite texts. Scenes between the author and characters from Shakespeare's canon weave effortlessly throughout the narrative and appear not as dull, two-dimensional paper cut-outs, but as a colorful cast of friends and advisors who come across as modern and relevant. 

"Not everything that looks scary is something to fear, sweetheart," The Tempest's Caliban reassures a teenage Jillian. "Wisely and slow," warns Friar Lawrence, a tip not only applicable to Romeo and Juliet but to the narrator herself as she navigates her first relationship with a partner who also shares her fetish.

Jillian Keenan's author photo from her website. 

Jillian Keenan's author photo from her website. 

"To be clear, I don't hallucinate Shakespeare characters (although that would be awesome)," Jillian jokes, as we join her in overhearing a quarrel between A Midsummer Night's Dream's Helena and Demetrius. Rather, she views her favorite literary characters as vessels through which "we can pass our anxieties, questions, fears, and insecurities to an external source of strength." Shakespeare's characters stay by the narrator as she navigates her own romances, a high-school diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, and an abusive relationship with her mother.

Confronting our fears is scary — scarier still when what we fear is what lies deep within us. Jillian faces her fears head on, not allowing the questions that scare her to keep her silent. 

I had the pleasure of asking the author a few questions about her process and fearlessness. Here's what she had to say. 

What does being brave mean to you?

JILLIAN KEENAN: People say that being brave is when something scares you, but you do it anyway. I suppose that's true, but I don't know if it applies to me. I do things that scare me all the time — it scared me to out myself in the New York Times, it scared me to publish this book. But I do it not because I have "courage" that overcomes the fear, but rather because I have conviction that overcomes it. I have a message and a cause that is more important than my comfort. If speaking on behalf of a cause at the sacrifice of my comfort and privacy is "bravery" — and I don't know that it is — then I guess it's true that I'm brave. But it doesn't really matter. What does matter is that I believe some things are worth saying, even if the words terrify me.

If someone told you when you were 13 that one day you would publish a memoir about your spanking fetish, what would've been your reaction?

Honestly? I probably would have killed myself. Like many people with stigmatized sexual orientations, for a long time I teetered right on the edge of self-harm. I felt certain that something was wrong with me; that I was broken, messed up, subhuman. The idea of my inner life becoming public was the most horrifying thing I could have imagined. The person I am today would be totally unrecognizable to my 13-year-old self — and I'm unspeakably grateful for that.

What advice do you have for people who are struggling to come to terms with their non-normative identities or who are considering coming out to their loved ones?

Don't rush yourself. You'll know when you're ready. If you're having this dilemma, it means you've already acknowledged your desires to yourself. So congratulations — that can be the hardest part. Celebrate your victory! Take the next step whenever you're ready, and please know that there is nothing, nothing, nothing wrong with you, and you are absolutely not alone.

What do you enjoy most about being a writer?

Nothing heals a wound as well as language. My words are scars that used to be on my heart. They're much more useful on the page.

Jillian's book Sex with Shakespeare: Here's Much to Do with Pain, but More is published by Harper Collins and available now.