'Sex With Shakespeare' Is a Sinful Beach Read That Has Much to Do With Spanking and Love


Before publishing her memoir, Jillian Keenan was perhaps best known for a viral essay about her spanking fetish, published by The New York Times. The article was full of antidotes about how she worked up the courage to publicly identify as kinky, like: "Spanking fetishists don't have a tradition of coming out. The comparisons to child abuse and spousal battery are inevitable, upsetting and often impossible to dispel, so it's easiest to keep our interest private... when David heard I was 'kind of into S & M,' he... spanked me during sex. This was a step in the right direction, but it wasn't the whole story. After years of pretending I was interested only in the occasional erotic swat, I finally had to admit it to myself."

Now, her debut book Sex With Shakespeare takes it even further. The memoir is a coming-of-age journey that's equal parts feminist literary criticism and psychological exploration of how she grew to understand her BDSM fetish. In her telling, she became part of a global BDSM community — then ended up as a journalist engaged to an all-American 'vanilla' farm boy.

HarperCollins Publishers

Each chapter examines a Shakespeare masterpiece and compares it to Keenan's relationships as she grows up — a globetrotting student whose journey takes her from Oman to Honduras — until all hell breaks loose when characters step off the page into her life. Keenan's conversations with diverse readers around the world reveals new layers of tension and emotion in these familiar plays. 

Perhaps the most interesting analysis is Keenan's kinky take on The Taming of the Shrew; Shakespeare's comedy about power, seduction and control. The curtains opened on 18-year-old Keenan in Spain, gripped by the boyfriend who first satisfied her lust for violent spankings. She asks herself, "What is abuse? The consensual interactions that feel so erotic and necessary to me would be considered abusive in other contexts." Then, she dives into The Taming of the Shrew, and the play's titular shrew Katherine. 

This heiress, called a 'shrew' for her sharp tongue and defiant nature, marries a man who humiliates her in public, then denies her food and sleep on their wedding night until she submits completely to the will of her new husband. She repeats "the sun is a moon" when he commands. It's one of Shakespeare's most blatantly misogynist works, until seeing it through Keenan's eyes.


Keenan focuses on the play's recurring motif of a 'play within a play,' where characters engage in trickery and performative power-play, often igniting witty sparring matches for dominance.

"Whose tongue? ... With my tongue in your tail?" Shakespeare's seductive groom-to-be Petruchio teases Katherine before she slaps him. Keenan argues the abuse we see between Katherine and Petruchio is actually spirals of metatextual foreplay. 

"Pain is not the opposite of pleasure," Keenan writes, comparing Katherine's brattiness with her own. In BDSM roleplay, Keenan taunts and talks back. She plays at being stubborn and combative until her desire is quenched with punishment. What if Katherine's tale is not one of spousal abuse? Instead, a kinky woman escapes sexist family values, a father willing to pawn her off in marriage like a business deal, then falls in love with the dominant master of her secret dreams. Their poetic code words about astral fire and stone laugh in the face of reality. Their attraction is so powerful it rewrites the natural world.

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Keenan's memoir is an intellectual exploration of Shakespeare frosted with playful humor. It's the perfect vacation book: sexy, thrilling and insightful. Bookish geeks will find themselves in sensual literary wonderland with all their favorite characters. Less nerdy readers will enjoy following the sarcastic narrator on a globetrotting adventure full of secrets and butt play. 

Despite its philosophical density, the narrative has a quick pace written with ample personality. "Sex with Shakespeare" is a sublime summer beach read for anyone who enjoys smart writing about love, travel and sex.

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