21 January 2006

Surrender (No Cheap Trick)

A. D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Feminism & Me, Part III. A review of The Surrender: an erotic memoir, by Toni Bentley, published 2005 by Regan Books/HarperCollins Publishers, New York and The Camera My Mother Gave Me, by Susanna Kaysen, published 2002 by Vintage Books, New York.

I must express great admiration for Toni Bentley, for bravery in the line of authorship – for writing a book about her experiences with anal sex, about a relationship she built around anal sex, and for doing so in a way that addresses almost every single detail a reader might think to question, all in a tidy 205 pages in my paperback edition. Reading the book, I would periodically slip in my bookmark, close the covers, and flip it over to stare at the small black-and-white author photo on the book’s backside. Is that placement intentionally evocative? For a book about anal sex, putting something on the backside seems like it must be (and anyway, most paperbacks don’t have an inside flap, the other logical place for an author photo). Without a doubt, though, the small photo of Bentley is more intriguing, interesting, and provocative than the trying-too-hard photo-painting of a sheer panty-clad woman’s ass that hides just under the book’s cover.

My copy of the book is covered with accolades – that’s not a pun – and notations that it was “A New York Times Notable Book,” and was called a variety of positive, sex-neutral adjectives by the likes of The New York Observer, Vanity Fair, and Entertainment Weekly. (Entertainment Weekly reviewed a memoir about anal sex? Yes, folks, and there’s no going back now.) The Village Voice reviewed it, too – and liked it, of course. However, I must take issue with the pull quote from Jerry Stahl, who apparently said of the book: “Think Story of O with a high IQ and a sense of humor...” Oh, come on; did Stahl read more than the first chapter? The Story of O is about pleasure through, by, and with pain (among other things); The Surrender has pain, physical and emotional, but Bentley is seeking a much broader, less-tortured kind of pleasure than dear old O. Plus, she’s not French, and that has to makes a difference.

I want to recommend this book. I also want to warn that it may not be for the faint of heart or weak of sphincter, and anyone who over-empathizes with characters in books and movies may want to reconsider. The Surrender is funny, almost heartwarming and, as I have said, Bentley leads us through “it” in great detail, down to a lesson in dry-shaving her vagina – which, she assures the reader, is much better than a waxing or a wet shave. (Pages 120-122) I, for one, will have to take her word for it.


I’m not here to poke fun at Bentley, her ass, or her book about her ass and what she likes to do with it. I honestly liked it (the book, I mean). It is, in a bizarre way, a marker of independence and achievement: a not-trying-too-hard-Nancy Friday, non-fruity-Anais Nin, serious, well-written erotic memoir that also does not resort purely to the pain/pleasure dialectic of the Marquis de Sade or Story of O. This is not about a woman getting hurt, or seeking to be hurt, even if sex and love may both involve some pain. Moreover, the author uses no pseudonym, an author photo is included, and this from a woman who has not explicitly made her career out of being explicit. Bentley may wish she was Jenna Jameson or some other porn star, but that isn’t her history, except perhaps in her own fantasies or as expressed through another of her books.

Right there, though, is where the book runs into the first of its very few hurdles, for what it says about Bentley (since she does not position herself as trying to speak for anyone else, except in a few instances where she does so directly). I selected this book for my Feminism & Me reading project because of these nitty-gritty elements rather than the book’s specific focal point; Bentley’s frames of reference are what caught my attention, more than her expressed love of what she often calls “ass-fucking” (e.g., Page 103). Not to mention that critiquing a memoir represents a particular challenge; I cannot really take issue with the subjective nature of Bentley’s experiences so much as how she chooses to express or categorize them. It means trying to be careful about drawing parallels from Bentley to the rest of the world, female or otherwise.

Still... Chapter: “Sex History”; page 23; upon masturbating successfully for the first time, with an improved technique learned after seeing a porn film: “Thus began my long and secret career as an aspiring porn star.” Chapter: “Scanty Panties”; page 47; on the visual effect of a particular pair of crotchless panties: “And it looks absolutely beyond porn queen, like the summit of high art – like a Modigliani by Mondrian.” (I challenge you to match that combination of visual references, which may owe more to alliteration than actual art, but works anyway.) Chapter: “The Unwritten Rules”; page 97; about some of the rules in her relationship with “A-Man,” her ass-focused, ass-fucking beau: “We’ve never been to a movie and don’t plan on going to one, ever. Why would we? We are the movie: the porn that can never be – visually astounding, spontaneously inventive, genitally graphic, and viscerally soul-searing.”

References to how certain things – actions, looks, sexual positions – are very “porn” are dotted throughout The Surrender. Who am I to object? Ok, we’ve established already that I am nobody in relation to Bentley’s own experiences. But still, I must object – and to that last quote in particular. As if the entire frame of reference for a movie that Bentley and her A-Man might attend together must, by default or by nature of their relationship, be a pornographic movie? There’s a logical leap here that is missing. I understand that she and A-Man might not want to go catch the anniversary showing of “Gone With the Wind” or “When Harry Met Sally,” but surely there’s a lot of ground to cover in the world of film before one gets to “The Devil In Miss Jones.” Enough pussy-footing around, enough hinting at back-door problems: I found myself bothered by Bentley’s use of the world of porn as her frame of reference for whatever it is she deems the ne plus ultra of sexiness. I do not object, and am not condemning her; it is what it is. But I found these kinds of references artificial, contrived – as the very industry of pornography itself is; when was the last time you saw a “viscerally soul-searing” piece of pornography? – rather than honest in a manner more in keeping with the openness of rest of the book, a book that tackles a subject most people would deny ever thinking about.

Bentley wants her liberation as a woman to be total, not to mention crystal clear to the reader:

Besides, pussies have just been through too much. Give them a rest. They are old news – tired, betrayed, overused, reused, abused – have been overly publicized, politicized, and redeemed. ... Pussies are now too politically correct. The ass is where it’s at: the playground for anarchists, iconoclasts, artists, explorers, little boys, horny men, and women desperate to relinquish, even temporarily, the power that has been so hard won and cruelly awarded by the feminist movement. Ass-fucking realigns the balance for a woman with too much power – and a man with too little. (I think this explains the prevalence of butt-fucking in heterosexual porn: masses of men, refugees from feminism, watching, hard and ever-hopeful.) (Page 84)

I have unpacked this paragraph over and over again in my mind since first reading it, and I still wind up with the same cluster of circular-logic conclusions: feminism has politicized “regular” sex; ass-fucking is transgressive; ass-fucking is so normal that it’s highly prevalent in pornography; pornography is normal’ and porn and porno styles, as previously noted, are sexy. Bentley wants to have it both ways: she wants the whole anal act to be transgressive – because it makes the story compelling, and it’s what binds it all together, and it’s a rejection of all that over-blown feminist malarkey. Plus, it sells books. And yet at the same time, we readers need to believe that it’s all somewhat normal, because if we place Bentley in the role of O (to take one example), she’ll have a harder time getting, and keeping, the sympathy of most readers.

At times, I wished that I had Ariel Levy around, to talk through The Surrender with me. Is Bentley a liberated woman, or a Female Chauvinist Pig – or a liberated woman in Pig’s clothing? Bentley is not above a little hard-won objectification of her own, and not just of herself. Her not-quite-love story falls apart, as one might have expected from the first, at the sight of another woman’s ass (or, whatever). The existence of The Other Woman (a/k/a “mousy brunette”) is no surprise to Bentley, but when A-Man winds up having to start thinking about choices, Bentley starts to wonder about Mousy Brunette: “I also became inordinately, insanely fixated on the size of her ass. It was, after all, twice mine, if not more ... maybe two and half times [sic] mine ... If A-Man so loved my tight ass, how could he love that wide one, too?” (Page 179) Putting aside the obvious fact that Mousy Brunette’s ass-interior might rival Bentley’s for strength and sexy-turpitude – its overall size notwithstanding – it is a disappointing end indeed to find that Bentley calls the whole deal off because of this.

She’s got courage, our author, even though she denies having it (Page 194). For me, though, the jury is still out on where all this truly leads, whether there is a bigger lesson one can draw here. Bentley’s courage is manifest not in her ability to end a relationship that was so clearly on the shoals anyway; rather, it is her fearless assessment of the situation, bottom to bottom: liberated enough to know what she wants, what she likes, and to start asking for it (broadly defined) from whatever men she sees, following 298 ass-fucks from the A-Man. Nor is she a sucker to the Politically Correct feminist nonsense that tries to deny biology or human nature; “It was us women asking for information that we didn’t really want that precipitated the events that followed” (Page 175) she noted, as her relationship with A-Man started to fall apart. How apt, and refreshingly honest. We all make mistakes. So, if Bentley finds pornography “sexy” or a helpful frame of reference for how to dress up her vagina or keep her heels on during sex, well, more power to her, no? As much as someone would surely deny it, isn’t this what feminism was really all about: the freedom to make choices? And even, if one wants, to surrender.


There is one more issue to confront in Bentley’s memoir: her language. I made reference above to how she chooses to “dress up her vagina,” but what’s interesting is that “vagina” is not Bentley’s word-of-choice for hers. Bentley has a “pussy,” and no matter whether it’s bald or hairy, clean, wet, excited, or ignored, that’s her word for it.

What does the language we use say about us? What difference does it make to call ones vagina a vagina or a pussy? I tend to stay away from the academic world of linguistic analysis because it strives so hard for a largely elusive objectivity. I also typically subscribe to the George Carlin view that “There are no bad words. [Just] Bad Thoughts. Bad Intentions.” (See George Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words.) What if a person grew up being taught to call their vagina a pussy” (a scenario bizarrely easy to imagine)? Perhaps Bentley was one such woman. And what if that is truly the word she became most comfortable with, before she was even old enough to be aware of its broader social usage and connotations?

Enough with the questions. Susanna Kaysen’s The Camera My Mother Gave Me affirmed for me the hollowness of Bentley’s exterior bravado – “pussy” this and “porno” that; it starts to read like an act. Maybe it is a reflection of Female Chauvinist Pig behavior, or a manifestation of it. Perhaps porn images really are integral to how Bentley sees herself, and her vagina, but I suspect that it is an attempt to use what she must consider sexy common parlance, language that is responsive to the Female Chauvinist Pig-driven environment in which we live. A world where a vagina is what a gynecologist looks at – but a pussy, well, a pussy has fun.

Kaysen’s memoir chronicles a pain that developed in her vagina, and the problems it caused for her vagina, for the rest of her body, for her psyche, and for her relationships, as well as her attempts to treat it through one doctor and one intervention after another. Much like the relative merits of dry-shaving versus waxing one’s vagina, I can only go so far in comprehending what Kaysen must have felt, and felt like, throughout this ordeal. Yet even without the corresponding anatomy, it is a moving story because it is so utterly human.

Part of what ensures this is Kaysen’s use of language; not once does she refer to her vagina by any other words. The word “pussy” is used a handful of times, by her boyfriend (e.g., Pages 44, 49); an Italian friend refers to “la Passera,” or “the sparrow,” an Italian term of endearment, Kaysen tells us (Page 26). Otherwise, what we’re talking about as the nexus of the author’s pain and pleasure is her vagina. Perhaps, in the real-life version of the many conversations with friends and doctors that Kaysen recounts, she used the word less frequently or employed a euphemism of some sort; but I doubt it. The language in this book is spare, direct, uncomplicated and uncluttered.

It is not hard to image a tribute to anal sex written by Kaysen; she makes a convincing case for herself as a very sexual being. It would be dramatically different, though: despite Kaysen’s pain, and Bentley’s passionate devotion to her most private parts, Kaysen is the one who seems more in touch with herself, her body, and her womanhood. I will conclude with a quote from The Camera My Mother Gave Me that makes the point quite well:

I wanted my vagina back.

I wanted unpredictability, upset, waywardness. I wanted the world to regain the other dimension that only the vagina can perceive. Because the vagina is the organ that looks to the future. The vagina is potential. It’s not emptiness, it’s possibility, and possibility was exactly what was missing from my life. (Page 127)


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