THE SURRENDER An Erotic Memoir,
by Toni Bentley.
By ZOE HELLER
An Erotic Memoir.
By Toni Bentley.
208 pp. ReganBooks/ HarperCollins Publishers. $24.95
In recent years, a small but pungent subgenre of extreme female confession has emerged from the general glut of published memoirs. The outre personal experiences retailed in such works have ranged from nymphomaniac picaresques (Catherine M.) and incest (Kathryn Harrison) to spanking fetishes (Daphne Merkin) and the obsessive cyber-stalking of ex-lovers (Katha Pollitt).
For a reading public long since inured to the shock value of mere drug addiction or child abuse, these stories have provided a timely upping of the sensationalist ante. That dubious achievement aside, they are also to be credited with subverting some of the more pious 20th-century truisms concerning female sexuality.
If the official rhetoric of second-wave feminism has tended to depict women as gentle, peaceable creatures who seek meaningful sexual encounters with respectful, supportive partners, the extreme confessors propose an altogether less sunshiny portrait both of women and of their desires. In doing so, they embarrass some of the simple-minded notions that have become associated, over the years, with the lapidary slogan ''The personal is political.'' Women do not, they remind us, always behave nobly in matters of the heart. Nor do women always need -- or want -- to be treated as valiant, serious-minded people in bed.
To this interesting tributary of corrective incorrectness is now added ''The Surrender: An Erotic Memoir.'' Toni Bentley, a former ballet dancer who has written a number of books about dance (most notably ''Winter Season,'' an account of her life at the New York City Ballet during Balanchine's tenure), has taken the radical decision to compose a manifesto for anal sex. ''This is no feminist treatise about equality,'' she warns us -- perhaps a little superfluously -- in her introduction. ''This is the truth about the beauty of submission.''
Predictably enough, the press material that arrived with my galley heralded this volume as a daring and courageous inquiry into ''what many consider to be the last remaining taboo.'' Anal sex is very far from being the last remaining taboo, of course. (The last time I checked, cannibalism and necrophilia were still struggling for acceptance.) Indeed, there are some signs that the status of anal sex as any kind of taboo is under attack. State laws against sodomy were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2003. And no less mainstream a fictional character than Bridget Jones cheerfully engaged in the practice, in the film adaptation of Helen Fielding's best-selling novel ''Bridget Jones's Diary.''
Still, fair is fair: no woman before Bentley has felt quite zealous enough about what she calls ''emancipation through the back door'' to write an entire book in its praise. Bentley credits sodomy with having resolved the lifelong psychosexual problems that resulted from not being loved enough by her father. (In one luridly Freudian episode of this book, Bentley pere is described punishing his 4-year-old daughter for some minor infraction by angrily smearing a banana on her face and in her hair.) By giving herself up to ''this forbidden pathway,'' Bentley writes, she has not only found her self, she has discovered ''Paradise,'' she has experienced ''eternity in a moment of real time,'' and she has gotten to know God ''experientially.'' That's not all. She is also pretty sure that anal sex is responsible for piercing her yang, forcing her yin to the surface and releasing decades of anger stored in her lower intestine.
Bentley's inclination to various kinds of self-abasement found early expression in her childhood fascination with the lives of the saints, and later on in her career as a ballet dancer. (All that pain and discipline, all that bowing and scraping before the God-like Balanchine.) But neither these interests nor a busy history of sexual experimentation ever fully satisfied her masochistic yearnings. Only, she claims, when she met a man prepared to focus his attention on her neglected orifice did she enter the realm of bliss. For the just under three years that she and her sodomizer -- a man referred to throughout the book by the regrettable moniker ''A-Man'' -- enjoyed regular bouts of earth-moving sex, Bentley maintained a detailed journal of her experiences. She also kept a tally of how many times she was anally penetrated and made mathematical calculations about the average number of anal episodes she was having per year, week and day. She fetishized the accouterments of her sexual obsession -- dedicating herself to finding the best and most economical lubricants, the most sex-friendly boudoir-wear. In a manner befitting a woman who was experiencing a spiritual as well as sexual awakening, she also preserved her lover's used condoms, much as an acolyte might hoard religious relics.
''THE SURRENDER'' is a brave book -- although not because it tackles a ''taboo'' or because it is frank. (Candor is surely too epidemic in the popular culture, these days, to qualify any longer as courageous.) Its bravery lies rather in its earnest attempt to do justice to the transcendent dimension of a profane act. Sex, it is always claimed, is immensely difficult to write about. But that's not quite true. To recount the embarrassments and alienation of lackluster coitus is a relative doddle. It is good sex -- or great sex -- that presents the real challenges for a writer. While Bentley certainly has the requisite pluck for the job, her prose, alas, proves incommensurate with her ambition.
For much of her narrative, she resorts to the demotic language of contemporary pornography. While unbeautiful, this has the virtue of appropriateness. It is when she strives for a high, poetic style that she runs into problems.
''I was now being given a second chance,'' she writes of her anal deflowering, ''not on the well-trodden vaginal trail, but in a place entirely new to my consciousness -- and it quickly became the site of my consciousness.''
The results of her laboriously facetious punning jags are hardly more pleasing:
''This is the back story of a love story. A back story that is the whole story. A second hole story, to be entirely accurate. Love from inside my backside. . . . No hindsight for me in this great love but rather behind-sight -- cited from the eye of my behind.''
And the jaunty ''how-to'' voice into which she occasionally lapses (when weighing up the relative merits of shaving versus waxing, say, or deliberating on which kind of ''scanty panties'' provide the better value) yields perhaps the most gruesome sentences of all.
Bentley is a great believer in the virtues of what the sociologists call ''transactional sex.'' Which is to say, she is against diluting her erotic pleasures with the banal stuff of relationships. ''Desire is sexy, a show of free will,'' she writes; ''attachment is the enemy of free will.'' Dinner dates are anathema. ''I preferred sex on an empty stomach, and to eat alone with a good book.'' She presents the affair with A-Man as the perfect enactment of her sexual philosophy. She never goes out with him. They have no mutual friends. Their relationship is restricted to her bedroom. When, at last, she is confronted with the fact that he is sleeping with another woman, and suffers pangs of terrible jealousy, she chooses to dump him rather than beg for the death-in-life that is fidelity.
This -- much more than Bentley's preferred sexual position -- is the truly provocative matter dealt with in ''The Surrender.'' Most married adults -- male and female -- know something about the business of trading intensity for security and passion for comfort. But as wistful as they may sometimes grow for the excitements of yesteryear, very few of them have the mettle to live out Bentley's austere choice. Her desire and ability to do so may, she acknowledges, be evidence of deep psychic wounds. But if so, she is happy to be wounded. ''I once loved a man so much that I no longer existed -- all Him, no Me,'' she writes. ''Now I love myself just enough that no man exists -- all Me, no Them. They all used to be God, and I used to be a figment of my own imagination; now men are figments of my imagination.''
IF this is a victory, it's surely the Pyrrhic kind. There is something grimly narcissistic about the world of zipless, fantasy sex that Bentley has created for herself; something sad and alienated about its unforgiving aesthetic standards and intolerance of human frailty. (Apart from the bedroom, the only other location that features in this book with any frequency is the gym.) Moreover, the contempt that Bentley expresses for women who have not taken her path -- her characterization of them as pitiable bourgeois types, mired in laundry and consumer goods, who have forsaken sexual joy for mortgages -- is suspiciously vehement. She protests too much. Surely, if you're certain of having found Paradise, you can afford to be a little more magnanimous toward your less privileged sisters?
Zoe Heller's most recent novel is ''What Was She Thinking?''
T H E
NEW YORK OBSERVER
The Ballerina Who Bent
by Alexandra Jacobs
On Sunday afternoon, former New York City Ballet dancer Toni Bentley glissade’d into the garden of the Chateau Marmont to discuss her new memoir about sodomy.
Specifically, butt sex. The Surrender—Ms. Bentley’s annals of anal, her tract about her tract, her literary end-all be-all (it becomes hard to stop)—will be published by ReganBooks this week, and the author, hiding behind dark prescription sunglasses and a veil of Chanel No. 5, seemed both proud and petrified: a brittle twig amid the eternally, depressingly green West Hollywood foliage.
"I’m certainly not proselytizing," she said. "I’m not trying to get everyone to do this act—in fact, I think most people shouldn’t do it. I’m completely laissez-faire about that. But I also feel that I can’t be entirely alone."
Indeed, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
The thing that makes Ms. Bentley’s new sex confessional extraordinary is less its content—sex confessionals aren’t exactly hard to come by these days—but her curriculum vitae. A New Yorker since the age of 4, she spent a decade dancing under the direction of the legendary George Balanchine in that great Turning Point era when ballet was more than just high art to the city, when it seemed as if every little girl in Manhattan owned a pair of Capezio slippers (pink for the Upper East Siders; black for the Village "bohemians") and a gleaming cellophane-bound copy of Jill Krementz’s book A Very Young Dancer.
Little Toni was one of the pink girls. "I had to become a ballerina," she said. She attended the School of American Ballet and the Professional Children’s School. At 15 or so, she began keeping a diary ("an Anaïs Nin–type thing"), scribbling on yellow legal pads; at age 17, she joined the NYCB, dancing in The Nutcracker for $6.95 per performance; and in 1982, Random House published Winter Season, an account of her time there. It was well-received.
In that maiden book, the young corps de ballet member described her worshipful attitude toward Suzanne Farrell, Mr. Balanchine’s main muse. "I never said boo to her," said Ms. Bentley, who would neither give her age (available evidence suggests mid-40’s) nor discuss the divorce that brought her out West for a fresh start over a decade ago. "She was the goddess. She was intimidating. Then this book came out, and she came up to me at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center after class. We were all looking at the schedule, dripping with sweat—except for her, of course, because she didn’t sweat—and she said to me with these huge blue eyes, ‘Is your book available in legitimate bookstores?’"
The two later collaborated on Ms. Farrell’s own memoir, Holding On to the Air.
Forced to retire early because of a hip injury, Ms. Bentley had found not only a way to have power over the alpha females of this world, but a less ephemeral career.
"I was a very good dancer," she said quietly, poking at a Caesar salad with shrimp. Her outfit today was circa 1978, in a tres chic way: smocked aqua cotton sundress, large denim platform sandals on her size-six feet (spending any amount of time on point is akin to Chinese foot-binding), lots of costume jewelry, pearls dangling from her ears and around her neck, silver bracelets circling both wrists, rhinestones at her décolletage and toes.
"I was not as good a dancer as I could have been," Ms. Bentley corrected. "I consider myself now to have been too modest and fearful. I was kind of too shy to put out there how good I was. I’m braver on the page than I was onstage, that’s for sure."
Reading Ms. Bentley’s most recent opus, which is certainly not for the faint of stomach, it’s tempting to draw a parallel with the current best-seller, How to Make Love Like a Porn Star by Jenna Jameson. Both authors are published by Judith Regan, with the latter’s signature scrapbook-like chapter structure and spastic typefaces. (Is it just one’s imagination, or do Regan books even smell different as they roll off the presses, sort of like burnt popcorn?) Both have queasy New York Times connections (Ms. Jameson famously got a little help from former Times music writer Neil Strauss; Ms. Bentley has freelanced for the Arts & Leisure section—"an honor," she said). Both reserve the honor of anal sex for the special men in their lives ("I’ve only given that up to three men, all of whom I loved," writes the bodacious Ms. Jameson; Ms. Bentley "surrenders" to two). And both have put in time as strippers.
The porn star’s book, more of a multimedia affair, includes an illustrated interlude entitled "Jenna Jameson’s Stripper Dancer Injuries 101" (bunions, lower back pain, ruptured breast implants)—hard knocks of life after logging nights at the Crazy Horse Two in Las Vegas.
The ballerina followed a different track to taking it all off: Tiptoeing after Mr. Balanchine to one of his favorite hangouts, the original Crazy Horse Saloon in Paris, in 1980 ("I thought, ‘Oh my God, these girls are just like us’"), a seed was planted which bloomed years later when, no longer dancing with NYCB, Ms. Bentley performed a choreographed burlesque of her own at the now-defunct Blue Angel in Tribeca. "Part of my coming-out," she said, adding, "I still have the money I made—$89."
She used the experience in another book, Sisters of Salome—an intensively researched history of the striptease that was printed by Yale University Press in 2002. "I’m a sexy chick who’s published by Yale University Press—deal with it," she told the Los Angeles Times during the promotional blitz for that volume.
Ms. Bentley surely got way more than $89 for The Surrender, but now faces almost an opposite challenge: publicizing a work of erotica published by an imprint shared not by Harold Brodkey but Howard Stern (Buttman himself), while still maintaining her intellectual credibility among the highbrow crowd. Her next project, after all, is a biography of the NYCB co-founder Lincoln Kirstein; her literary ideal is not Josephine Hart but Colette. Deal with it, encore!
"But the whole high-low thing—that’s where everything happens, to me," Ms. Bentley said excitedly. "That’s what I learned from Balanchine! He’s the ultimate high-art artist, but not a snob, and used to say things like ‘Vulgarity is very useful.’"
And what would Mr. B. make of her new work?
"Ah ha ha ha," Ms. Bentley said. "Gosh—that’s a tough one. I think he would be amused. I think he would be amused, and perhaps happy that he’s dead.
"But then, of course, most sex writing is awful," she said.
The Surrender takes some care to hide that it is sex writing; it comes sheathed in a black cover with a keyhole opening; underneath, there’s a painting by the late John Kacere of an anonymous odalisque’s posterior in sheer panties. "Everyone is going to be asking if that’s me," the author sighed. In fact, the image was also used in the opening shot of Sofia Coppola’s much-ballyhooed 2003 movie, Lost in Translation. "It all kind of happened at the same time, and I thought, ‘Oh, it’s the Year of the Ass,’" Ms. Bentley said, giving a prim little laugh.
The book, thank God, is not without humor, intended or otherwise. The narrator describes why she was drawn to ballet as a physical activity ("I had an outright terror of balls of any size heading in my direction"); tells of an affair with a masseur ("The massages were paid for by insurance," she notes); and declares Dr. Ruth–ishly that "you can’t half-ass butt-fuck." A plucky chapter on crotchless panties adds to the occasional advice-column feel. Freud shows up on page 53; Proust’s "madeleine" 99 pages later; Eve Ensler is sandwiched somewhere in between.
There are more than a few swipes at feminism. "Oh my goodness," Ms. Bentley said, with some exasperation. "Basically, feminism is a fantastic thing. Feminism made it possible for me to write this book and have it published, O.K.? That’s the bottom line. Within the scope of things, if feminism means pro-women in every way, I’m the ultimate. But I do not call myself a feminist necessarily. It’s not a label I use."
She went on: "Obviously, I believe in equality, whatever that is. I think that men and women are equal. I mean, equal pay, that’s such a given—but going beyond that? Sexually? Even-steven in the bedroom? That’s not really interesting."
Alas, it is not particularly more interesting to learn that Ms. Bentley has saved the detritus of her anal lovemaking (with a fellow known simply as A-Man) in "a beautiful, tall, round, hand-painted, Chinese lacquered box." Hundreds of used condoms and K-Y: "My treasure," coos the narrator. One woman’s treasure is another’s trash, honey.
Nor, perhaps, was it wise for her to write, after A-Man penetrates her for the 220th time, that "I want to die with him in my ass"—for at that point, the reader is tempted to agree.
The Surrender’s many sex scenes are graphic, unrelenting, explicit—full of four-letter words and the occasional multiple-partner exertions. It might not be porn in the Supreme Court’s "I know it when I see it" sense—i.e., meant to titillate—but it certainly shares a narrative resemblance to porn: pseudonymous principals, thin story line, jumpy sex scenes.
"Obviously, what we were doing was very technical," said Ms. Bentley. "I’m not going to deny that I wanted to be totally graphic. Which I would align very much with my dance training! You know, Balanchine was the most spiritual, most soulful choreographer ever, and he never talked about that. It was technicalities: If you do three million tendus, you might get it right, and then chances are your soul might show onstage. So to me, this is the same thing."
Early critics are gushing like Astroglide, including Publishers Weekly ("wonderfully smart and sexy and witty and moving," wrote the reviewer, adding a star) and The New Republic’s literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, a noted balletomane who received the galley from noir balladeer Leonard Cohen (a mutual friend whose song "Waiting for the Miracle" was chosen by Ms. Bentley as her stripper music).
"I think it might be a small masterpiece of erotic writing," Mr. Wieseltier said in a phone interview. "I admired its lucidity, the tone is true and unsentimental, and it’s so natural—the explicitness is so completely unaffected. It’s not a cold book, but it’s not a moist book. In a funny sort of way, you come away with a feeling more for Toni’s mind than for Toni’s body. I had a feeling of regret when I read it, that it fell to Judith Regan to publish it. I miss the austerity of the old Olympia Press. I miss the days when pornography used to be published austerely."
Is The Surrender pornography, then? "I fear that her publisher thinks it might be pornography," Mr. Wieseltier said sharply. "It’s not pornographic at all. It’s an account of an experience, not an account of a pleasure or an account of a sin or an account of a crime. ‘Serious writing about sex’ is what I’d call it.
"It’s a miracle that a trade publisher did this at all," he added. "Other New York publishers were simply cowards."
Back at the Chateau, Ms. Bentley was feeling a little quivery herself, contemplating her imminent debut as a sodomite.
"It’s funny—so many people have said to me about this book that it’s brave," she said. "Bravery’s a funny thing. Everything has been written; between the Marquis de Sade and the Bible and D.H. Lawrence and Forum and Penthouse, how can anyone be shocked?"
Originally, she confessed, she shopped The Surrender under the nom de plume Madeleine LeClerc, after one of the marquis’ prison mistresses. "But then one person said to me, ‘Your book is so bold, you can’t just then back up on a pseudonym’—so to speak. And I went, ‘O.K., then I’m just going to go for it! I am just going to leap off the cliff!’
"You know, Balanchine always wanted you to put yourself out there, chin up and everything," Ms. Bentley said. "And it was hard for me to do that. And it makes me laugh that I’m doing all of this in my own way, later on."
"You open your ass and you open your mind and you open your heart." Toni Bentley talks about her new anal sex memoir, "The Surrender."
By Rebecca Traister
Oct. 8, 2004 | As a young woman, Toni Bentley danced with the New York City Ballet, and made a second career writing well-reviewed books about it. She knew George Balanchine and co-wrote Suzanne Farrell's autobiography, and she can delicately describe the agony of toeshoes and the psychological rigors of the barre. Now she has turned her literary attention to another activity that stretches body, mind and psyche: sodomy.
In "The Surrender," her 205-page "erotic memoir," by Page 26 Bentley has dispatched with her first orgasm (after French erotica on the Upper East Side), the loss of her vaginal virginity (to a man who tells her, "You've got a great ass"), an affair with a stagehand who has her sit on his face, and a 10-year marriage. She then sits back and luxuriates in her chronicle of her post-marriage sexual experimentation. There is her cunnilingus-heavy affair with a masseur she continues to pay, her appreciation for "Pussy Hounds" or men "who live to dive," and repeated threesomes with a Pre-Raphaelite redheaded woman and a "Young Man," who later gets a new epithet, "A-Man." A-Man is the lover who introduces Bentley to anal intercourse, the act that gives "The Surrender," and Bentley herself, a soul.
In addition to enjoying the physical act itself -- which she finds "unwinds" the lower bowels -- the atheist Bentley insists that she found a spiritual ecstasy in buggery. She has been to the mountain and seen God; and apparently, He likes it from behind. Despite her mad love for A-Man -- evidenced in no small part by the fact that she keeps the condoms-and-K-Y detritus of their unions and a baggy-full of his pubic hair in a little memory box -- Bentley staunchly resists a traditional commitment to him. The lovers do not meet outside the bedroom: no monogamy, no dating, no shared friends, no movies or meals. In fact, the only food they consume together is the occasional restorative snack between back-door intrusions. By the end of the book, A-Man is history, and leveled Bentley is left to sort out her altered body, desires and devotions.
Even though it won't officially be available until next week, the book has, not surprisingly, garnered a lot of attention. Bentley, speaking to Salon by phone from Los Angeles, spoke quickly and kindly and actually sounded quite shy as she discussed anal hygiene, the costs of monogamy, and her conviction that her book will anger feminists.
Your book is a memoir of anal sex. You describe your first time as surprising and ecstatic, not something you stretched for, worked up to. So ... no searing pain?
You want the technical description? I use explicit language in the book, in a literary context, but using that language out of context can be disheartening to me.
But no, it was absolutely not searing pain. It was astonishing. He was very slow and very gentle and very loving and nothing was against my will and this was a very consensual act between two people. The most important part of the act technically is slowness, and most men don't know how to do it properly. Men usually move too fast with the other kind of sex. And you have to go way slower [with anal penetration]. The muscles are tighter.
"You could eat off my asshole," you write, describing your ritual ablutions. Can it be true that you did not see, touch or smell shit during the 298 anal penetrations you describe? Is that a realistic expectation for most people?
It's true. I am a regular woman. I don't want lots of pain, lots of bleeding, and I certainly don't want lots of shit everywhere. You can help by being extremely hygenic, having good digestion ... But no, there was absolutely zero shit factor. If there had been I wouldn't have done it.
Now, I don't think that's true for all people. Some people are even into it being not like that. But I am bearing witness to my own experience and saying that it can be the way it was for me. All those gross-out factors were completely absent.
I didn't set out to write a book about sex or anal sex at all. I had an experience, started keeping notes. I was fascinated that I had this incredibly emotional and spiritual reaction to this act. The edge is fascinating to me. It's the juxtaposition of the so-called high and low.
What's high and what's low about sodomy?
I completely understand that anal sex to many people, whether they love it or not, may be the most taboo sex act or the basest sex act there is. You're going in the exit, a place you're not supposed to talk about, that you're ashamed of, where you defecate. People have a dirty association with it.
Yet I had the most transcendent sexual experience from going there many times. I started reading about it ... It started making so much sense: the contradiction of [going] in the back door. That Oscar Wilde line about being in the gutter but looking at the stars. It was also about not being a snob, of not thinking, I won't go there. It's vulgar. Balanchine believed in putting yourself out there and when I danced, I couldn't do that. I was too shy and modest as a dancer.
How is the pleasure of anal sex different from the pleasure of vaginal sex?
First of all, the g-spot can absolutely be stimulated from your ass. But to me it's much more than that. There is a great deal more trust. Because it could hurt, it could hurt like crazy. You have to be willing and open-minded in a way you simply don't have to be with vaginal sex. It's pretty easy for a guy to get in [a vagina] whether a woman wants it or not.
But it is a much more extreme physical feeling to release your muscles. We have very strong muscles there; we all know that from what we usually do there. To release it, you open your ass and you open your mind and you open your heart. For me it opened everything.
I cannot accentuate enough that it was with this one particular man. It's absolutely not that I am a woman who loves anal sex. I loved anal sex with this man who I loved. And I think most of us women know a lot of men who would like to go there, and I've said no as many times as anyone else. It takes a very gentle man to do it. A lot of men are not up to it.
At the end of your book, you have only had anal sex with one other man. Now, years later, have you had other anal relationships?
I would rather not talk about my personal life.
But you write in the book about your unwillingness to ask A-Man to commit. If you loved him so much why didn't you want to make him a committed, monogamous part of your life?
I considered all of these things. I learned things about the magic we had between us. What creates that magic is very complex ... And it only got better. [A-Man and I] discussed this: How come time 250 is better than time 249? Most committed, monogamous relationships are good for a week or six months, or if you're really lucky six years. I did not have any girlfriends who were having as reliably and transcendentally good sex as I was. And if we had a conventional movies-and-dinner relationship, I thought we would lose the magic.
I am not selling this type of relationship. I had a long and monogamous marriage to a man I loved very much. It didn't work out, and my disappointment was unbelievably huge ... I didn't want the same kind of heartbreak again. With A-Man, the sex never went bad. To me that's some kind of victory. My tolerance for certain kinds of disappointment is very low and will probably never improve. So perfection is what's strived for. That's from ballet. I saw it manifesting itself while watching Suzanne Farrell ... Transcendent things can happen in life.
But you did experience devastation when your relationship with A-Man ended?
You cannot go that high without going that low. I was devastated, but I survived. It lasted an incredibly long time at an incredibly high level. I took a huge risk with him in not being monogamous, and got extreme and incredible sex that made all other sex incredibly profane in comparison. We had sacred sex.
But now that you're not having sacred sex anymore, is all other sex still profane? Do you enjoy vaginal sex?
Oh sure, I love that too. That's great like everybody knows it's great. This was a different realm, an emotionally different realm.
Do you think feminists are going to be ticked off by your book?
My book owes everything to the feminist movement. I am a product of that. I am a woman who had this experience that was very unconventional ... I am interested in my sex: in experiencing it and in the powers it holds for me. I am interested in our freedoms: You're a woman and I'm a woman having this conversation about this kind of book -- this is fantastic! But I think some women will protest the obvious things that I am talking about: submitting or surrender. I say feminism gave me the freedom to submit. Isn't this what we all want from feminism? The ability to choose conventional monogamy is a great option but not the only option.
And my ability to submit -- I wouldn't have been a woman who could have done that even 10 or 20 years ago.
I tried what most women do: monogamy. I have never been unfaithful to any man who thought I was being faithful to him. It's a point of integrity for me.
So I had the more conventional type of relationship until I left my marriage and began experimenting with many things. But I don't think [anal sex] would have had resonance if I had been 23 years old. It was a very sophisticated tightrope walk. It came from incredible mutual respect. Nobody begged each other, nobody nagged each other; we never talked about compromising for the greater good.
There were limitations, yes. We didn't have a commitment, but what that means I don't know. Most people who have a commitment don't have what we had, which happened incredibly consistently until we ended it. I have a great dislike for relationships [where] you get so close you start yelling and screaming at each other, blaming each other. He and I never did that. I would have never yelled at him; he would have never yelled at me.
You write that submitting to A-Man brought out your femininity. What is feminine to you? What is masculine?
I suppose I think of it in terms of energies; all men and women have both masculine and feminine energies. The feminine side in a man or woman is the more open, intuitive, feeling, sensitive, vulnerable, receptive side. And the male side in both men and women would be the more aggressive, analytical, penetrating, knowledgeable, intellectual side.
In relationships it's about how people play off each other. A very feminine woman and a very feminine man -- maybe you should go off and be gay. I don't believe you are going to be able to have fantastic sex that way. You need polarized energies. Of course if a man is 100 percent masculine they're sort of Neanderthals and you can't talk to them. But in my relationship with A-man where I became my most feminine sexually, he was the most masculine of anyone I'd ever been with. I wanted him in control, which was an incredible relief to me.
The huge problem is you cannot give just anyone control. To give that up to some guy? On the whole you'd be a fool. He has to be trustworthy.
But it was the biggest relief I ever felt. Obviously I am an intelligent woman, a successful woman. I have written all these books, danced for George Balanchine. I know all about control and the ultimate act for me is to be able to give that up. It was the greatest gift to me to be able to be some kind of melting essence and not have to control the situation, not have to dictate, not have to be on top technically and otherwise.
You refer to anal sex as one of the last taboos. The New York Times' review of your book pointed to necrophilia and cannibalism as other examples. I'm looking at the Web site of a guy who claims to have a loving and mutual sexual relationship with a dolphin. What's one taboo over the line for you?
I do not believe in the abuse or humiliation of animals. They are noble, natural, innocent creatures who should not be abused by humans doing their thing sexually. Otherwise, I am open-minded. Beyond the animals. If that's your thing, that's your thing, as long as it's consensual.
You pin your awakening on anal sex. But you also write that oral sex with your masseur -- whom you paid -- changed your life.
The masseur was a very big steppingstone in my coming-out party. He was the first lover I had after my marriage. And it was also completely based on mutual respect. There was never going to be intercourse, and I started developing this idea of the erotic having boundaries: no telephone, no mortgage bills, no cars that need fixing, no mutual friends, no family. We were hermetically sealed in this erotic space where you do your thing with each other. It was great until it was over, until he and I just moved on. It became one of my developing theories: put limitations on things, make it a balancing act and tradeoff. I would rather have great sex than bad or no sex with a dinner companion.
It sounds more like lowering expectations than demanding perfection.
It is about making expectations lower. The idea being, let them be who they are without trying to change everything. Just try to let all the good exist and don't go where you'll be disappointed. If I wanted a full-on, monogamous, going-on-vacation relationship with the masseur, it wouldn't have worked. I probably would have been in pain and disappointed and incredibly angry with him, which isn't pleasant for me, and not loving to him.
Can you talk a bit about the connections you make in the book between being anally penetrated and finding God?
This act took me to a place emotionally and mentally that I would call of a spiritual realm. The best way to say it is that I went beyond my own ego, and most of us are mired in ego 24/7: all the constant self-criticism, self-love, self-loathing.
While having this kind of sex [with A-Man] I went beyond this voice in my head and beyond all control. And I write in the book, beyond control lies God.
Giving up control is a profound thing. Who you do it with and the context of it is crucial. I transcended my own smaller, pettier self, transcended my own self-hatred, incredible neediness, incredible need for approval. I went beyond that and was kind of like free-floating in space or something. That is what I call the experience of God.
The other way one can talk about this is, I was profoundly, profoundly in love with this man.
You write about moving through pain to pleasure. You even use the word "masochist" in the book. Is anal sex a masochistic pleasure?
It's not that I want to hurt. I don't want to be in pain, emotional or physical, more than anyone else. But I do have a deep connection to pain, both as a dancer and -- how can I explain this -- it's really hard to explain. I won't let a guy near me who doesn't treat me like a queen, I can promise you. Yet to be very submissive, to have this kind of sex act repeatedly with this man. One can call that masochistic. But there was zero bad about it.
I was more vulnerable with him than I'd ever been with anyone else. That's also why it was so painful at the end. I really went very, very deeply into vulnerability and that dark side because I trusted him.
The other thing about masochism is that if it is defined as being intensely receptive and open, then that is going back to male/female traits, because that is a feminine place to be -- to be the ones who get penetrated vaginally or otherwise.
But your argument that you were feminine falls apart when you consider that you took these acts and wrote them down and are talking about them now: an analytical, intellectually penetrative act that you would ascribe to a masculine energy.
That's true actually. Here I am with this book ... the phallic pen and all that. Who knows, it's possible I went so deeply into my submission that a strange balance brought out the other part. It's very possible that in many ways writing was counterbalance to the vulnerability and the way I kept control.
Also, you know we all have that question: Who's on top, who's on the bottom, who's in control?
In S/M, they say the bottom is in control.
Rebecca Traister is a staff writer for Salon Life.
Sunday, October 17, 2004
By Toni Bentley
REGANBOOKS; 208 PAGES; $24.95
When it comes to sodomy, Toni Bentley is a traditionalist. Let the sex columnists rhapsodize about clitoral nerve endings that go all the way down; Bentley adores anal sex for reasons the Marquis de Sade would have appreciated: because it hurts, because it takes discipline, because it represents, as she puts it, "the great anti-romantic gesture."
A former dancer with George Balanchine's New York City Ballet (and author of a well-regarded book about the experience), Bentley knew a thing or two about the strange marriage of ecstasy and pain. But she had never experienced it in her sex life until she met the lover she dubs A-Man. With him, she discovered pleasure that transcended sensation. Having plain-vanilla intercourse with other partners, she had been "the critical Queen, the impossible Princess, the problem child." Anal sex with A-Man made her pliant and "sweet." It revealed a realm of bliss beyond pain where she felt for the first time -- no sniggering, please -- the presence of God.
But even in the throes of submission, Bentley remains the preening, narcissistic performer. She parades her cleverness in too-cute prose. She draws attention to her pert bottom, her fantastic shoes and her collection of crotchless underwear. She keeps a logbook of anal penetrations.
During a rough patch in the affair, she hires a "pretty woman in a pink- sequined minidress" to pray for her while she weeps. The act quickly wears thin. Promising a profane story of spiritual connection, "The Surrender" delivers instead an off-putting spectacle of self-indulgence.
Longtime readers of this blog know that I frequently criticize the Page Six column of the New York Post for hyping HarperCollins books without disclosing the corporate ties that bind newspaper and publishing house, an ethical lapse they engage in over and over. But this weekend's online column (no idea if the item made its way into print) adds a new twist, promoting Toni Bentley's The Surrender by attacking it with a comparison to "an intellectualized letter to Penthouse magazine." Not to mention lewdly giggling at Judith Regan's original cover idea, "a photo of a woman's posterior barely covered in sheer panties," which was apparently naysayed by timid booksellers (or rather, we've since been told, hidden behind a wraparound).
Good timing on their part, though, to run this little item the same weekend as Zoe Heller's mixed NYTBR review of The Surrender. It strikes me as a little padded--frankly, I'm never impressed with the reviewer's technique of dipping into the press packet for things to mock--and Heller's flat out wrong when she claims "no woman before Bentley has felt quite zealous enough about what she calls 'emancipation through the back door' to write an entire book in its praise." A little research would have disproven that, though I suppose we could split the difference and say no woman's written a memoir extolling the virtues of sodomy before. But it's always good to give a shoutout to Tristan Taormino, and while I'm here, let me give props to her sisters-in-pages Susie Bright and Lisa Palac,
The saddhu of sodomy
by Theodore Dalrymple
(The Surrender: An Erotic Memoir)(Book Review)
Publication Date: 01-DEC-04
There are some people whose desire to write, or at least to see themselves in
print, exceeds by far the urgency of anything they might have to say. They are,
in essence, attention-seekers, rather than seekers after the truth. For this
fraternity or sorority--I hesitate to use the modern cant word "community"--the
existence of conventions or taboos is essential, for it is by breaking them that
they may obtain the notice that they desire; indeed it is the only method
available to them. Oddly enough, however, the last taboo that they or their
publishers claim to have broken turns out not to be the last taboo after all.
Last taboos are thus rather like the last appearances (positively the last) of
aging prima donnas; and future attention-seekers need not fear that mankind will
ever run out of taboos for them to break.
The author of The Surrender: An Erotic Memoir is a standard modern taboo-breaker, since her book is largely about a subject not much written about, namely the joys of sodomy. (1) She claims to have discovered the meaning of life, or to have achieved a kind of enlightenment, through this activity (if she hadn't, the book would have been pornography merely); a man's penis in her rectum is to her what the sacred be tree was to the Buddha.
Of course, Miss Bentley is the world authority on her sex life, though it does not follow that what she writes is entirely true. Plenty of world authorities on plenty of subjects have written, or even testified in court, dishonestly on their subject of expertise. Nor does the possession of world authority mean that the subject is intrinsically interesting, at least to others. Miss Bentley laments that her sodomizer did not reach his three-hundredth entry into her rectum, only his two-hundred-ninety-eighth: by this stage in the book, however, the reader is unlikely to agree, for there is little doubt that orgasms are better experienced than read about. The waves of transcendent pleasure that rolled through Miss Bentley's corporeal being, and shook her to her very soul, do not transfer well to the written page. This is not her fault: language isn't cut out for this kind of thing. The blame is in the exhibitionist effort, not the execution. And when she writes of "the joy that lies on the other side of convention, where risk is real and rapture resides," one feels that she is like a little girl riding her bicycle with her hands outspread, saying, "Look at me, mummy," in the knowledge that her mother will be appalled and terrified, and will probably scream.
Perhaps the most intriguing pages of her short book are the acknowledgments. No fewer than fifty-three people are thanked in them. This is indeed strange, and no doubt will guiltily raise many half-formed and hastily suppressed questions in the reader's mind. Although hers is a work of world authority, it is not, after all, in any sense scholarly: she did not have to consult anyone on an arcane point of cuneiform script, say, or the biochemistry of Australian snake venoms. All she had to do was remember and fashion her memories on the page. What exactly, then, were Mary Bresovitch's and Ray Sawhill's contributions (to take two names completely at random) that they should be thus immortalized? Is this an intimate memoir or a collective essay? For exhibitionists, I suppose it is the same thing, and poetry is emotion recollected in front of an audience.
The next literary erotic memoir will have to tackle a sexual activity considerably less tame than mere sodomy. (A taboo? Miss Bentley quotes the latest, deeply uninteresting survey of sexual behavior in America, proving that millions of Americans practice it, especially as they get older, and especially if they are well-educated.) It is in the nature of sensationalist literature that the next sensation must be greater than the last, or it produces no sensation at all. How about necrophilia, then? Our author will coyly admit that sex with the living has not really ever satisfied him (or her). He or she has tried and tried and tried again--of course, the efforts will have to be described in extenso, for the sake of verisimilitude, for in this kind of memoir nothing can be taken as read--but somehow the living sexual partners leave him or her with a feeling of incompleteness.
One day, our hero or heroine meets an old friend to whom he or she confides his or her sexual dissatisfaction. The friend knows just what he or she means: sex with live people is apt to lead to all kinds of complications, such as jealousy, recrimination, demands for more, commitment, and so forth. There is also the increasingly important problem of the power relations between the couple, for power these days is seen as the summum bonum of human relations. It is tiresome to have to achieve power over another and then defend it. Surely there must be a sexual activity in which such complications do not arise?
The friend then asks whether he or she has ever considered sex with the dead? This is the only form of sex in which it is impossible to inflict pain on others: it is therefore ethically not merely permissible but (since the avoidance of the infliction of pain on others is the beginning and perhaps the end of morality) compulsory, at least if there has to be sex at all. And, as it happens, the friend has the key to a local pathology department. The scene is thus set for an orgy in the morgue.
Unlike the erotic memoir of the future, I shall pass over the mechanical details, because--of course--readers of the memoir will be interested only in the philosophy of necrophilia, not in the act itself, which will be described in the book only for the sake of establishing authenticity and the author's world authority on his or her own life. Our necrophiliac memoirist will dilate on what he or she has learnt from his or her experience, for example that our revulsion at corpses is but a social prejudice and can be overcome with a little exposure to their positive advantages as sexual partners. Moreover, the fact that corpses can be sexually arousing and desirable will act as a consolation to the dying; they will not be forgotten as soon as the breath is out of them after all. Since these are philosophical points that readers will almost certainly not previously have considered, the erotic memoir will be able to lay claim to a purpose deeper than might at first sight appear, and that some critics at least will take seriously.
Goodness knows what will be the sexual experience extolled in the next erotic memoir after the necrophiliac one, but I have great faith in Man's inventive capacities, especially where the hope of quick sales is concerned.
Of course, Miss Bentley is hardly the first person to seek spiritual transcendence through physical experience. Man is a physical being and his awareness of the transcendent (if a transcendent realm exists) can arrive only through his physical being. Pain and discomfort are sometimes used to achieve this transcendence: not long ago, for example, at the vast Hindu festival on the Ganges known as the Kumbh Mela, when the waters of the river are believed to turn briefly into nectar that washes away sins, I met a saddhu who had held one arm aloft for more than a quarter of a century. Now, of course, it was firmly fibrosed in its vertical position, and his gnarled fingers had grown into the palm of his hand. An angry rationalist approached him and demanded to know, in no very friendly or respectful terms, why he had turned himself into a cripple in this fashion, when the last thing India needed was another useless mouth to feed.
With great good humor and patience, the saddhu said that he had used his pain, which of course had bothered him greatly at the beginning, to transcend the physical realm and reach a higher sphere of being, free of the accidental and filled only with the essential. As to being a useless mouth to feed: having become the object of worshipful charity allowed people to express their goodness and their belief in the transcendent realm that he had, or was trying, to reach. In this case, however, a soft answer most definitely did not turn away wrath.
Miss Bentley presents herself to us as the saddhu of sodomy. "Bliss, I learned from being sodomized, is an experience of eternity in a moment of real time." And "The direct path to God has become clear, has been cleared." But somehow one doesn't quite believe in her spiritual quest, because she's given the game away in the first two sentences of her book.
She writes: "I once loved a man so much that I no longer existed--all Him, no Me." She continues: "Now I love myself just enough that no man exists--all Me, no Them." In other words, she is incapable of a relationship with another human being. Either she is an object herself, or the man becomes an object; and her motto in dealing with others is "Annihilate that ye be not annihilated."
Any form of mutuality is impossible for her, any warmth of feeling, any sympathy for another. She continues in this chilling opening passage (no pun intended): "They [the men] used to be God, and I used to be a figment of my own imagination; now men are figments of my imagination. Same game, different positions. I don't know how to play any other way. Someone must be on top, someone on bottom." In other words, relations between men and women, as conceived by her, are nothing but a zero-sum power game.
Clearly Miss Bentley is a person whom one would not cross the road to meet; rather, she is a person whom one would cross the road not to meet. It is, of course, possible that she is not really as she presents herself, that she is actually very different, what used to be known as a warm and wonderful human being, but then the question would be why she wished to exhibit herself before the public (as large a public as possible) in this icy, self-centered, sociopathic light? The desire to make money is the best, or least damaging, conceivable answer to this particular question, a motive with which most of us can identify.
Is this belief that one either uses other people, or is oneself used by them, and that no other possible relationships exist between people sexually and no doubt in other ways also, more common than it was in former times? (By former times, I mean a few decades ago at most.) I suspect that it is, though I cannot actually prove it beyond reasonable doubt, with knock-down evidence.
Several intellectual tendencies, feminism not least among them, have suggested that power is the supreme, even the only, good, and that inequality of power is the supreme, even the only, evil. Kindness, tenderness, generosity, and a host of other qualities hardly count. Indeed, they are seen as masks for inequality. After all, you can be kind only if it is within your power to be unkind; and that implies an inequality of power between the bestower and the receiver of kindness.
From a realistic point of view, however, power is ineradicable as a feature of human relations. Equality, as Miss Bentley informs us, is not only boring but impossible; so is sharing of power, or any check to power. As Humpty Dumpty, an avatar of her miserable philosophy, put it, "The question is which is to be master--that's all." It seems to be the only question that interests her.
For Miss Bentley (at least, as she would like to present herself to us, her public), life is masturbation, and the world, including its population, is an extended dildo for her use and delectation. She flies from emotional involvement with other people as from a plague. I have little doubt that this represents quite accurately a certain spirit of the age, a kind of individualism without individuality, at least for a larger proportion of the population than ever before. But it is a deeply unsatisfying spirit, one incapable of leading to happiness or fulfilment. In the midst of plenty we are in dearth.
The desire for a large audience--that is to say, exhibitionism--is a substitute for intimacy, but a very poor one. The blurb states that this is an intimate memoir, but it is as intimate as Yankee Stadium. Just as one would suspect that anyone who claimed to have five thousand close friends did not know what friendship was, so anyone who writes in this fashion of her experience is incapable of intimacy. That is why explicitness is almost always, in the end, pornography, and why there should always be things that cannot be said in polite company. This is not prudery: it is prudence, for only thus can the most valuable of human experiences be preserved.