A woman dressed in a black silk robe that shows off her black-stockinged, gartered legs and bare thighs strides around a small stage outfitted like a fancy lady’s boudior. “His was first,” she says. “In my ass.”
Our interlocutor for the evening is The Woman (played with penetrating erotic intensity by Laura Campbell), a former ballet dancer whose “pelvic floor” has been wound up “like a corkscrew” after a lifetime of practice at the ballet barre. “Now it’s being unworked. His cock, my ass, unwinding. Divine.”
The Surrender, as the title implies, is one woman’s search for liberation. From what? From herself, from her own dominating and indomitable will, and perhaps from Will itself. Her problem letting go started when her father (was he named Will?), a puritanically devout atheist, told her belief in God was for the weak. In her adolescence the world as will and subject was focused for her at the ballet barre, where The-Girl-Becoming-The-Woman worked with fevered intensity to master herself.
The Woman, clearly not a wilting flower, ran the regular romantic course for a woman born mid-20th century: she lost her virginity to an older creeper, she learned to get off on oral sex, she got married and was monogamous for nearly a decade. Then her marriage fell apart, and she wanted to experiment. The first time she dipped her toe in a truly transgressive experience was with a Bible-beating former sex addict. She discovered (or affirmed?) tension between teetotalling abstention and total abandon gets her off.
Her next swim in murky water was a three way. A-Man, whom she meets at the gym, is almost sociopathically self-confident, which she finds insanely hot. The Woman’s female friend wants a little help to seduce him. The Woman assures us she isn’t gay, and she isn’t into “straight” sex anymore. It has to be transgressive, so the three never hook up as two. But then A-Man disappears for months — supposedly due to work — and the magic circle is broken.
Just when the heroine seems ready to resign herself to a life of sexual mundanity, A-Man calls. He wants to meet one-on-one (like in the old George Michael song). She doesn’t know what to do! Heterosexual love is so cliché. But she agrees. Far from making your average beast with two backs, A-Man opens her rectum and her mind to sex as a purely aesthetic — that is, transgressive — act.
The Surrender is based on a memoir by Toni Bentley of the same name. All the emotions — powerful, true, exciting — are genuine, though the names have been changed to protect the innocent. When the memoir was published nearly a decade ago it caused quite a stir of the sort you should expect in our post-modern, identity obsessed world. Marie Arana in the Washington Post called it “dirty, foul-mouthed,” and “gawdy as redlight porn.” For Ms. Arana The Surrender is “an apotheosis of female self-loathing.” Perhaps. But surely Ms. Arana knows “rawness” is a compliment in the world of literary art, and these days pornography is an almost as much an artistic cliché as the Piss Christ. The critics’ deeper cut was directed at Ms. Bentley’s age and former career. She’s old. She’s past her prime. Her prose yearns for artistic legitimacy, “with the perverse grace of a long-past-it dancer.” Ouch!
Granted, The Surrender works hard to present The Woman as a classic European aesthete in the mold of Oscar Wilde. Her constant glorification of anal sex in the most purple prose makes her sound like a gay man trapped in a woman’s body. The Woman (and Bentley) knowingly display their erudition on the topic of forbidden sexuality. The sensitive listener hears echoes of Michel Foucault, George Bataille and the Marquis de Sade in her allusions and metaphors. Her sexual awakening starts as a decoupling of sex from love (and hetero-normativity, including marriage and procreation), and proceeds to a total aestheticization of sex. It’s a perfectly sensible move for a dancer to extend her artistic sensibility, sublimating pain to perfect form, to her performance in bed.
But unlike all her other endeavors, anal sex requires her to completely abandon her will to mastery in order to avoid getting hurt — literally. The letting go necessary to have an orgasm is a close cousin to the flood of pain-killing, euphoria-inducing endorphins released by orgasm, and women who fear letting go in front of a partner, even a trusted and loved one, have a difficult time achieving orgasmic transcendence. This is The Woman’s great revelation. It is a direct (and classic) repudiation of Western “state feminism,” which decrees women must control and suppress any erotic enjoyment that comes from their submission to men.
The Woman’s other revelation isn’t as satisfying as her first, however; she also discovers that transcendence itself is not, and can never be, integral to the human experience. Ms. Arana, peering at The Woman over the cinderblock wall of the Feminist Divide, derides her as an addict. Not only did you lose face in the eyes of all men by letting them have the deepest, most secret part of you (you slut), you also lost control over yourself. You’re a butt-sex junky, willing to take any humiliation to get your fix. For shame, for shame.
The Woman’s answer to the shame of her desire is to regain mastery of it through discourse. It’s the oldest trick in the book. When the audience applauds at the end of her monologue, the woman has proven that a woman, speaking explicitly about her love of anal sex in front of a room full of strangers is (quite literally) respected as much as a woman who receives applause for her hetero-normative sexual virtue.
Through February 2nd