Review: The Sexual Life of Catherine M.

26 February 2003

I tried to begin this review with a line to the effect that The Sexual Life of Cather­ine M. (ISBN: 0802117163) is, true to its rep­u­ta­tion (BBC, Guardian), (very) explicit, but it’s also (again true to its reputation) well-stocked with ob­ser­va­tions about sex and the sexual process that are, if not exactly ‘literary,’ then about as il­lu­mi­nat­ing and per­cep­tive as such ob­ser­va­tions get. A promis­ing start, you might think, but as I wrote more and more review the propo­si­tion grew more and more untenable. To explain:

The first half of this claim is cer­tainly true. Chapter 4 (“Details”), for example, begins with a breezy “I really like sucking men’s cocks” [what to make of that men’s?] and con­tin­ues in the same vein for almost three pages: we hear of her sup­posed ap­ti­tute for oral sex, we learn that having some­thing in her mouth gives her a “more thor­ough feeling of being filled” than some­thing in her vagina, we are told various tech­ni­cal details about her ap­proach to oral sex, and so on. The passage finally ends with the con­fes­sion that “it would be easy for me to write pages about this, es­pe­cially as just de­scrib­ing this painstak­ing job has already trig­gered the first signs of excitement.” (Professional reviewers, I notice, seem re­luc­tant to write that the book is arous­ing as well as explicit.)

But, I was sur­prised to discover, the second claim is harder to defend. For some reason, pas­sages that didn’t seem trite or banal or self-evident when passed over in book form become so when pre­sented as stand-alone quotations:

My nudity feels more com­plete to me out in the open than in a closed room. When the sur­round­ing temperature, what­ever it may be, can be felt by an area of skin it doesn’t nor­mally reach, such as the small of the back, the body no longer pre­sents an ob­sta­cle to the air, it is pen­e­trated by it and is, therefore, more open, more receptive. (91)

I do like the idea that something happens when air is “felt by an area of skin it doesn’t nor­mally reach,” but I don’t think it has much at all to do with the qual­i­ta­tive dif­fer­ence between public and private nudity. (And wouldn’t the small of the back feel the sur­round­ing tem­per­a­ture in, say, a bikini?)

Other pas­sages flirt tan­ta­lis­ingly with insight before tum­bling to the ground:

One weak­ness of porn films is to present stereo­typed images of orgasm; the char­ac­ters always come after a series of ac­cel­er­ated jerks, eyes closed, mouths open and screaming. Now, orgasms can happen with no move­ment at all and in silence, and you can watch them build­ing up and then unfold. It is usually when you want to fire up or stim­u­late desire that—in life and films—you resort to cliches. Pretty much the same words, obscene or not, come to everyone. (178)

Well then, what is the “weakness” of porn? Isn’t it meant to provoke desire—not guide technique?

Perhaps I’m being too critical: these pas­sages aren’t com­pletely without merit, and it’s true that others survive the tran­si­tion to stand-alone quo­ta­tion quite nicely. Without doubt, some stick firmly in the mind—Millet’s in­sis­tence that a “well done” blow job “bruises the insides of the lips” (71) might prove dif­fi­cult to forget—though ultimately, no one quo­ta­tion is quite as sharp or per­cep­tive as I re­mem­bered it to be.

The Sexual Life is re­mark­able for the ex­plic­it­ness of its contents, but also note­wor­thy is what it does and doesn’t describe. We do get (in con­sid­er­able detail) the who, the what, the where, and the how many. We get de­scrip­tions of sexual fan­tasies and a (brief) mention of STDs. But in over 200 pages, there’s almost no mention of feel­ings or emotions. No sexual act seems to make her es­pe­cially happy, or es­pe­cially sad. Millet describes, or at least names, some of her lovers—but we do not get to know how much she loved them, why she loved them, or why she stopped. Jeal­ousy is men­tioned only sporadically, and regret only once—this to flag the only time in her life that she “vaguely re­gret­ted a sexual act.” (111) There’s no mention of preg­nancy (or fear of it), contraception, or the desire to have children.

The emo­tional white­wash seems to affect the reader too: instead of feeling, say, envious or sorry or sad, you feel nothing. (Neither do you get the feeling that she’s been abused or taken ad­van­tage of or that she has some deep-seated psy­cho­log­i­cal problem.) And so, when you read what should be the saddest sen­tence in the book—“I wouldn’t be ex­ag­ger­at­ing if I said that until I was about thirty-five, I had not imag­ined that my own plea­sure could be the aim of a sexual encounter” (186)—you don’t think to break stride, but start on the next para­graph straight away.

Some Quo­ta­tions

In Paris there was my first lover, Claude, and he seemed to be in love with a bour­geois girl who would utter such poetic sen­tences as “Touch my breasts, they’re so soft this evening” without letting him go any further. This example had quickly, if rather confusingly, taught me that I could not be classed as a great seductress, and that my place in the world was there­fore not so much among the women facing the men, but along­side the men. (7)

… [I] have a pro­found ad­mi­ra­tion and sym­pa­thy for the sus­pen­sion in time in which lovers live. I could be ten years, even twenty or more, since a man has made love to a woman, but he still talks about it and ad­dresses her as if it were yesterday. Their plea­sure is like a hardy peren­nial that knows no seasons. (56)

I denied it, but I could not dis­guise from the at­ten­tive friend who met me on a nearby terrace that I had made ex­ten­sive use of my mouth. A blow job, es­pe­cially if it is well done, bruises the insides of the lips. If you keep on going back and forth with your mouth, it’s better to protect the aroused member by curling your lips over your teeth—at least that’s the way I have always proceeded. “Your lips are all swollen,” said my friend, telling me I was a fool. (71)

… my plea­sure was never more intense than when it was the first time—not the first time that I made love with someone, but the first time we kissed; even the first embrace was enough. Ob­vi­ously there were exceptions. Be that as it may, in most cases, even if what fol­lowed was not unpleasant, it was a bit like biting into the cone when you no longer have a mouth­ful of ice cream to melt on your tongue; it had all the at­trac­tion of a paint­ing that you admire but on which you are feast­ing your eyes for the fif­teenth time. (75)

I leafed through the mag­a­zines on display, cau­tiously turned over the shrink-wrapped ones. Isn’t it won­der­ful how you can be aroused so freely, in full sight and full knowl­edge of all the other cus­tomers doing the same thing, even though each behaves as if he or she is search­ing through the display racks at the local newsstand? Isn’t it admirable, the ap­par­ent de­tach­ment you have in public, con­tem­plat­ing pic­tures and objects that would cer­tainly make you lose your com­po­sure at home? (126)

I ap­pro­pri­ate to other people the same ad­her­ence to en­vi­ron­ment that I have myself [this mash is the result of a par­tic­u­larly bad translation, surely?], which makes every in­ti­mate thing—or any­thing that has served an in­ti­mate purpose—a sort of ex­ten­sion of the body, a sen­si­tive prosthesis. If, while someone is away, you touch some­thing that he touches, he himself is in­volved by his prox­im­ity to it. During an orgy, my tongue could easily lick a pussy that had just been ejac­u­lated into by a man who had first been turned on with me, but the thought of drying myself on a towel that some woman who came clan­des­tinely to my home may have used to wipe between her thighs, or the thought that Jacques might use the same one as some guest of mine whose visit he knew nothing about, hor­ri­fies me as much as an epi­demic of leprosy. (150)

Jacques decides it would be better to go home. In the car, in the state of panic I am always in when very frustrated, I am over­come with anger. Ex­as­per­ated desire is a naive dic­tac­tor that cannot believe anyone would oppose it or even in­con­ve­nience it. (158)

Nothing pleases me more than hearing that I give “the best blow jobs.” Better than that: when, with a view to writing this book, I talk to a friend twenty-five years after my sexual re­la­tion­ship with him ended and I hear him say that he has “never met a girl who could suck a man off so well,” I lower my eyes, in some ways out of modesty, but also to hide my pride. It is not that I have been de­prived of other forms of grat­i­fi­ca­tion in my per­sonal or pro­fes­sional life, but as far as I can see, there is a balance to be sus­tained between the ac­qui­si­tion of moral and in­tel­lec­tual qual­i­ties that earn the respect of your peers, and a pro­por­tional ex­cel­lend in prac­tices that flout these qualities, brush them aside, and deny them. (166)

Seeing myself in a video spread­ing the come that has just spurted onto me all over my breasts, I wonder whether I am not merely re­peat­ing some­thing I have seen dozens of times on the screen. The jet is not as frothy as in the films, but it is nev­er­the­less spectacular; the spunk makes my skin shine. Did men and women use the same rhetoric and was the erotic reper­toire the same before the in­ven­tion of cinema? (179)

… the more pow­er­ful the orgasm, the less “hamming it up” there is. I can confirm that in my own case. While the level of plea­sure is rising, I take a very active part. As well as moving my hips, I use my arms and legs. If I am lying on my back, I spur on my partner by re­peat­edly kicking my heels on his but­tocks and thighs. Then I reach a stage when this frantic level of ac­tiv­ity drops. My partner is now con­cen­trat­ing on only one inert parcel of flesh. (179)