The Sexual Life of Catherine M

Catherine Millet, a French art critic and publisher, claims it was her intention to provoke debate in intellectual circles with her forthright sexual biography. I hope to respect that intention by conscientiously avoiding recourse to the kind of response that it has evoked in much of the popular media: either outright moral derision or naive ‘feminist’ admiration.

Described by Edmund White on Newsnight as ‘one of the most explicit books about sex ever written’ – ‘by a woman’ he adds, predictably – The Sexual Life of Catherine M is exactly what it claims to be: a full account of the author’s memories of her sexual life, from childhood masturbation (refreshing reflections for those whose sexuality emerged before it was culturally welcome) to an adulthood as a self-diagnosed ‘libertine’. For those seeking titillation, there is no need to skip pages; if there is one page in the book that does not include the words ‘cunt’, ‘cock’, ‘arse’ or ‘penetrate’, it is certainly hard to find.

But while some of the scenarios are necessarily arousing, the book does not intend to function as pornography or erotica. Indeed, the glut of explicit details has a desensitizing effect – not unlike that attributed to immoderate masturbation in popular mythology. As a result, some critics label the work dull; others spit back accusations: “boredom is a middle class alibi for disgust,” as White concluded. At the risk of inadvertently diagnosing myself as a bourgeois hypocrite of this sort, I will admit that I did find the book tedious at times, though apparently not boring enough to stop reading. Whether that was because I intended to review it, or because sex wields an uncanny power over the imagination, whether in the form of celebrity love lives in The Sunor in the self-conscious outing of an intellectual’s ‘subterranean’ adventures, I am not certain. All this can, in turn, be seen in the light of the author’s own admission: ‘fucking can be boring! But still, I prefer that particular boredom’.

though she wishes to speak the truth of sex, she is somewhat intolerant of other women’s truths

Catherine M’s pursuits consist mainly of group sex in a variety of locations – from friends’ apartments and dedicated clubs to seemingly spontaneous couplings on roadsides. While her attitude is guiltless and ‘above any disgust’, feminist applause too easily drowns out the ambiguous and sometimes contradictory strains of Millet’s voice. She claims she is not a ‘collector’ and is offended by those who notch up couplings only to boast about them afterward, yet her biography of 49 distinguishable lovers and countless faceless ones smacks of the same kind of conceit. Though she values the freedom and truth of nudity, claiming to feel more at home in public naked than clothed, and though she prides herself on having ‘no restraints’, there are places where she felt ‘it would have been nicer to dim the lights’, giving away some remnant of romanticism, some need to cloak the materiality of sex or of her body. And though she wishes to speak the truth of sex, she is somewhat intolerant of other women’s truths: there is a tone of condescension wherever she mentions a woman who declared group sex ‘not her thing’.

Finally, though there is an attempt to claim that her omni-availability to queues of men had nothing more to it than a pure quest for endless penetration, there are clues that her determined physicality was as informed by social values as monogamy can be by romanticism: ‘every reasonably original sexual exploit,’ she claims, ‘far from debasing me, was in fact a source of pride, like another notch in my quest for the sexual Grail’. That such a pursuit is more or less the default attitude to sex in our ‘Cosmosutra’ era suggests that its willful violation of taboos is paradoxically dependent upon the stigma of prudery it tries to repel.

she clearly considered herself, first and foremost, as a sexual object

Without an apparent history of sexual repression, without cognizance of the myriad of taboos that our religion, culture and society have imposed in the past, it is difficult to imagine how one would gain pleasure from a ‘tirelessly gaping’ vagina, particularly where this pleasure had no regard for whether men’s access meant orgasm, indifference, discomfort or pain, as Millet claims. Pleasure bears a complex relation to power, and we should not go too far in imagining that we ‘rejoice in extraordinary freedom’ when the pleasure we find is contingent upon subverted values. However true it may be that historical norms exercise power over our sexuality, the necessity to scandalize those norms exerts a power – and a norm – of its own.

Millet’s friends and associates appear, from the book, to be largely male and also involved in the sexual scene she unfolds. As such, she conceives of herself ‘alongside the men’ in her sexual appetites. However, the self-absorbed nature of the biography means there is no need to examine complicating, external elements. Her vehemence with regard to her own freedom and self-assertion through sex also hides a multitude of sins, so to speak: if some anonymous man intended, in his advances, to debase or exploit her, it didn’t matter, because she rejoiced in debasement. If a man was committing regular infidelities with her, it made no difference, as she couldn’t know the background of an anonymous man, and in any case didn’t care for emotional attachments. If several – if not most – of her anonymous lovers cared nothing for her pleasure and only ever intended to take their own, treating her like an organic blow-up doll, there could be no conflict of interests, as she didn’t even consider her own pleasure until middle age. And finally, if her accessibility encouraged a view that women were sex objects, there was again no feminist dilemma, as she clearly considered herself, first and foremost, as a sexual object.

confronted with her ‘double life’, critics must reconcile it into a single, coherent, authentic life

Millet took her inspiration for this chronicle from Catherine Breillat’s film Romance – another tale of a woman’s sexual journey. But the film achieves what Mdoes not in portraying the clash of subjectivities in the sexual act. In Breillat’s film, for instance, there is a tryst in a stairwell where the protagonist Marie enjoys sex with an anonymous man. After a rush of fumbling, the man disappears as if from the scene of a crime, revealing his point of view: he has raped Marie. It is a highly unsettling moment, as the viewer is left to contemplate the ‘true’ meaning of the sex act that has just taken place. Mdoes not step back far enough to allow us to consider the significance of sex as interaction. Essentially, there is the impression that Mfunctions merely as a sex robot – outside the margins of human power relations and subject to nothing but her own inner workings – an impression which closes down debate and simplifies the feminist cause rather than opening and complexifying as it intends.

It is certain that Millet intended this publication to be read against her stature as a respected academic, challenging her sexual orientation to undermine her fundamental dignity. To contextualize: those who respected Millet as an art critic before reading about her life as a ‘spunk bag’ are placed in the uncomfortable position of being unable to disregard her with stereotypes separating physicality from the intellect. Confronted with this ‘double life’, they are burdened with the necessity of reconciling it into a single, coherent, authentic life. Not so the lay reader who does not come to the book with a given understanding of Millet’s position, and for whom she remains a kind of work of fiction three dimensional only in her sexuality; devoid of personality in her self-effacing corporeality. Anchored in life the sex narrative would be far more compelling than it is subjected to surgical extraction and isolated exposure as a metonymic object; as it stands, The Sexual Life of Catherine M offers little room for debate in the mind of the average reader, only a dash of sensual incitement and a ‘particular boredom’.

Tamlyn Monson enjoys not-for-the-faint-hearted reflections on the meaning of sex, transgression and liberation, and has not found all of them boring. If you are not a sensitive viewer, she recommends Catherine Breillat’s Romance and Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, or Michel Houellebecq’s novel Atomised.