The Sexual Life of Catherine M – is just not sexy

Not long ago, a friend of mine gave me a copy of The Sexual Life of Catherine M and said, “Now Literary Kitty, don’t be shocked!” so I was quite curious as to what all the fuss was about. It seems I wasn’t the only one. This book caused quite a sensation when it was originally published in France and has since been translated into several languages. The front cover boasts Edmund White’s quote that it is ‘One of the most explicit books about sex ever written by a woman’. Well OK Edmund, it’s explicit. I’d guessed that from the titty on the front cover. But is it any good?

In my opinion, no.  The blurb claims that ‘Unlike many contemporary women writers, there is no guilt in Millet’s narrative, no chronicles of use and abuse’ but I’m not so sure that Millet is the feminist icon she’s being made out to be. She seems to have sex indiscriminately, to offer herself up as a receptacle for men’s desires without questioning whether she’s sexually attracted to them or even whether they’re clean. Rotting teeth, flabby bellies, an overpowering stench – nothing puts Millet off. Her motto is to be available to all at all times.

Well OK, each to their own I suppose, but I found that attitude a little depressing, a little too passive and listless. It didn’t sound like the sex would be liberating. Millet says she was always shy in relationships and that anonymous sex was where she felt comfortable. Honest? It may be. Inspiring? Definitely not. I’m sure plenty of women feel that way – we don’t hold them up as feminist idols and nor should we. It’s nothing to do with feeling good about yourself or about feeling strong, and Millet never strikes me as a strong woman, never someone who’s in control of her own destiny.

The blurb says that “The Sexual Life of Catherine M. is very much a manifesto of our times – when the sexual equality of women is a reality and where love and sex have gone their own separate ways.” Well, I think it’s a travesty to call it a “manifesto of our times” when it’s just dreary coupling after dreary coupling. Yes, women these days are free to choose who they sleep with, how many people they sleep with and indeed how many people they sleep with at once without judgement. That all sounds right to me. But surely the important word here is ‘choose’, whereas Catherine M. never seems to choose. She just sort of gets on with it.

There’s no narrative, no hint of Catherine the person, the art critic, the editor – just Catherine M: the set of genitals. And yes, I use the word genitals because it fits the tone of the book – which is utterly clinical and dull. That’s right, DULL. A succession of anonymous penises that all blur into one, a series of unsexy sexual encounters. Yes she does it in the office, in a stairwell, in a flat so seething with filth there’s no room to park her naked bum – but we never get past boring. If the book wasn’t so short I might have given up.

Once again, I’m not saying that Millet shouldn’t have sex with whoever she pleases. On the contrary, I believe that that is her right. I just don’t want to read about it because her style is so dreary she might as well be writing about having a catheter put in. Sex to her is as simple as eating a bowl of soup. Fine, I suppose, but a woman eating bowl after bowl of soup does not a bestseller make. Even if the soup is a slightly different flavour each time.

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3 Comments

Filed under non fiction

3 responses to “The Sexual Life of Catherine M – is just not sexy

  1. I knew there was a reason why I did not read this book. And not because it was dull (my quick scan of the book told me that it would be) but because it lacked joy or humour. Trust me, BTDTBtL (been there done that, bought the leather).

    Feminist or no, I find that authors in the “!!!” genre tend to take themselves too seriously. Hate to point it out to Catherine M, but people do fart while having sex.

  2. I felt very much the same way when I read this book in 2005. It wasn’t erotic, liberating or even interesting; it was a bit depressing, actually.

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