I first learned about sex from a French woman. Reading Colette as a rosy-cheeked 14-year-old, I was awestruck by the perfumed intrigue of her novels with their voracious heroines who employed intelligence and daring in their pursuit of sexual pleasure. Later these overheated fantasias of emotional and sexual intrigue would cause years of disappointment when I was faced with the fumbling young guys who populated the real landscape of American girldom. But that just further cemented in my mind the clichéd notion that French women were the undisputed authorities on female sexuality.
Catherine Millet is the new literary libertine, although at 54 she’s not exactly an ingenue. The editor of the respected Paris-based magazine Art Press and author of eight books on contemporary art, Millet stirred up a scandal in France last year with the publication of her memoir, The Sexual Life of Catherine M., which details a life of nonstop promiscuity including orgies, partner swapping, and fucking and sucking carfuls of strangers. Several male penseurs blasted her in the French press, among them Jean Baudrillard and philosopher Michel Onfray, who asked, “What is Catherine Millet trying to expiate by treating her body in this way?” Perhaps these guys were unnerved by the book’s comparison of an orgy to an academic conference: “Both the men met in those situations and the audiences plunged in darkness are faceless, and, miraculously, between the anxiety of anticipation and the weariness at the end, you are perfectly unaware of your own exhaustion.”
Written with the unsentimental precision of a guided missile, Millet’s slim book detonates little explosions of awkwardness and confusion in the reader, pitting arousal against intellectual contemplation. She writes about her experiences not only with incandescent prose but also with analytic detachment, as if she were a documentarian observing from the front lines of sexuality, fluids, limbs, and garments flying all around her. “I don’t let myself go easily, and in those moments when you are supposed to be completely passive, I am often still alert,” she explains. This may partially explain her penchant for group sex: The anonymous, Dionysian nature of an orgy forces her to subsume herself in the faceless blur of flesh. The book is full of disturbing scenes in which Millet lies at the center of a throng while strangers penetrate, lick, and caress her.
The Sexual Life of Catherine M. is a disorienting read. Millet doesn’t provide any chronological clues, so we never know when these anecdotes are taking place. If you do the math, you’ll figure out that she came of age in the late ’60s, which makes her rampant behavior more comprehensible. “Yes, I fucked for the pleasure of it,” she writes retrospectively, “but didn’t I also fuck so that fucking wasn’t a problem?”
Sex allowed her, she writes, “the illusion of opening myself to innumerable possibilities. Given that I obviously had to comply with all sorts of constraints . . . the certainty that I could have sexual relations in any situation with any willing party . . . was like the lungfuls of fresh air you gulp as you walk to the end of a narrow pier.”
Millet reveals the most minuscule particulars of her sexploits, yet next to nothing about her life beyond them. She tells us which positions and orifices her lovers favored, but not what books they read or what they talked about. The passing of time is imperceptible in the memoir except for one lone reference to Millet not liking a particular sexual position because it’s unflattering to her middle-aged jowls, and a short passage about becoming more discriminating after settling down with long-term partner Jacques. But the absence of personal detail sparks a litany of questions: Does she have any female friends? Did she trade saliva with artists she was critiquing? Do any of her lovers have children? Don’t any of her fuckmates have jobs?
The French media professed to be shocked by the book’s explicitness, which is silly considering the recent success of very graphic movies about female sexuality by directors Catherine Breillat (Fat Girl) and Virginie Despentes (Baise-Moi). The most controversial thing about The Sexual Life isn’t Millet’s voraciousness but her passivity. She doesn’t come off as a lusty dominatrix; in fact, she lets the men in her life act as “guides” who hook her up with one salacious situation after another.
Sex and the City this ain’t—Millet doesn’t expend any effort on romance or clothes, and she doesn’t limit herself to buff guys or successful studs. She accepts all comers (pun intended) and thrives on the kaleidoscopic variety of pleasures. While describing how each man and his apparatus requires a unique response from her, she often nails her partners with hilarious, deadpan accuracy: “I was still inexperienced but I regarded him as even more of a novice than myself from the way he furtively slid his still slightly limp cock into my vagina.” When the poor fellow asks whether his ejaculation felt good to her, she writes, “I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t even feel his penetration that distinctly, much less to distinguish a viscous little puddle somewhere inside me.”
Millet divides the book into thematic sections in which she eloquently dissects childhood fantasies, jealousy, and space. As someone who grew up in very cramped circumstances (at one point her mother shared her bed), Millet is a fervent advocate of having sex in the open, where enjoyment of the landscape mingles with sexual rapture.
Her prose is lovely and surprising. More startling, however, is her claim that she’d never analyzed her behavior until writing this book, and didn’t understand the mechanisms of orgasms until late in life. That’s a pretty strange admission for an intellectual who must’ve been aware of American feminist writing on the subject and of French theorists who celebrated female sexuality as a basis for l’écriture feminine. So either Millet is being dishonest, or she enjoys playing hide-and-seek with the reader, refusing to resolve publicly some of the deeper psychosexual issues that rumble through this seemingly self-revelatory book.
Although Millet offers the would-be voyeur only a limited view of her life, she nevertheless gives us access to some of its most secret crevices—thoughts and images too perilous and unsettling for average conversation. She uses sex as a way to learn about the world as much as for pleasure: It provides her with access to all kinds of people and places, and replaces the tedium of daily life with a sense of adventure. The Sexual Life of Catherine M. gives us a titillating glimpse of Millet’s alternative universe, where everyday objects reveal themselves to be sex toys and offices become pleasure domes.