A passage from The Sexual Life of Catherine M.
Novelist Edmund White described The Sexual Life of Catherine M. as “the most explicit book about sex ever written by a woman.” The 2001 memoir—written by French art critic Catherine Millet—details the wealth of exotic sexual experiences she’s had throughout her life. Asked about her reasons for writing such a brutally honest—and scandalous—account, Millet cited the following motivation: “There came a moment, toward the end of the 1980s, when I began to abandon a certain number of sexual practices and at the same time to question them. I also became annoyed at the very positive discourse I was hearing around me about sexual liberation. I wanted to add nuance to the debate, to present the testimony of someone who had lived her sexuality in a very open manner, yet had experienced good and bad things in their life, like everyone.” The book became a worldwide phenomenon and earned critical praise for Millet’s ability to effectively convey the sensations of her experiences rather than just wallowing in the pornographic, anatomical details. Here’s a passage from the memoir, in which Millet examines the psychological framework that led to her sexual adventures.
As a child I thought about numbers a great deal. The memories we have of solitary thoughts and actions from the first few years of life are very clear-cut: they provide the first opportunities for self-awareness, whereas events shared with other people can never be isolated from the feelings (of admiration, fear, love or loathing) that those others inspire in us, feelings that, as children, we are far less able to identify or even understand. I, therefore, have particularly vivid memories of the thoughts that steered me into scrupulous counting exercises every evening before I went to sleep. Shortly after my brother was born (when I was three and a half), my family moved into a new apartment. For the first few years we lived there, my bed was in the largest room, facing the door. I would lie staring at the light that came across the corridor from the kitchen where my mother and grandmother were still busying themselves, and I could never get to sleep until I had visualized these numerical problems one after the other. One of the problems related to the question of having several husbands. Not the possibility of the situation, which seems to have been accepted, but the circumstances them-selves. Could a woman have several husbands at the same time, or only one after the other? In the latter case, how long did she have to stay married to each one before she could move on? What would be an “acceptable” number of husbands: a few, say five or six, or many more than that—countless husbands? How would I go about it when I grew up?
As the years went by, I substituted counting children for husbands. I imagine that, in finding myself under the seductive spell of some identified man (in turn, a film star, a cousin, etc.) and focusing my wandering thoughts on his features, I perhaps felt less uncertainty about the future. I could envisage in more concrete terms my life as a young married woman, and therefore the presence of children. More or less the same questions were raised again: was six the most “acceptable” number, or could you have more? What sort of age gap should there be between them? And then there was the ratio of girls to boys.
I cannot think back to these ideas without connecting them to other obsessions that preoccupied me at the same time. I had established a relationship with God that meant I had to think every evening about what he was going to eat, so the enumeration of the various dishes and glasses of water I offered him mentally—fussing over the size of the helpings, the rate at which they were served, etc.—alternated with the interrogations into the extent to which my future life would be filled with husbands and children. I was very religious, and it could well be that my confused perception of the identities of God and his son favored my inclination to counting. God was the thundering voice that brought men back into line without revealing him to them. But I had been taught that he was simultaneously the naked pink baby made of plaster that I put into the Christmas manger every year, the suffering man nailed to the crucifix before which we prayed—even though both of these were actually his son—as well as a sort of ghost called the Holy Spirit. Of course, I knew perfectly well that Joseph was Mary’s husband, and that Jesus, even though he was both God and the son of God, called him “Father.” The Virgin was in fact the mother of the Christ child, but there were times when she was referred to as his daughter.
When I was old enough to go to Sunday school, I asked to speak to the priest one day. The problem I laid before him was this: I wanted to become a nun, to be a “bride of Christ,” and to become a missionary in an Africa seething with destitute peoples, but I also wanted to have husbands and children. The priest was a laconic man, and he cut short the conversation, believing that my concerns were premature.
Until the idea of this book came to me, I had never really thought about my sexuality very much. I did, however, realize that I had had multiple partners early on, which is unusual, especially for girls, or it certainly was among the milieu in which I was brought up. I lost my virginity when I was eighteen—which is not especially early—but I also had group sex a few weeks after my deflowering. On that occasion I was not the initiator, but I was the one who precipitated it—something I still cannot explain to myself. I have always thought that I just happened to meet men who liked to make love in groups or liked to watch their partners making love with other men, and the only reaction I had (being naturally open to new experiences and seeing no moral obstacle) was to adapt willingly to their ways. But I have never drawn any theory from this, and therefore have never been militant about it.
There were five of us, three boys and two girls, and we were finishing our lunch in a garden on a hill above Lyon. I had come to see a young man I’d met recently while staying in London, and I had taken advantage of the fact that a friend’s boyfriend, André (from Lyon himself), was driving down from Paris. When I asked if we could stop on the way for me to pee quickly, André came and watched and stroked me as I squatted. It was not an unpleasant situation, but it did make me feel slightly ashamed, and it was perhaps at that precise moment that I learned to sidestep my embarrassment by burying my head between his legs and taking his cock in my mouth. When we reached Lyon, I stayed with André and we went to stay with a friend of his, a boy called Ringo who lived with an older woman whose house it was. The latter was away, and the boys had made the most of this and organized a little party. Another boy came and brought a girl, a tall, lanky, tomboyish girl with very short, coarse hair.
It was in June or July, it was hot and somebody suggested that we should all take our clothes off and jump into the big pond. I heard André’s voice saying his girlfriend wouldn’t be long joining in, and his words sounded a little muffled because I already had my T-shirt over my head. I forget when and why I stopped wearing underwear (even though as soon as I was thirteen or fourteen, my mother had made me wear an underwire bra and a panty girdle on the pretext that a woman “should be held in place”). In any event, I was naked almost immediately. The other girl started getting undressed, too, but in the end no one went in the water. The garden was exposed, and that is probably why the next set of images that come back to me are in a bedroom, me nestled in a tall cast-iron bed; all I can see through the metal bars are the brightly lit walls; I am aware of the other girl lying on a divan in one corner of the room. André fucked me first, quite slowly and calmly, which was his way. Then he stopped abruptly. I was overcome with an ineffable feeling of anxiety, just long enough to see him moving away, walking unhurriedly, his back arched, toward the other girl. Ringo came and took his place on top of me, while the third boy, who was more reserved than the other two, rested on one elbow beside us and ran his hand over my upper body. Ringo’s body was very different from André’s, and I liked it better. He was taller, more wiry, and one of those men who isolate the action of the pelvis from the rest of the body, who thrust without smothering, supporting their torso with their arms. But André seemed more mature to me (he was in fact older and had fought in the war in Algeria), his flesh was not so spare, he already had less hair, and I liked going to sleep cuddled up next to him with my buttocks against his belly, telling him we were a perfect fit. Ringo withdrew, and the one who had been watching and stroking me took his turn even though I had been resisting a terrible urge to urinate for some time. I had to go. The shy boy was piqued. When I came back, he was with the other girl. I no longer remember whether it was André or Ringo who took the precaution of telling me that he himself had only gone to “finish off” with her.
I stayed in Lyon for about two weeks. My friends worked during the day, and I spent my afternoons with the student I had met in London. When his parents were out, I would lie down on his cabin bed and he would lie on top of me, and I had to be careful not to knock my head against his shelves. 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, and the way he so quickly slumped his face down onto my neck. He must have been sufficiently preoccupied with what a woman’s reaction might and should be to ask whether the sperm projecting onto the walls of the vagina produced a specific sensation of pleasure. 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. “Really, that’s strange, no special feeling?” “No, nothing at all.” He worried more than I did.
The little gang would come and wait for me late in the afternoon at the end of the road. They were happy and playful, and spotting them one day, the student’s father said with a cordial note in his voice that I must be a hell of girl to have all these boys at my disposal. In fact, I had given up counting. I had completely forgotten my childhood investigation into the permitted number of husbands. I was not a “collector,” and I thought that the boys and girls I saw at parties—mauling and being mauled and kissing until their breath gave out with as many people as possible so that they could boast about it the next day—were somehow offensive. I was happy simply to discover that the delicious giddiness I felt at the ineffably soft touch of a stranger’s lips, or a hand fitting itself over my pubis, could be experienced an indefinite number of times because the world was full of men predisposed to do just that. Nothing else really mattered. I had nearly lost my virginity to a boy who made quite an impression on me. He had a slightly drooping face, huge lips and very black hair. My attraction was probably because no arm or hand had ever covered so much of my body as when I lay trapped by the sweater he had pulled up over my head, and my panties that he held taut against my groin. That was the first time I had felt myself in the grip of my pleasure. The boy asked me if I wanted more. I had no idea what that might mean, because I couldn’t see what “more” I could possibly have. I brought the session to an end, and even though I continued this flirtation, meeting up with him regularly over the holidays, I never thought to take it further.
Neither was I particularly taken with the idea of going out with someone, or with several people. I fell in love twice, and with both men, any physical relationship immediately became impossible: the first man had just gotten married and, anyway, showed no interest in me at all; the second lived a long way away. I therefore had little desire to hook up with a boyfriend. The student was too bland, André was as good as engaged to my friend and Ringo had a long-term partner. 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.
Put simply, there was nothing to stop me from constantly renewing the experience of tasting a different saliva every time and blindly feeling with my hand for a form that would always be unexpected, a surprise. Claude had a beautiful dick, it was straight and well proportioned, and the memory I have of those very first couplings is a feeling of fullness, heaviness, as if all of me had been stiffened and filled. When André opened his fly in front of my face, I was amazed to find something smaller and more malleable, because, unlike Claude, he was not circumcised. A dick that is constantly exposed demands to be looked at, it provokes sexual excitement with its smooth monolithic contours, whereas the foreskin that you can play back and forth, uncovering the glans like a great bubble forming on the surface of soapy water, elicits a more subtle sensuality, its suppleness spreading in waves to your own orifice. Ringo’s dick was more like Claude’s, the shy boy’s more like André’s, the student’s belonged to a category that I would recognize later: those that, although not necessarily larger, are covered in a thicker outer layer, making them feel immediately more substantial in the hand. I discovered that every kind of dick required different movement, different behavior from me. And just as I had to adapt every time to another kind of skin, another complexion, different degrees of hairiness, different amounts of muscle tone (it goes without saying, for example, that not only do you hold on to a torso in a different way if it is smooth as a stone, or filled out with the beginnings of a bosom, or obscuring your view with a thatch of hair, but also that these images do not have the same resonance in your imagination: as a result, in retrospect, I seem to have been more submissive with the clean-cut or slightly rugged bodies that I perceived as truly male, whereas I took more initiative with heavier bodies that I feminized, however big they may have been), by the same token, the constitution of each body seemed to induce its own stances: I have pleasant memories of a very wiry body with a slender shaft that exclusively rammed into my ass as I offered it up into the air, thrusting in a series of jerks and as if from a distance, practically without touching any other part of my body apart from my hips, held in his hands; conversely, I didn’t like it—not that I ever tried to get away—when fatter men, whom I nevertheless found attractive, covered me too fully and, matching their behavior to their corpulence, tended to give smoochy kisses and to lick my face. In short, I entered my adult sexual life in the same way that, as a child, I went into the tunnel of a haunted-house ride, blindly and for the pleasure of being jostled about and grabbed as chance would have it. Or, you could say, swallowed up by it as a frog is by a snake.
A few days after I got back to Paris, André sent me a letter to warn me, tactfully, that we all had the clap. My mother was the one who opened the envelope. I was sent to the doctor and banned from going out. But from then on, my own sense of propriety, which had become extremely intransigent, no longer tolerated living with my parents now that they could imagine me in the act of making love. I ran away from home, they brought me back; eventually, I left for good to go and live with Claude. The clap had been my baptism; for many years after, I lived in mortal terror of that scissoring pain, even though it struck me as being nothing more than a distinguishing sign, the shared fate of those who fuck a lot.