The Surrender: An Erotic Memoir
Reviewed by Gary Meyer
Seldom has such literary grace been bestowed on taking it up the ass. But Toni Bentley's bombshell memoir is so much more than a rhapsody to sodomy. It tells the struggle of a highly accomplished, highly intelligent woman who refuses to settle for sexual mediocrity, applying the same single-minded intensity to perfecting sex that she has to dancing professional ballet, reading Kierkegaard, and writing New York Times Notable Books. Calling The Surrender silly and inconsequential for celebrating the particular sex act in which its author finally finds God, the universe, and everything is no different from calling sex itself silly and inconsequential. We should all be so giddy with delight. If this be fetishism, make the most of it!
For a fetishist, Bentley's unusually well-rounded. Anal's the best, but hardly the only. Each anal invasion's typically preceded by a bout of PIV (penis-in-vagina) foreplay. A-man, her dream lover, a superhero with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal cocksmen, teaches her the fine points of cocksucking. And she delights in the services of devoted Pussy Hounds. No, a Pussy Hound's not a specially trained canine, but "the man who lives to dive...the male masochist who can now masquerade, legitimately, as the feminist man, the male lesbian."
Bentley first has sex, though not anal, with A-man during recurring threesomes with a Pre-Raph redhead, a het woman she meets at her gym who's looking for a way to entice A-man into her boudoir. With the redhead, she breaks another taboo: "Eating pussy when you are a heterosexual woman is overwhelming...like looking narcissism in the face with a resounding Yes! Profound. Wet."
After a long absence, A-man returns to town, but the redhead has a boyfriend now, so it's just the two of them. After a three-hour prelude of standard copulation (see powers and abilities above), A-man earns his name by invading her most shameful orifice and Bentley finds her bliss, not in pain, but through it. We don't tend to associate perversions with gentleness, patience, and care, but that's the only way this one works. We do tend to associate this particular perversion with blood and shit, but neither is ever present. Bentley's pre-sex ritual's rectal finger cleansing keeps her squeaky clean. She asserts that if it came with blood, she wouldn't do it.
For a libertine, Bentley's unusually careful, moral, and picky. Veteran of a ten-year faithful marriage, she can hardly be accused of failing to give the American Dream a serious try. Insisting on safer sex thereafter, she dubs herself the Condom Queen. Despite entertaining a parade of disposable, conventional boyfriends, she remains serially monogamous with them. And she only indulges in her favorite form of penetration with one lover for the duration of 298 journalled buggeries, the first of which doesn't occur until page 77, although The Surrender's prefaced with a freeform seven-page Song of Sodomy.
Having attempted conventional couplings, Bentley eventually decides that sex is too important to forego unless it's bonded with a societal-approved relationship. "Dripping with a decade of sublimated desire," her first sex post-marriage is with a Pussy Hound masseur she continues to pay and here she begins to apprehend the New Rules. In a Salon interview Bentley explains: "I would rather have great sex than bad or no sex with a dinner companion." In The Surrender, she elaborates: "We are not domestic...We've never been to a movie...Why should we? We are the movie."
Masochism is a major subtext. The compulsive perfectionism, physical discipline, and endurance required at the ballet barre -- forcing the body into unnatural postures, working through pain to a greater purpose -- foreshadows the process of anal intercourse. Masochism is never merely about the pain, but what the pain achieves. "My pink pointe shoes became my fetishistic ally, my crown of thorns, my bed of nails." Pain is not a penalty; pain is a tool, the price of the ticket.
Dominance and submission are another prevailing subtext, never far beneath the surface. Bentley decries egalitarian relationships as vehemently as she decries dinner-and-a-movie dating. For her, "One is in charge, the other obedient." While spiritual transcendence is not normally associated with sodomy, it's strongly associated with submission, both sexual and religious. "Domination -- total and complete domination of my being -- that is where I find freedom."
For a slim volume, The Surrender abounds in riches: a fierce, defiant, unapologetic take on what women want, master classes in cunnilingus and fellatio, an ode to the crotchless panty, erotic interludes worthy of the finest fiction, fantasy, wit and whimsy, and the triumph of a frustrated atheist finding God in the last place anyone would think to look. Bentley's laser-sharp prose, dead-on economy, and mastery of the salient detail make it a master class in erotica writing as well. In erotica, nothing's duller than a laborious blow-by-blow account, and few authors have surpassed what Bentley can achieve in a few well-disciplined paragraphs.
One particularly memorable scene has her switching to dominatrix-persona, taking charge of a Pussy Hound:
"Then I told him to go back to the chair, sit down, take out his cock, and stroke himself while I displayed my pussy to him like a stripper girl on the runway, spread lips, swollen red clit, long lean legs, killer shoes. He got pretty fucking hard."
A tribute to virtuoso sex as worthy in itself, liberated from all the moralistic values that try to tie it down, The Surrender is so much more than a book. It's a revolution.