‘Stability does not promote erotic excitement’

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Toni Bentley in session at THiNK 2013, Day 2. Photo: Arun Sehrawat
Toni Bentley in session at THiNK 2013, Day 2. Photo: Arun Sehrawat

The session ‘Fifty Shades of Surrender: Sex, Dance and Liberation Theories‘ saw Toni Bentley discussing her struggle with understanding beauty, power and submission through the course of an extremely accomplished career as a ballet dancer for George Balanchine, the end of her marriage, and the phase of wild sexual experimentation that followed.

Through ballet, Bentley learned that discipline is the root of almost everything including beauty. She described  submission as a position natural to the ballet dancer – one is in constant service to the art, the music. Years of rigorous training of her body while studying under Balanchine, arguably the greatest choreographer of the 20th century and “a living god, something beyond a father figure”, left a strong imprint on the impressionable Bentley. After she developed arthritis at the young age of 23, Bentley struggled to maintain her relationship with her body – when she finally got a hip replacement, she asked the surgeon whether she could take her hip bone home because she wanted to observe the absence of cartilage and “see the pain outside my body”.

The end of her marriage and her disappointment in the routine of conventional monogamy led Bentley to experiment sexually. She dismissed monogamy and said that “stability does not promote erotic excitement”. Her first experience of anal sex, said Bentley, prompted her to write the hugely controversial novel Surrender. It was something that changed her life and despite being an atheist, she saw it as an extremely spiritual experience for her. At first, no publisher in America was willing to publish this book and many feminists criticised it as setting back the cause of feminism by a century. Bentley retorted however, that feminism is a word embodying many different meanings, and explained that “my book is an act of feminism in the classical sense of the word – it is a woman speaking the truth though she was told not to do so”.

Bentley drew a contrast between her approach and the women who featured in ‘The Beast in Our Midst: Rape Survivors Speak Their Stories”, yesterday’s THiNK 2013 discussion by rape survivors in India. And she emphasised that the idea of freedom was at the core of her book – “The rapes going on in this country are so abhorrent. Theirs’ is a position of no choice. I had a choice to submit – that in itself is liberation for women”.

By Sara Sudetic

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