Outskirts online journal

Pip Christmass

Further information

About the author

Pip Christmass is currently writing a PhD thesis at the University of Western Australia on erotic and experimental aspects of Anais Nin's journals and fiction. She has recently published in Outskirts' first edition, The Australian Women's Book Review, and Anais: An International Journal.

Publication details

Volume 2, November 1996

Anäis Nin's Erotica: Written for the Male Voyeur?

In the 1960s and 1970s an explosion of supposedly "feminist" erotica flooded the (American) literary marketplace. Texts such as Erica Jong's Fear of Flying and Lisa Alther's Kinflicks were promoted as the first novels exploring the so-called "sexual revolution" from a female/feminist perspective. Although Anais Nin's erotica differs from the types of novels produced by Jong and Alther in a number of important ways, each were initially claimed as pioneering works emerging from the 1960s women's liberation movement. Recently, a number of critics have begun to assess the relevance of these texts for contemporary feminism (Wicker, 1994). How heavily do texts which proclaim to be feminist and erotic rely on male pornographic conventions, and to what extent do they give women a voice as well as a body in their erotic scenarios? The stories comprising Anais Nin's two volumes of erotica were compiled in the 1940s but not published until the late 1970s. The blurb for the Pocket Books edition of Delta of Venus (1977) announces that "[f]ifty years ago, Anais Nin created the female language for sexuality ... Delta of Venus reveals Anais Nin as a woman - and a writer - ahead of her time." Apart from making an essentialist link between writing and biology, this quote suggests that Anais Nin had virtually invented a new genre of women's erotica. The implication is that Nin's project should be admired by feminists everywhere for openly exploring women's sexuality. However, many feminists are extremely hostile to erotica, arguing that it represents the middle ground between two equally offensive genres: romance and pornography, both of which tend to construct female sexuality as inherently passive and submissive.

The line between romance and erotica, or erotica and pornography, is very often a thin one. To settle on an absolute definition of each is difficult, for the boundaries of each often overlap, and whether we perceive a work of art to be erotic or pornographic depends upon a number of factors, including prevailing cultural trends. Gloria Steinem's well-known essay, "A Clear and Present Difference," articulates what many of us might like to think are the fundamental differences between the two; but as it has often been pointed out, erotica is sometimes indistinguishable from pornography in that it is no less predictable, formulaic, or repetitive than its less culturally acceptable counterpart (1978). As many critics are beginning to suggest, the traditional cultural division between erotica (supposedly aimed at a primarily female market) and pornography (as a masturbatory aid for men) is somewhat simplified. Pornography is specifically about a particular style of narrative or the production of images which sexually objectify and commodify women's bodies. Pornography's particular way of stylising sex and the female body is what separates it from other sexually explicit visual and written texts.

It is interesting that Anais Nin's Henry and June, a text primarily concerned with intense sexual experience, is generally not considered pornographic. However, there are a number of passages within the text which are graphic or explicit and could easily fit within the shifting category of the pornographic text.

Why, then, is Henry and June viewed in a different light than pulp pornography? Ultimately, a text's pornographic status can depend less on the sexual acts being described than the way in which those acts are described and read. The more explicit, colloquial, and blunt the language is, the more likely a text is to be labelled pornographic. Traditionally, if the sexual act is described in more lyrical, euphemistic, or romantic terms, the label "erotica" will be used. This is the sort of demarcation Gloria Steinem makes.

In "A Clear and Present Difference," Steinem draws upon the etymological roots of the two words in order to define their differences. She concludes that erotica is about shared pleasure, whilst pornography is about power; the word "pornography" is derived from "prostitution", which reinforces the theme of female objecthood, slavery, and exchange. In the same issue of Ms, Kate Millett observes that:

... the first premise of pornography is that sex is evil, dirty, morbid, secret and shameful ... the quality of pornography is to titillate through an ancient mistrust of sexuality ... Pornography knows it's doing what it shouldn't, what is forbidden - so the satisfaction it offers is one of guilt and rule-breaking (1978, 80).

Whilst allowing that individual readings render absolute definitions impossible, Steinem assumes that certain generalisations can be made which are relevant for the majority of people. Erotica, Steinem argues, celebrates sensuality, mutuality, and equality; pornography by contrast always depicts a dominant-submissive relationship in which women are powerless, victimised, beaten and watched with pleasure by the (male) voyeur. Critics of Steinem's definition have pointed out that this vision is essentially romantic. Gayle Rubin for instance condemns Steinem's formula as a "utopian orthodoxy of 'good sex' which constitutes, so to speak, the 'missionary position' of the feminist movement" (Ross, 1993, 232-233). That is to say, the diversity of women's fantasies, and the possibility that some women - even women who identify themselves as feminists - might like pornography, is not taken into account. Steinem envisages feminist erotica as a more explicitly sexualised form of romance, but what of a feminist pornography?

Steinem also dismisses the notion that a women's tradition of erotica and pornography may already exist: "Our bodies have been too rarely our own to develop erotica in our own lives, much less in art and literature," she has written (78). In an article entitled "Rewriting the Erotic," Lucienne Frappier-Mazur challenges this assumption by providing a history of women's (albeit specifically French women's erotic writing over the last several hundred years. Particularly in European culture, the erotic novel has had a less furtive, and more highly-respected, place in the world of art and literature. Whilst the majority of French erotic novels published in the eighteenth and nineteenth century were written by men, a number were penned by women. Nin was once quoted as saying: "The French were able to produce very beautiful erotic writing because there was no puritan taboo, and the best writers would turn to erotic writing without the feeling that sensuality was something to be ashamed of and treated with contempt" (1992, 9). Whilst Nin's assumption about the lack of puritan taboo in 18th and 19th century France is problematic, French women were possibly less likely than their (later) American counterparts to be ostracised for writing openly about sexuality.

Historically, women writers have more likely been accused of indiscretion or indecorum than of penning pornography. As Nin suggested in an article written for Playgirl, when men write graphically about sex, they will usually be castigated for their use of language (witness Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence's obscenity trials): when women write about sex, the morality of their protagonists is attacked. Nin's novel "A Spy in the House of Love," written in the 1950s, was rejected by 127 publishers for being, amongst other things, pornographic. It was censured primarily because it dealt with the erotic life of a polygamous woman, Sabina. Indeed, one of the reasons Nin waited so many years to publish her journals was a fear of exposing her private life to a highly conservative and judgemental public. By the late sixties, American society may have become in some ways more permissive, but this did not prevent Nin from excising the erotic passages from the published journals.

In "Rewriting the Erotic," Lucienne Frappier-Mazur discusses the extent to which women writers of erotica and pornography simply reiterate male erotic/pornographic discourses. The questions she asks of French writers are equally applicable to Anais Nin's texts: "When pornographic works are written by women, a series of questions arises ... Do their character and status differ [from pornography written by men] and if so, how? Are they addressed to the same audience as those written by men?" (113). As I will argue in more detail later, Anais Nin's erotic stories are transgressive of a normative erotic discourse in one obvious way: the normative erotic discourse has been constructed and perpetuated by male writers and artists. What could be considered subversive in Nin's two volumes of erotica, Delta of Venus and Little Birds, is that many of the stories break from the typical formula of male dominance and female submission.

That is not to say that many typical pornographic images or motifs are not incorporated into the fabric of Nin's erotic stories. However, Mazur suggests that women writers have played with and re-worked these images. Role-reversal is a common feature: men become passive, objectified. In many of Nin's erotic stories, men are impotent. Further, whilst utilising certain pornographic conventions of interchangeability and plotlessness, Nin attempts to inject a sense of female subjecthood, emotion, and lyricism into a fundamentally non-poetic form.

Anais Nin moved from Paris to New York in 1939, at the onset of the Second World War. In the early 1940s a "book collector" approached Nin and Henry Miller, and asked them to write pornography at $1 a page for an unnamed wealthy client. (Nin and Miller later concluded that no such client existed, and that the collector wanted the stories for his own personal gratification). Miller quickly tired of the task and returned to his "serious" writing (which has itself been labelled pornographic at times!). Nin produced two volumes of short stories, Delta of Venus and Little Birds. The prefaces written for these volumes read as part apologia, part justification for compromising her own "serious" literary career. In them, Nin attacks her collector's single-minded focus on descriptions of sex at the expense of poetry and philosophy. These are two elements not traditionally associated with pornography, but Nin insistently declared that her writing was far from pornographic. She argues that the book collector's preoccupations prevented her from fully exploring her potential in the realm of literary erotic writing, and his strict limitations resulted in a less-than-arousing creative experience:

We could have bottled better secrets to tell him, but such secrets he would be deaf to. But one day when he reached saturation, I would tell him how he almost made us lose interest in passion by his obsession with the gestures empty of their emotions, and how we reviled him, because he almost caused us to take vows of chastity, because what he wanted us to exclude was our own aphrodisiac — poetry (preface, ix).

Nin's own views on eroticism, stated in a 1974 interview, preempted Steinem's comments on the subject in Ms four years later. Both Steinem and Nin argued that eroticism must be linked with love: an essentially romantic notion which the casual sex phenomenon of the late 1960s attempted to destroy. The phrase "free love" was something of a misnomer, for what it really indicated was the individual's freedom to engage in sex for the sake of the sexual experience itself. One didn't have to love the person one slept with - that was the whole point. The sexual revolution was a phenomenon in which sex and love no longer necessarily interconnected. Nin expressed a certain amount of dismay at this revolution in sexual consciousness, and emphasised the oldfashioned courting ritual as an essential element of eroticism and seduction. She also opposed the clinical language of the male pornographer (and Henry Miller is included here) because it "is not exciting to most women."1 In her late interviews, she lamented the way in which most pornography relegated sex to "the casual, unimportant areas of experience," divesting it of any emotional or spiritual content. For Nin, as for Steinem, pornography destroys and negates eroticism. Interestingly enough, the few critics who have discussed Nin's erotica in a scholarly context have insistently referred to it as pornography.

Nin's stories present difficulties to the feminist reader because, in Peter Michelsen's words, they are "written for men and reflect the conventions of male pornography," but also add "a feminine dimension that has been largely ignored" (1986, 140). What exactly is this feminine dimension which Michelson speaks of? Is it the presence of poetry in an essentially anti-poetic form? Or perhaps the twist of subversion that emerges in Nin's interpretations of pornographic themes? Those critics who have written on Nin's erotica have generally concluded that Nin's subversion lay in her defiance of the collector's specific instructions concerning what to include and what to omit. By play-acting for the book collector, producing mimicries of his pornographic expectations, Nin can slip out of her prostituted position. She allows herself the opportunity to create something other than what is strictly expected of her. If in many ways Nin's stories do comply with male pornographic criteria, they also diverge quite self-consciously from that formula. Like Erica Jong and Nancy Friday, Nin was attempting to assert that women could write candidly about sex and that they enjoyed objectifying men both as sex objects and as figures of occasional impotence or frigidity.

As with her journals, Nin's erotica was released with the claim that it might have some relevance for the women's movement: it was seen to say something about women's desires and sexual needs from a woman's point of view. The essentialist angle of this claim was not uncommon in the 1960s and 1970s. Whilst a number of Nin's stories possess the criterion to fully qualify as typical pornographic texts, they also expose the privileged position that phallocentric discourse has exerted over the conception, construction, and textual inscription of women's bodies.

One intriguing aspect of Nin's stories is their parodic quality. In her study of three French feminists, Sexual Subversions Elizabeth Grosz has suggested the following observations with regard to the controversial writings of Luce Irigaray. She writes, "Contrary to popular misconceptions of her work, Irigaray does not aim to establish a new language for women but to utilise the existing language system to subvert the functioning of dominant representations and knowledges in their singular, universal claims to truth" (1989,127). A woman writer could parody pornography: using an oppressive discourse in order to subvert that very discourse, using techniques of exaggeration and irony. Is it possible to argue that Nin succeeds in parodying pornographic discourse in order to undermine it? Or is she simply echoing an oppressive form without humour, irony, or the "subversive intent" of which Susan Suleiman speaks? In her preface to Delta of Venus, Nin writes: 'I began to write tongue-in-cheek, to become outlandish, inventive, and so exaggerated that I thought [the collector] would realise I was caricaturing sexuality" (ix). In this sense, Nin does seem to be parodying pornographic clichés, at the same time avoiding the clinical description that typifies most pornography. Susan Sontag would undoubtedly argue against the notion that Nin's stories could be interpreted as parodies of her collector's expectations, or that mimicry could be applied to the pornographic discourse. In "The Pornographic Imagination," Sontag claims that:

Pornography isn't a form that can parody itself. lt is the nature of the pornographic imagination to prefer ready-made conventions of character, setting and action. Pornography is a theatre of types, never of individuals. A parody of pornography, so far as it has any real competence, always remains pornography (98).

Similar observations have been made regarding Irigaray's theory of mimicry: what effectiveness or competence does it ultimately possess as a subversive discourse? Academic feminists tend to be divided on the issue. Anne Cranny-Francis suggests that women being "inside the ideology which presents them as 'woman' and outside it" can mimic or parody established genres without being contained or subsumed by them. At the same time however she acknowledges that some genres such as romance are virtually impossible to parody or subvert (1990, 19). In her study of Irigaray, Grosz does not question for one moment the possible subversiveness of mimicry: like the hysteric, the writer-mimic's "defiance through excess, through overcompliance, is parody of the expected" (134). Irigaray's and, I would argue, Nin's utilisation of a primarily seductive style of writing as a mimicry of feminine wiles is viewed by Grosz as a process of defiance She writes:

... mimicry [is] the conversion of ... passivity into activity by acting on, in the most extreme forms, what is expected, but to such an extreme degree that the end result is the opposite of compliance (138).

However as Toril Moi succinctly notes, "Sometimes, a woman imitating male discourse is just a woman speaking like a man" (1985,143). Mimicry can only succeed if it is perceived as being mimicry. In a 1976 interview, Helene Cixous also rejected the concept, using the image of the transvestite as an example of the failure of the subversive power of mimicry. The notion of undoing gender stereotypes by overdoing them - which is the fundamental basis of Irigaray's theory - fails in the case of the drag queen, because the version of femininity presented is still emphatically a male version. Cixous goes on to suggest that the woman who mimics male discourse achieves nothing because her effort is "still related to the phallus: showing what one doesn't have, what one is afraid of not having" (1979,79). Cixous argues that the concept of mimicry is negative, because it suggests that women have only one way of expressing themselves, of challenging their exclusion from the master discourses, that is, by exaggeration and overdramatization in a necessary relation to, and reaction against, phallocentrism. Irigaray's theories of mimicry and parody also suggest an intellectual elitism: for those readers unfamiliar with the theoretical notion of mimicry, the implications of this supposedly defiant strategy embedded in the parodic-erotic texts of women writers are unrecognised.

Delta of Venus and Little Birds

Many of the stories within Delta of Venus and Little Birds play with convention and reader expectation. In "Runaway"(Little Birds) certain stereotypical metaphors are employed to describe the sexually-satiated Jeannette (after her somewhat timid sexual initiation, she becomes a voluptuous, languorous animal), but despite this unadventurous imagery, Nin does attempt to challenge traditional gender types by creating a strangely desirable, androgynous female protagonist with a short boyish haircut, thin body, and small breasts.2 "Runaway" also focuses on the male characters' insecurities about their sexual performance; it is unusual for a pornographic writer to create a male protagonist who constantly questions his own virility and fears impotence. This brief story is unremarkable on most levels but thematically it introduces a number of interesting ideas which are pursued at greater length in other stories: male impotence and the desire to punish women for lack of virility; role reversal (androgyny and the female gaze); and a slightly mocking study of the masculine need to control and dominate women's sexual pleasure.

The reversal of the object/subject dichotomy is most evident in a story from Delta of Venus, "The Veiled Woman." Traditionally in erotic configurations the male subject's gaze is directed at an unknowing (or humiliatingly aware) woman in the throes of sexual activity. The gaze is an objectifying, appropriating force, a one-way transaction between subject and object in which the subject claims a position of power over his object. In "The Veiled Woman," a character named George who has a penchant for recounting his erotic exploits is intrigued by his companion's story of a neurotic and perverse woman who will only make love to strangers. Piqued by curiosity, George allows himself to be blindfolded and lead into a magnificent house of mirrors in which he is endlessly reminded of his own handsome countenance. George is initially uncertain of his ability to please the woman who stands before him, and expresses a desire to do violence to the impenetrable mystery of the woman's body, as if that is the only possible way of leaving a mark upon it.

George is determined to become the conquering hero, to overcome this mysterious woman's initial frigidity,3 and break through her unresponsive facade, which he does to the satisfaction of her sexual desires. George thinks he has had the perfect anonymous sexual encounter. Later at a bar a friend tells George of a wonderful incident in which he was paid to watch a couple making love. George is instantly aware that his friend has indeed observed his anonymous lover, and perhaps himself (or any number of other men) inside the house of mirrors. Insulted, George feels that he has been objectified, humiliated, and victimised. In a clever reversal, Nin places the male figure in the position of powerlessness, as the unknowing object of another's scrutiny; the anonymous woman, having solicited a coterie of watchers, has literally "set George up":

He could not believe such perfidy, and such play-acting . He became obsessed with the idea that the women who invited him to their apartments were all hiding some spectator behind a curtain (96).

Above all else, George fears that his sexual performance is being analysed, rated, and found wanting. That he might become the object of a spectator's amusement plunges him into anxiety. The erotic gaze is no longer a one-way projection from male subject to female object.

In "Marianne" (Delta of Venus) certain themes present in "The Veiled Woman" are repeated and re-stated. The female protagonist of the title, an innocent and youthful-looking typist of erotica familiar with "Proust, Krafft-Ebing, Marx, Freud," has had a number of lovers but never experienced real sexual pleasure. Marianne's "intellectual fearlessness" (presumably connected with her knowledge of Freud and Krafft-Ebing) is coupled with a timorousness and prudishness constantly played upon by the daily task of reading other people's erotic fantasies. "Marianne," like many of Nin's stories, is metafictive: a fiction about creating, reading, and distributing fiction. Nin suggests that much can be learned by women circulating their own stories amongst each other. Perhaps, for the first time, Marianne will recognise something of herself in the characters about whom she reads. This theme of circulation and exchange is extended towards the end of the story when Marianne and her lover Fred are prompted to write more by the reading of each other's stories (although Fred hides his manuscripts, and Marianne only comes across them inadvertently). Whereas in "The Veiled Woman" George desperately seeks to discover the key to his anonymous lover's seemingly icy facade, it is the woman in "Marianne" who hopes to discover the key to her lover's sexuality through the reading of his own erotic script.

Marianne's lover, Fred, takes a narcissistic delight in being looked at, but is unwilling to think about Marianne's own need for some form of sexual gratification. As a painter, Marianne is the one looking, studying, and watching. She claims "the right to observe." Once again, Nin utilises the male object/female subject reversal: Fred becomes the stripteaser at the mercy of his painter's appropriating brush. Unlike George however, Fred revels in his own objectification rather than feeling threatened by it. It is Marianne who feels unsettled and disturbed:

She liked violence. That is why this situation with the young man was for her the most impossible of situations. She could not believe that he would stand in a condition of physical excitement and so clearly enjoy the mere fact of her eyes fixed on him, as if she were caressing him. The more passive and undemonstrative he was, the more she wanted to do violence to him. She dreamed of forcing his will, but how could one force a man's will ? Since she could not tempt him by her presence, how could she make him desire her? (80).

The rhetorical question, "how could one force a man's will?" is in one sense comical, but it is also an indirect attack on the usual method of forcing (a woman's) will in sexual encounters: that is, through rape. Since Marianne cannot theoretically rape the object of her desire, she is left bewildered, reduced to a pathetic figure collapsing on her knees before her model's erection and murmuring with Lawrencian reverence: "How beautiful it is!" Like her anxious and uncertain male fictional counterparts, Marianne is afraid of being sexually rejected by her inscrutable lover. Nin surreptitiously attacks the narcissistic selfishness which accompanies the desire to be worshipped and admired: Fred gets his pleasure from being watched/desired, but he is utterly uninterested in satisfying anyone else's desire.

On one level then, Nin's stories can function as critiques of both pornographic convention and cultural constructions of masculine and feminine sexuality. Nin's male characters, it must be allowed, are often tender, ardent, or even timid lovers, and very few fit the bestial/rapist/hunter stereotype. Nin's retinue of male protagonists embody Steinem's vision of erotica: they are textual incarnations of a new breed of sensitive man who is also sexually indefatigable. Furthermore, the narrative tone of Nin's stories is rarely condescending or humiliating towards women. Rather than viewing women's sexuality in terms of a Freudian/Lacanian "lack", Nin hints at some strange locus of power which is unmasterable, unconquerable by men.4 Like George in "The Veiled Woman", the male protagonist in "Marcel" is intrigued by "the perfection in a woman's body that can never be possessed, known completely, even in intercourse" (Delta of Venus, 282).

Manifestations of violence and misogyny do appear in Nin's erotic texts although the female characters generally do not enjoy the various cruelties inflicted upon them. There are however a number of exceptions. Often, Nin's stories begin with promise and innovation, and succumb to standardised pornographic formulae. "Mathilde" (Delta of Venus) runs the gamut of erotic cliches without necessarily deconstructing them as the story progresses. The elements of subversion present in "The Veiled Woman" and "Marianne" that I have previously discussed are strikingly absent in this text. One of the more troubling aspects of this story, and many others within Nin's two volumes of erotica, is the unselfconscious equation between the so-called east and a mysterious and perverse exoticism. Languishing in a dark Peruvian boudoir, Mathilde is surrounded by incense and unnerving cocaine addicts. Beyond the walls of this hermetic sanctuary Chinatown brothels are stuffed with intricate screens, lanterns, incense, silk hangings, rugs, and delinquents.5 Nin has created a catalogue of Orientalist cliches.

Apart from the disconcerting Orientalism in Nin's erotica, there are a number of other problematic aspects which render it difficult to claim them as consciously feminist projects. "The Queen" (Little Birds) is perhaps one of the most disturbing of all Nin's stories. In it, a male painter gives a long description to his female model of a prostitute named Bijou, 'The Queen of the Whores." In Milleresque fashion, Bijou is described as "a womb turned inside out" who enacts "possession at every instant of her life" (107). When she eats, she simulates fellatio; when she puts on lipstick, her mouth becomes a replica of her sex. The painter suggests that the only reason women need wear clothes is to accentuate their erogenous zones. The painter does not like having to search for the animal side of angelic women: he wants "womb" to be written all over their faces.

Nin's erotica, then, vacillates between subversiveness and cliche. Perhaps Nin's greatest achievement lies in her playing with certain prevailing assumptions about "normal" male and female sexuality. Once again, some interesting comparisons can be made at this point between Nin's erotica and the theoretical work of Irigaray.6 In their writings, both suggest that erotic pleasure is not always a result of genital or copulative sexuality (a phallocentric notion); women do not necessarily need to engage in genital sexuality in order to reach orgasm. Nor is male sexuality inherently violent and aggressive. Given the era in which Nin's stories were written - the early 1940s - to deviate from accepted notions about the "truth" concerning sexual pleasure was quite radical. Luce Irigaray's favoured metaphor for female sexuality, the two lips, finds a counterpart in Nin's symbol of the opening and closing hothouse flower: one which will only open given the right climate and the right conditions, and does not respond favourably to violence or force.

Both Nin and Irigaray have been accused of a regressive form of essentialism, although Grosz comes to Irigaray's defence, suggesting that in "When Our Lips Speak Together" - an influential article in which Irigaray explores the libidinal impulses of feminine sexuality - Irigaray constructs an image of female sexuality that is "both active and passive, able to find pleasure in intercourse with men or making love with women (or in masturbation or celibacy) according to their desire" (117). This description seems particularly applicable to Nin's erotica: all these readings are available in her stories. Grosz emphasises the deliberately constructed nature of Irigaray's metaphor for female sexuality. This is still a relatively uncommon reading. Similarly, critics have rarely explored Nin's erotica in terms of constructedness as opposed to essentialism. In their writings, both Nin and Irigaray can be seen to produce an "active, creative coding or inscription, a positive marking of women's bodies," whose sexuality can be experienced in "other, different terms than the limiting possibilities available to women in patriarchy" (Grosz, 117). Nin's writing occasionally submits to notions of female passivity or masochism, but more often such culturally-created myths are questioned or criticised.

It is difficult to claim Nin's erotica as consciously feminist, although it does move towards a new conception of what is possible within the genre. Erotica does not have to conform to a standard set of rules and regulations (or positions and obsessions). It can be diverse and poetic, and it can function as more than simply a catalogue or dictionary of sex. It can be imaginative, tongue-in-cheek, and it can (and should) play with our expectations and understanding of sex, and texts about sex. Nin's achievement is precisely this: although her erotic texts are not completely divorced from the more problematic aspects of traditional pornography, she attempts to create something which does, at least, diverge from the formula. For example, lesbianism is not always seen as perverse; men are not always violent, bestial and all-conquering; women are not always either virgins or whores; they do not always enjoy sadistic or masochistic sexual practices. Female sexuality is explored as more complex and infinitely more varied. Although the artist/model figure is her favourite, Nin creates characters of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds and sexual proclivities. We can admire Nin for her daring given the period in which these stories were written, but we must look elsewhere to find erotica that challenges, or deviates from, all previous conventions.


1. Nin's justification for Henry Miller's explicitness, that he was attempting to explode a puritan tradition of idealising and romanticising women (which he saw as more offensive and damaging than sexual objectification), results in Nin's own occasional adoption of a Milleresque explicitness. This justification overlooks Miller's failure to construct any non-sexual images of women, who are systematically and continuously referred to as either "wombs" or "cunts."

2. This reminds me of Michele Breton's role as Lucy in Donald Cammell's 1970 film, Performance.

3. "The so-called 'frigid woman' is precisely the woman whose pleasures do not fit neatly into the male-defined structure of sexual pleasure, a teleological structure directed towards an orgasmic goal." (Grosz, Sexual Subversions)

4. I discovered only one obvious exception, Lina in "Little Birds." Lina, a bisexual, laments her "lack" because she feels she cannot make love to the (female) narrator of the story. Hers is a classic case of penis envy: "They [men] have something I don't have. I want to have a penis so that I can make love to you" (35). The narrator informs Lina that penetration is not the only form of sexuality available between women; Lina knows this but "won't have it."

5. For a postcolonial reading of Nin's erotica, see Judith Roof, "The Erotic Travelogue", in Arizona Quarterly 47, 4 (Winter 1991). Roof argues convincingly that Nin's erotica "distances, objectifies and colonizes the multiple sexual, racial and ethnic differences regularly constructed as the sexual other in soft-core pornography" (119). It could be argued, however, that Nin is once again mimicking a discourse which has always romanticised and eroticised the geographic landscape known as the "Orient."

6. I was struck by the similarities after reading a chapter on Irigaray in Sexual Subversions.

Works Cited

Cranny-Francis, Anne. Feminist Fiction: Feminist Uses of Generic Fiction. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990.

Cixous, Helene. Quoted in Homosexualities and French Literature. Stambolian & Marks (eds). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979. p.79.

Frappier-Mazur, Lucienne. "Marginal Canons: Rewriting the Erotic", Yale French Studies 75 (1988), 113.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Sexual Subversions: Three French Feminists. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1989.

Michelsen, Peter. "Women and Pornorotica", Another Chicago Mag, v16 (1986).

Millett, Kate. "So What Is Erotica?" Ms, (November 1978), 80.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics. NY & London: Routledge, 1985.

Nin, Anais. "Eroticism in Women", In Favour of the Sensitive Man. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1992. pp. 3-10.

Ross, Andrew. "The Popularity of Porn." The Cultural Studies Reader. Simon During (ed). London: Routledge, 1993 pp. 232-233.

Sontag, Susan. "The Pornographic Imagination." Story of the Eye. London: Penguin Books, 1967. pp.83-118.

Steinem, Gloria. "Erotica and Pornography: A Clear and Present Difference", Ms (November 1978), 77-80.

Wisker, Gina. It's My Party: Reading Twentieth Century Women's Writing. London; Boulder, Colorado: Pluto Press 1994.

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