When you read early erotic novels (1748’s Fanny Hill, 1747’s Les Bijoux indiscrets, 1787’s Justine, etc), something sticks out. No, not that. Don’t be disgusting.

I’m talking about the authors: Cleland, Diderot, Sade, etc. They’re all men. Female-written erotic work in the Western canon literally crosses from Sappho’s poetry (~570 BC) to Pauline Réage’s Story of O (1957) in one step, with nobody in the intervening 2,527 years. Early erotica authors were literally all male.

Or were they? It’s possible (though unprovable) that one of the shadier early manuscripts was written by a woman, and either published anonymously or under a man’s name. Note that that the two prominent female erotica authors of the postmodern era – Réage and Anaïs Nin – both took active steps to conceal their identities. Réage was a pen name. Nin’s stories in Delta of Venus (which were written in the early 1940s and published posthumously in 1977) were intended for a private collection.

“Death is a mystery, and burial is a secret,” Stephen King wrote in one of his books. So is sex, at least where women are concerned. We accept with a shudder that they have sex (that’s where babies come from), but writing or reading about sex? That’s just too weird. Men are beasts and can’t help themselves, but why would a lady write about something that should be hidden?

Well, the hiddenness makes it attractive. The box you most want to look inside is the one you’re told to leave alone. It’s the censor’s paradox: people want forbidden fruit.

The increasingly explicit content of the mid 20th century ruined erotica, in books as well as film. It’s rather like Johnny Rotten’s observation that you demystify the swastika by wearing one: if everyone dressed in Nazi regalia, it wouldn’t trigger the cultural acceptance of fascist ideas: it might actually do the reverse. Could anyone feel awe at the sight of a sonnenrad, after seeing the lamest dork in the neighborhood wear one?

Anaïs Nin’s early writing actually has more shock value than modern porn; you can see her hands bleeding as she pulls walls down.

As I’ve said, we were never meant to read Delta of Venus. This adds the reader’s unintended voyeurism to sins on the page, which are legion: incest, buggery, rape, bestiality, and pedophilia. Nin writes about all of this with an praeternatural lack of judgment. She just documents human iniquity on the page, the way a camera obscura might.

It’s certainly diverse. One wonders what Nin’s collector (probably a heterosexual man) got out of stories like “The Boarding School” (“The experienced boys penetrated his anus to satisfy their desire, while the less experienced used friction between the legs of the boy, whose skin was as tender as a woman’s. They spat on their hands and rubbed saliva over their penises. The blond boy screamed and kicked and wept, but they all held him and used him until they were satiated.”). Sometimes the tales are gruesome and excessive. “Mathilde” and “The Ring” feature genital mutilation. Horrible stuff. You shouldn’t want to read it. I forbid that you read this book. Please don’t open the box.

It seems to me that erotic writing has gentrified itself. It now possesses rules about what subjects are okay, what subjects are off-limits, trigger warnings, and so forth. Some AO3 stories have lists of tags and disclaimers that are nearly as long as the stories themsevles. By contrast, Delta of Venus offers a look back at a weirder, wilder time: where erotica was so far from the pale it was almost in the black.

Nin, like Tolkien, was rediscovered in the 70s. She cuts a confusing figure: it’s hard to know what to make of her. She was of Hispanic descent, yet her settings of Brazil and Peru seldom rise above exoticism (her descriptions of Paris in “Marcel” are far more vivid). She rejected the Catholicism of her youth, yet it hangs across her writing like the Shroud of Turin (“The Boarding School”, for example, gets most of its punch from the emotional repression of its setting).

She’s hard to claim as a feminist figurehead. She lived under the shadow of men all her life: Henry Miller, DH Lawrence, her father, and the anonymous “collector” who made all of this possible. The stories are all written for male consumption, although with shards of her personality poking through the pornographic narrative like iceberg-tips. She stands in two epochs: old-fashioned yet modern. This make her captivating: she can’t be captured for some political cause.

“I will always be the virgin-prostitute, the perverse angel, the two-faced sinister and saintly woman.”

Anais Nin, Henry & June

Even her descriptions of sex embody this contrast, with high romantic verbiage clashing with gutter crudeness.

“For the first time, the hunger that had been on the surface of her skin like an irritation, retreated into a deeper part of her body. It retreated and accumulated, and it became a core of fire that waited to be exploded by his time and his rhythm. His touching was like a dance in which the bodies turned and deformed themselves into new shapes, new arrangements, new designs. Now they were cupped like twins, spoon-fashion, his penis against her ass, her breasts undulating like waves under his hands, painfully awake, aware, sensitive. Now he was crouching over her prone body like some great lion, as she placed her two fists under her ass to raise herself to his penis. He entered her for the first time and filled her as none other had, touching the very depths of the womb.”

Artists and Models

The stories are mostly fast and short, thrashed out quickly, establishing a scenario that swiftly builds to an explosive climax (or climaxes). None take more than a few minutes to read. Nin was supposedly paid a dollar a page for this stuff: one admires her restraint in using so few paragraph breaks.

And while the stories seem bold and incredibly revealing, they’re nothing of the sort. Nin wrote this stuff for money. She was pushed at every turn by the “collector” to focus more on sex, more on body parts, more on the beast with two backs. Her natural inclination toward poetry was throttled. The introduction contains a letter, written by Nin to the Collector. It’s basically history’s first “men only want one thing, and it’s disgusting”.

Dear Collector: We hate you. Sex loses all its power and magic when it becomes explicit, mechanical, overdone, when it becomes a mechanistic obsession. It becomes a bore. You have taught us more than anyone I know how wrong it is not to mix it with emotion, hunger, desire, lust, whims, caprices, personal ties, deeper relationships that change its color, flavor, rhythms, intensities. You do not know what you are missing by your microscopic examination of sexual activity to the exclusion of aspects which are the fuel that ignites it. Intellectual, imaginative, romantic, emotional. This is what gives sex its surprising textures, its subtle transformations, its aphrodisiac elements. You are shrinking your world of sensations. You are withering it, starving it, draining its blood. “If you nourished your sexual life with all the excitements and adventures which love injects into sensuality, you would be the most potent man in the world.


Delta of Venus is well-written, but its stories often have a note of cynicism, or contempt. “The Hungarian Adventurer” describes a man of incredible attractiveness, charm, and virility (perhaps how the Collector liked to imagine himself?) before turning him into a bloated, aging pig, abandoned by his children. “Lilith” involves a woman trying to spice up a marriage with Spanish fly. The ending is such a thudding anticlimax that I think this must have been the intended effect.

These little rebellions against form are as fascinating as the form itself. Like Nin, the book is complex, with many layers.

“There is a perfection in everything that cannot be owned,” he said. “I see it in fragments of cut marble, I see it in worn pieces of wood. There is a perfection in a woman’s body that can never be possessed, known completely, even in intercourse.”


By her own standards, Nin was perfect. Worn, broken, weird; selling prose for a dollar a page.

Yet she could not be possessed.

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