Anais Nin on the Secret to a Satisfying Sex Life

Ours is a sex-saturated society.  On television, 2 out of 3 programs contain suggestive, sexual anais & diariescontent; spectacles like the Super Bowl regularly feature twerking and pole-dancing.  On social media, millions follow shirtless men and scantily clad women in thong bikinis.

Half a century ago, porn was limited to your dad’s Playboys and a few rare home videos; today porn is mass produced by a multi-billion dollar industry, as easy and convenient as french fries from the McDonald’s dollar menu.  The internet is a portal to a pixelated play land where your filthiest fantasies can come true.

Despite the prevalence of porn and the widespread acceptance of casual sex, today our sex lives are less satisfying— not more.  By giving men unrealistic expectations of women’s bodies, porn extinguishes male libido and can even hinder their ability to perform.  In the words of groundbreaking feminist Naomi Wolf, “real naked women are just bad porn.”  Not only does porn ruin real sex, it causes women to loathe themselves.  After all, how can a flesh-and-blood woman begin to compete with a submissive sex slave whose only purpose is to fulfill her male viewer’s every fantasy and whose vocabulary is limited to seductive moans and exaggerated exclamations of “yes!  more!”?

Though pornography had yet to completely spoil sex in her lifetime, dedicated diarist Anais Nin understood sex is a matter— not of the body— but of the mind.  Along with her lifelong friend, lover and fellow writer Henry Miller, Nin wrote erotica for an anonymous client at a rate of $1 a page.  “Leave out the poetry and concentrate on sex!” the collector demanded.  In this passionate and prophetic letter, featured both in the indispensable Letters of Note and the exquisite The Diary Of Anais Nin, Volume 3, the always articulate Nin responded:

“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 which 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 others, 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.  The source of sexual power is curiosity, passion.  You are watching its little flame die of asphyxiation.  Sex does not thrive on monotony.  Without feeling, inventions, moods, no surprises in bed.  Sex must be mixed with tears, laughter, words, promises, scenes, jealousy, envy, all of the spices of fear, foreign travel, new faces, novels, stories, dreams, fantasies, music, dancing, opium, wine.

How much do you lose by this periscope at the tip of your sex, when you could enjoy a harem of discrete and never-repeated wonders?  Not two hairs alike, but you will not let us waste words on a description of hair; not two odors, but if we expand on this, you cry “Cut the poetry.”  Not two skins with the same texture, and never the same light, temperature, shadows, never the same gesture; for a lover, when he is aroused by true love, can run the gamut of centuries of love lore.  What a range, what changes of age, what variations of maturity and innocence, perversity and art, natural and graceful animals.

We have sat around for hours and wondered how you look.  If you have closed your senses around silk, light, color, odor, character, temperament, you must by now be completely shriveled up.  There are so many minor senses, all running like tributaries into the mainstream of sex, nourishing it.  Only the united beat of sex and heart together can create ecstasy.”

seduction & anais nin

A writer of erotica and a notorious seductress herself, Nin had the prescience to know porn would pose serious problems.  Pornography is provocative in the most predictable ways: lewd profanities, unimaginative dirty talk, obscenely large breasts, huge cocks.  Its purpose?  To immediately satisfy our most depraved desires. 

Seduction, however, depends on delaying— not gratifying— desire.  After all, who is more alluring: the belligerently drunk bro who instantly agrees to come home with us or the mysterious man who only longingly looks at us across the bar?  It’s the tease that’s most tantalizing.  If you want to make yourself irresistible, you should conceal, not reveal: the curve of a hip, the graceful arch of a back, the neckline that reveals just a bit of your decolletage, the entrancing scent of perfume on the wind, the forbidden, flirtatious glance across the table that lasts a little too long seduce us in a way the most x-rated porn cannot.  As Proust so wittily observed over a century ago, we most want what is denied us.

The great tragedy of our time is we have porn, but no passion; we have sex but have forgotten how to make love.  For sensualist Nin, sex can only enrapture if it involves all the senses, if it’s connected— not divorced— from head and heart.  Hungry for more of Nin’s intriguing insights and luminous prose?  Read her on the mystery of memory and the bliss and hell of New York.  Need more advice on sex and love?  Revisit Alain de Botton on how to be charming and Proust on how to be happy in love.

Petronius’s “Doing”

 

“Doing”

By Gaius Petronius

Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short;

And done, we straight repent us of the sport:

Let us not then rush blindly on unto it,

Like lustful beasts, that only know to do it:

For lust will languish, and that heat decay.

But thus, thus, keeping endless holiday,

Let us together closely lie and kiss,

There is no labour, nor no shame in this;

This hath pleased, doth please, and long will please; never

Can this decay, but is beginning ever.

petronius statue

In “Doing,” 1st century A.D. poet Petronius urges us to restrain our physical desire.  The first lines portray “short pleasure” as the dirtiest and most depraved:

“Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short;/And done, we straight repent us of the sport;/ Let us not then rush blindly on unto it,/ Like lustful beasts, that only know to do it:/ For lust will languish, and that heat decay” (1-5).

To put it in more modern terms, Petronius isn’t the guy who’d chug a beer, slur a brash, unromantic “want to have sex?” in your ear before fucking you in the fastest, most unimaginable way.  No, he’d be a sensualist-the quieter, more amorous guy that understands seduction begins with mystery, with the withholding of gratification.

Ironically, in “Doing” the “doing” itself offers no lasting pleasure. If “doing” is a present participial verb representing eternal action, the actual consummation of desire (sex) is both “filthy” and “short.” Meaning improper and obscene, “filthy” portrays sex as sinful. But before you go assuming that Petronius was a prude who advocated for celibacy and chastity belts, we should make one thing clear: it is not visceral desire that Petronius so stalwartly rallies against-it’s the ways in which we approach sex. When we simply “do” sex like we would do a homework assignment, we miss the rapture and excitement real intimacy can afford.

“And done,” he laments, “we straight repent us of the sport.” Here, the religious word “repent” indicates such lovemaking is a serious sin against God worthy of profound regret. “Sport” further reinforces this image. Rather than depict sex as a blissful communion of both body and spirit, “sport” trivializes the act as if it were just another means of amusement. Such an attitude toward sex represents a devolution to our lower animal nature: like “lustful  beasts” who possess no reason or rationality and simply rely on the impulse of their instincts, the man who sets out to merely fulfill his carnal longings will miss out on a whole other dimension of intimacy-he’ll have sex but no lovemaking.

For Petronius, the problem with lust is it doesn’t last: desire will “languish”; heat “decay”. Both words depict the consummation of sexual longing as intense but ultimately fleeting. To obtain the object of your desire, it seems, is disillusioning. It’s like The Great Gatsby. Though he’s spent years building a fortune in hopes of finally winning back Daisy, the long lost love of his life, when he finally attains her, he feels disenchanted: she was better off as the green light, a hazy, faraway ambition made appealing by its being inaccessible.

The only way for ardor to be sustained over the long-term, then, is for fulfillment to be postponed…at least for a little while:

“But, thus, thus, keeping endless holiday,/ Let us together closely lie and kiss,/ There is no labor nor no shame in this” (Petronius 6-8).

If a holiday is a magical time when one can temporarily vacate their life and take some time off, Petronius is asking his lover to indulge in a brief respite from the world. But their respite is not gratifying their fiery desires-it’s delaying them. Often once you attain the object of your desire, your appetite for them deteriorates; it is only the pursuit of longing that makes sex exciting-not its actual fulfillment. Petronius, the first master of seduction, was well aware of this. By deferring the consummation of their passions, he knows their relationship will remain a blissful honeymoon instead of disintegrate into the all-too-common convention of marriage as hopeless tedium.