How Anais Nin Reminded Me There’s No One Right Way to Be Bi
At some point in the latter part of my teen years I become obsessed with vintage erotica. The bodice rippers I had snuck from my mom’s shelf were no longer satisfying, porn never interested me, and fan fiction just wasn’t doing it for me anymore. Happily, I went off to college and had an epiphany.
It happened while I was reading The Bonds of Love by Jessica Benjamin for class. For those of you who are not familiar, it’s a book on feminist theory and psychoanalysis and it is not particularly spicy. It was already blowing my mind, but then I hit a section where Jessica Benjamin discusses and quotes Pauline Reage’s The Story of O. That little excerpt made me want to read this naughty book more than I had ever wanted to read anything in my life. I immediately got online and ordered it. Thank goodness for the internet, because I couldn’t imagine having to go to a bookstore and buy it from a real person.
It arrived, I locked myself in my room, and read the whole thing in a single sitting. It was graphic and sexy and poetic and intellectually stimulating. It was everything that I had been looking for and I was hooked. I went on a spree and tore through Venus in Furs, The Story of the Eye, various volumes of The Pearl, Fanny Hill, and many many more.
Portrait of Anais Nin by Elsa Dorfman
I learned that I find the Marquis de Sade boring and mechanical, I like mid-century erotica more than Victorian, and I really like erotica written by women. This all led to me reading quite a bit of Anais Nin, which brings us to today. When I woke up my calendar alerted me to the fact that I have a meeting at 10am and that today is Anais Nin’s birthday. I thought “cool, Anais Nin, wasn’t she bisexual?”
I did what anyone would do and googled “Anais Nin bisexual.” The first thing that came up was a page supposedly debunking the “myth” that Nin was bisexual. It states:
“While there are rare accounts in the unpublished diary (sometimes graphic) of her relations with women, and while she could be erotically aroused by women, she found actual sex with them uncomfortable and strained. She once said, for example, ‘I never liked kissing a woman’s sex.’ In the famous case of June Miller, Nin was brought to the pinnacle of eroticism, but it was a peak she didn’t traverse physically. So, the conclusion is that while Anais Nin found some women erotic and actually wound up in bed with a few of them, in the strictest sense of the words ‘lesbian’ and ‘bisexual’ she was neither.”
This whole explanation mystified me. What is “actual sex?” What is this peak she didn’t traverse? Oral sex? Orgasm? Strap-ons? What is the strictest definition of bisexual these folks are referencing? How does being erotically attracted to women and men not make her bisexual?
It made me sad to think of such a brainy sexy woman being written about in these terms. This is a woman who wrote
“There are two ways to reach me: by way of kisses or by way of imagination. But there is a hierarchy: the kisses alone do not work.”
If anyone understood the power and importance of attraction, it was Anais Nin, yet someone out there still thought that a specific sex act is the only way one can define her orientation.
This is a surprisingly common problem for bi people. There seems to be a lot of people wandering around assuming the bisexuality means that you have lots of sex with men and women, in every imaginable position, normally in the form of a threesome. This definition is utterly wrong. Bisexuality is not limited by a gender binary, you aren’t required to be equally attracted to men and women, you can be bi and a virgin (no sex acts are required to be bi), you can be bi and monogamous, the list goes on and on. There is no one right way to be bi.
I suppose the most ardent skeptics will insist the only way we could know for certain whether Anais Nin was bisexual would be to raise her from the dead and ask her. But I think that’s a bit extreme. Here’s what we can say: her writings certainly imply that she was bi, her behavior in life was bisexual, and her bisexuality would have been in no way conditional on what sex acts she did or did not prefer when she slept with women.
Rather than waste time debating sex acts, why not celebrate the life of an amazing writer by picking up a copy of Henry and June, finding a secluded spot, and clearing your schedule for the rest of the day? I know that’s what I’m doing.