What Anaïs Nin Can Teach Us About Online Dating
Tinder may be new, but the problems of dating are old enough that we can turn to 1930s erotica for their solutions
I t’s 2018, and if you’ve spent any chunk of the last decade single, you have probably tried online dating. Since we are the first generation where online dating is so ubiquitous, we’re learning and creating the etiquette as we go. What happens when we swipe on a coworker? How forward is too forward? What do you do when you run into someone at the bar who you earlier ghosted on OkCupid? It’s easy to think that we are in a new era when it comes to romance; not only do we have apps that can match us with hundreds of potential dates with ease, but society is re-examining ideas around monogamy, what relationships look like, and so much more. But while the technology may have changed, the fundamental issues of dating and relationships have barely budged since the age of dowries. Plenty of pre-Tinder minds have applied their literary genius to the problem of love, and their wisdom still applies. Which is why, when I’m facing a dating dilemma, I like to turn to Anaïs Nin.
Nin, a French author who split her time between France and New York City, contributed to literature through her short stories and personal diaries published in the 1930s through the 1970s (some posthumously). They are refreshingly open and honest looks at erotica and female sexuality, and worth reflecting on if your mental real estate has a healthy portion around the state of sex today. When I first read Nin I was amazed at how I kept forgetting that she was writing from a completely different time. I identified with so many of her experiences that and I find myself revisiting her work when I’m finding the dating game in 2018 especially tricky. So without further ado, here are the lessons we can learn from Anaïs Nin’s writing that still apply to the world of online dating today.
1. Learn how to sext
Let’s look at a not uncommon exchange I had the other day:
Me: Hey! How’s your Tuesday treating you?
Them: It’s ok. It would be even better if you were sucking my dick.
<Unmatch/Delete/Unsubscribe me from this newsletter for the love of all that is good>
Here’s what Nin would say about that slapdash approach: “There are two ways to reach me: by way of kisses or by way of the imagination. But there is a hierarchy: the kisses alone don’t work.” This is even more true now than it was in Nin’s day; the imagination is especially critical when you’re communicating through a screen! Without body language and physical chemistry to rely on, the imagination needs to work double time. So by all means, insert some sexting into your courtship ritual, but if you want to actually get anywhere you’re going to need to put some effort in. Luckily, you can find some Ninspiration here too. Her erotica was controversial when published, but today we can look to her lyrical prose as a model: “When she closed her eyes she felt he had many hands, which touched her everywhere, and many mouths, which passed so swiftly over her, and with a wolflike sharpness, his teeth sank into her fleshiest parts. Naked now, he lay his full length over her. She enjoyed his weight on her, enjoyed being crushed under his body. She wanted him soldered to her, from mouth to feet. Shivers passed through her body.”
Quick poll, are you more aroused by Nin or by “Hey babe, DTF?” If you’ve done it right, by the time you catch eyes in the dimly lit bar you agreed upon with your Tinder match, sparks will fly. The best case scenario for your effort will echo this sentiment: “He had not touched me. He did not need to. His presence had affected me in such a way that I felt as if he had caressed me for a long time.”
2. Smash false dichotomies
Part of why Nin was so controversial during her time is because she challenged people to rethink the heteronormative and patriarchal principles forced upon her. This is most present when reading Henry and June, her published diary that documents her relationships with Henry and June Miller while she was married to her first husband, Hugo. Nin’s diaries aren’t just about sex as recreation, they actively reflect her examining of the sexual role she was told to play by society: “Often, though, the passivity of the woman’s role weighs on me, suffocates me. Rather than wait for his pleasure, I would like to take it, to run wild. Is it that which pushes me into lesbianism? It terrifies me. Do women act thus? Does June go to Henry when she wants him? Does she mount him? Does she wait for him? He guides my inexperienced hands. It is like a forest fire, to be with him. New places of my body are aroused and burnt. He is incendiary. I leave him in an unquenchable fever.” Throughout the novel we see Nin explore a not-always-ethical polyamorous dynamic, her attraction to women, and even voyeurism. Later, when asked for life advice Nin would reflect “you should experiment with everything, try everything…. We are taught all these dichotomies, and I only learned later that they could work in harmony. We have created false dichotomies; we create false ambivalences, and very painful one’s sometimes -the feeling that we have to choose.”
3. Set emotional boundaries
If you’re going to experiment with everything, though, you also need to be honest with yourself and others — something Nin learned the hard way. Nin’s affairs with Henry and June are often cited as a catalyst that broke up the Miller couple, but it is also clear that Nin found herself in the middle of a sometimes volatile relationship. All while balancing her marriage to Hugo. While she was navigating the complex dynamics between Henry, June, and Hugo, she also had to navigate her own complex emotions. “The truth is that this is the only way I can live: in two directions. I need two lives. I am two beings. When I return to Hugo in the evening, to the peace and warmth of the house, I return with deep contentment, as if this was the only condition for me. I bring home to Hugo a whole woman, freed of all ‘possessed’ fevers, cured of the poison of restlessness and curiosity which used to threaten our marriage, cured through action. Our love lives, because I live. I sustain and feed it. I am loyal to it, in my own way, which cannot be his way. If he ever reads these lines, he must believe me. I am writing calmly, lucidly while waiting for him to come home, as one waits for the chosen lover, the eternal one.” By the end of the book, you can sense her emotional exhaustion from balancing three different partners. It’s a good reminder that just because you can smash dichotomies, it doesn’t mean you have to if it doesn’t work for you.
6. Click “share”
Over-sharing and over-documenting is framed as a real concern in the digital age, especially when it comes to broadcasting our relationships. However, Nin’s work makes an excellent case for the benefits of sharing and documenting your life. For Nin, writing about her life wasn’t just acceptable — it was essential: “I believe one writes because one needs to create a world in which one can live. I could not live in any of the worlds offered to me… Had I not created my whole world, I would certainly have died in other people’s.”
Nin was a trailblazer in women writing openly about their personal experiences. We can easily get caught up in the wild and sexy life she wrote about, but as Deena Metzger reflects “We often forget that we are in the presence of a woman who lived through war, and a woman that decided that he would have her own life, and we forget that there was a time when that didn’t happen. That women did not have their own life.” So if you’ve ever related to someone’s twitter thread, been endeared by someone’s earnest OkCupid profile, or had an “aha” moment about dating thanks to someone’s Facebook status, you have Nin to thank. “She brought in the journal. She brought in the articulation and the recording of one’s own life, and how important that was. She brought in the intimacy, she brought in the personal.” reflects Deena.
5. Make Mistakes
Which leads us to our last piece of advice: “You have a right to experiment with your life. You will make mistakes. And they are right too.” Nin is the patron saint of exploring her romance, even if it hurt. Time and time again, she so clearly articulated how being afraid to make mistakes holds us back romantically: “Anxiety is love’s greatest killer. It makes others feel as you might when a drowning man holds on to you. You want to save him, but you know he will strangle you with his panic.” However, she was also clear that being willing to make mistakes doesn’t absolve you from responsibility, but that responsibility isn’t limiting “The knowledge that we are responsible for our actions and attitudes does not need to be discouraging, because it also means that we are free to change this destiny.” So yes, try new things, take that leap, make mistakes, learn from them, and don’t let fear hold you back.
Nin’s work is timeless, messy, steamy, and thoughtful. Embracing our inner Nin is freeing not only for ourselves, but for the folks we try to court and for the wider dating pool. I hope the next time you find yourself swiping you think of Nin, and open up your mind, your heart, and your inner eroticist.