A Literate Passion

The long and surprising history of the erotic memoir

Over the centuries, going as far back as the lyric poetry of Sappho and Ovid’s didactic The Art of Love, Western culture has steadily amassed a body of erotic literature. Primarily, such work has taken the form of poetry, drama, and fiction, while nonfiction writing on the human sexual experience has been slower to emerge. Anaïs Nin’s bold diaries, which she began writing during World War I but which were not published until the mid-1960s, are a powerful symbol of the Western world’s changing attitudes about sexuality in the twentieth century. In recent years, the landscape has steadily begun to shift toward various forms of erotic memoir; Nin’s diaries have paved the way for everything from celebrity sex tapes and pirated nude photos to the sexual memoirs—many of them penned by women—that have hit bookstores in recent decades, becoming an industry in their own right and setting the standard for the use of graphic details and over-sharing.

Nin’s diaries may seem worlds away from medieval Europe, but the early roots of erotic memoir lie there, when such books were expressly not written by women. Early European erotic fiction was generally written by men for exclusively male audiences and distributed in private salons or illegally printed in secret by niche publishers. These works often straddled a troubling line between fact and fiction. While contemporary memoirists often adhere to the fact-based tenets of creative nonfiction, early erotic authors wrote under false identities—not noms de plume, but completely fabricated personae alleged to be real—and frequently pretended fiction was fact.

A key early example from the fifteenth century is Historia de duobus amantibus (The Tale of Two Lovers), an epistolary erotic tale penned by Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini before his appointment as Pope Pius II. The following century’s Dialogues of Luisa Sigea purports to be a sexual and religious instructional manual from a woman in the Portuguese court to her young friend. It was falsely attributed to a real-life poet and member of the Portuguese court named Luisa Sigea (1522-1560), though Nicholas Chorier was the book’s real author. Chorier also gave false attribution to a nonexistent translator. Certainly erotic writers were not the only authors to use assumed names or identities, but the purpose here was to enhance the sexual element by claiming that these weren’t just made up tales, but true ones.            

Pietro Aretino, a sixteenth-century Italian writer, satirist, and arch blackmailer who effectively created literary pornography, was an early proponent of presenting erotic fiction as truth. Many of his works are deceptively presented as educational or factual, such as I Modi (1524), an illustrated guide to sexual positions accompanied by his “Lewd Sonnets,” or his Ragionamenti (“Dialogues”) (1536), published as three volumes whose titles are commonly translated as The Secret Life of Nuns, The Secret Life of Wives, and The School of Whoredom. Though his noble patrons, including kings and popes, were tolerant of much of his material, the furor inspired by I Modi caused him to flee Rome and eventually relocate to Venice. Despite charges of obscenity and even death threats, Aretino was popular and widely read; as the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it, “he became the object of great adulation and lived in a grand and dissolute style for the rest of his life.”

Aretino’s final home, Venice, was also the birthplace of one of the world’s earliest renowned erotic memoirists: eighteenth-century Italian courtier Giacomo Girolamo Casanova, a writer, adventurer, and libertine, whose Histoire de ma vie (Story of My Life) includes tales of his frequent trysts. Writing in the 1790s, near the end of his life, he admits, “I have delighted in going astray, and I have constantly lived in error, with no other consolation than that of knowing I had erred.” This almost 3,500-page tome is different than the licentious works that came before it, primarily because it is believed to be at least partly factual.

Casanova did provide colorful erotic anecdotes of his affairs with well over a hundred women and possibly some men. Though many of these escapades can’t be historically verified, they are consistent with social customs of his day—such as extramarital affairs in the upper classes—and he wrote about far more than just sex. Casanova related his numerous adventures throughout Europe and provided detailed accounts of eighteenth-century life, including notes about food, fashion, sports, gambling, and politics. Unlike earlier erotic authors, who hid behind false identities, he was a prominent figure, well-known by the aristocracy, and he published novels, plays, essays, and translations before turning to the task of completing his memoir. He actually attempted to make a living as a writer—one of his numerous careers—but was forced to supplement it with spying to maintain a lifestyle well above his means.

Story of My Life was groundbreaking because it is not fundamentally an erotic or pornographic work, but rather a comprehensive autobiography peppered with scenes of sex and seduction. The literary aspect of the work was problematic for publishers of the day. In an introduction to a twentieth-century publication of the autobiography, The Memoirs of Jacques Casanova de Seingalt, poet Arthur Symons wrote, “When Casanova’s Memoirs were first published, doubts were expressed as to their authenticity.” For a time, they were attributed to Stendhal, another European traveler and womanizer who kept a detailed journal. The memoirs were first published in Germany in 1822 in an abridged, censored form; many later editions were based on an incorrect, falsified translation, while some included erotic illustrations. The unabridged, corrected memoirs were not published until 1960.

But Casanova was unique for his day, and the majority of sexual “memoirs” from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries followed Aretino’s example, encouraging readers to believe that the scandalous stories were true. Infamous publisher Charles Carrington used this method frequently to enhance the erotic and transgressive elements of his pornographic volumes, which had titles like Raped on the Railway: a True Story of a Lady who was first ravished and then flagellated on the Scotch Express (1894) or The Memoirs of Dolly Morton (1899).

One of Carrington’s colleagues, the publisher Auguste Brancart, released a series of volumes known as My Secret Life, the first of which appeared circa 1888. The narrator—and presumably the author, known only as “Walter”—relates numerous allegedly true sexual experiences. Consistent with the realities of the time, many of his conquests were working-class women or prostitutes. Like Casanova’s odyssey, this lengthy series also contains numerous details about Victorian life. Thanks to doubts about the author’s identity, these books have never been definitively verified to be fact or fiction, though there is a theory that they are the work of book collector and erotic writer Henry Spencer Ashbee.

With the exception of Casanova’s autobiography—which itself was censored and abridged—it is difficult to find erotic memoirs from before the twentieth century, as erotica and pornography were both heavily censored if not outright illegal across Europe. Nebulous moral laws allowed governments to censor and ban at whim; for example, England’s ill-defined Licensing Act of 1662 initially suppressed sedition in the press but also covered a variety of material deemed inappropriate or “unlicensed.” And yet, James Reese Jones reports in Liberty Secured?: Britain Before and After 1688, “it was not until 1727, with the successful prosecution of Edmund Curll for publishing and translating a French erotic work, that it became an offense at common law to corrupt the morals of the king’s subjects, and that an act against morality was judged against public order.” Because of measures like these, nineteenth century publishers who released erotic content frequently darted from country to country in Europe, barely one step ahead of the law.

Most erotic works, such as the libertine novels from eighteenth-century France, were privately published. The authors wrote under pseudonyms; were protected by rank, like John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester; or, like the Marquis de Sade, languished in prison. A notable exception is Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs (1870), which was likely published because it skirts actual erotic content to relate the partially autobiographical story of a man who wishes to be dominated by his mistress. The word “masochism,” derived from Sacher-Masoch’s name, was coined with this novel in mind. Another example is The Sins of the Cities of the Plain (1881), a work of gay erotica that includes characters based on real figures from the London underground. Pornographer William Lazenby published the work in a limited run. Despite his numerous aliases, he was prosecuted several times and eventually fled to Paris.

In the anthology International Exposure: Perspectives on Modern European Pornography, 1800–2000, Colette Colligan documents Lazenby’s domination of the underground market with his stories of sexual violence, slavery, and flagellation. She writes, “Lazenby’s stories about slavery in the Americas suggest new and developing English sexual fantasies that relate to changing desires, literary tastes, and imperial encounters.” Though he was prosecuted for obscenity, his books and magazines sold well, and like other pornographic publishers, including Charles Carrington and Edward Avery, he ran a booming mail-order business from France.

Changing tastes—both literary and scientific—combined with gradually shifting moral attitudes and the steam-powered, industrial printing press inadvertently led to a revolution in ways the Western world perceived sex. Well before Alfred Kinsey founded his notorious Institute for Sex Research in 1947, Weimar Berlin was home to Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, which opened in 1919. The early years of the twentieth century also saw Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905) and Havelock Ellis’s six-volume Studies in the Psychology of Sex.

These scientific explorations and the profound social changes brought on by two world wars helped usher in franker discussions of sexuality. A notable erotic memoir from this time is My Life and Loves, a five-book autobiography from Irish-American writer Frank Harris, with a focus on the author’s sexual experiences. Published in the 1920s, it is a consciously literary work. Akin to Casanova’s writings, it is full of reflections on contemporary life, gossip, and numerous intellectual and artistic references. It is also rife with explicit descriptions of masturbation, sexual fantasies, and intercourse. These volumes were published by Obelisk Press, responsible for releasing some of the most transgressive works of the day, including Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934). Harris didn’t approach Casanova’s level of infamy, perhaps because his works were banned in the United States for forty years, and he was eclipsed in the public eye by more transgressive writers, including James Joyce, Henry Miller, and Anaïs Nin.

The element of transgression became a mainstay in the erotic writings of the time, as exemplified by Nin herself. In Erotic Memoirs and Postfeminism: The Politics of Pleasure, Joel Gwynne writes, “In the erotic memoir, the reader occupies a surreptitious and voyeuristic space, and the intimate relationship between audience and author is further enhanced by the disclosure of sex as a site of not only pleasure, but also uncomfortable and transgressive experiences.” The century’s most famous erotic memoirist and one of history’s most prolific diarists, the Cuban-French Nin made a career of this principle. She wrote unashamedly about her multiple ongoing marriages, sexual liaisons with her therapist, an incestuous relationship with her father, abortion, lesbian desire, and her infamous tryst with Henry Miller, among other subjects.

Though Nin wrote extensively about sex, her thoughtful, literary musings are also filled with discussions of her ongoing psychoanalysis, intellectual interests, and friendships with important cultural figures. She was also one of the first women to write and publish erotica, providing a fascinating parallel to her memoirs. In the first volume of her published diaries, she writes, “If what Proust says is true, that happiness is the absence of fever, then I will never know happiness. For I am possessed by a fever for knowledge, experience, and creation.”

She was instrumental in the publication of her diaries, which she began keeping in 1914 and continued religiously until her death in 1977, filling thousands of pages. Though she allegedly considered having part of her diary published in the ’30s, she didn’t find a publisher until 1966. Nin had written fiction regularly throughout the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, but she didn’t become a public figure until the ’60s and ’70s. During this time, which coincided with the publication of her erotica, her diaries began to see the light of day—though similarly to dancer Isadora Duncan’s 1927 autobiography My Life, they were censored for some sexual content.  But Nin herself found an audience; she began to lecture throughout the United States, becoming something of a feminist icon.

The more explicit (“unexpurgated”) versions of the diaries were not released until after her death, and to date total only seven published volumes, spanning the years 1931 to 1974. She has become one of the twentieth century’s most important female literary icons and remains a model for diarists. Thanks to Nin’s fictional and autobiographical works, as well as contemporary political publications like Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), writers with unconventional sexual lives, particularly women, began to share their stories with increasing frequency.

A common theme among these is the exploration of sex work. While early pornographers like Aretino wrote fictional accounts of prostitutes presented as fact—“pornography” actually being derived from Greek words meaning “to write about prostitutes”—some female artists and writers in the ‘60s, ’70s and ’80s chose to participate in sex work and record their findings. Gloria Steinem was one of the first to write in this field with a published diary in Show magazine about her experience working undercover as a waitress in the Playboy Club, while Xaviera Hollander, a regular Penthouse columnist and New York madam, tackled a different side of the industry in The Happy Hooker (1972).

 Experimental novelist Kathy Acker claimed that some of her early work from the mid-’70s was inspired by her days as a stripper, and she became known for using both autobiography and pornography in writings like I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac: Imagining (1974) and Blood and Guts in High School (1984). Musician Lydia Lunch’s memoir, Paradoxia (1997), is in a similar vein and provides an in-depth exploration of her life in late-’70s and early-’80s New York, including explicit discussions of her sexual relationships, drug use, and mental health issues. Annie Sprinkle explored sex work and pornography through performance art, music, and writing. Her Post-Porn Modernist: My 25 Years as a Multimedia Whore (1998) is a sort of biographical anthology of her work as a sex advocate and a porn star.

While these books sought to address complex social issues, such as the exploitation of women, the recent crop of erotic memoirs has largely abandoned these themes in favor of pornographic titillation. Take, for example, Belle de Jour’s The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl (2005), assembled from an anonymously written blog later attributed to researcher Brooke Magnanti. Other such books include Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper (2006), Confessions of a Working Girl: A True Story (2008), How I Became A Phone Sex Operator—My True Story (2010), and Call Girl Confidential: An Escort’s Secret Life as an Undercover Agent (2014).

These explicit memoirs followed hot on the heels of Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City (1997), collected from the author’s columns in the New York Observer about the sex lives of the author and her friends in New York, and the far more successful show of the same name. Like Bushnell, these other memoirists often put as much emphasis on fashion and wealth as they do on sexual relationships. But while Bushnell depicts sex as a primarily social activity or a means to an end (marriage, financial security), these later sex-worker memoirs serve to glamorize prostitution. Perhaps contradictorily, they also attempt to celebrate female sexual independence.

These provide a fascinating contrast with the recent boom of memoirs that effectively began in 1995 with Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club. Many of these books, such as Karr’s best-selling book and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (1996), deal with difficult themes like trauma, abuse, alcoholism, mental health, and poverty. A smaller body of recent erotic memoirs not penned by sex workers are part of this trend and generally eschew discussions of glamour and wealth for frank descriptions of sexuality. Examples include The Sexual Life of Catherine M. (2001), in which art critic Catherine Millet bravely explores her private, 30-year sexual odyssey across Europe, while former dancer Toni Bentley’s The Surrender (2004) is a surprising, bold ode to anal sex. Other examples include Suzanne Portnoy’s The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker: The Intimate Adventures of a Woman Who Can’t Say No (2006), about a divorcee’s sexual awakening and Kerry Cohen’s Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity (2008), about recovery from sex addiction.

It’s tempting to divide the current trend of erotic memoirs into these two camps: titillating books written by sex workers or more transgressive, introspective publications from non-sex workers—but some authors, such as Antonia Crane, manage to bridge this gap. In either case, the erotic memoir has come a long way in the decades since the publication of Nin’s diaries. At least in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe, changing sexual mores have resulted in fewer taboos and the freedom to write about more diverse topics. As with the memoir genre in general, hopefully that freedom will bring opportunities to reflect a wider range of experiences from writers of all economic classes and cultures.

About the Author

Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is a Philadelphia-based writer. She maintains a film blog, Satanic Pandemonium, and is currently writing a book about World War II and cult cinema.

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