In 1973, Nancy Friday shocked the establishment with her book My Secret Garden: Women’s Sexual Fantasies. Based on personal interviews and letters, the book explored the secret world of women’s erotic imaginings, revealing a diverse and – for the time – shocking array of sexual desires. These included power play scenarios, voyeurism, exhibitionism, a wide variety of fetishes and, controversially, rape fantasies.
Before My Secret Garden it was believed that women didn’t have sexual fantasies at all; the narrative of disinterested female sexuality was entrenched in Western culture throughout most of the 20th century. Friday’s book challenged that, showing the world that women’s fantasies were just as colourful and transgressive as men’s.
Friday’s book was part of the women’s revolution of the 1970s, a milestone that opened up the sexual and cultural possibilities for women. She followed it up with Forbidden Flowers: More women’s sexual fantasies in 1974 and then with Women On Top in 1991. The latter charted the change in fantasies over time with the finding that guilt featured far less, replaced by anger and a demand for satisfaction. Friday said that women’s changing desires reflected their changing status in society.
Now, forty years after that first book, there’s a new addition to the field. Garden of Desires: The Evolution of Women’s Sexual Fantasies, a compilation of actual fantasies and analysis, is part of a larger research project by Emily Dubberley, writer and editor of Cliterati.co.uk and now-defunct women’s erotica magazine Scarlet.
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Dubberley solicited women to submit their fantasies online via surveys and email. She also drew on her decade of experience with fantasies submitted to her website and magazine. While the result is not an academic study, it’s certainly a revealing and fascinating glimpse into the private sexual worlds of a huge variety of women. The respondents include people from a wide variety of backgrounds, different classes, varying sexual orientations, gender identities and wide-ranging life experiences. And the fantasies they submitted are just as diverse.
Though no two fantasies are the same, the book divides them into several overarching themes: Dominance and submission, exhibitionism and voyeurism, group sex, partner sex, gender fluidity and esoteric (unusual). Within these wider groupings are more specific categories, for example: being tied up, pegging, sex with strangers, sex with a famous person, orgies, pregnancy and even sex with robots or aliens. Each woman talks about her fantasy in her own words and then the author follows these up with commentary or analysis on what it all means.
The book also contains a potted history of sexual fantasy research, some cultural context and a decent amount of feminist and critical discussion about the whole shebang.
Just like Friday’s original book, Garden of Desires makes for a stimulating read. If you’re up for some simple wank fodder, there’s plenty on offer here. Many of the scenarios sent in by participants are extremely arousing and can certainly help to fire up your own fantasies even as you fire up the vibrator. At the same time, this book is more than a monument to the prurient interest. It’s a fascinating tour through the female psyche, one that invites comparison and dissection, even if you’re feeling damp in the pants department.
What really struck me was the simple honesty and acceptance apparent in this book. Female sexuality is so often presented in very narrow, prescriptive ways, usually through the prism of the male gaze. Garden of Desires explodes that facade and looks deeply into what’s really there. The pretence of the “nice girl” doesn’t exist in this book; it shows that women can be lustful, violent, angry and generally transgressive within the safety of their imaginations. Nothing is sacred and it doesn’t have to be.
One of the more interesting sections for me occurs early on when women discuss their first sexual fantasies, often occurring as young as four or five. Barbie has sex with Ken, kisschasey ends in a “pants down” moment, examinations occur. The fantasies in this chapter invoke the vague, “naughty” feelings of first sexual awakenings that so many children have. Our society keeps insisting that kids aren’t sexual, that we must uphold their “innocence” and yet this chapter shows it to be an untruth. The sexuality of children is unfocused but also unconstrained by social expectations; the fantasies have a certain freedom that is fascinating. Obviously discussing kids and sexuality invokes fears of exploitation or pedophilia but I think we need to be honest about its existence – and to remember that sex education, especially regarding consent, is vital.
In any case, I found the honesty of that chapter to be really refreshing. And that feeling of “Yes! That’s how it really is!” kept recurring as I read my way through the book. It made me very aware of just how constrained our concepts of womanhood and sexual expression can be.
Similarly the simple act of reading another woman’s secret fantasy is something of a validating experience. This book lets women know that they’re not alone; that kinky or unusual fantasies aren’t bad; that there’s no such thing as “normal”. I felt a kinship with the women in this book and I also felt thankful that they’d taken the time to share their secrets, even if only briefly.
My Secret Garden has long been used as an official “textbook” by sex therapists to help women get in touch with their sexuality. Garden Of Desires will be just as useful but I think it’s a book that belongs on the bedside of every women – and man, for that matter. We need more honest discussions of sex and sexuality in our society and I think this book is an important addition to the conversation.
Garden of Desires is available from Amazon.co.uk
My Secret Garden by Nancy Friday is available from Amazon