I was barely five years old in 1973 when Nancy Friday’s cult hit My Secret Garden: Women’s Sexual Fantasies made its way on to the bookshelves and into the handbags of women in the US; just seven when it reached those in middle England. My Secret Garden was testament to the fact that women enjoyed as rich and diverse an erotic inner life as men did. Finally, here was a book in which ordinary women and girls – “you, me and our nextdoor neighbour” – were talking honestly about arousal, masturbation, sexual dreams and desires. In their minds, nothing was off limits, even a neighbour’s alsatian.
What Friday’s book revealed was that, for some of us, the sex we have in our head may be more stimulating than the physical nuts and bolts of any coupling, no matter how hot. Untrammelled by internalised social constraints, self-consciousness, or perhaps the fear of freaking our partner out, in our imagination we can indulge in our deepest, dirtiest desires. It was revolutionary, even provocative, at the start, and then it became required reading for everyone, a multimillion-copy global bestseller, a classic.
I don’t know if my computer analyst mother, Rosemary, owned Friday’s book. It certainly wasn’t a puritanical household where such reading matter would have been frowned upon – but as liberal as my childhood was, it wouldn’t have been something that she left lying about on the coffee table. When I was a teenager, I did once find a copy of Story of O tucked behind a sofa cushion in our neighbours’ house and I definitely snuck a look at that. I also remember when, as a much younger child, I wandered into a living room where someone had left the TV on and stood paralysed in fascination as the on-screen couple engaged in quite chaste but clearly illicit activities. To this day, I still remember the feelings it left me with. But undoubtedly, if unknowingly, as a young woman I benefited from this new dawn of the sex-positive feminist movement. Women, seemingly, had started to talk more openly and honestly about what they really, really wanted. Well, some had.
In fact, I would have to wait almost 50 years to discover this collection of anonymous women’s private fantasies for myself. In early 2018, I was cast in the Netflix series Sex Education as Jean Milburn, the fabulously liberated and candid sex therapist. I’d always heard people talk about My Secret Garden, and so in preparation I read it for the first time. Its unfiltered and painful honesty shook me. These letters and interviews were incredibly intimate and very raw. They weren’t necessarily over polished, or trying to be literary; they seemed to come straight from the mysterious heart of the women’s innermost yearning.
What struck me also, with more than a little sadness, was the strong note of sexual frustration that many of these women in the 70s expressed (despite the revolution!). The experience of women was still such that what they wanted was not necessarily what they were getting. Many had never experienced an orgasm. Some didn’t know what a sexual fantasy was; others could not acknowledge that they had them. For most there was the admission of deep shame and guilt; there was still a lot of prudishness and embarrassment around sex and what they fantasised about. Again and again, these women confessed the fear that they alone had such fantasies, and uttered a heartbreaking cry of relief at being able to finally express them. As one woman wrote: “I have never confided my sexual fantasies to a living soul, but I feel I must tell someone about them, and so I welcome the opportunity to unburden myself. I have always been ashamed of them, because I feel other people would think them unnatural, and consider me a nymphomaniac, or something similar.” And another quipped: “I really think your book is a good idea, since nonfictional female sexual fantasies and experiences are rarely openly discussed. They are usually in the works of fiction written by men.” Finally, women had started to feel able to open up a little bit. They felt less alone.
Today, thank God, we are living in a different world. We can talk about these things with our contemporaries. I think that’s one of the things that people find so freeing about Sex Education. We show characters who struggle with their sexual relations, and yet are brave enough to talk about it with their lovers and partners, so that they can get what they need sexually. The show puts it all on the table and makes it OK to talk about it.
And yet even though programmes like mine, and others such as Naked Attraction or Cara Delevingne’s Planet Sex, are on telly, I am curious to know whether it’s something that people feel comfortable doing in real life. Since Sex Education was broadcast, friends and journalists started asking me if women sometimes felt compelled to share their sexual problems or fantasies with me. Well, they don’t. Which ultimately is what gave me the idea for a book – a My Secret Garden for the 21st century, so to speak – that would be revelatory and profound, and inclusive across the board.
I want women across the world, and all of you who identify intrinsically as women now – queer, heterosexual and bisexual, non-binary, transgender, polyamorous – all of you, old and young, whatever your religion, and married, single or other, to write to me and tell me what you think about when you think about sex. Whether it’s when you’re having it by yourself or with a partner, or with more than one. Tell me. Fantasies, frustrations, explorations, the forbidden, childhood, sounds, fetishes, guilt, insatiability. Fifty years on, the boundaries have been erased, no more so than in our own sexuality: BDSM, the modern meaning of gender etc, anything is up for grabs. Are women still the silent sex? I suppose that is one of the things we’re going to find out. I’m hoping your voices from diverse nationalities and backgrounds will shed light on just how far we have come since 1973.
As Friday wrote in her original introduction, “In trying to understand what it is to be a woman, neither nationality nor class helps define us so much as the honesty of our feelings about ourselves and our desires.” Let’s create an era-defining text that cuts right to the heart of what it is to be a woman today. A book that will hopefully inspire women for generations to come.
For now, let’s just call it Dear Gillian: it will be published by Bloomsbury Publishing and we’ve set up a secure email address to receive your submissions – all identities will be protected and your submissions will be treated as anonymous. I will, of course, be including my own letter, anonymously. I look forward to reading yours.
• Submit your fantasies at deargillian.com until midnight, 28 February.