‘The fantasies are vivid, even lush’: the radical sexuality of Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden

Released 50 years ago, her tome of sexual fantasies didn’t simply give voice to female desire – it also exposed the lies upon which the patriarchy stands

When Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden: Women’s Sexual Fantasies was published in 1973, the top-line controversy was its assertion that such fantasies even existed. It was such a simple inquiry, undertaken with neither the mechanical sexology of Shere Hite, whose Hite Report came out three years later, nor an attachment to methodological rigour, without which, people mansplained to Friday for the next four and a half decades, it was anthropologically meritless.

The critique was that her approach was journalistic, rather than academic; she wanted to know what women fantasised about, so she asked them. Beneath this rather banal charge was the hot anxiety about what Friday’s book might mean for society.

The problem was not that a generation of teens might get their mitts on explicit content about everything from vacuum cleaners to barn orgies – although there was that, too. Rather, the entire architecture of sex, marriage and the family, thence to work and economic agency, rested on a fundamental precept: that men were driven by, and often at the mercy of, their sexual desire, while women were not.

The logic of social conditioning was biologically determinist, with men and women programmed through millennia to experience desire in such a way as would maximise their genetic imprint. Men should and did want to spread their seed as widely as possible, and this was reflected in and enabled by their round-the-clock horn-dog urges. Women should and did want to nurture and protect the comparatively few children they could produce, and consequently lusted after only one man, for ever, and even lusted after him in a restrained and respectable way, contingent upon his success in hunting and gathering.

If women were, in fact, as lascivious as men, who was left to gatekeep sex and thereby preserve the institution of marriage? What did women have to trade for economic security if sex wasn’t a favour or quid pro quo, but a core element of their own destiny? With that equation bust, was the single-breadwinner model also under threat? What did it mean for raising children if women had drives other than maternal? In short, what if the whole damn thing was built on a lie?

Ironically, many men are so attached to evolutionary determinism that you still hear them mention it with a straight face now, after the decades of counterevidence that Friday’s book kicked off. They maybe needn’t have worried quite so much about the disruptive impact of My Secret Garden and put more faith in their own powers of denial.

In the long run, what was probably more important than the assertion that women fantasised at all was the nature of the fantasies in Friday’s book. They are focused on transgression, humiliation, exposure, the sexuality of terror, pain and masochism, domination – and there are a large number of animals where you are not expecting them. A sidenote on this and whatnot: years later, in 2013, the author Daniel Bergner argued convincingly that women are, in fact, more libidinous than men, based on our ability to get aroused by bonobos, which men apparently don’t share.

Taken as a whole, the fantasies are a vivid, even lush, exploration of what your mind does to desire when you have internalised it as shame: it takes that shame and incorporates it into ever-keener desire. So there is an implicit threat to the conservative order, as women have taken the mechanism of control and used it as an accelerant.

But there is also a threat to the kind of feminism that would police fantasy along political lines: the idea that, if a woman fantasises about being submissive during sex, she has internalised male violence and she owes it to herself and the sisterhood to stop that fantasy. To the sex-positive feminist, this is ludicrous: you could no more decide what to fantasise about than you could force yourself to like aubergines. This is a rift that persists to this day.


Zoe Williams

The GuardianTramp

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