In 1973, no one had ever read a book quite like Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden. To this day, a lot of people still haven’t, but at the time it sold more than two million copies.
Her collection of female fantasies is not for the faint-hearted – it covers bestiality, rape fantasies, the supernatural, orgies, bisexual exploration and a fondness for household appliances.
Put it this way: you would probably opt to read it on your Kindle on the morning commute.
The author died this week aged 84, at her home in Manhattan, of complications related to her Alzheimer’s disease, but her seminal works as trailblazer of women’s erotica and capacity for fantasy are as pertinent (and as eyebrow-raising) as ever.
Friday’s ambition was to deconstruct the shame, guilt and silence that surrounded women’s sexuality, writing in the book: “We’re as hidden as our clitorises. By the time we’ve found them, hidden away up there, we’re guilty at having located them.”
When she wrote it, she was a sex columnist for Cosmopolitan and living in London. The fantasies she documented were all submitted by real women responding to an anonymous advert in newspapers and magazines. Some wrote letters, while others were interviewed by Friday, and for most it was the first time they had ever vocalised these ideas. One says in the book: “I've never told anyone. I've just had them and then felt awful about it. I'm telling you now because deep down inside I believe it's the guilt that's wrong and not the fantasy.”
Suddenly, instead of men writing reams of theory about how, when and why women should have sex, here was a bank of women’s voices speaking for the first time without shame about their inner sexual lives, their desires and their turn-ons.
We’re as hidden as our clitorises. By the time we’ve found them, hidden away up there, we’re guilty at having located them
They were the things that women had kept suppressed, buried deep, and Friday presented them without judgement – taboo was not a concept she bought into.
In the introduction to My Secret Garden, she mused on how men were free to openly discuss their sexual lives while women were subdued: “For men, talking about sex, writing and speculating about it, exchanging confidences and asking each other for advice and encouragement about it, had always been socially accepted, and, in fact, a certain amount of boasting about it in the locker room is usually thought to be very much the mark of a man’s man, a fine devil of a fellow. But the same culture that gave men this freedom sternly barred it to women, leaving us sexually mistrustful of each other, forcing us into patterns of deception, shame, and above all, silence.”
Friday is often spoken of in the same breath as Betty Dodson, the "godmother of masturbation”, who also wrote her own bestseller, Sex For One, in 1973 (it was clearly a steamy year) and continued to write about gender issues throughout her life. In 1991, she returned to female fantasy, with another collection called Women On Top: How Real Life Has Changed Women’s Sexual Fantasies, and her books continue to be relevant.
Dr Leila Frodsham, psychosexual lead and consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at the psychosexual service at Guy’s & St Thomas’ Hospital, says she uses My Secret Garden and Women on Top with both male and female patients suffering from psychosexual issues.
“It allows women to do things described in the book. It kind of gives them permission,” she explains. “I use them on a daily basis for patients who struggle. They come back absolutely transformed. It’s much, much better than any of the pseudo resources that are on the web. This particularly is really useful when there’s issues with pleasure.”
This was Friday’s intention: “I do think a lot of women are likely to begin fantasizing after reading this book. Or rather, become aware that they have been fantasizing all along, and that these sudden odd ideas or notions they have up to now forgotten, or repressed, are indeed fantasies.”
Her books, of course, have their flaws. Friday does not have a scientific or medical background. She was criticised by feminists for not engaging with women’s economic and political inequality as she did with sexuality. She doesn’t have a very enlightened grasp of non-heterosexual sex, she mishandles race and generally does not tick intersectional boxes at all. But, seeing as we’re still making these mistakes now, that is not exactly surprising.
So, yes, her work is dated. But it still has the power to shock. We still operate in a world where the male gaze dictates what is arousing, and women’s voices struggle to be heard. When My Secret Garden was published, men had no concept of women having their own, independent sexual consciousness. Friday was the first to attempt to make women the authors of their own sexuality.
My Secret Garden by Nancy Friday is available on Amazon.