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“What are you thinking about?” a man asked a woman as they had sex in the early ’70s. The woman described a stranger taking her from behind at a football game. The man dressed, then stormed out as she tried to explain. “He’s just imaginary! I love you!” The relationship ended. And Nancy Friday — travel journalist, Southerner and total pistol who stood nearly 6 feet tall in heels — found her life’s work. Rejected for having a sexual imagination, she produced three books — My Secret Garden (1973), Forbidden Flowers (1975) and Women on Top (1991) — about female sexual fantasies.
I first encountered My Secret Garden, which sold 2 million copies and made Friday famous, as an adolescent. Hidden high on a shelf in our den, it was a mind-blowing read, a collection of more than 400 responses to an ad Friday placed: “Female sexual fantasies wanted by serious female researcher. Anonymity guaranteed.” Friday organized her first book’s fantasies by theme: “Anonymity,” “Rape,” “The Thrill of the Forbidden,” “Incest” and “The Zoo” (yep) were a few. It was an education. When my mother figured out what I was up to, the color drained from her face.
It wasn’t just the titillating fantasies that hooked me. Reading Garden then and recently as I researched my own book on female sexuality, what resonates is Friday’s assertion that, in our minds at least, women are freaky, faithless and sexually assertive. Friday learned that women crave variety and novelty and are turned on by visual stimuli just like men. Her respondents showed themselves to be inspired writers, directors and stars of their own pornographic masterpieces every time they had sex with men who thought they knew them.
The women Friday heard from often had fantasies of being coerced into sex by powerful men. But she made it clear that women didn’t really want to be forced — they wanted a utopia where they could have what they wanted without guilt: “He made me do it!” What did that say about us as a culture? Friday asked. How free were we, really?
I thought of Friday — who died of complications from Alzheimer’s on Nov. 5 — as the sexual misconduct stories in Hollywood and politics unfolded. The Weinstein/Trump Paradigm — the belief that women exist for men, who are there to have everything they want — is a spectrum, from doing deals at a pickup game to assault. Friday describes the dilemmas of countless women in bed, at work and in the world when she says of her offended lover, “I was happily enacting his … fantasies. But he didn’t want to hear about mine. I was not to act, but to be acted upon.”
There was a time, 50 years ago, when shining the spotlight on women’s “perverse” desires was a radical act. That time is also now. Lately, men have been telling me I should write about “nice guys” in Hollywood. I know what Nancy Friday would say: It’s not about you right now. Want to be an ally? Start with wondering about a woman’s personhood: her thoughts, even her fantasies. Rather than relegating her to the casting couch of your own.
Martin is the author of best-seller Primates of Park Avenue; she’s at work on Untrue: Why Nearly Everything We Believe About Women, Lust, and Infidelity Is Wrong and How the New Science Can Set Us Free.
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