America Still Has a Problem With Women Who Write About Sex
Instead of being respected for her brilliant career, when Nancy Friday died this November, her obituaries reminded me of the perils of being female and ‘too much.’
You might call mine a writers’ building. Phillip Roth lived here for a time. Frank McCourt’s apartment was a floor below us. “Haven’t you got a girlfriend yet?” he’d tease my toddler son in the elevator. There was another famous writer in the building, our doorman told me, living high above us in a massive penthouse combination. He referred to her as “Mrs. So-and-So,” using her ex-husband’s last name and blanking on hers. “She writes about… women’s things,” he stammered, and I knew from the way he said it—as if tiptoeing in a minefield—that she wrote about sex.
The penthouse belonged to Nancy Friday, who wrote three books—My Secret Garden, Forbidden Flowers, and Women On Top—about women’s sexual fantasies. Decades later, they were still making conversations awkward. Friday’s work was a compendium of outrages against the notion that women are the less interested, less pervy sex. And a precocious corrective to the binary that men need to roam while women “naturally” pine for monogamously-ever-after. Friday’s interviewees were as untrue and freaky as could be. “I’ll try anything, mentally,” one told her. And in fantasizing during sex, they were sexually autonomous to a degree that was and arguably remains unnerving. Back in 1973 My Secret Garden fired a warning shot that reverberates still: Free of constraint, women were not who we imagined.
Friday was spurred to write by her own experiences. A lover broke things off when she told him what she was thinking of during sex (it involved a blanket and a football game), while a male editor deemed her novel’s female protagonist, who had vivid sexual fantasies, unbelievable. Friday shelved the novel, but found her topic. She took out an ad in several newspapers and magazines: “FEMALE SEXUAL FANTASIES wanted by serious female researcher. Anonymity guaranteed.”
My Secret Garden aired the dirty thoughts of hundreds of women who responded. References to traveling salesmen, Sanka (a decaf coffee substitute), transatlantic crossings on the QE2 luxury cruise ship, and “balling” (a ’70s term for fuc*ing) date it, but the sheer bizarreness and range of what women told Friday they thought about continues to surprise even in the age of PornHub. Some fantasies are relatively mundane, showing how resourceful the demure sex could be in purloining thrills from everyday life: A woman is set aflame by the thought of men with flat stomachs; another imagines talking to her mother on the phone while doing it. Others are baroque: being tattooed against one’s will; watching men have their scrotums cut off by a “primitive tribe.” There are fantasies about being on the back of a bull as it mounts a cow and being “fingered” by an octopus from a Dali painting. And lots of rape and domination fantasies. Friday believed these allowed women to submit to a desire for sex with anonymous men literally, and without guilt. Women fantasized of group sex, sex with women (most of her respondents were straight), sex with siblings, sex with Mick Jagger and, giving clue to how far we hadn’t come, fantasies about stereotypically hugely endowed, hypersexed black men.
The book quickly shot to the top of The New York Times bestseller list, eventually selling 2 million copies. Friday was a celebrity. You didn’t really know what you’d get with her—one moment she was the regal and carefully spoken flower of South Carolina she had been raised to be by her single mother and steel magnate grandfather. The next she was asking the flummoxed Tomorrow show host Tom Snyder, “Are you ready for a woman to take the initiative?” kissing him full on the mouth, his head held firmly in her hands. A publishing kingpin told me he remembered seeing Friday—tall, vivacious, and flirtatious, her hair cut in a chic pixie—at parties for the Manhattan literary set. She was often the center of attention and seemed to thrive there.
1973, the year she happened, was a good year to be a woman and a banner year for sex. It is a measure of Friday’s brilliance that in that period of truth-telling and taking down all that was holy (including, eventually, the president of the United States)—in a year that brought us Roe v. Wade, the Battle of the Sexes, Sula, and Fear of Flying, she still managed to raise the stakes. It wasn’t just her assertion that women were sexual that got people going. Or that women, just like men, needed novelty and variety. By focusing on female sexual fantasy, Friday synthesized two apparently contradictory threads in American culture. She rode the wave of the women’s liberation movement and the sexual revolution, selling enlightenment. At the same time, she hooked into men’s most retrograde fears about women as sexually secretive and deceptive. She told us that women had inner sexual lives that had nothing to do with the men they were having sex with, even while having sex with them. As one woman told her, “My husband thinks it is him getting me [excited], and it is not at all.” This true and terrifying female autonomy motivated a Times reviewer to assert nervously that, in spite of Friday’s discoveries, “men are still indispensable.”
Among Friday’s eight subsequent books on topics ranging from male fantasies to beauty, My Mother/Myself (1977), about the mother/daughter dyad, was on The New York Times bestseller list for a year. Friday had done it again. But if hers is a second-wave success story about a female author scaling the heights until she could dwell, Hefner-like, in her penthouse by examining uncensored female sexuality, it is also a cautionary tale about the fates of women who take themselves and their writing about sex seriously. They may well see their credentials assailed, like Shere Hite, whose 1976 Hite Report suggested 75 percent of married women who responded had had affairs and only 30 percent of women orgasm from intercourse. Or be punished and fall into obscurity like Kate Chopin, whose 1899 novel The Awakening, now a feminist classic, asked readers to sympathize with a married woman who has an affair. The book was proclaimed immoral and Chopin’s follow up novel was canceled. A social outcast, she never wrote again.
In her obituaries you get a sense that Friday, who succumbed to complications from Alzheimer’s, had languished in the estimation of her critics after burning bright. She is described as an “author of [a] once-shocking” book, as if we are today anywhere near accepting that women are as sexual as men; a “chronicler of women’s erotic fantasies,” as if she didn’t interpret them, often masterfully; and in a coy demotion, a “best-selling student of gender politics,” as if she is forever the co-ed in the lecture hall rather than an important voice who penned trailblazing books on the subjects of gender and sexuality. Friday did so without the institutional affiliations that Kinsey, Masters & Johnson, and Dr. Ruth enjoyed, or even an ideological safe harbor—Ms. magazine wrote, “this woman is not a feminist,” and her battles with what she called “feminist headquarters” were legion.
Friday might have been delighted that many of her assertions about female sexuality—that women respond to visual stimuli as men do; have wider, more varied sexual menus than men; are often sexually “fluid” in their attractions to men and women; and seem to get off watching themselves in the act in ways men don’t—are recently bolstered by findings of researchers like Marta Meana (PDF), Meredith Chivers (PDF), and Lisa Diamond.
But being bigger than life and female and writing about sex and female sexuality without legitimizing, protective structures behind her, Friday ran the risk of being seen as simply louche herself. Plus ça change. In an obituary on Friday for the HuffPost, Priscilla Frank noted that she herself had been called an “attention whore” for writing about female sexuality through a personal lens, all these decades after Friday broke ground doing so.
This whiff of slut-shaming and diminishing is evident when a reviewer suggests Friday should stick to writing about “clubs… clothes, and love affairs in Italy” because it’s what she does best. And when an obit reduces her work to an eye-rollingly naïve belief “that women’s erotic freedom…would establish the bedrock of equality between the sexes professionally, economically, politically.” Friday took some bizarre positions—that women abuse and harass men as often as men abuse and harass women, for example. She made a big, sometimes cringe-inducing deal about loving men and sex. But to assert she thought sexual freedom was an end in itself misses the mark. Nancy Friday saw sexual autonomy not as the ultimate goal, but as a metric of female autonomy, perhaps the truest. “In 1970, the world didn’t believe that women had sexual fantasies. I know that sounds unimportant,” she told an interviewer in 1991. “But if you extend that idea, they also didn’t think women had a sexual identity separate from men [or] an identity, period, separate from men.” She proved otherwise. That makes her a provocateuse and an expert. When we’re finally ready to let women be both, we may have Nancy Friday to thank for it.
Wednesday Martin is the author of New York Times bestseller Primates of Park Avenue and is 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 (Little, Brown, Fall 2018).