Forty years ago the idea that women had sexual fantasies was preposterous. Admittedly, Alfred Kinsey had glanced across the idea, in Sexual Behaviour and the Human Female in 1953 but he considered women's solo erotic life to be far less vivid than men's; and until 1973, the mainstream view of psychiatrists, media and society was that men fantasised and women did not. Then Nancy Friday wrote My Secret Garden, breaking the taboo of female sexual fantasy, attracting outrage and accusations of fraud - and helping thousands of women feel normal for the very first time.
Kinsey surmised that both men's and women's sexuality was shaped, not merely repressed, by social and cultural forces. Similarly, in My Secret Garden, Friday reported that women's fantasies were influenced by the world around them. In 1973, women felt guilty about being sexual because of the societal pressure to be 'nice girls'. 20 years later, when Friday released Women on Top, they were becoming angry as they rejected the 'nice girl' idea. Their fantasies were also drawing closer to reality.
Under the Influence?
Garden of Desires: The Evolution of Female Fantasies was inspired by Friday's groundbreaking texts. Featuring fantasies from over 400 women, it explores the way women and sexuality interact in 2013, and how this compares to the past. It also found clear signs that society influences women's desires. From Barbie to Saved by the Bell, Madonna to Nick Grimshaw, all manner of media influences crop up in women's fantasies - and that's before you consider the effect of Twilight and 50 Shades. The former has inspired paranormal fantasies and driven a thriving paranormal erotica market. The latter boosted sales of spank paddles, jiggle balls and bondage equipment to a headline-grabbing degree.
However, women are not simply passive media consumers who willingly lap up every fantasy they're fed. In 1993, women were angry that they were expected to be 'good girls. In 2013, many women expressed frustration at being expected to conform to a sexuality that they do not consider their own. Depictions of 'sexy women' in the media are almost always white, cisgender*, thin, able bodied and 'attractive' (with all the cultural baggage that accompanies definitions of beauty).
Similarly, the word 'sex' is synonymous with 'penis in vagina sex' - sending the signal that sex without procreation is lesser. This leaves many people unable to describe the sex they are having as sex, because a penis or penetration doesn't form part of their sexual play - or fantasy: something that several women bemoaned.
This is not a new problem - it was recognised in The Hite Report in 1976. Hite said in a 2006 interview with USA Today, "It was the only book to say there is nothing wrong with women -- that women can have orgasms very easily, but the kind of stimulation women need isn't being included in sex". Hite was also the peson who popularised the idea that women needed clitoral stimulation to reach climax. She suggested that we needed to readdress the definition of sex for a post-pill world, moving the focus away from procreation and towards a more mutual, androgynous definition of sex with more emphasis on sensuality and pleasure. However, as yet, this has not happened, leaving us with a limiting definition of sex, at best.
Oral, spanking, bondage, tickling, food play, watersports, power games and pegging are just a few of the things that women are fantasising about today. That's not to say that penis in vagina sex doesn't feature in women's fantasies, but it is far from universal; and more women fantasised about strapping on or growing a penis than fantasised about being penetrated by a lover with a massive member. (Indeed, studies of heterosexual men and women have found 85% of women are happy with their partner's penis, while only 55% of their partner's were happy with their own penis size.)
Nancy Friday helped women feel normal for fantasising when she wrote My Secret Garden. Shere Hite helped women feel normal for their body's responses (or lack thereof) wih her report. Both have played pivotal roles in shaping female sexuality today. The freedom they helped issue in has also given women more scope to speak freely about their desires.
While honest and open discussion may help us see sex from a new perspective, it doesn't necessarily take us any closer to universal answers; sex is complicated and our fantasies are a reflection of our individuality and influences. Though women may now feel comfortable about having sexual desires - and acting upon them - many still feel judged because their sexuality does not conform with mainstream depictions of 'normal' sex. However, as the fantasies submitted to Garden of Desires show, there is no such thing as normal.
*Identifying with the gender that you were designated at birth