Nancy Friday
Headshot of American author and psychologist Nancy Friday, 1979. Express Newspapers / Stringer via Getty


  • Nancy Friday died on Sunday 5 November aged 84.
  • Her 1973 book was a groundbreaking collection of desires.

When My Secret Garden was published, it was the first book to present female desire through multiple women's voices. Up until then, male desire had for the most part formed the dominant narrative in our understanding of sex so this was a revolutionary step in sexual theory.

Yet relatively few people know about Nancy Friday, the pioneering author of My Secret Garden, who died in her New York City apartment on 6 November due to complications with Alzheimer's disease.

Initially a journalist, Friday decided to turn her attention to feminism and sexuality full time by writing her first book, My Secret Garden: Women's Sexual Fantasies. From women who responded to Friday's advert in the newspaper to friends she knew and those she encountered after beginning her project, Nancy Friday built a bank of voices in order to narrate her book. Instead of theorists circulating myths about women having no desire, Friday created a platform for women to speak for themselves.

Friday collected their experiences through letters or recorded interviews and then organised by chapters such as 'What do women fantasize about?' or 'Why Fantasies?' before breaking into subsections with anecdotes that answer each question.

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What those women shared in Friday's book are what the book has been remembered for. Their accounts in the book are truly explosive.

Forget a penchant for handcuffs, some of the women interviewed explored rape fantasies, their attraction to women and sex with multiple people. Within the context of the 1970s this was absolutely unheard of. For the first time in history, the conversation on female desire was blown open as Friday demolished the idea "that women...would still think they were the only Bad Girls with erotic thoughts" as she investigated the question: "What kind of prison is this [this] that women impose on themselves?"

43 years on, My Secret Garden is a contender for the most transgressive, taboo-shattering book of its time. In the context of the free love movement and its explorations into human sexuality, Nancy Friday's book was downright bold; in fact, our contemporary equivalent Fifty Shades of Grey might as well be beige in comparison.

Contemporary critique on her novel have ranged from positive comments such as "Delicious...women can share in their sisters' secrets and not feel that they are alone" from the Los Angeles Times to The Atlantic's "Friday's enthusiastic embrace of the liberatory potential of all things sexual fantasy [is mixed with] her generally unnecessary and almost never acute pop-psych noodling."

Admittedly the book wasn't perfect and an example of this is her assumption that "during sex a lesbian's fantasies have to be especially active to help make rational to herself" the changes to having sex with a woman instead of a man. She has no evidence to suggest this. Or there's the part when she considers the intersection of race but from a white woman, black male viewpoint which completely ignores a black female perspective.

But on the flip side, the intellectual rewards of Friday's book come from the honest admissions of the female experience and what they highlight. In an early section of her book, Friday shares the reception she received when explaining her books' premise to men.

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Meg Ryan faked an orgasm in the 1989 film When Harry Met Sally YouTube

She writes: "'Fantasies during sex? My wife? Why, Harriet doesn't fantasize...' And then he would turn to Harriet with a mixture of threat and dawning doubt, 'Do you, Harriet?' Again and again I was surprised to find so many intelligent and otherwise open-minded men put off by the idea of their women having sexual thoughts, no matter how fleeting, that weren't about them."

Nowadays I doubt anyone would be surprised that Harriet could be capable of having a sex drive, however quite often women's desires are still presented as being focused around men's. This is something society is still struggling to tackle today.

Now, whilst the media sometimes critiques male-centric pornography or, as The Telegraph puts it "a lingering perception that sex isn't for women", the effect on everyday relationships is rarely considered. With such a pervasive narrative all around us that male desire is the most important, not only are women ashamed and mortified to admit otherwise, but why would men ever question it? Society is arguably inevitably left with an unhealthy attitude towards sex that women are under pressure to change on their own.

Despite the steady increase in women-created pornography sites, erotica and inclusive sex advice, Nancy Friday's seminal book on female desire is still a daring work by today's standards. Whilst we're all a bit more aware of female desire and can talk about it, there's some way to go in truly normalising it. If anything, this proves the sheer brazenness of a woman whose writing was ahead of her time.

My Secret Fantasy: Women's Sexual Fantasies is available on Amazon for £10.