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Women on Topby Nancy Friday
Part 1: Report from the Erotic InteriorIt's an odd time to be writing about sex. Not at all like the late 1960s and 1970s, when the air was charged with sexual curiosity, women's lives were changing at a rate of geometric progression, and the exploration of women's sexuality — well, it ranked right up there with the struggle for economic equality.
Today's sexual climate is somber. Gone are the lively debates and writings about sex as part of our humanity. The toll of AIDS, reports from the abortion battlefield, and the alarming rise of unintended pregnancies make sex seem more risky than joyful.
By their sheer numbers young men and women twenty years ago made sex a burning issue; later when the time came to go on to more "serious" business, they put the sexual revolution to bed. Implicit in the prim set of their lips today is that they overdid it twenty years ago; like good Calvinist children the Establishment now punishes itself for its former naughty excesses and righteously turns its back on sex. Because they are still the majority who make the rules and write the headlines, they assume they speak for everyone.
They know little of the women in this book.
These women are for the most part in their twenties, the generation that followed the sexual revolution and the initial momentum of the women's movement. Their voices sound like a new race of women compared to those in My Secret Garden, my first book on women's sexual fantasies, which was published in 1973 and is now in its twenty-ninth printing. While they have all read that earlier book and taken heart from it, these young women accept their sexual fantasies as a natural extension of their lives. Given the unique period in women's history in which they grew up, how could it be otherwise?
For them the explosive emotions we unleashed in the 1970s are still very much alive. There has never been a sexual hiatus, a cooling-off period. Sex is a given, an energy not to be deferred for "more important things." Their sexual fantasies are startling reflections of their determination to abandon nothing.
Here is a collective imagination that could not have existed twenty years ago, when women had no vocabulary, no permission, and no shared identity in which to describe their sexual feelings. Those first voices were tentative and filled with guilt, not for having done anything but simply for daring to admit the inadmissible: that they had erotic thoughts that sexually aroused them.
More than any other emotion, guilt determined the story lines of the fantasies in My Secret Garden. Here were hundreds of women inventing ploys to get past their fear that wanting to reach orgasm made them Bad Girls. All in the privacy of their own minds, where no one would know. But in the mind of the symbiotic child, mother did know. The daughter could be grown and with children of her own, but if she had never emotionally separated from that first person who controlled her totally, how was she to know what was mother's opinion, what was her own? It was as if mother continued to sit in judgment throughout the daughter's life, wagging her finger at the daughter's every sexual move and thought.
The most popular guilt-avoiding device was the so-called rape fantasy — "so-called" because no rape, bodily harm, or humiliation took place in the fantasy. It simply had to be understood that what went on was against the woman's will. Saying she was "raped" was the most expedient way of getting past the big No to sex that had been imprinted on her mind since early childhood. (Let me add that the women were emphatic that these were not suppressed wishes; I never encountered a woman who said she really wanted to be raped.)
Anonymity also helped. The men in these fantasies were faceless strangers invented to further insure the women against involvement, responsibility, the possibility of a relationship. These males did their job and left. Being fucked by the faceless stranger made it doubly clear: "This pleasure is not my fault! I'm still a Nice Girl, Mom."
Certainly sexual guilt hasn't disappeared, nor has the rape fantasy. There is something very workmanlike and reliable about the traditional bullies and bad people whose intractable presence allows the woman to reach her goal, orgasm. But most of the women in this book take guilt as a given, like the danger of speeding cars. Guilt, they've learned, comes from without, from mother, from church. Sex comes from within and is their entitlement. Guilt, therefore, must be controlled, mastered, and used to heighten excitement. If there is a rape fantasy, today's woman is just as likely to flip the scenario into one in which she overpowers and rapes the man. This sort of thing just didn't happen in My Secret Garden.
Fantasy is where the sexual drive does battle with opposing emotions, the selection of which comes out of our individual lives, our earliest sexual histories. What were the forbidden feelings we took in as we grew? In these new fantasies, the emotions that most often dictate the story lines are anger, the desire for control, and the determination to experience the fullest sexual release.
Admitting to anger is new for women. In the days of My Secret Garden, nice women didn't express anger. They choked on it and turned whatever rage they felt against themselves.
Anger is still a difficult emotion for women to voice in reality, primarily because we get no practice expressing it in that first, most important relationship, opposite mother. But women today at least know they are entitled to anger, and fantasy is a safe playground where they can show rage at all the obstacles that stand in their way, beginning with rage at the enormous difficulty in being sexual plus all the other things a woman today must be. These new women have no models, no blueprints. They have to make themselves up. One of the ways they try out new roles is in their erotic dreams.
Don't misunderstand me; this is not just a book about angry women. These are women's voices finally dealing with the full lexicon of human emotion, sexual imagery and language. Anger is inextricably involved with lust in reality as well as in the erotic imagination. Men's sexual fantasies are also filled with rage at war with eroticism. They take a different story line from women's largely because of men's earliest experiences with woman/mother. But rage is a human emotion, and though history until recently tells us otherwise, it is not exclusive to one sex.
I will never forget these women, for they have swept me up in their enthusiasm and taught me too. "Take that!" they say, using their erotic muscle to seduce or subdue anyone or anything that stands in the way of orgasm. They take the knowledge won by an earlier generation of women who couldn't use it themselves, still being too close to the taboos against which they rebelled. These women look mother square in the face and have their orgasm too.
I have always believed that our erotic daydreams are the true X rays of our sexual souls, and like our dreams at night they change as new people and situations enter our lives to be played out against the primitive backdrop of our childhood. An analyst collects his patients' dreams like gold coins. We should value our erotic reveries no less seriously, because they are the complex expressions of what we consciously desire and unconsciously fear. To know them is to know ourselves better.
Like the X ray of a broken bone held up to the light, a fantasy reveals the healthy line of human sexual desire and shows where this conscious wish to feel sexual has been shattered by a fear so old and threatening as to be unconscious pressure. As children we feared that the sexual feeling would lose us the love of someone upon whom we depended for life itself; the guilt, planted early and deep, arose because we didn't want the forbidden sexual feeling to go away. Now it is fantasy's job to get us past the fear/guilt/anxiety. The characters and story lines we conjure up take what was most forbidden, and with the omnipotent power of the mind, make the forbidden work for us so that now, just for a moment, we may rise to orgasm and release.
Here, for the first time, these women's voices make it undeniably clear that our erotic fantasies have changed in juxtaposition to what has happened in the past years; they are not simply masturbatory diversions, derivatives of Playboy cartoons, but brilliant insights into what motivates real life — clues to our identity as valuable as the dreams we dream at night.
This is not a scientific report. I am by choice not a Ph.D., having decided long ago to retain the writer's freedom. Also, it has always been my belief that women tell me things they say they've never told a living soul because I am Nancy to them and not Dr. Friday. This book, along with My Secret Garden and Forbidden Flowers, its sequel, represent a unique chronicle of women's sexual fantasies. Before My Secret Garden was published, there was nothing on the subject. The assumption was that women did not have sexual fantasies.
The sexual fantasies in Women on Top cover the years from 1980 to the present. They were selected from interviews and letters written to me in answer to an invitation to women who wished to contribute to a future book on women's sexual fantasies. The request was printed in the back of My Secret Garden and Forbidden Flowers. I gave a P.O. Box number and promised anonymity.
My contributors and I may form a special population: I am sufficiently fascinated by sexuality to write about it, and they to read my books and then write to me for reasons ranging from the desire for validation of their sexuality — "I am signing my real name because I want you to know I exist!" — to the exhibitionistic pleasure of seeing their words in print. But there can be no doubt that those who have written speak for a far larger population.
I have chosen to arrange the fantasies in three chapters which denote the themes that most frequently turned up in the thousands of letters and interviews I collected since my earlier books: women in control, women with women, and sexually insatiable women. I've arranged them in chronological order so that we could see how changes in the real world influence the erotic imagination.
Let me tell you how I came to this subject. In the late 1960s I chose to write about women's sexual fantasies because the subject was unbroken ground, a missing piece in the puzzle, and I loved original research. I had sexual fantasies and I assumed other women did too. But when I spoke to friends and people in the publishing world, they said they'd never heard of a woman's sexual fantasy. Nor was there a single reference to women's sexual fantasies in the card catalogues at the New York Public Library, the Yale University library, or the British Museum library, which carry millions upon millions of books — not a word on the sexual imagery in the minds of half the world.
Publishers were intrigued, however, for it was a time in history when the world was suddenly curious about sex and women's sexuality in particular. Editors were frantically signing up any writer who could help flesh out this undiscovered continent called Woman.
I remember vividly the first publisher who rejected My Secret Garden. When I mentioned the outline I had drawn up along with a sampling of fantasies, he salivated. "Women's sexual fantasies!" he juicily exclaimed, and then pleaded for me to send them to his office soon, soonest! Before the day was over, they'd been returned, doublesealed, to my apartment. What had he expected? I'll never know, but the ritual was to be repeated by almost every publisher in New York. Let me quickly add that women editors as well as men hated the evidence of what women's sexual fantasies actually were.
This was not innocence on their part, merely their wish not to be told something they had silently always known: We women fantasize just like men, and the images are not always pretty. We know everything long before we are ready to know it, and so we cling to our denials.
As for the behavioral world, the dozens of psychologists and psychiatrists I interviewed informed me that I was on a deadend street. "Only men have sexual fantasies," they told me. As late as June 1973, the same month My Secret Garden was published, permissive Cosmopolitan magazine printed a cover story by the eminent and equally permissive Dr. Allan Fromme, stating, "Women do not have sexual fantasies....The reason for this is obvious: Women haven't been brought up to enjoy sex...women are by and large destitute of sexual fantasy."
Initially the women I interviewed bore out Fromme's prophecy. "What's a sexual fantasy?" they would ask, or, "What do you mean by suggesting I have sexual fantasies? I love my husband!" or, "Who needs fantasy? My real sex life is great." Even the most sexually active women I knew, who wanted to be part of the research, would strain to understand and then shake their heads.
Then I learned the power of permission that comes from other women's voices. Only when I told them my own fantasies did recognition dawn. No man, certainly not Dr. Fromme, could have persuaded these women to drop the veil from the preconscious — that level of consciousness between the unconscious and full awareness — and reveal the fantasy they had repeatedly enjoyed and then denied. Only women can liberate other women; only women's voices grant permission to be sexual, to be free to be anything we want, when enough of us tell one another it is okay.
Finally after three years of slow-going research — one-on-one interviews, magazine articles inviting women to contribute, advertisements in everything from the Village Voice to the London Times (New York magazine was too virginal to run the ad) — My Secret Garden was published in 1973. After publication there was a final salvo from the media accusing me of inventing the entire book, having made up all the fantasies. (The Cleveland Plain Dealer reviewed the book on its sports page, a last defensive hee-haw.)
But within months it seemed that women's erotic reveries had been with us always, so much so that advertisers were using fantasy as a selling tool before the year was over. Today women's magazines, films, books, television, automatically employ fantasy to explain and make real a woman's character. It is astonishing, when you think about it, how quickly women's fantasies have been incorporated into our universal understanding of woman.
Timing is everything. When there is an absolute need to know something, when an intellectual void must be filled, we will accept what only moments earlier we'd rejected for centuries. In 1973 a number of social and economic currents came together, forcing women to understand themselves and change their lives. Sexual identity was a vital missing link. The time was right to take the lid of repression off women's sexual fantasies.
Four years later it would be the identical story with My Mother/My Self, the book that grew immediately out of My Secret Garden's questioning of the source of women's terrible guilt about sex. Initially this later book was violently rejected by both publishers and readers. "I threw your book across the room!" "I wanted to kill you!" were typical reader's comments. But what followed was a snowballing acceptance as one woman told another to read this book that talked about the unmentionable: the mother/daughter relationship (another subject about which there was not a word in any of the libraries). If we were to change the repetitious pattern of women's lives, we had to honestly accept what we had with her/mother. Timing.
What then was so threatening to our understanding of human psychology that we had denied the possibility that women have a powerful sexual identity, a private erotic memory?
The answer is as old as ancient mythology: fear that women's sexual appetite may be equal to — perhaps even greater than — men's. In Greek myth, Zeus and Hera debate the issue and Zeus, postulating that women's sexuality outstrips men's, wins by bringing forward an ancient seer who had been in former lives both male and female.
In the real world, we are equally reluctant to debate too closely man's sexual potency, power, and supremacy. Men "need" sex, we say, in a way women do not. This is, of course, absurd. It was patriarchal society that needed, for its establishment and survival, to believe in male sexual supremacy, or more exactly, women's asexuality. How could man wage his wars, put his shoulder to the industrial wheel if half his brain feared that he was being cuckolded, that the little woman was at home — or worse, not at home — satisfying her insatiable lust? Even her hand on her own body nagged at his suspicion as it awakened the fire he feared he could never quench.
If man did not fear women's sexuality so much, why would he have smothered it, damning himself to a life with a sexually inert, boring wife, forcing him to go to prostitutes for sex? To combine sex and familial love in one woman made her too powerful, him too little.
Women so totally absorbed man's evaluation of our sexuality that we came to judge ourselves by his needs: the less sexual the woman, the Nicer. We took on his police work, becoming one another's jailers.
How ironic that we ourselves made it possible for society to imagine us the sleeping beauties who could only be sexually awakened by a man's kiss. A fairy tale on which we are raised, a myth thought up to assuage the terrible fear that we are not sleeping at all but are wide awake, hot, hungry for sex, our appetites so insatiable we would undermine the economic system, the Protestant work ethic, the social fiber, ultimately rendering men limp, spent, simply put in our power.
And so women were safely divided into madonnas and whores, the one to marry and become a mother, the other to fuck. Men may fantasize sexually voracious women (it is their favorite), but when the dream comes true — as it did briefly in the 1970s — and she stands there, hands on hips, thrusting her cunt in his face, his worst fears are aroused: Can he satisfy her, or will he end up as small and powerless as he once was opposite his first great love, mother, the Giantess of the Nursery?
Women lived in the Good Girl/Bad Girl split until economic forces in the 1960s built to a pitch that exploded into the women's movement and the sexual revolution. So immediate were these two social phenomena that it seemed as if women had been waiting in the wings for centuries, pent up, frustrated, with all of our enormous energies just barely under control.
In that brief time in the 1970s and the early 1980s, many women seemed to enjoy both sex and work. I wish I could recreate for those of you who are too young to have known those years — or for those who have forgotten — how genuinely exciting they were. It was called a sexual revolution, and we who took part in it were convinced that what we said and what we did were acts of sexual freedom that obliterated forever the guilt-ridden standards of our parents on which we'd been raised.
Little did we know how brief that time would be, how very long it takes to change sexual taboos as deeply embedded as those our parents had learned from theirs, or how soon so many of our revolutionary band would retreat, recant, forget.
We look at faded pictures of ourselves dancing on the stage at Hair, marching six abreast For Love or Against War, our nipples high and defiant, and we laugh at our twenty-year-old images. Some of us blush as our children ask, "Is that really you, Mom?"
Why do we rush to deny those years, treating them as aberration, a wild, prolonged house party where we drank too much, or surely we wouldn't have stayed so long, done what we did? "See, Mom," our actions say. "The bad booze, bad drugs made me do it. I'm still a Nice Girl."
The fact is, we have become our parents. Not the parents we loved but those parts of our parents we hated: nay-saying, guilty, and asexual.
And so women have become more serious about their work, mothering is once again in vogue, and the nervous issue of sexuality is not discussed. Now when couples mate, they fantasize about remodeling the house, buying cars, acquiring material goods. Even on college campuses, the surveys show that a partner's career potential far outweighs sexual compatibility. On some surveys, sex doesn't even make the charts.
Once, it seemed as if the women's movement for economic and political equality and the sexual revolution were one campaign. But they were merely simultaneous. Society adapted more readily to women's entry into the workplace than to their growing into full sexuality. It is seldom discussed but nonetheless true that economic parity is less threatening to the system than sexual equality.
Nor can we discount the issue of reward, applause, acceptance: Persevering to become an economic success doesn't make a woman a Bad Girl. Our starchy puritanical backbone, which cannot come to terms with the humanity of sexuality, staunchly applauds hard work, even women's work in what was once called "a man's world." In contrast, working hard on one's sexuality, once the party is over, marks a woman, if not Bad, as someone out of step — a retarded hippie, an object of resentment and envy by other women.
There is still, of course, an unjust economic disparity between what men and women are paid for the same work. And more often than not, when women compete with men, they lose. Moreover, there are still splits among women. We are now hearing some of the alienation traditional women felt during the years when the media and world attention were focused on women in the workplace. As more and more working women try to integrate family and home into an already crowded life, there is understandably little sympathy from their sisters who never abandoned the old values. But no matter what else happens, the option to work outside the home has been truly won.
The same cannot be said for the sexual revolution. Slowly and inexorably the social/legal current is sucking women back into a form of sexual slavery, depriving us of the right to control our bodies. Even as we march slowly toward economic parity, it is the loss of our sexuality that will be the means by which society keeps us "in our place." It comes down to what society is most comfortable with, and ours prefers the missionary position.
Revolutions by nature lose ground once the initial momentum wanes. This is especially true of a struggle for women's sexual parity, which we fear. Child care and economic pressures are the givens for working women and those at home. There is only one other demand on time and energy, and it was never reconciled in the first place. Sex. Maybe there are just not enough hours in the day. Supporting oneself economically demands a lot of energy. So does a continued effort to retain a sexuality won late in life. And our thirties, twenties, even adolescence, is late. If something must be abandoned, it will be sexual freedom, with which we never felt comfortable (or we would have used the contraceptives that made our revolution possible).
Let me emphasize that it requires the support of both sexes for the patriarchal system to hold; it tottered in the 1970s only because enough women banded together and loudly demanded change. But that alliance didn't last. We lost much of the potential we might have had as a cohesive unit. The angry feminists, having little sympathy for men or the women who loved men, turned up their noses at the sexual revolution. And both camps alienated traditional women, who had stayed within the family unit and whose values, needs, and very existence were ignored.
If so many schisms hadn't developed among us, we would probably have equal pay by now and whatever else we want too. We blame men for all the injustices against us because it is easier than acknowledging our fear and anger at women/ mother. It is the new War Between the Women that has shored up the fortifications of the old system.
What I wish for is more time and a chance for men and women to find an equitable distribution of power, a better sexual deal between us than the one our parents had, which, with all its many faults, at least worked for a long time. Men were the problem solvers, the good providers, the sexual ones, and women — well, we know what women were supposed to be and do. At least The Rules applied to everyone. There was an odd comfort in that. Onerous as the double standard was, the deep conviction that it existed is what made it hold. What society said was what society meant, consciously as well as on the deepest unconscious level.
While that bargain no longer works, the new options and definitions are not as deeply accepted. That requires generations. And without deep societal acceptance, how can mothers — even those who fought for sexual freedom themselves — pass on to their daughters these new ideas of what a woman may do and be? Mothers are the custodians of what is right and wrong; if society doesn't yet believe in sexual parity, how can mother be expected to put her daughter in jeopardy?
Not enough time has gone by in our recent struggles for us to want to abandon the myth of male supremacy. (How can I tell you how long it has taken me to abandon my own need to believe that men would take care of me, even as I grew to be a woman who was perfectly able to take care of herself economically and a man, too?)
In contrast to these dire predictions comes a new and even younger generation whose fantasies till this book. Among their icons are the exhibitionistic singers/ performers on MTV. There stands Madonna, hand on crotch, preaching to her sisters: Masturbate. Madonna is no male masturbatory fantasy. She is a sex symbol/model for other women. Nor is she just a lesbian fantasy — though she is that, too — but rather she embodies sexual woman/working woman, and I think you could put mother in there too. I can see Madonna with a baby in her arms, and yes, the hand still on her crotch.
I doubt that men dream of Madonna when they masturbate unless it is to control her, overpower her, pin her down and show her "what a real man is." No, she is too much woman for most men. Ten years ago when Men in Love, my book on men's sexual fantasies, was published, one of their favorite fantasies was the image of a woman bringing herself to orgasm. These were men raised in the 1950s and 1960s, men who longed — at least in the safety of fantasy — for women less sexually bludgeoned than Doris Day. Back then it was exhilarating to think of a woman who had a secret sexual life of her own, a woman who might share half of the responsibility for sex. It was thrilling to men because it went so totally against reality.
Today many young men tell me that the new woman is too frightening, demanding; she wants it all, indeed she may have it all. The poor boy, the beleaguered man — I do not mean for a moment to minimize his ancient fear of women's unleashed sexual appetite. Its deepest roots lie in his female-dominated childhood, just as they did for his father and his father before him, a time when a woman had all the power in the world over his life and which he never forgets. The irony is that men feel it necessary to keep us "in our place" because they believe more in our power than we do.
If I were to pick a time when the sexual current was cut, it would not be the terrible onset of AIDS. That grim epidemic has become the saddest scapegoat for the sexual regression and bigotry that was already under way. No, while AIDS certainly accelerated the demise of healthy sexual curiosity, it was the greed of the 1980s that dealt the death blow.
Sex is antithetical to material greed. By definition greed is an insatiable appetite which is never sated and thus requires constant feeding. Even when they have more than they need, more than they can consume in a lifetime, the greedy cannot relax their iron determination to own, possess even more. Rigidity, the vigilant, ever acquiring eye — these are greed's henchmen, the enemy of sex, which cries out for openness, ease, surrender. For the mating game to even begin, the animal must abandon at least momentarily the search for nuts and berries to pick up the erotic scent. In the very simplest terms, there is no time for sex in a materially greedy world.
That is why it is such an odd time to be writing about sex. Sitting here after a night out with the opinion makers, the moguls of industry (who would blush if I reminded some of them that they once danced half naked on the stage at Hair), I feel like one of those soldiers lost in the jungle, still fighting a war that has been over for years.
Don't think that I expect this book to go unobserved. I know who my audience is. Although you and I may not be in the majority, we are numerous. Given the ages of the women in this book, I would imagine that most of you are under forty. While my youngest contributor is fourteen and my oldest sixty-two, the majority of you who talk and write to me about your sexual fantasies are in your twenties. Whether age, marriage, motherhood, career — the usual doors that shut on sex — will inhibit your sexuality, only time will tell. But I believe your sexual lives will run a different course from that of earlier generations of women.
You are the first people to grow up in a world wallpapered with sex. Billboards, books, films, videos, TV, advertising, unrelentingly drill home that sex is a given, therefore good. How can you not be easier with sex? You've spent your lives in a culture that invented sex as a selling tool in the heyday of the sexual revolution. While the inventors themselves may have personally retreated to the asexual rules of their parents against which they once rebelled, we are the world's greatest consumer society and thus reluctant to abandon anything that sells.
What will decide success in maintaining your present sexual ease, your determination to integrate your sexuality more fully into your life, is a very conscious awareness that society lies. We couldn't possibly have changed our deepest, most meaningful beliefs about sex in one generation. Behind the obvious erotic media blitz you've consciously taken in is another message, which says that sex for the sake of pleasure is wrong, immoral, bad. Keep yourself aware of this unconscious siren song wooing you back into being mama's good little girl, and just maybe you will pass on to your children a less muddled message. If you believe in nothing else, believe that sexual repression never sleeps, especially the sexual repression of women.
I got caught up in it myself for a while. I'd intended to resume this research on sexual fantasies five years ago, once I finished my last book, Jealousy. But when I walked out of my writing room after years of grappling with envy, resentment, fear of abandonment, rage, and greed — all relatives of jealousy — it was the late 1980s, and I got sidetracked by its values.
I remember sitting next to a TV anchorman at dinner one night here in Key West, where I'm writing now. He was bone fishing in the Keys and mentioned he had read My Secret Garden. Before I could comment, he rushed to explain that he'd come across the book in a summer house he and his wife had rented on Martha's Vineyard. "You see, it was there, in the house, their book..." Was he afraid that I might think h
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