Ladies, what say you.Top five women's sexual fantasies in 2013 A new book, Garden of Desires, explores the breadth of women's sexual fantasies today, some 40 years on after the publication of Nancy Friday's seminal work on the same topic: My Secret Garden. Dr Brooke Magnanti enjoys the update.
There are five main areas where women's fantasies are concentrated, according to a new book.
By Dr Brooke Magnanti, formerly known as Belle de Jour
While discussion of women and sex is never far from the headlines, what do we really know about female desire? What -as the famous question goes - does a woman want? A new book, conceived as an update to Nancy Friday's seminal My Secret Garden, seeks to probe that very question.
Garden of Desires, written by Emily Dubberley, explores the breadth of women's fantasies. It asks the question of what has changed since the 1970s when My Secret Garden was first published. Incorporating research into the origins of fantasies as well as extensive interviews with women, it lays bare the depth and breadth of women's sexual imagination.
At the time was My Secret Garden was published, people were surprised by the extent of women's fantasies. It may be hard to imagine now, but back in 1973 many people thought women didn't have sexual fantasies at all. In the same month as My Secret Garden’s release, Cosmo ran a feature with the opening line: “Women do not have sexual fantasies, period. Men do.”
Nancy Friday's book changed that tinting, and within a year Erica Jong'sFear of Flying (the book that spawned the wonderful phrase, a 'zipless f***') appeared. More importantly, the book wasn't simply a single splash, but rippled on and on as generation of women found to their surprise that other people had the same kinds of thoughts they did.
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Now, of course, we talk about sex much more openly… but has what we want changed as well? Dubberley's Garden of Desires is packed with in-depth interviews and polling of many of women and makes for interesting reading.
What are the top categories of fantasy? According to Dubberley's findings, there are five main areas where women's fantasies are concentrated. These she splits into submissive fantasies, dominant fantasies, exhibitionism and voyeurism, group sex, and partner fantasies.
Submissive fantasies cover a wide range of flavours from simply giving in to a dominant man, a la Scarlett O'Hara submitting to Rhett Butler, all the way to rape fantasies or even negotiated and formalised arrangements (such as suggested by the 'contract' in 50 Shades). Submission might be strict obeisance of orders, or more emotional than physical. Pushing the boundaries of kink and orientation also features strongly in this group of fantasies.
This is one area of fantasy where the discussion has seeped into more mainstream discussion - particularly questioning the extent to which 'the personal is political'. Is it a problem to be a feminist and have submissive fantasies? Does it reflect some kind of self hatred, or a desire to have someone else in charge?
In general, the evidence points towards 'no'. Rather, people might relish the idea of giving up control, but if faced with the exact situation in real life, might not want it at all. In many ways, being submissive in your fantasies is the ultimate control: when it's in your head, it can't ever go further than you want it to.
Dominant fantasies, by contrast, are ones in which the person fantasising is the one in charge: being in control of an erotic slave, perhaps, or simply calling the shots in bed. Cuckolding also falls into this realm, with women fantasising about cheating on their partners.
With research suggesting it's very popular, and almost a third of people report having these fantasies at some point, the (sometimes literal) ball-buster is a very popular role indeed.
It's a role that is popular with partners as well - as the many clients of professional dominatrices will attest - but in the realm of fantasy, the woman does not necessarily have to live up to the idealised notion of a dominatrix that is determined at least in part by the male gaze. She can be exactly as she wants to be, and that may or may not conform to the busty, PVC-clad type we've come to associate with dominating. This is a fantasy that centres mainly on the woman receiving pleasure, and she doesn't have to have chains and whips to hand in order to get it.
Exhibitionist and voyeuristic fantasies form the next major group: watching and being watched in the act of having sex. In his study of sexual fantasy, Who’s Been Sleeping in Your Head?, Brett Kahr found 19 per cent of people fantasise about being watched during sex; another five per cent fantasise about stripping in public.
The Garden of Desires respondents cover a wide range of voyeuristic fantasies, from having sex in the middle of a crowded nightclub, watching others have sex from a hidden spot, or engaging in sex acts while the neighbours watch. Would most of us do any of those things? Probably not - and it is this boundary that we rarely cross which adds to the excitement for many people.
Compiled by Nancy Friday, The Secret Garden was a collection of interviews about women's fantasies which transformed the way a generation saw self-love and erotic imagination
Group sex fantasies often overlap with the preceding categories, or can have no dominant/submissive or exhibitionist aspects. For one respondent the idea of being 'very stimulated' - more things going on simultaneously than normally happens during sex - is part of the allure. For others it's the possibility of having sex with both a man and a woman at the same time, or the totally anonymous nature of some group sex acts.
Indeed, it's this fantasy that seems to most divide eroticism from emotion. People often believe that women must have an emotional connection in order to be turned on, but in group sex situations that may often not be the case. And the relative frequency of it as a fantasy (at about 15 per cent) suggests pleasure without partnership is a pretty common desire.
Partner fantasies make up the last large group: that is, sex with just one particular partner. In a lot of cases, this means your own actual partner.
Surprised? Mia More, editor of women’s erotica site Cliterati, which was founded by Dubberley, adds: “We receive many erotic stories featuring two strangers in all sorts of sexual situations, and it’s not unusual for the tale to end with a twist: the two people concerned are actually a very happy couple, and the experience explored was a mutual fantasy – it’s like a guaranteed happy ending.”
These fantasies also cover particular partners: otherwise 'normal' sex with David Bowie, for example, or some other imaginary mate.
Forty years on - what's changed?
So what has changed since 1973? Gender and sexual fluidity makes a strong appearance: people who are normally straight fantasising about gay sex, and vice versa; dressing up as or having the sex organs of another sex, and so on. With more awareness of differences in gender identification and sexual orientation hitting the mainstream, it's no surprise these are more prevalent now than they were 40 years ago.
And with more people watching erotica, things we've seen are also influencing women’s fantasies. This isn't exactly news since just about anything we watch, whether sexual or not, can be fodder for imaginative wanderings later. But explicit material being within reach of both sexes means that particular practices one sees only in porn get name-checks too.
What can we learn from reading about other people's fantasies? A lot - from accepting our own, to opening up new understanding of how sexual attraction can be both diverse and universal at the same time. As Dubberley notes in Garden of Desires: "Our fantasies reflect who we are, offering a highly individualised way to enhance our own pleasure. In accepting our own fantasies we accept ourselves; and in accepting other women’s fantasies, we support them in their individuality."
Garden of Desires: The evolution of women's sexual fantasies by Emily Dubberley is £10.99 and published by Black Lace.