Siddhartha Gautama’s parents didn’t want him to discover poverty and mine didn’t want me to discover sex. At 15, Mills & Boon novels were banned from my bookshelf. So naturally, I hid them at the back of bookshelves, using history workbooks to shield me while reading My Beloved Scoundrel and Tortured by a Kiss. But the sex in these novels never made sense to me, even when I had no idea what sex even was. I believed I needed to have the perfect, perky body and a shy demeanour to qualify for a place in the world of desire. What changed it was a book by a woman who died this week.
My cousin’s friend left Nancy Friday’s 1973 collection, My Secret Garden, for me. I didn’t have to hide this book – my mother thought it was about gardening. And so I read Friday’s most famous collection of stories of women’s sexual fantasies. This was no sweet and wholesome Reader’s Digest collection.
Friday (who died on November 5) talked about the psychology behind women’s fantasies, of women being sexual beings and how sexual liberation was an important cornerstone in feminism. She normalised the idea of women having desire and liking it, something society in the ‘70s was completely unprepared for. I certainly was unprepared to read about a woman whose fantasy was about having sex with animals. Or another fantasising about rape. Or elaborate doctor-patient scenarios.
Back in the ‘70s Friday was accused (when she was not being feted) of using a thin veneer of psychobabble to cover a collection of dirty little stories, of being porn faking respectability. But for a lot of women around the world (and for decades later in India, who picked up her books from libraries and pavement stalls selling pirated copies), her words were a shock plunge into the erotic. For all of those women and me, her books didn’t titillate as much as help us understand our own titillations.
“Nancy Friday took my virginity,” says 28-year-old Gaya Lobo Gajiwala, a teacher based in Mumbai. “She wrote about women’s ideas of eroticism, but in such a way that she forced me to examine my own ideas of eroticism, my body and what sex means to me.”
Gaya found Friday’s My Secret Garden hiding on a bookshelf covered with a yellow newspaper in her boarding school. She was 15. She says, “It helped me understand my own sexuality better. It made sex better for me. So when I did have sex for the first time, I was better prepared mentally as I knew exactly what I wanted from sex. I was aware and unapologetic about my desires, and hence communicated them with confidence. Because of Nancy Friday, I didn’t go through the self-doubt and indecision that many women do during their first sexual experience.”
If Friday’s work made Gaya feel okay to address her sexual desires with confidence, it helped older women readers acknowledge that they have sexual desires in the first place. Anita Haldar, a 52-year-old business consultant in Kolkata, believes Friday was her first brush with acknowledging her own desires.
“I read Friday’s 1975 novel Forbidden Flowers when I was in my early 20s and was newly married. In my joint family, sex beyond childbirth was not even a concept. And then a friend of mine gave me the book,” she says. It shocked her utterly. Forbidden Flowers contained even more explicit accounts about women and their most forbidden sexual fantasies. But it opened her eyes to how repressive her environment was and kindled a need to address her desires.
“I remember joking with my husband about moving out so we could have sex more often,” she laughs. “He looked so shocked! But we eventually did move out in a couple of years. Even today we laugh at that memory. Neither of us expected me to express any sexual desire so openly, even as a joke.”
Happy jokes and giggles certainly surrounded Friday’s work. My aunt remembers sitting on park benches with her college friends in Chennai, reading out portions from Friday’s books, giggling and laughing heartily, sharing in the happiness and desires of women they’d never met.
For 37-year-old Bangalore-based journalist and editor Sandhya Menon, Friday went beyond a laugh. At 16, she discovered My Secret Garden in the attic of her grandparents’ home in Kerala. It was her first real education of what sex was like apart from it being a tool for reproduction. She says, “It was the first time I had read about masturbation and pleasuring oneself. I explored my own body and its reactions, what I liked and disliked, after that.”
Friday’s work didn’t just open conversations about sex for women, but it also helped male readers look at sex beyond power dynamics and notions of good girls and bad girls. For 27-year-old Febin Mathew, an engineer from Mumbai, Friday’s 1980 novel Men in Love changed everything. Primarily focused on how men look at women within the realms of desire, Febin, like Gaya, found the book hiding at the back of a bookshelf wrapped in a newspaper cover at home.
He says, “I was 14 years old when I read the book and I’d never read anything like it. I found it in my dad’s book collection. I was very surprised that he’d read a book with such explosive accounts of sexual desire.” The book normalised sexual kinks for Febin. “There was so much written about roleplay that I found myself fascinated by it. But it is very different from roleplay in porn. Porn told me I had a kink, while Friday explained why I had it. For some odd reason, I never took to porn, even as a teenager. Friday’s educational approach to desire had a more erotic appeal for me.”
For many readers, Nancy Friday was a lot like standing in front of the Mirror of Erised in Hogwarts and acknowledging the deepest desires of our bodies. If Friday’s work is powerful for younger men and women, it was infinitely more powerful for an older generation – who didn’t have access to porn on their phones any time they wanted. Twenty-four-year-old Shakti Nambiar found My Secret Garden when she was 16 years old – in her grandmother’s collection. She says, “When I confronted her about it, she just giggled and reprimanded me for snooping around the house. But my aunt believes my grandmother loved My Secret Garden and that it had a powerful impact on her. It was like having a friend she could go to talk about her desires.”
Friday gave women and men a lot of firsts by violently making space for conversations about sexual liberation, kinks and consent. But in the age of Reddit, Twitter and PornHub, does Friday still play a role in education about titillation?
Febin believes that it’s certainly become easier to find similarities to your desires on the internet. But for Gaya, it goes beyond that. She says, “Even though the internet is full of conversations about sex these days, they’re not always informed. There’s certainly more content to consume about sex, but not much on why we like sex in certain ways. It says nothing about our own selves. That’s what makes Friday’s work precious. Nothing can replace that.”
Looking back now I can see that Friday’s work was heteronormative and didn’t include diversity in exploring sexualities – it basically centred around men and women. But for a couple of generations of straight people, Friday’s work opened the floodgates of conversations about female sexual desire. Even therapist and erotica author Amrita Narayanan says that reading Nancy Friday 20 years ago was a novel experience. “I’d never read erotica based on actual accounts from women and men before. It’s a distant memory, but I remember thinking how liberating it was to read real, tangible desires of women.”
Friday writes in the introduction to My Secret Garden, “We’re as hidden as our clitorises. By the time we’ve found them, hidden away up there, we’re guilty at having located them.” Men may still be struggling to locate the clitoris, but Friday, through her books, handed many women in India and the world a map to finding the clitorises of their own desires and to be unapologetic about touching them as often as they wanted to.
Co-published with Firstpost