Banned Books: Women on Top by Nancy Friday

8th Feb 2012

In a way you can see why Women on Top: How Real Life Has Changed Women's Sexual Fantasies was banned when it was first published in 1991. Even its title is explicit and to-the-point.

This style continues throughout the book – even looking at the chapter headings would cause the more prudish of us to gasp. Its author, Nancy Friday, was already well known for her frank discussions about sexuality in her previous books.

My Secret Garden and Forbidden Flowers had shocked and amazed her readers in the 1970s and 80s; but Women on Top was different. It admitted that real women had sexual fantasies that related or were influenced by their lives and that they were willing to talk about them.

According to Friday, she was one of the first to publicly discuss the topic in her earlier books (which went through endless red tape to get published and promoted) but up until Women on Top the real lives of these women had never been examined in relation to their fantasies.

Nancy Friday writes in a rather ‘pop-psychology’ style that is accessible and chatty – and also very candid. She encourages the women in her book to tell every detail about their sexual fantasies, no matter how unusual or explicit.

As a modern young woman of the 21st century, even I was a little shocked at how much graphic detail these women went into. They all clearly trusted Friday with this information, and some give quite a few personal details about their lives (though no surnames of course).

The point is of course that we are meant to analyse their fantasies with reference to the circumstances – both social and sexual – of their real lives.

It is this admittance that our real selves, our public selves, interact with such unabashed sexuality within our imaginations that no doubt shocked people.

Given that My Secret Garden was essentially a list of sexual fantasies and Forbidden Flowers explored the topic as well, it seems odd that Women On Top was banned as late as 1991.

However it is a simple fact that people will never fail to be shocked by sex; and especially not when a former Catholic nun tells all about her naughty fantasies involving a priest (really).

Friday has been constantly challenged for her very open and honest attitude to sex and its psychologies, and Women On Top was another opportunity for the critics to get their teeth stuck in.

Our immediate feminist reaction is that the press and public simply disapproved of such graphic and candid discussions about female sex. This must be at least partly true – the detail is minute – but there was more to it than that.

Relating sexual fantasies to real life suggested that sex was a vital part of our psyche, part of our personality and what made us who we were. It was not just something that had to happen to procreate or express love – it was also a base instinct that was part of the make up of human life.

Even after Freud and Kinsey, people were still afraid to bring the issue of sex and its fantasies to the forefront of society. The fact that Friday’s book was entirely about women’s sexual fantasies only served to make it more shocking to the average member of the reading public.

Men, Friday states, are seen to ‘need’ sex in a way that women apparently don’t – we are not supposed to want to do it; but guess what, we do. Friday was completely unafraid to be upfront with everyone and say, yes, women like and want sex, and it isn’t always about love, marriage and babies – sometimes they just want to have a good time and some orgasms. Where’s the harm in that?

The women who contributed their fantasies obviously thought there was no harm in it. A lot of them are religious or had a religious upbringing; are married or in a long term relationship; and some of them are very young.

Either way most of them have felt, at some point in their lives, that men are supposed to be the ones in control; but no more. Friday has made them realise that they have sexual needs and desires that are sometimes completely unrelated to the men in their lives.

If their real life men do play a role, it’s a role the women have chosen for them – the women have the choice and the control. Nothing here is traditional, conventional or co-dependent. These are independent women.

Have you read Nancy Friday? Intrigued by her? Agree or disagree with Women on Top being banned? Comment below and let me know what you think!

Lizzi Thomasson


  • Dan Holloway says:

    “Men, Friday states, are seen to ‘need’ sex in a way that women apparently don’t”

    I was fascinated, reading a review of the recently published “The Origins of Sex” to see how much the author of that book had bought into the idea that until the seventeenth century, it was women who were the lusty, earthy, physical, unbridled sex and men their hapless victims. This of course isn’t the case as any glance at the courtly ramblings of the troubadours will tell you.

    The reality of discursive history is twofold: first that the hag and the holy are the flip sides of each other, and each as much a projection of power narratives (which subtly blend sex, class, and race in their construction of what lies “outside the acceptable”) as the other; and second that, as projection and external, female sexuality has lain outside the integrated discourse of social reality. What this book does is to question both these discursive practices – the formulating of female sexuality by women, and the integration of women’s sexuality into the discourse of the everyday – making it, and the power balance implications it brings with it, inescapable. I have a feeling it’s the combination of thesetaht proved so unpalatable.

  • Jane Bradley says:

    I’m ecstatic to have a feature about Women on Top on For Books’ Sake…it’s such an important book that had a dramatic impact and influence on so many of its readers.

    Probably like lots of other women around my age, my friends and I first encountered Women On Top in our early teens, hidden away on adult bookshelves (I vividly remember a friend finding a battered edition of it while babysitting and spending hours immersed in it).

    It was really formative for us, because it taught us age how real-life and fantasy interact and are informed by each other. While this may have been revelatory for older readers, we didn’t know any different, and I reckon that that’s a total triumph and tribute to Nancy Friday – Women on Top (and My Secret Garden, which we managed to get our hands on soon afterwards) gave us an in-depth, safe and sex-positive education that we would have never otherwise had access to, and a framework with which to understand and explore our developing sexualities.

  • Tania Bates says:

    Bless! I haven’t read wot for ages, but I remember it as being pretty harmless. If you want to read an erstwhile banned book that really tries to break taboos, try “macho sluts”, by pat califia. Personally, I think it’s very well written – unusual for erotica – and pat has a very creative mind. Banned from quite a few feminist bookshops at the time for its bdsm content. Still a classic, IMHO, but possibly not for those into vanilla.

  • Lizzi says:

    So glad that you all appreciate my piece! Very interesting to look into how this book (and Friday’s earlier ones) was received. Books like this are still relevant today. We’ve moved on socially, but not as much as we should/could have.