For Books’ Sake Talks to: Emily Dubberley

27th Nov 2013

For Books' Sake Talks to: Emily Dubberley
Emily Dubberley, founder of, is best known for her prolific – and informative – research into sex and sexuality.

Her latest book, Garden of Desires, is in many ways an updated version of Nancy Friday’s seminal My Secret Garden; its sub-title echoing that of the book published 40 years earlier.

Drawing on fantasies from over four hundred women, it focuses on how women interact with their own perceptions of their sexuality, and whether this has changed since Friday’s exploration in the 1970s.

But why write this book now?

“Friday updated her research every decade after writing My Secret Garden,” Emily Dubberley points out. “However, there was no update planned for this year – 40 years after it was first written.

“As an almost-40 year old women who benefited from growing up in a world that accepted women fantasised, I wanted to pay homage to Friday and explore how women’s fantasies – and sexual realities – had evolved during the time that solo female sexual exploration has been accepted as existing.”

One of the real strengths of the book is its lack of condemnation or judgement of any of the responses to the questionnaire. There is academic analysis but, as she says, “labelling is used as a form of social control” and therefore there is a detachment that indicates the role of “an objective reporter.”

The resulting research is fairly eye-opening. Setting out to be intersectional, Emily Dubberley targeted “women who have traditionally been ignored (such as women of colour, transwomen, sex workers, disabled women and asexual women) as well as recruiting through mainstream titles.”

As a result, the variety between attitudes, experiences and the fantasies themselves are embraced in a way that highlights the multi-faceted nature of women’s fantasies.

In my opinion, sexual honesty is one of the most effective ways to shift the Madonna/whore stigma: by talking about what we really want – or simply fantasise about – it shows the diversity of female sexuality. Split into three parts, the book covers a brief history of female sexual fantasy and its acceptance in society, as well as having a number of chapters that compile examples of fantasies from the questionnaires and research; these include submissive, voyeuristic, group-sex and esoteric fantasies such as watersports, to name but a few.

Central to this exploration, however, is the underlining of the idea that “fantasy and reality are different things.” Garden of Desires examines the idea that our fantasies free us to explore different facets of our personality, allowing us to self-fulfil that which we may consider lacking.

Similarly, some fantasies have nothing to do with how we would like to be treated in actuality. “I see fantasy as a form of adult play that allows us to learn – and possibly access parts of ourselves we tend to keep hidden away, maybe even from ourselves,” argues Emily Dubberley.

“For example, some women said their submissive fantasies helped them process previous negative experiences, or feel able to enjoy sex without guilt. Others said their exhibitionist fantasies made them feel physically adored in a way that real life didn’t offer.

“Fantasy may overlap with a woman’s genuine desires but it’s just as likely to be something she simply enjoys imagining and has no need or desire to experience in reality.”

One of the chapters also focuses on gender-fluidity and how the rejection of seeing gender as binary (merely male or female) allows us to “[nurture] a growing acceptance of diversity.”

Garden of Desires also seems to state that the acceptance of non-traditional fantasies helps create a society where coming out as trans is becoming easier. She also highlights that “many women with gender fluid fantasies do not define themselves as trans: they simply like the idea of having a penis of their own.”

It is this refusal to box her subjects into one specific role (such as including women’s own self-identifying descriptions alongside their answers), that allows a reclaiming of women’s fantasies.

Society’s decision to cast some sexual preferences and fantasies as the ‘norm’ has meant that what is considered ‘acceptable’ is very limited. The stigma attached to embracing differing sexualities and desires is echoed in the way that the media continually categorises women (whether subconsciously or not) using the Madonna-whore complex (Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance being a perfect example of this).

Dubberley highlights that “The virgin/whore myth was at the core of many women’s objections about the way in which they are perceived. Several women commented that seeing other women’s fantasies helped them feel normal for having sexual desires.

“In my opinion, sexual honesty is one of the most effective ways to shift the Madonna/whore stigma: by talking about what we really want – or simply fantasise about – it shows the diversity of female sexuality, and that women can’t just be placed into one of two boxes.”

So what’s next for Emily Dubberley? She’s currently doing research for a fictional trilogy about goddesses, and an examination of male fantasies is on the cards, but she’s determined to have “a bit of a break first, as the research required is very time consuming and, after 20 years looking into other people’s fantasy lives, it’d be nice to escape into a fantasy world of my own making for a while.”

Garden of Desires is out now and available from here.