What Does a Man Want?

Men in Love: Men's Sexual Fantasies: The Triumph of Love Over Rage BY Nancy Friday. Dell. Mass Market Paperback, 544 pages. $7.

The cover of Men in Love: Men's Sexual Fantasies: The Triumph of Love Over Rage

THE JOURNALIST NANCY FRIDAY is best known for My Secret Garden (1973), a collection of the sexual fantasies of hundreds of women who responded to her call for confessions. Predating the more statistics-heavy Hite Report by three years, Friday’s first book was groundbreaking in its recognition of real female fantasy, freed from man-pleasing stereotypes. However, the book I’ve always found more striking was Friday’s less famous follow-up, Men in Love (1980). The subtitle, Men’s Sexual Fantasies: The Triumph of Love over Rage, illustrates the still-dominant myth that male sexuality is inherently aggressive and violent. Hence the allure of a book that offers the rich, nuanced fantasies of real men, told in their own words.

Friday writes that some of the letters she received after soliciting male confessions “disgusted or frightened me. Many seemed outpourings from macho braggarts out to shock.” A lot of her subjects dwell on fantasies that (supposedly) exemplify a masculine desire for dominance—bondage, rape role-play, rough anal sex. However, plenty more deviate from that stereotype, describing their interest in same-sex encounters, cuckolding, cross-dressing, and cunnilingus. What’s more, the men who shared fantasies of sexually dominating a woman were outnumbered by four to one by those who fantasized about being dominated—a useful corrective, perhaps, to the widespread fascination with female masochism. Women’s pleasure and orgasms are important and arousing to nearly all the men, and Friday notes that even in fantasies of playing the dominant/sadist, “pain or humiliation of the woman is usually not the goal. They are means toward an end: forcing her to . . . transports of sexual joy she has never known before.” And in any case, “not all fantasies are frustrated wishes. This is one of the most common misconceptions,” as Friday writes, although she herself sometimes forgets this, as when she admits to pitying a man who fantasizes about watching his partner expose herself to a stranger.

Certain aspects of the book seem dated now. Friday implies, for instance, that men are always breadwinners. Yet Men in Love is intriguing, and not only for its observation that even the contributors who tried to intimidate Friday in their letters still seemed “moved by a kind of love and desire for connection.” It’s also an opportunity to watch a writer recognize and overcome the limitations of her own thinking. In My Secret Garden, Friday assumes that whereas women have long been “the silent sex,” men’s desires are both easily understood and impossible to avoid. She notes almost enviously that “men exchange sexual fantasies in the barroom, where they are called dirty jokes; the occasional man who doesn’t find them amusing is thought to be the odd man out.” Buried in this offhand remark is a weirdly poignant insight into the way men’s desires, like women’s, are obscured and distorted by unforgiving social codes. Friday seems unaware of this possible reading and yet, in the years that followed, it evidently occurred to her that she—and the reading public—might not know men’s sexuality as thoroughly as she thought she did. Reading her now, you wonder how many of our own current ideas about sex should be more open to question.

Catherine Scott is the author of Thinking Kink: The Collision of BDSM, Feminism and Popular Culture (McFarland, 2015). To Deprave and Corrupt: Britain’s Battle with Obscenity will appear in 2018.