“And whereas the man’s throttle died in the closing salvo of the orgasm, I found that the woman’s was often must beginning. There was complexity and beauty and violence, even, in the way the women experienced the same event. In these ways and more, it was the female parts of an interlude that, in my eyes, came to stand for the whole of what longing in America looks like.”
She went on to say “...when the object of desire directed the narrative, that was where I found the most magnificence, the most pain.”
At this moment, and every moment in society, has our desire ever been our own? Even when we think we own it wholeheartedly, that we control the narrative, do we really? We are burdened with trauma from a young age, fed biases about ourselves and our sexualites, told over and over again what we need as women and to swallow our true wants deep down inside us. We are gaslighted, called crazy, stamped as slutty when we adhere to the aching inclinations of men, but whispered about as prude when we withhold. We are told we have agency, but the world around us is never free from the factors of influence that shrink us, make us small, placate us into a sad, lonely existence where we must be pretty, be thin, be quiet, be desirable.
In Lisa Taddeo’s debut non-fiction Three Women, we get a peek into the lives of Maggie, Lena, and Sloane. We have Maggie, a seventeen-year-old from North Dakota who was groomed, assaulted, and called a liar in court by her high school teacher. We have Lina, a suburban mother who was assaulted in high school, got married to a man who wouldn’t kiss her, and escapes back into a sexual relationship with her old high school lover who left her due to that assault. And we have Sloan, a successful restaurant co-owner with her husband who likes to watch her have sex with other people. There were originally more women with different geographical and racial backgrounds (and a gay man) but ultimately, they backed out of the writing experiment (after 6+ months of research already involved) and we were left with three white women with differing stories. Do I wish it were more diverse? Absolutely. With what we were given, it was a tumultuous ride. People like to believe that they would be comfortable being incredibly honest and open about their sexual history, desires, fantasies—but I can’t imagine any of my closest friends revealing to me the details these women gave to Taddeo.
Is this book a cookie-cutter look at desire? No. Nothing ever is. This is not a romantic comedy starring Molly Ringwald (but I will say, those ‘80s movies you love? They are not romantic). The social science behind each and every relationship, every sexual interaction, every fantasy we’ve ever dreamed up cannot be put into a box. But three women’s stories can be told for eight years, typed up with sore fingers, bound, and framed with a beautiful white and red cover.
In a world simultaneously obsessed with and disgusted by sex, Taddeo lays bare the details of sexual truths that derail you. There are excerpts in this book that left me flushed in the face, teetering my eyes side to side as I held it closer to my chest to ensure no one around me could see over my shoulder. I wasn’t ashamed in any way, but the details feel so vulnerable and honest that it feels like this book was made just for you. A friend on your couch delving into her deepest secrets, trusting you enough to allow you in.
With the literary world taking this book by storm, I probably don’t have too much to add that hasn’t already been said. Many argue that this book is anti-feminist and offensive to women in labeling that it is about female desire. Like I stated above, I do feel as though this book is marketed correctly. It is just not wrapped up in the false bow of female empowerment and marketplace feminism that is funneled down to us through t-shirts at Target that say ‘ON WEDNESDAYS WE SMASH THE PATRIARCHY’ and Dove ads that tell us we are beautiful the way we are. Feminism is ultimately about resetting the balance of power. For the women in the book, it was about shedding their cloak of invisibility and being seen, really seen, for the first time in their lives. Maggie had her entire town stacked up against her, Lina’s wants and desires were ignored by both her husband and her marriage therapist, and Sloan came to understand that while her voyeuristic agreement with her husband made her happy, it also placed her in a ring of judgement, not only from her community in Rhode Island, but from her own mind and what ‘normal’ sexual desire was supposed to look and feel like. This book is extremely representative of straight women’s desire in a patriarchal society where our desire, no matter how much we tell ourselves it isn’t, is dictated and intertwined with the desires of men.
One part in the book stuck out to me the most. I am still carrying it with me, in my bones, it aches and it taunts me. Maggie and her father. When we think of trauma, it seems to be a singular act that has lasting consequences for the person who was victimized by it. But trauma entrenches its claws into a person, devours them whole, and still isn’t full. It wants more. It puffs out its chest, licks its lips, and finds another person to consume. Trauma leaves a trail of destruction, with many victims, and it is never satisfied. You can try with all your might to stop trauma in its tracks, but sometimes, it wins. I am crying as I write this.
This book was not meant to only depict women, but Taddeo found that men’s desire did not fascinate her as much. I understand. I listen to men and their desire is often able to bloom and blossom separately from their lived experiences. But when I feel a hot breath on my neck and a trailing hand across my stomach sliding between my thighs, I lay out every single thing that has ever happened to me to get me to this moment. My desire is all consuming, ravaged by every dirty thing whispered in my ear at a bar, every hand I didn’t ask for on my ass, every time I said no and he heard yes. What do I desire? I ask myself that every day and I do not have an answer yet that feels right.
320 pages. 2019.
Buy it here.