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Lisa Taddeo’s “Three Women” Takes a Long Look at Women’s Sex Lives

Lisa Taddeo spent almost ten years following the sexual lives of women. This is what she learned.  

People love to tell stories about women. That’s something we’ve witnessed across millennia. What we haven’t had as much opportunity to enjoy are stories told by women themselves. Should we ever fall into the habit of allocating them some narrative control, we might just find ourselves immersed in more interesting and authentic tales.

That’s at least how one journalist sees it. Lisa Taddeo spent the better part of ten years following the lives of three women scattered across the country. There’s Maggie, who was involved in a sexual relationship with her teacher while still in high school, Sloane, who engages in sex with other women without though sometimes in front of her husband, and Linda, a Midwestern mother of two who cheats on her husband in an affectionless marriage. Their stories are packaged into Taddeos new book, Three Women.

We had the opportunity to chat with Taddeo about the experience and how it helped extract important truths behind the dominant narratives surrounding women, and sex. Check out the conversation below.

You spent eight years with the women featured in the book. Why was it important you put so might time in before writing the book?

Because in order to gain their trust and hear their truths and in order to understand them with enough accuracy to lend their stories the respect they deserved, I came to realize that the only way to do so was total immersion, for a long time. Going to the gym with them, being in their homes, going with them to the doctor, all of it. It was the only way I could get as granular as I wanted to be.

You mention in the introduction that you were originally interested in stories regarding male sexual desire. How did the focus shift to women? In what ways did that change the narrative?

I wouldn’t generalize, but I found that the women – the ones I came across –  were more willing to open up about their interior-most thoughts. I also and gradually became more interested in my own gender than in the opposite gender, because I was finding things out about myself. I became interested in the weight of the mother on her daughter, the history of the mother’s desire and how and whether she communicated that to her daughter.

How would you describe the men in this book? Are there any characteristics that bind them across stories?

The men were not the point in this book. The women were finding themselves, and occasionally some of the men played the role of being the thing the women were chasing, but what they were really chasing was a part of themselves. I don’t think the men in this book are bound by any one thread. That said, there are threads that bind us all, if we look for them.

I want to take a moment to focus on Lina, in particular. Her story revolves around an affair, which maybe seem the most familiar out of all three stories. How do you think her experience echoes the stereotypes out there? In what ways did it differ? 

I found a lot of infidelity out there. Not only the physical kind, but the emotional one, too. After spending months with a subject, people begin to open up to you. People don’t want to hear that, because it’s scary, but it was there. Lina’s story was very trenchant for me. It was unfolding immediately before my eyes. She had been group-raped as a young woman and then spent a decade in a marriage with a man who no longer wanted to kiss her on the mouth. She was in terrible pain. Her affair caused her more pain, but it also made her feel like a living thing. I’m not here to comment on infidelity. But Lina’s story was raw and she was willing to tell it with the most self-awareness I’ve ever come across.

You talk about fear as a motivating force. How does fear interact with Lina’s story?

Her fear of getting to the end of the road and never having felt passion and love motivated her to act in ways that her community mocked her for.

What do you think the relationship with her lover says about her, as an individual?

She was marked by her past, by rape, and by her present, being untouched and unseen, that when she was with Aidan, her lover, she was seeing herself in a spiritual, sexual way. She was reconnecting with a body that had been violated and, later, abandoned.

How does her relationship with her husband exemplify the expectations society places on women, in particular?

Her friends thought she should be happy with what she had. A clean house, healthy children. That her husband didn’t want to touch her, found kissing her to be repulsive — none of that was important.