When Lisa Taddeo set out to write a book about female desire, Barack Obama was still president. We hadn’t yet taken to the streets in pink hats to defend our pussies, and saying “I believe her” wasn’t in our daily vernacular. But beneath a slowly burgeoning equality—a shattered glass ceiling, equal pay for equal work, etc.—an untold story simmered, and it simmers still. It’s a quotidian story of girls being groomed to feel shame: shame for excellence or accident, for assault and abuse, on behalf of families, in homes and in communities. And how can desire be fully realized when there is deep-seated, institutionalized, culturally sanctioned shame? Desire without shame means there is agency. Once shamed, we are no longer powerful and become ripe for exploitation.
Over the course of eight years, Taddeo interviewed more than one hundred subjects for Three Women. The intertwined stories of Maggie, Lina, and Sloane present three very different women whose narratives capture familiar experiences and emotions, whose stories are emblematic of so many more women. Maggie’s story tracks her girlhood years with alcoholic parents, an early relationship with an older man, an affair with her high school English teacher, and the court case that she later brings against him. In Lina’s story, we see a woman who has been sexually assaulted as a teenager, a moment that marks the rest of her life; she later marries and has children, only to find her husband unwilling to meet her sexual or emotional desires. She has an affair with an old flame, a man with whom she finds her sexuality reawakened but who has no intention of leaving his wife and family. And then there’s Sloane, a prep-school educated blue blood who has suffered a deep family shame. She marries a powerful man who’s also a voracious lover, and together they run a successful business. But when Richard introduces a third party into their bedroom, Sloane’s world turns upside down. Together, they navigate new depths of intimacy and transgression.
Taddeo, who lives with her husband and daughter in New England, has contributed to New York magazine, Esquire, Elle, Glamour, and many other publications, earning her places in the Best American Sports Writing and Best American Political Writing anthologies and two Pushcart Prizes. Her debut—raw, intimate and breathtakingly written—is an obsessive read.
I corresponded recently with Lisa via email about her years of immersive journalism, America’s sexual fears, and the power of listening without judgment.
The Rumpus: You did your research for this book over the course of eight years. Tell me about that process.
Lisa Taddeo: Reporting the book was different day to day, hour to hour. There was no formula. It was haunting in that I thought of it all the time. It wasn’t a job but a part of my life. And there wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t feel like I was failing.
I would make lists of tenuous things to do: Posting signs in the morning, across nearly every state in the country. In the afternoon, I’d transcribe tape. In the early evening, I would go to bars and restaurants and corner stores and talk to people, trying to find a human being that would be THE person. The first person. Some days I just hung out with whichever person or group I’d met or heard about, who might be a fascinating, willing subject. In the late evening, I would read and write and panic.
I interviewed hundreds of people, twenty-five or so at length (for over a month or more). I left twenty people out of the final cut. It hurt to do that, but Sloane, Maggie, and Lina were the most comfortable with my presence in their lives at length and across poignant moments. They let me into their bedrooms ten times more than the next person. And, as a triad, they told the most arresting yet cohesive narrative. Finally, the way that their communities psychologically conspired against them was emblematic for me of much of America’s projection of their sexual fears onto others.
Rumpus: What are America’s sexual fears?
Taddeo: Our fears are about being caught, so we project those fears—and sense of shame—onto others. We are puritanical. Reviling others during the day for doing a certain thing, then going out that night and indulging the very same fetishes. I think the fear is about getting found out, and the best way to stave that off is to call out someone else first. It’s counterintuitive, but lines up with our history.
Rumpus: You write that women who are heard in our culture—if they get heard at all—are disproportionately rich and white. Of the three women you chose to profile, you crossed some economic lines; but, so far as I can tell, they’re all white and hetero. What does this say to or about women of color and the LGBTQ community?
Taddeo: Plenty of the other subjects I interviewed spanned a wide range of sexual proclivities, genders, races. Some dropped out. Some who I’d spoken to for many months, who I’d been interested in because of their orientation and race, but really the depth of their experience in a divided and often-cruel country. Some of those people were reticent to go deeper. Sloane, Lina, and Maggie were not. They were the ones who let me into their hearts and minds and bedrooms. The point is that these three women do not stand or speak for all women, but they speak for themselves very loudly, and my hope is that people of all races and genders and orientations would see themselves in one, two, or all three of them. They would see that the judgment of others is often a projection of our own fears onto them. Also, I hope this book—one of my loftier goals—is that it opens up some doors. We need to make room for all stories, for people of color, for all members of the LGBTTQQIAAP, for literally every human being in the world. But truly, I’d hope that all people can relate to these issues, most specifically the judgment of others.
Rumpus: Esther Perel’s 2018 book The State of Affairs examined the “time-honored taboo” of infidelity and, at least for some audiences, busted some of its myths. Namely, that it is “universally practiced” and does not necessarily destroy a relationship. Each of your three women are involved in an extramarital affair, and I found it striking that you presented their thoughts in these situations alongside their past experiences with parents, first loves, and prior relationships. Was there something about the extramarital affair that you wanted to explore? Was there something about the women’s pasts that you felt set them up for these situations? And were you, like me, left in the end with the impression that the vast majority of men are just unscrupulous dicks?
Taddeo: Yes, these women are, in very different ways, marked by infidelity. Infidelity, and not merely in the bedroom, colors so much of our lives. We are unfaithful to others and to ourselves. Similarly, all of the experiences in our formative years color the way we experience our present. The weight of our parents factors. It all factors.
I wouldn’t generalize about men that way. I’m not a scientist but from my research and conversations with scientists and sex researchers, I understand that, biologically, men have a certain goal, of spreading themselves widely. I think that our sociological present has been affected by our history of patriarchy, which itself evolves from our biology. So I do think women are at a biological handicap. And while men and women (and each person of any orientation) aren’t responsible for that, we are complicit in the way we move into the future.
Rumpus: The most striking scene in the book for me was the conversation where Jenny, Wes’s wife, confronts Sloane. Sloane and her husband have been sleeping with Wes, and they’ve incorrectly assumed that Wes has discussed this arrangement with Jenny. When Jenny confronts Sloane, it’s this raw and terrifically honest moment. It’s beautiful, in a way. But it also highlights the shame and secrecy so many women are groomed to live with. Maggie’s and Lina’s stories are also illustrative of long histories of shame—from family histories to sexual violence to religion. How did you see the trajectory of shame as part of the narrative?
Taddeo: Shame and silence were the two things I found the most, across this near-decade of reporting. The way that women were wildly organized about hiding their desire. And that the anger and judgment we graft onto others is often our own shame projected.
The history of womanly shame (of calling women whores for doing nearly anything short of mothering) is deeply rooted. All women are not ruled by it, but everyone felt shame to some extent. It was one of the biggest commonalities across the hundreds of people to whom I spoke.
Rumpus: As you went about your research, how deeply did you get to know the men involved in each of these stories? How much did their motivations and perspectives influence the narratives?
Taddeo: They didn’t very much. I wanted the women’s stories to stand on their own. (Indeed, even when I was speaking to men as subjects, I wanted their stories to stand on their own.) I corroborated facts, but for the most part I wanted the women’s thoughts about their own trajectories to speak for themselves.
Rumpus: Each of the men Maggie, Lina, and Sloane align themselves with hold positions of power—the power of age, money, or status. Did these dynamics make for the most salacious stories, or the most potent? Was the imbalance of power overwhelmingly representative of the stories you heard? Or was there something about this moment in time that you wanted to highlight?
Taddeo: Power dynamics of course make for interesting stories, but it wasn’t so much power, but the depth of emotion each of the subjects felt that posed the most poignant questions about the dynamics between two people.
Rumpus: The sex in these stories is intimate, vivid, graphic, and emotional, and it straddled a fine line for me between titillating and grotesque, given the circumstances of the situations. By the end of many scenes I was reminded that the things that can turn us on are not necessarily the things we want. That fantasy and desire are different. That wanting is complicated. What was it like for you to write these scenes? And where did you see the line between psychological and physiological desire?
Taddeo: I was conscious during the scenes of not being too clinical or too pornographic. I wanted the scenes to exist in the ether of truth. I wanted to reproduce them—physically and emotionally—as best I could to honor the experiences of the women.
Lina’s story, for example, was the most sexually explicit because she was finding herself in those coital moments. She would call me directly after or send me play-by-play messages of her interludes. It was wild, in retrospect, to be that inside of someone’s experiences. But she was reconnecting with her body and herself after many years of zero passion, after suffering a group rape as a young woman, that scarred her forever.
Rumpus: Most of your narrative is written in the close third person, but some is in the second. And the very beginning and end are in your voice. How did you make these choices about perspective?
Taddeo: I wrote some of Maggie in the second person because I wanted to insert the most staunch non-believer of her story straightaway into Maggie’s position, so that person would have to work to climb out of it. I wanted it to be hard to not, at the very least, hear her.
I chose to write in first person in the prologue and epilogue because I wanted to give some of myself, since the women had given so much to me, and I wanted, in a sense, to put myself on the line. I also wanted to frame the stories and introduce them, and close them up a bit. It was important to me to stay out of their actual stories as much as possible, and so I chose to come in at the start and the end in my own voice.
Rumpus: After I gave birth to my son, I was in a postpartum moms group where a surprising number of women honestly said they never wanted to have sex again. And not just in that joking way, when really no one wants to have sex because your vagina is a shredded mess, your nipples are bleeding, and you haven’t slept in a month. I’m talking about years after healing, there were women in this group who felt that sex was for making babies and desire, for them, was directed at things like work, power, and resistance. This perspective didn’t make it into your book. I’m curious why not.
Taddeo: There were women like that in the first cuts, but the three women (three people) who remained, remained because of how much they gave me, how raw they were, how great their passion was.
Rumpus: What would you say to your male readers?
Taddeo: I wouldn’t say this to only male readers, but to all people on the alpha side of a relationship—that if you stop loving someone, or even liking them, it’s your responsibility as the one who leaves to not let people go through their lives unseen and unheard. It’s cruel to not say, I see you. I know you exist.