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Power and pleasure dominate two new books about women’s desire

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo
(Simon Schuster, 2019, 27.00)

Just Pervs by Jess Taylor
(BookHug, 2019, 20.00)

Desire can get under our fingernails. It’s on our hair and in our eyes, and it sits on our lips with such urgency that at some moments the need to be touched feels like it could break us apart. Yet, in a climate where women prioritizing pleasure is seen as selfish and male fantasies often dictate heterosexual relationships, feeling desire, according to two new books about pleasure and power, bre shame in many women, leaving it largely unexplored and rarely discussed.

In Three Women, a non-fiction work of reportage by American journalist Lisa Taddeo, and Just Pervs, the bold sophomore collection of short stories by Toronto’s Jess Taylor — pleasure, rather the pursuit of pleasure, is central; however, in so many of the stories told in each remarkable book, power imbalance and the scrutiny of others challenge women’s agency over their own sexuality.

The result of eight years of immersive reporting, Three Women is touted as “the deepest nonfiction portrait of desire ever written” and the “riveting true story about the sex lives of three real American women,” who shared their stories with Taddeo in person, on the phone, by text message, and email over nearly a decade. There’s a familiarity to each woman — Maggie, Lina, and Sloane; Each is young, white, cisgender, able-bodied and heterosexual. Each has been traumatized, overjoyed, othered and made fragile as a result of her sexual experiences or, in Maggie’s case, sexual assault.

Maggie is a teenager when her high-school English teacher makes her feel like a “loved” thing. He leaves notes in the margins of her copy of Twilight and begins to text her nightly. He makes her feel normal when she’s left vulnerable by past sexual victimization. She confuses his grooming for safety and care. “Sometimes all it takes is for another human being to nod and act as if something is no big deal, like it’s something that happens every day, it’s not a wicked thing, you are not a freak or a slut,” writes Taddeo of Maggie, whose reoccurring assault is never believed in court.

Maggie’s story dominates Three Women because of its brutality, but the experiences of Lina and Sloane will resonate with readers, too. Lina’s husband refuses to kiss her on the mouth, and on the rare occasion he initiates sex, he tickles her arm and says, “Feel like doin’ it?” She leaves him when she can no longer stand feeling invisible, starting an affair with a married man who brings her “back to life.” But in suburban Indiana, where toxic monogamy is the norm, Lina’s exaltation must exist in private. Those who do know of her relationship express “frustration that Lina had a home, a husband who provided for her, and healthy children. Everything was clean and in working order. They were angry that she wanted more,” writes Taddeo in Three Women’s epilogue.

Like Lina, Sloane, a restauranteur, wants more than others deem acceptable. She’s happily married to a man who likes to watch her have sex with other people. “None of the books she read and none of the television shows and films she enjoyed reflected that lifestyle,” writes Taddeo. Though unapologetic about her sexual appetite and adventure, Sloane begins to question the power dynamic in which her husband’s desire and fantasies drive their sexual experiences.

Refreshingly, the women who inhabit the 15 stories in Just Pervs are less tethered to gender norms and societal expectations than Maggie, Lina and Sloane. In fact, they hold control over their own desires, relationships and bodies. Seeking pleasure outside of committed, heterosexual relationships is normalized, unlike in Three Women where sexuality is almost always tied to romantic love. Taylor’s nuanced characters aren’t always straight, and, unlike Taddeo’s, they’re not always young. While they might not always know what they want, they let themselves want. 

“Why didn’t anyone tell me that you can ask a man to lick you, suck you, why didn’t anyone even tell me about the clitoris, why didn’t I find this out until I was 27 and running away from a marriage I’d barely wanted in the first place?” reminisces the elderly narrator in “So Raw You Can’t Sit,” the book’s penultimate story.

Taddeo and Taylor give the women in their books, real or fictional, the agency to feel pleasure and pain, often at the same time. “I’m scarred and scared and horny and tired and love you,” writes Taddeo in Maggie’s voice, exposing the complexity of Maggie’s feelings following her assaults. Most importantly, neither author casts judgement on her subjects. “It’s the nuances of desire that hold the truth of who we are at our rawest moments. I set out to register the heat and sting of female want so that men and other women might more easily comprehend before they condemn,” writes Taddeo.

Though both timely, Three Women is an especially critical read in the wake of the #MeToo movement. In court, the jury hears that Maggie is a flirt. She’d lean over her teacher’s desk. She wanted it. She asked for it. A respected and decorated teacher would never have done the things Maggie had claimed. He likely counted on nobody believing a “troubled teen.” Maggie is the imperfect victim. “She is crying, but not torrentially, not as if her vagina were brutalized. She is not crying appropriately,” writes Taddeo. By publishing her story, Taddeo gives Maggie’s voice a platform and the tiniest bit of justice, despite the court’s ruling. 

Just Pervs and Three Women each dispel a myth that women should put caregiving and caretaking above their own wants and ne, especially if their wants and ne are deemed unconventional. “Everyone expects you to work and live a life without pleasure,” writes Taylor in “So Raw You Can’t Sit.” Women should also act in ways seen as appropriate by society, the media, the male gaze. Sloane, for example, constantly reassesses the kind of woman she is. “The right way to be. How sexy, how perfumed. Not to give up too much of oneself, not to give up too little. The perfect amount, or she might be a ghost, fat, disagreeable,” writes Taddeo.

Both books hold space for those who don’t feel desire — not all people do. They also recognize that the grief and loneliness of unfulfilled desire is valid and can be agonizing. Being desired is an intoxicant, a drug, and the cruelty of how quickly it can disappear reoccurs frequently in both Just Pervs and Three Women. “Sometimes you want so badly for someone to call you back. To admit you exist,” writes Taddeo of “how a person can destroy you by the simple act of disappearing.” Both books legitimize this pain. “I know it’s hard. Someone is in your life and then they aren’t,” writes Taylor in “Olives.” The way women make themselves vulnerable feels simultaneously tender and brave.

Three Women and Just Pervs imagine a world in which women’s sexual desire isn’t disgraceful; it’s communicated, expressed, fulfilled, and accepted. “When I was young, no one ever talked about making themselves feel good. Especially girls,” writes Taylor in “The Puberty Drawer,” a story in which men share stories of masturbation freely but laugh awkwardly when women do the same. Pleasure, desire, and the tension, shame, and pain both can breed are central to women’s sexuality, but when we fail to speak about them openly, we increase male power.

Just Pervs and Three Women challenge readers to question the notion that, in heterosexual relationships, sex is something that is done to women. Each imagines a world in which women claim their sexuality.

Jessica Rose is a writer, editor, and reviewer who has written for publications across Canada. Her book reviews have appeared in magazines including Quill and Quire, Room, Ricepaper, This, and the Humber Literary Review. She also covers Hamilton’s literary scene in Hamilton Magazine. Jessica is a senior editor at the Hamilton Review of Books and a founding editor of The Inlet. She recently took over the role of books editor at This magazine. When she’s not writing, she is the social media coordinator at YWCA Hamilton.

Image Credits: Jess Taylor (left): Angela Lewis; Lisa Taddeo (right): Bank Square Books/Flickr