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Why the sex lives of “Three Women” are so fascinating: “We’re used to listening to men’s stories”

Muriel Rukeyser’s mic-drop line, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open,” invoked for decades as a feminist call-to-arms, has always read as irony to me. There’s no denying that women have been telling the truth about their lives, to great literary success even, since the late ’60s when Rukeyser’s poem was published, and before. And yet despite the many deep cracks made, the world remains stubbornly intact in many ways, glued by the status quo that designates women‘s lives as merely near-adjacent to human, to be afforded only as much as the momentary generosity of the patriarchy deigns to allow.

Rukeyser called it, at least in my reading: often for the woman telling the truth about her life, her world splits open. The wound formed is heralded as a spectacle — a major achievement, maybe, or a sign of rot. In some cases both. For everyone else the world spins on.

This is one reason why telling the truth about women‘s lives remains more urgent a goal than ever, and why Lisa Taddeo’s stunning new book “Three Women” is garnering such well-deserved acclaim. The culmination of nearly a decade of reporting on the state of sexual desire across America, in its final form “Three Women” focuses tightly on the true stories of its eponymous triad: a young North Dakota woman dealing with the aftermath of a sexual relationship with her high school teacher that culminates in a devastating trial; a stay-at-home mother in rural Indiana who breaks up her passionless marriage to pursue a lover from her past; and a refined New England restaurant owner whose chef husband likes to watch her have sex with other people, and leaves the emotional fall-out for her to manage.

Taddeo set out to create something like Gay Talese’s immersive, decade-long reporting project which became “Thy Neighbor’s Wife,” but from a female perspective. “While I think sex is titillating and I like reading about it,” Taddeo tells me, “[that book] was missing, for me, the emotional aspects . . . I wanted to get behind the act to figure out the emotion behind it.”

There are of course many other excellent books by women about women and sex. Many are memoirs, self-narrated by self-selecting subjects; some are about famous women, whose lives are already expected to be of interest. Or they are fiction, with the creative license it allows. Or specialized nonfiction, fitted within the neat framework of a marketplace niche.

But to read Taddeo’s intimate, unruly, complex and conflicted portraits of these unconnected women is to be reminded what a gift it is to read about women and sex from a third party writing with empathy and seriousness — not to pathologize them, fetishize them, or place them within some passing trend, but in an attempt to treat women as full, ordinary humans in such a way that just might split the world open a bit more for the reader. 

I spoke with Taddeo by phone recently about how she researched and wrote the book, and what sex writing is missing today. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

How did you find these women? How much time did you spend with them? 

I drove across the country six times. It was over the course of eight and a half, nine years. I was looking for men, women, all genders, all races.

I was looking for compelling stories, but mostly for people who were going to be super honest with me about desire and really let me get embedded in it.

At first I was trying to talk to many people for an hour at a time, to get a sort of cross-section of desire in America. It just wasn’t working.

I started to decided that I needed to go in-depth, and so I drove across the country.  I posted these signs all over the country looking for compelling stories of desire.

The main thing that’s difficult about that is you don’t know what to tell somebody. If you’re interviewing somebody about, I don’t know, their rubber company, it’s like, OK, then how do you make the rubber? It’s very straightforward. It’s matter of fact. You can talk about their lives around the rubber factory, but at the end of the day you know you’re talking about rubber.

I spoke to a number of people; hundr of people. I would just kind of say something like, “I don’t know how much you’re going to be a part of this book and I don’t know what the book’s really about. It’s about desire, but I don’t know how. I don’t know if you’re going to be a section or a paragraph or a whole book.” It was difficult. I think the first real thing that I did for the book besides the cross-country trips was moving to Indiana.

What took you to Indiana in the first place, and how long were you there?

I had gone to this specific place in Indiana, to the Kinsey Institute, since they studied sex. I was trying to figure out a scientific way to begin something that utterly lacked a nucleus. I met this doctor who was working with some Kinsey researchers and he was conducting these hormone treatments on women who were losing weight and feeling sexy. I was really interested in the women and in how they felt.

The doctor was telling me that he was going to ask them if any of them wanted to talk to me.  I spoke to one of them on the phone. It ended up being Lina. When I heard her on the phone, I was just like, oh my gosh, this woman is so interesting. She hadn’t told me anything yet. She was just so honest, and it was the first real honest person I had spoken to. Everyone [else] had a horse in the race, kind of.

I moved to Indiana for this.  I started this discussion group, which is where I met Lina face to face the first time. The first time she walked in, I [thought] oh my God, this is going to be the first person.

I didn’t know what it was going to be, but I knew that she was going to be it. That was the beginning, so I lived there for about two years.

That’s going in deep. Two out of the three women live in places that are very rarely written about in this kind of way. North Dakota and rural Indiana are places where maybe, at best, there are stories written about why people voted for Donald Trump, and then the reporter leaves. 

Among the many things that made your book feel so different is that two-thirds of it is set outside of coastal affluence. Do you think that that made a difference?

I wanted a wide ranging swath of people. I wanted someone from the rural middle of the country. I wanted someone from an affluent part. I wanted an African American woman. I just wanted it to be as diverse as possible. I’m happy about the socioeconomic diversity. In the end, though, I think the three women who remain are the most compelling of all the people to me. One of the reasons is because they’re the ones who gave me as much as they did. Nobody else gave me that much.

I moved to other people’s communities, multiple times. I would follow these other people. For example, I moved to this one community for a young queer man who was also a life coach. That was the main reason I moved to this town. He was fine, but he wasn’t giving me enough. There’s a lot of things that people do when it comes to desire and sex. They’re like, “Oh, yeah, this was great and then this was amazing.” It’s really hard to talk about the parts of that desire that are difficult, which I often think are the parts that are the most passionate.

Whenever somebody started  not going as deep . . . I would notice this sort of glimmer of reticence, and that’s when I would lose interest. Or it was a mutual losing of interest.

One one hand we’re living in an overshare moment right now. There are a lot of people who really want to go on reality TV, or who are sort of performing a version of their lives on social media all the time in a way that 20 years ago was not a thing. And yet at the same time, the willingness to be really honest is maybe not there for a lot of people because we’re so attuned to how we might be perceived by an audience.I don’t know if you had a conversation with Maggie and Lina and Sloane about this, but why were they willing to give you so much of themselves in these stories?

I think that they each wanted someone to listen. Specifically with Maggie, she wanted to correct the record and also I think help people, young women like herself. She is now a social worker and doing really well. I think she wanted people to have a guidebook for what had happened to her when she was a younger woman. She wanted someone to tell her story. Even though I’m the one who approached her, she definitely wanted that.

With Lina, it was a little bit different but the same basic thing. She just wanted somebody to listen. I wanted somebody who would talk. It was kind of this perfect storm.

With Sloane, it was also similar. Nobody would really listen to Sloane. Sloan I think was, of the three women, the person who probably wanted to be heard the least, but also had no one to really talk to honestly about what was going on in her life, because of the judgment.

There are a few sort of uniting themes that I think say so much about our cultural attitudes toward women and desire, which are the judgment — and frequently, the judgment from other women toward them that they all face in some way — and the fact that all three of these stories carry some element of sexual trauma behind them. It’s revealed late in Sloane’s story, and it’s foregrounded of course in Maggie’s, but then was also very much present in Lina’s story as well. 

Were you surprised to find that thread of sexual trauma throughout these stories? Or did that just confirm the suspicion that it’s a unifying theme across so many women‘s lives?

It was a unifying theme in a lot of women‘s lives. I don’t want to generalize, but I definitely feel like so many of our pasts shape our present and our desire.

When you talk to somebody for two years about just their sex lives, you will hear everything. The things that you’ll keep hearing are the things that are the most shaping. That’s what I found just from having so much access and having their truths being put on this chopping block every day. Things came out.

Yes, I do think we’re very unified by that, but I also think that if you talk to anybody for a certain amount of time, you’ll get the things that are the most painful or exciting or trenchant.

You’ve been working on this book in some form for about a decade. Now it’s come out, as we like to say, in the wake of #MeToo.

For a while there we were just inundated with powerful stories of how men have enacted their sexual desires, and desire for control and power over women, over and over and over. Where were you in the process of writing the book when that started, and did that affect or make you think about how you were shaping the book?

It didn’t. I was mostly done with the book by the time the #MeToo stuff was happening. I did go back and talk to each of the women. Sloane, I had not finished her story yet, and some things did happen to her that she treated differently post-#MeToo, which I thought was very interesting. Maggie, I think Maggie’s case would have gone very differently post-#MeToo.

My whole point for writing the book was to show that women don’t talk about their desire enough. #MeToo was like, this is what we don’t want. My book was this is what we do want, and this is what these three women want. It wasn’t about all women. I just wanted to open up the window into different people’s desires. People have been saying “ordinary women.” Yeah, they’re ordinary in the sense that they’re not celebrities, but we’re all ordinary, even celebrities. We’re all just human beings. That’s what I was looking to do.

In terms of #MeToo, I think it’s a vital movement. I wasn’t trying to make a statement about it in my book mostly because my book came before. I don’t think that’s the point of the book. There’s a zeitgeist going on and that’s great, and hopefully it will change the way that we look at what men and people in positions of power can do. I really do think that we’re moving in that direction. That said, there’s still this hangover of the patriarchy that a lot of women, and people in general, want to pretend that it’s not still there. Like, after this many years of feminism, aren’t we past that? Honestly, I spoke to hundr of people and I don’t think we’re past that.

Beyond that, I spoke to a lot of people in the middle of the country. I think when it comes to the coasts and the big cities, we can sort of look at the world in a certain way. Lina and all of her friends in Indiana did not, when I went back to talk to them, they didn’t know about it. They had heard something about a guy named Harvey Weinstein.

One of the reasons I moved to Indiana was because I was like, New York is great, but it’s too New York. Too much is happening that has nothing to do with the rest of the country. It both epitomizes the country and is the opposite of it at the same time. That’s why I wanted to get out of there.

Did you know that you were going to write in this very close third person point of view? I found it so effective — you are telling their stories almost as if you were recounting exactly how they told them to you, and yet there’s always that third-person remove, in which their names are written over and over, as if to remind us, this is not [the author’s] story, this is her story. 

I wanted it to be their voices. I wanted the whole book to have a unified voice, which was mine, but I also wanted each of their stories to very much speak for themselves and in their voices as much as I could. For example, I texted so much with Maggie. When Sloane emailed, her voice was very much in email. Lina would send me Facebook messages that were verbatim what had just happened with her and [her lover] Aiden. [I was] taking that and using it as much as possible to make it sound like they were telling their own stories in a way that they might not have been able to do, because it’s hard to access certain things. I wouldn’t have been able to do it for myself.

I was there for a lot of the things that I described, so I removed myself from the narrative because I thought that my presence was distracting.

There’s obviously a wealth of reporting and research in this book, but the storytelling doesn’t foreground the men’s accounts in their words. Is that just woven in into the background of it? Or did you consciously set out to only speak to the women and get their perspective on these stories?

A little bit of both. I tried to contact Aaron Knodel [Maggie’s teacher] multiple times because that was an important thing to do because it was a case and a child. He did not respond. I spoke to a lot of the people, some of the men who are mentioned. There were some men, like Aiden for example, who I would not even have considered asking because Lina would have stopped talking to me. It would have ruined her relationship, and it would have affected her trajectory, too. The book wouldn’t have happened if I did that. That’s one part of of one of the reasons I didn’t talk to Aiden for example.

It was about the women. It wasn’t like this he said, she said. It’s not like I was interested in nailing down everything: OK, when Lina was here, where were you standing, Aiden? This is Lina’s version of the story. This is the way Lina experienced this. We’re used to listening to men’s stories and the way that men experience things. It became very clearly and quickly about focusing it on the women.

I am curious about all of the other conversations that didn’t make it into the book. What were some of the memorable takeaways that you had from that? 

There were tons. There were multiple people that were super-interesting to me.

The largest section that I lost was this woman who — I still struggle to even talk about her now because I know how intensely freaked out she got toward the end of my research. She started seeing somebody that she fell in love with and was concerned about him finding out about her past.

There was one guy that I talked to for a long time who was a young man in a tourist spot and in the summers he would sleep with like three different new girls a night.

Wow.

Yeah, no, it was insane. He was the baseball star of the town. He was very charming and sweet. I went into this kind of anthropological detail, like I was a scientist studying the women. “OK, what did this one look like? How did that make you feel?” He’d be like, “It was great.” It was a lot of that. I wrote it all down and I was just like, this is not enough.

How good are Americans, in general and in your experience, at talking about sex and desire?

Not really good at all. We still live in a very puritanical country. I always think about the senators who say that men should not have gay sex and then they go home and they have gay sex. It’s just really striking to me that we’re still like that, that we say these hypocritical things every single day.

I think that there’s an element of people talking about sex when it’s just honest as far as what I did last night. In terms of how what I did last night made me feel? That is hard.

That’s why these three women, oh my God, when I found each of them, including the fourth woman who was also similarly amazing . . . and the fifth man who would have I think been a cool addition — he just became less interesting. The end of his narrative, I thought, it paled in comparison. As almost every story I had, to these [three] stories.

This book is not memoir, so therefore we’re getting the points of view of women who are not themselves writers and plumbing their own depths for their own artistic goals and ends. Also, there’s a difference in these stories and stories of the exciting and titillating and bizarre. What are we missing overall that makes a book like this feel like such a gigantic breath of fresh air, especially when it’s about such serious, deep emotional stuff?

Not doing it in a kind of puerile way, and having these people open themselves up to me to tell the story of human desire in such a very in-depth and granular way. I was looking for that for a decade, but I can’t believe that these people gave it to me. I’m endlessly grateful and shocked and awed and surprised.

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