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Exclusive: Lisa Taddeo, author of Three Women, talks judgement, desire and bad orgasms

Lisa Taddeo spent eight years following the complicated sex lives and hidden desires of three women. Here, she tells Stylist’s Hannah Keegan what she learned.

Lisa Taddeo was writing an Untitled Book About Sex and had come looking for advice. Some kind, wise words. The man in the 20-piece-suit told her that if she wanted her book to be good, even come close to his - it could never be as good, of course - then she’d have to sleep with some married men. Record everything. Take lots of notes. This was non-negotiable. 

The man was the legendary journalist Gay Talese and the book he was referring to was Thy Neighbour’s Wife published in 1981, in which he’d moved into – and participated in - a swingers resort. It broke the record for the largest amount to ever be paid for the film rights to a book ($2.5 million) at the time. But Taddeo wasn’t about to become the other woman.

She left his grand, ivy-covered townhouse feeling like a failure. She lacked intensity, she told herself, commitment. Her book Three Women, published 9 July by Bloomsbury, proves Talese wrong on an epic level. Taddeo spent eight years collecting hundreds of people’s stories of sex and desire. She drove across America six times in doing this. 

She stuck posters up looking for participants in almost every state (they looked like the US cover of the book, if you’re curious). She visited the ‘porn castle’ in San Francisco (owned by a company called kink.com), where she watched a woman direct a scene with her girlfriend and a man then shrug that it was really no big deal; wrote to a man who was sex addict; moved into the neighbourhoods of her subjects for years at a time.

She whittled these stories down to the just three; and these are the women we hear about in the book: Maggie, Lina and Sloane. Maggie is a 23-year-old woman who’s prosecuting her high school teacher. A man who first placed post-its in her copy of Twilight, then kissed her, then groped her when she was 16. In the years in-between, her father has killed himself and she feels like a mess. 

Lina is a married housewife whose husband refuses to kiss her on the mouth; something her therapist tells her is totally fine. Normal! She tracks down her high school sweetheart and gets involved in a complicated affair. And Sloane is a moneyed restaurateur with a “sorority girl’s” face. Her husband likes to watch her have sex with other men and she doesn’t mind it either. 

We learn about these women’s most private thoughts, hidden shame and that, ultimately, it’s other women’s opinions of them that hurts more than any man’s. “We can make each other feel dowdy, whorish, unclean, unloved, not beautiful,” Taddeo writes.

The praise for this book is ever-mounting. Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Love, Pray) called it the best book of the year; Gillian Anderson said she’d never forget the women; Gwyneth Paltrow said it was “an unflinching  dissection of female desire so poetically described, I forgot it was non-fiction” in an Instagram post. She isn’t wrong. You’ll have to remind yourself these stories aren’t conjured straight from the writer’s imagination. They’re described with the emotional ferocity and lyrical prose of a really good novel.

Maggie, Lina and Sloane’s stories are bookended by the tale of Taddeo’s own mother; a very beautiful, very passive woman. When she was young, a man used to follow her to work every day masturbating and she’d allow him to, which didn’t seem at all that strange to Taddeo given her nature. She recalls it was her father’s overt attraction to her mother that prompted her interest in finding out what the hell desire was anyway. “It seemed that her sexuality was merely a trail in the woods; the unmarked kind that is made by boots trampling tall grass,” she writes, “and the boots belonged to my father”.

Here, in an interview with Stylist, Taddeo talks about women judging women, bad orgasms and what it means to be a Lina. 

When did you decide you wanted this book to be about female desire?

I didn’t. I never stopped talking to men, but I found that women were more interesting. When I handed the first draft of the book into my editor there was about 15 people; across the board in terms of gender, race, sexuality. But Lina, Maggie and Sloane were the three that gave me the most of themselves.

Why did you find the women more interesting?

In the movie Manhatten Woody Allen says there is no such thing as a bad orgasm. And I don’t think that’s true for women. When Maggie had her first orgasm with a sexual partner she felt dead. The French call it la petite mort: the little death. It was an impalement, a feeling of nothingness for her. But for men it’s the opposite. They have an orgasm and fall asleep happy, but the woman is like, what now? There’s just a lot more going on. And that’s what I found across hundreds of people.

How did you find the final three?

I found Lina by starting a discussion group in Indiana. She was a patient of a doctor I knew. I read about Maggie’s case. And when I moved into Sloane’s town, people would say to me, oh, you’re doing a book about sex? You should talk to her. They’d tell me she is a swinger, but, even more interesting than that, her husband wants to have sex with her every day and not only does she allow it, but she enjoys it. Other women were so angry about the notion of a woman having sex with her husband and enjoying it. So angry! I think I was intrigued by that judgment. I was interested in that about all three of them: the judgement they faced. 

Lisa Taddeo Three Women
Lisa Taddeo with her book Three Women

What did you learn about the way women judge each other?

I think there’s a lot of jealousy. A ton. I think it comes down to the idea that we’re not allowed to want. With Lina, for example, other women felt that you have a house, you have a husband who has a good job, you have two kids. You should be happy. And the fact that you want more than that is not ok. There’s a sense that you don’t deserve more; you have enough! There’s a certain allotment each of us have. And when it’s not jealousy, it’s our own shame.

Is desire always wrapped up with shame?

Totally. There’s shame and then there’s a fear of not getting what you want. If I said that I want my book to sell 20 copies today, for example, and then it didn’t, people would be like oh you didn’t get that ha ha. People can be dicks and it’s just a fact.

Did you find that fear manifested differently in men and women?

It’s more specific to women. I found that men will say what they want and they aren’t afraid of not getting it. They’ll announce their desire. There was this time - I’ll never forget it - I was at an event with this really good looking, somewhat famous guy. I said “I’m gonna sleep with him” to this other women that I didn’t know. I don’t know why I said it; I’m sure I was drinking. Her response was “no, no you’re not”. She wasn’t curious as to why I said it, she just wanted to let me know that I couldn’t. It’s something I’ve thought about ever since.

Beauty is a big part of Sloane’s story and your mother’s, too. What did you learn about it?

My mom was vain. She was very concerned with getting older. And Sloane is too. Sloane is a very intelligent woman, and an entrepreneur, so it’s not like she’s only valued for her looks but it was a huge part of the way that other people saw her. And my mom, too. She was the prettiest girl in her town. The way they viewed beauty was that it was important for them to maintain it and the evanescent of it was scary. And then there’s the women who aren’t seen for their beauty. Lina had a lot of issues about wanting to look beautiful; and it wasn’t about losing beauty, it was about never having it. And Maggie too; even though she’s a beautiful girl.

But I’m saying she’s beautiful, and what does that even mean? Does it mean that a man has said she’s beautiful? I remember being so shocked when I found out who the guy I liked in high school had a crush on. It was not who I expected. It was the Jennifer Garner and not the Megan Fox, you know? But then I thought, well, I guess this girl is prettier than I thought.

It came across that Sloane was almost harder to shame because she had this thing; she had her beauty.

Yeah and people would try to shame her more because of it. I think that women dress up for other women, I also think they dress up for men so that men will like them and then other women will see men liking them. There’s a lot of sh*t going on. And I don’t think we talk about it. And when we do talk about beauty and the value of it, then you get women who are like oh, you shouldn’t care about that, and so what if you do? Some of us do. Some of us don’t. Most of us do, because we’re biologically attuned to. 

What would you tell the women about the book when you first met them?

Well, I didn’t know what I was doing, so I’d tell them I don’t know what I’m writing about: it’s about sex, it’s about power, it’s about desire. I don’t know if you’re going to be a chapter or a page or an entire book or if I’ll use you at all. But I’m here.

Did it take a while for them to open up?

It was instantaneous with Lina because she wanted someone to listen. It took a little longer with Sloane and the longest with Maggie. But I also wasn’t waiting for them to trust me. I wasn’t trying to extract something from them. I’d say, you seem interesting, let me ask you some questions. If I felt any pull back, which I felt from a lot of people, I would say don’t worry about it. I don’t need to write about you. I wish I had strategies, but I didn’t.

What do they think of the book now?

Well, they’ve been through lots of rounds of it at this point because of the fact-checking process. Sloane said it made her feel cooler than she is, which I don’t think is true, I think she’s very cool. At first, it was very difficult for Maggie and her mom to read it - because of her father’s suicide; just reliving everything - but the other day she told me it had given her closure. That made me so happy. And Lina hasn’t read it and doesn’t want to. She’ll see something on social media and be like, wow, it looks like it’s going to do really well! And I’ll say, do you want to read it? And she’ll say no, I’m good, thanks! I think she will eventually, but I’ve asked her like five times at this point.

What was the hardest part to write?

Maggie’s dad dying because my father died. I felt I needed to be really careful about how I wrote it, but I also needed to be honest. I read the accident report of my father’s car accident and it ruined my life for three years. So I was cognisant of that aspect. And with Lina there were so many tough sections. There were so many sections I was just writing and crying. I would say 80% of the book was hard it that way.

Did you see anything of yourself in any of the women?

All three of them. Lina the most. I haven’t been as open about it, but I’ve felt those things and I’ve done various subverted versions of those things. It’s the hardest to say that’s who you are if you’re a Lina, but I feel I need to say it because I wrote it.

What do you hope women take away from this book?

Not to judge each other. Not to put unfair structures onto what other people do. And I hope men remember not to be indifferent to women’s desire. 

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