What’s the difference between sex and desire? Sex sells. Sex is an extra spritz of perfume at the nape of your neck. It's a lipstick stain on a pillow. Sex, good or bad, is an act. Desire, though, is a little trickier to put your finger on. But author Lisa Taddeo aims to define this intangible feeling in her debut book, Three Women. “It’s the nuances of desire that hold the truth of who we are at our rawest moments,” Taddeo writes.
A instant celeb favourite and what The Telegraph called this “summer’s hottest read,” Taddeo explores the shades of sex and desire in a genuine piece of literary nonfiction that was reported over the course of eight years. She moved across the country and delved deep into the private lives of the people who are profiled in the book. There’s Maggie, the youngest, who shares that she was pursued by and developed relationships with older men as a teenager. Those men, who should have been her protectors, took advantage of her open heart. She ultimately takes her high school English teacher to trial for sexual encounters that she says took place during her senior year. Her real name is used in the book, as is her former teacher’s.
Then there’s Sloane, a sophisticated, East Coast restaurateur whose husband likes to watch her have sex with other people. Also profiled is Lina, a suburban Indiana homemaker and mother. Lina can't get her husband to show affection or even kiss her. She embarks on a clandestine affair with her high school boyfriend, which ultimately consumes her. Sloane and Lina’s identities are concealed.
Taddeo got her start as an editorial assistant at Golf Magazine, and later went on to write profiles for Esquire and New York Magazine, where she's touched upon lust and what people will do for sex. But her book is on another level. It uncovers her subject's deepest scars and reveals what makes their hearts pound in their chests.
Taddeo writes nonfiction that reads like fiction, thanks to precise details and immersive reporting on par with Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family, which was reported over 11 years. Taddeo’s publisher set out with the idea that Taddeo would reimagine Gay Talese's 1981 nonfiction tome Thy Neighbour’s Wife. This work depicts the people driving the American sexual revolution from the postwar period into the '70s. It profiles players, big and small, from Hugh Hefner to the people buying his magazine. But Alex Belth, a journalism archivist, and the editor of Esquire Classic and The Stacks Reader, says Taddeo’s book taps into something Talese’s didn’t.
"I don’t see it as a sequel, exactly, to Thy Neighbour’s Wife,” he says. “I see it as an intimate portrait of the sex lives of three particular women. Are they representative of something deeper? Of many women’s experiences? I should think, yes. But all? Of course not."
It’s true that the book doesn’t represent all voices. Most of these women are white and protestant, and the majority of the relationships are heterosexual. With that said, all of the women’s stories are told with heart, and they represent a feeling we can all relate to: The pull of desire. It can be sexy or it can be messy — but it’s always interesting. Taddeo tells Refinery29 that going after what you want usually pays off in the long run.
Refinery29: It’s incredibly refreshing to read a book that makes a woman's innermost thoughts the star of a show. When you set out to write it, how did you decide to focus on women's desires?
Lisa Taddeo: I wasn't really choosing women — I was choosing to tell these three stories. In the end, the reason we decided to make these three the only three was because their stories were just so much more immediate than the rest. The main thing is they had been the most honest with me, of all the people I spoke to — which was hundreds. And then eventually I whittled those hundred down to 20. Then there were 10 that I had either moved to be near or had spent a great amount of time with.
But these three people allowed me the most emotional access and tangible, physical access. And that's why their stories, I think, were the most resounding, and that's why they were the ones that we chose to feature.
R29: Do you think women are more open to giving the kind of intense emotional access you need to write a book like this?
Taddeo: Not exactly... With a lot of men that I spoke to, there was a little bit of bravado and ego that came into describing sexual desire and desire in general. It was a little less complex, I found... I thought I was going to be attracted to the narratives of men because it was the opposite gender from mine. I had been writing about men for Esquire, I had been thinking about the desire of men. But when I started looking at the desire of fellow women, I was learning more about myself and seeing how my stories and my friends' stories were reflected in these stories. And I found the relatability of that just so interesting.
R29: You chose to profile three very different women, but one unifying themes was how they were all ultimately judged — by both men and other women — for following their desire. Why do you think that is?
Taddeo: Ultimately, we all are either the heroes or the victims of our own narratives. When [we’re victims], we’ll be judged for not getting what we want… for being weak, instead of strong.
And then, when we're the heroes of our narratives, I think we can be looked at as wanting more than we deserve. Lina had this good marriage, a nice enough house. She had the trappings of what is considered a successful life. I talked to many of the members of her community. "Why do you want more? Why do you need to have an affair? Why is your husband not kissing you a big deal?" they would ask. One woman was like, "I don't want to have sex with my husband. You're lucky."
You know, there's a lot of judging and projecting one's own needs on other people.
R29: And how does judgment factor into us letting ourselves go after our desires?
Taddeo: I think that it certainly makes us edit ourselves in ways that thwart the journey towards that desire — whether it's emotional, sexual, or professional. Whatever one's biggest desire is at any given point in time. I think a lot of people are afraid to say it out loud. It's the dishonesty in the editing... Silence holds us back.
I would like it, if the book does anything for a reader, it's to come away thinking that we are all in pain at different points, and not in pain at different points. And, to not judge people, especially when they're laying their entire souls out and being honest. Listen and make them feel like it was the right idea to be truthful about what they want. Do not judge.
R29: I noticed that body image came into play pretty heavily in both Lina and Sloane's stories. Do you think that a woman's relationship to her body is related to her relationship with desire and sex?
Taddeo: Yeah, definitely. Obviously I've known plenty of women who I've talked to who do not care, and they're definitely more free-spirited when it comes to whatever way they look. But, for the most part, a lot of the women I spoke to did not feel comfortable — were not able to achieve orgasm, for example — if they weren't happy with the way that they looked when they were having sex.
For men, it's a lot more of an engagement with another body and sort of achieving this sexual pleasure, whereas for a woman, it's a lot about how she's seeing herself reflected in this other person… I think that women fall back in love with themselves when they're with a person who is loving their body or who they are. But I think that has a lot to do with the way that a woman sees herself before the man even comes into play.
R29: In Sloane's profile specifically, you wrote that it wasn't always her own desire that she was serving, but her husband’s — and the world’s. For Lina, you wrote that she came from “a place where women were taught their only real value was what they can do for someone else.” How does it hurt women when they put the desire of others before their own?
Taddeo: You know, I think that it's difficult, but also it's what women have been taught they need to do in order to keep a relationship. It's also a lot to do with our parents, and the way that we're raised, and the way that we watch our mothers with our fathers. It’s less about a woman's biology than it is about the way that we hand out a patriarchal idea of how women should act in relationships.
R29: Does desire always lead to drama?
Taddeo: We see desire and happiness, but we also see pain in the book. The reason we listen to any story or read any book is because we want there to be a dramatic arc to it. I think we similarly want there to be a dramatic arc to our own lives. Because if there wasn't, if we were just living in a sort of peaceful contentment, I don't know if that would really be something that — when we're on a rocking chair years from now — that we would be entirely happy with.
R29: Based on your earlier work, it seems like desire has always been a topic that you've been interested in. In a 2008 Esquire story, you wrote: "We misjudge the weight of our desire." After writing this book, how do you think desire weighs us down, and, perhaps, lifts us up.
Taddeo: One of the things that I gleaned from these women's stories — and from almost all of the people I spoke to for the book — was this. Even if someone has suffered at the hands of some passionate interlude, they would do it over again because of the way that the experience shaped them.
Ultimately, everyone imagines being on that rocking chair on a porch when they're 85, and being able to look at their life. And we remember things as good or bad that are really trenchant, hardcore experiences that made us who we are. Desire weighs us down. It also lifts us up, and I don't think we would change either aspect of it.
Responses have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.