What Does “Three Women” Tell Us about the Sexual Desires of White Women in America?

Lisa Taddeo's book seeks to explore women's sexuality through three very specific stories

Photo by Alexis Fauvet on Unsplash

Lisa Taddeo writes in the introduction to her #1 New York Times best selling, Three Women, “As I began to write this book about human desire, I thought I’d be drawn to the stories of men. Their yearnings.” Instead, Taddeo’s debut is about a teenage girl seduced and manipulated by a male teacher, a sexually-deprived housewife who has an affair, and an attractive, wealthy woman who is publicly scorned for having threesomes with her husband—stories we have heard before.

Three Women
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But Three Women lets these archetypes tell their own tale, revealing the deep desperation threading their actions—and also the joy, the loneliness, the urges, the conflict, the desire. The point is their desire, or as Taddeo writes in the voice of Maggie, the high-schooler who falls in love with her teacher, “…I loved him and then he didn’t love me back, but I felt like a loved thing anyway, and I felt sexy and pretty and like myself.” Taddeo, drawn to the “stories wherein desire was something that could not be controlled,” reveals the intimate complexity of pursuing female desire as well as the consequences of such pursuits. 

Lisa Taddeo is an author, journalist and two-time recipient of the Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared in Best American Political Writing and Best American Sports Writing anthologies. She was awarded the William Holodnok Fiction Prize and the Florence Engel Randall Award in fiction. 

Lisa Taddeo and I spoke about what goes into defining desire—identity, trauma, poor experiences with men, what happens when the world attempts to prevent women from pursuing their desires, and the lessons readers should learn after finishing Three Women.

Tyrese L Coleman: You mention in the introduction how you settled on profiling women and female desire in Three Women, and also in the epilogue a Dominican woman named Mallory who you had been working with but ultimately decided to pull out of being profiled for the book.

I am curious about how you selected the particular women in this book, specifically. Did you consider replacing Mallory or profiling any women who were not white, cisgendered, heterosexual women? If so, what did you consider in ultimately choosing not to? And did you have any concerns about profiling three heterosexual white women for a book examining such a broad topic as “desire”?

My novel speaks of these three people, their desire, the way their desire both aligns with our own, and diverges.

Lisa Taddeo:  I did not “select” the final three people, as much as they selected me. They did so by giving me the most of themselves, by not asking afterwards for whole sections to be removed. Many of the other subjects spanned the wide range of sexual proclivities, genders, races. Some wanted to stop talking completely. I told everyone with whom I spoke: ‘Tell me as much as you can, and then if, afterwards, you want to pull back, we can do that. Some who I’d spoken to for many months—who I’d been interested in not really because of their orientation and race, but really the depth of their experience in a divided and often-cruel country—took me up on that. And that was fine. It was difficult, to spend so much time writing about someone, moving to their parts of the country, and then have that work be killed. But these were also human beings, and I was sensitive to that. That was the whole point. Respecting these human beings’ experiences. 

Lina and Maggie and Sloane were the ones who let me into their hearts and minds and bedrooms. It wasn’t even because they were women. There was a man I was speaking to towards the end, so it wasn’t really about keeping only women. The point is that these three women do not stand or speak for all women, but they speak for themselves very loudly, and they were willing to do so. Imagine someone saying, I’m going to live in your community, and follow you around, and ask you questions about the depths of your soul. And then: PUBLISH THOSE FEELINGS. Sound good? 

TLC: How does Three Women speak to desire for those of us who are not white, cisgendered, heterosexual women? Do you think who we are and where we come from matters in terms of female desire? Is desire defined in any part by who we are and where we come from?

LT: It doesn’t speak for those of us who are not white, cisgendered, hetero women, as much as it doesn’t spoke for those of us who ARE. It speaks of these three people, their desire, the way their desire both aligns with our own, and diverges. Mostly, it speaks to judgment. It speaks to how women, specifically, are finally talking about what we DON’T want. But still not speaking about what we do. Because we are often judged when we do. By people who are supposed to listen. By our sisters. That was a prevalent thing I saw with the hundreds of people with whom I spoke; across all the states, across all orientations and races. We still judge. We just do it in the dark.

My hope is that people of all races and genders and orientations would see themselves in one, two, or all three of them. As I’ve heard from multiple women of color and different sexual orientations have told me they did. 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 and obviously, I’d hope that all people can relate to these issues, most specifically the judgment of others. 

TLC: Early on we find out that all three women have faced varying degrees of sexually-related trauma. How does desire, specifically sexual desire, manifest in the face of sexual trauma for these women, and for women, in general?

LT: You talk to anyone for more than a month—maybe even a week—you will hear the traumas and the passions that have shaped them. Sexual trauma was incredibly common, with almost everyone with whom I spoke. Did those people speak to me more, want to do so, because they had things to get off their chest? That’s likely. But yes, it does manifest, in all of us. Trauma, excitement. Of course, all of it shapes us. Our parents, our individual histories, our shared histories. That’s what makes a human, the accumulation of experiences, whether it’s a hundred tiny ones, or four truly big ones. 

TLC: Much of what shapes the stories in this book are the men in their lives. For Maggie, we see a young girl manipulated by an older man. For Lina, we see an affection-starved housewife willing to put up with a man who uses her so that she can find some human connection. And for Slone, we see a series of men, family members and her own husband, who aren’t willing to stand up for her when she needs it. How do their relationships with these men define the nature of their desire? 

LT: Obviously, I think it’s natural for that to be a takeaway. But it’s not the men, really, it’s not about them at all. It’s about what the women felt they were missing in their own lives. For Lina, having sex with Aidan—a man who by most counts was not treating her with respect—was the first time in her WHOLE LIFE that she felt like she was living inside her own body. That she was connecting with her own needs as a living being.  She’d been group-raped as a young woman, and then bodily-abandoned by her husband for a decade. Now here she was, communing with her own body, her own spirituality, for the first real time ever. It wasn’t about Aidan; he was merely a conduit. 

We are the heroes or the victims of our narratives, of our own desires, depending on the day, depending even on the hour of the day.

I say the same thing about my mother. The man who maybe beat her, who likely sexually assaulted her—she wasn’t as scared of him as she was fearful of not having the money to see her own mother as she was dying. 

Did rape and mistreatment affect these women? Of course. Did their own mothers and fathers affect their sexual identity? Of course. All of it did. 

But it’s not men, per se. It’s all of it. If a woman is hetero, you would say a man has shaped her desire at some point. If a woman is gay, you would say other women have shaped her desires. But so too might you say that men have shaped gay womens’ desires and other women have shaped women’s desires. It’s all a great big soup. It all manifests. Some positive, some negative. There are moments of great passion in these women’s lives. That’s in there, too. Just because negative aspects come with those passions, that doesn’t mean the women are broken. It means they are alive. We are the heroes or the victims of our narratives, of our own desires, depending on the day, depending even on the hour of the day.  

TLC: In the epilogue, you talk about what each woman wants: Lina wants a partner, Maggie wanted to be loved, but no longer wants in the same way since the trial, and Sloane wants her husband “above all others.” That said, those “smaller” goals are code for: They want to be seen and loved for who they are, and not disregarded, not unseen.The way that, I think, all of us do. You also say, “It felt as though, with desire, nobody wanted anyone else, particularly a woman to feel it.” I see the book as a discussion of this denial, how the people in their lives actively tried to prevent these women from getting what they want.

LT: Yes, exactly. I think the world is afraid of women getting what they want. We are OK with male competition. Two lions in the plains. It’s biologically and sociologically OK. Even admirable. Women—we see competition as catty. That’s what I saw with nearly every woman with whom I spoke. Either they thought female competition was catty. Or they were the victims of people thinking they were catty when they competed with other women. 

I always think of that Muriel Rukeyser line: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”

TLC: In your Time interview, you say, “I’m confused by anyone who thinks the book should have a message. I am not in a position to offer a message. I am as confused about the state of passion as anyone else. I wanted to tell stories, to delve deeply into these stories, to find people who would let me plumb their depths. The book is not a message but a story.” So what are you hoping readers ascertain or walk away with when they finish reading Three Women? What new or different information are you hoping they have about female desire?  

LT: That we need to stop judging when one person tells the truth about what they want. That we all want to be seen for who we are. That it’s now OK to talk about what we don’t want. But we still get squeamish—even angry—when we hear somebody talking about what we do want. That calling other women victims, that judging their choices, is the most victimizing thing we can do to one another, as a gender. That if we continue to do that, to, in essence, to propagate the patriarchy on our own quieter (often crueler) terms, we are only blocking female ascension. We are on the same pitch as the men who continue to decide our reproductive rights. But when women block other women by judging, it can be even more frightening, because we don’t see it coming. We don’t expect someone who is supposed to want the same thing as us, to handicap us. 

To do that, I wanted to be the conduit for these women’s stories. When a friend of mine, early in my process, called Lina’s situation “pathetic,” one of my goals was to intimately describe what she was feeling  so that that same friend—so that others in general—could see it wasn’t pathetic. To be raped and abandoned and then want to feel ALIVE. How in the world can someone (who wants to be kind in the world) call that pathetic? 

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