Are Straight Women OK?
Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women is framed as a sweeping exploration of human desire, when it’s really just one more “relatable” narrative of straight women’s sexual despair.
In the epilogue of Lisa Taddeo’s new book, Three Women, Taddeo recounts the last bit of advice her mother ever gave her: “Don’t let them see you happy.”
“Who?” Taddeo asks.
“Everyone,” says her mother. She’s tired. She’s on her deathbed. “Other women, mostly.”
Three Women, a No. 1 New York Times bestseller this week, is a sprawling nonfiction account of three “ordinary” women’s sex lives, reported over nearly a decade. Taddeo bookends those narratives with personal stories about her mother, a beautiful Italian woman who grew up in poverty and whose own desire always seemed, to Taddeo, like “a strength or a weakness, but never its own pounding heart.” Now that her mother is gone, Taddeo will never know why her mother wanted what she wanted — if she even wanted much of anything at all. And thinking about her mother’s desire makes her reflect on what she, herself, has desired.
“I think about how much I have wanted from men,” she writes. “How much of that wanting was what I wanted from myself, from other women, even; how much of what I thought I wanted from a lover came from what I needed from my own mother. Because it’s women, in many of the stories I’ve heard, who have greater hold over other women than men have. We can make each other feel dowdy, whorish, unclean, unloved, not beautiful.” It’s the cruelty of women toward other women that fuels the book’s most significant inquiry.
But there’s plenty of male cruelty, too. Taddeo spent eight years embedding herself with three subjects from across the country, learning everything she possibly could about their hopes and fears, their most secret erotic selves. The result is a portrait of three women — all white, all (mostly) straight, all under the age of 50 — who have found themselves pulled into men’s orbits, only to be, at best, disappointed and disillusioned. At worst, they’ve nearly been annihilated.
Taddeo writes in the prologue that she initially embarked upon her project — documenting “human desire” — with the intent of speaking with men, but her male subjects’ stories seemed to reach their climax at the point of...literal climax. She found herself more compelled by the sexual stories of women, in which “there was complexity and beauty and violence.” In the end, she writes, those stories “came to stand for the whole of what longing in America looks like.”
That sweeping pronouncement — the whole of longing, in the whole of America! — seems especially dubious when you consider the demographic homogeneity of Taddeo’s subjects, chosen for their supposed “relatability.” Relatable to whom? Presumably to Taddeo herself, whose own deeply personal questions frame the book. Her use of a close third-person perspective throughout the alternating chapters makes the narrative read more like a semiautobiographical novel than a traditional piece of reported nonfiction. And Taddeo, in her selective reporting and sourcing process, constructed the project with a very particular (and limiting) focus on the misery of women being mistreated by men — and, apparently even worse, by other women.
Taddeo seems to have actively sought out women’s stories that would adhere to her own preconceptions. “Everything about the #MeToo movement is great,” she recently told Marie Claire, “but there is still judgment against other women” — implying that an exploration of that judgment was more of her project here. And there wouldn’t necessarily be anything wrong with that, if these three stories weren’t packaged for the purpose of illuminating all of “longing in America,” rather than a very narrow and particular slice of it.
As a review by Toni Bentley in the New York Times put it, this is ultimately “not a book about the vast terra infirma of female desire, but, rather, an excruciating exposé of the ongoing epidemic of female fragility and neediness in the romantic arena ... in spite of 10 to 15 minutes here and there of truly hot sex, a woman ‘in love’ is frequently a basket case.” A Longreads review from Francesca Giacco put it similarly in its title: “A Woman in Love Is a Woman Alone.”
Rather than unveiling any sweeping truths about the state of desire in our nation today, Three Women — and, even more so, the swirling conversation around it, about women’s loneliness and fragility and heartache and unhappiness — has made me wonder: Straight women, are you all OK out there??
Taddeo’s publisher, and other prominent authors, have compared her work to that of form-busting nonfiction writers like Truman Capote, Gay Talese, and J. Anthony Lukas. Fawning blurbs from Elizabeth Gilbert (“a literary masterpiece”), Caitlin Moran (“the In Cold Blood of women’s sexuality”), Dave Eggers (one of the “most important” books of the year), and, of all people, Gwyneth Paltrow (“I literally could not put it down”) have helped catapult Three Women into that sweet spot between flashpoint of feminist discourse and dishy summer beach read.
With over a thousand Goodreads ratings and counting, Three Women has earned the (relatively rare) distinction of just over four out of five stars, and the Amazon reviews are similarly positive. Critical reactions, which have been more mixed, include Giacco’s glowing Longreads write-up. “Like the women in this book, I have been inspired, infuriated, understood, challenged, surprised, and changed by men I’ve known,” Giacco writes. “My copy’s pages are underlined and notated with recognition.” It’s that sense of recognition — besides the base-level titillation you can reasonably expect from deep dives into three strangers’ sex lives — that seems to have spurred the book’s most passionate reception.
Surely, Taddeo’s subjects are “relatable” in the way that any human searching for love, pleasure, and belonging in the world is relatable. There’s Lina, a Midwestern wife whose husband refuses to kiss her on the mouth, who pursues a passionate affair (passionate on her end, at least) with a man she first dated in high school. There’s Sloane, a sexy entrepreneur in Newport, Rhode Island, whose husband likes to watch her have sex with other people (sometimes women, but mostly men). Most tragically — and compellingly — there’s Maggie, who alleges that her high school English teacher sexually preyed on her when she was his underage student. Maggie is Maggie Wilken, whose story played out in statewide headlines and came to a typically disappointing ending; Lina and Sloane are pseudonyms.
Taddeo seems to have actively sought out women’s stories that would adhere to her own preconceptions.
Like Giacco, I notated a few sections of the book myself, including one long, page-length, breathless paragraph toward the tail end of Sloane’s section, when she’s reflecting upon how she’s one of the lucky ones — a woman who actually likes, and likes fucking, her husband — and yet she’s still seething with misandrist rage just below the surface. If her husband screws up a routine errand, for example, “She can’t say anything. She could say, Thank you, but even that is wrong, because Thank you means that Sloane assumes he wouldn’t have done it otherwise, and even though he will never do something on his own he thinks he would. Or of course eventually he would do something. Like, if she were dead.”
Sloane’s litany of domestic complaints — which, according to Taddeo’s narrative, she stews over but doesn’t vocalize — recalls a widely shared recent New York Times article called “What ‘Good’ Dads Get Away With.” It seems as if a new viral version of this same article pops up every six months or so: Even progressive, well-meaning, “feminist” husbands and boyfriends in middle- and upper-middle-class straight couples are shirking household responsibilities and letting their partners shoulder most of the burden, regardless of those women’s own careers and passions and desires.
So many women I know saw themselves in that Times article, and are seeing themselves now in Sloane, Lina, and Maggie’s stories. I see bits of myself in them, too; I am, after all, a woman with a body in the world. It isn’t only the expectation to take on more domestic and emotional work in my past straight relationships that I relate to; I’ve also been demeaned and belittled and violated and plain old bored by the pedestrian desires of mediocre men. Ultimately, however, I didn’t read Three Women as a treatise on the state of human desire in America, or on the state of American Women Today.
Perhaps that’s in part due to Taddeo’s stylistic choices. As Lauren Oyler noted in her New Yorker review, “Taddeo’s view of women as both impossibly complicated and fundamentally constrained leads her to ascribe nonsense and clichés to them.” One of my favorite nonsense metaphors, from Taddeo’s prologue: “When the object of desire dictated the narrative, that was where I found the most magnificence, the most pain. It resembled pedaling a bicycle backwards, the agony and futility, and finally, the entry into another world altogether.” The agony of riding a bicycle...backwards? Into…another dimension???
Parul Sehgal, in her excellent review for the Times, speculated that “the faux-literary language seems larded on to distract from the book’s essential pessimism about power and conflict between men and women.” In some ways, that pessimism, as Sehgal notes, is Three Women’s “great strength.” If ever there were a time to be bummed out about the state of men’s and women’s relations, it is now, in the wake of the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, amid a wave of new (and barely acknowledged) sexual assault allegations against the president, and when, most recently, each day brings with it brand-new tales about alleged sex trafficker and serial rapist Jeffrey Epstein’s den of horrors.
Taddeo’s subjects are “relatable” in the way that any human searching for love, pleasure, and belonging in the world is relatable.
Three Women hews so closely to its subjects’ perspectives that there’s no real sense of the cultural atmosphere surrounding them (#MeToo is never mentioned), but all three stories still feel depressingly of the moment: the woman enraptured by great sex with a not-great guy; the woman who has compelling evidence that her teacher groomed her via an annotated copy of her Twilight book, calling himself her “vampire lover”; the woman who seemingly has it all but still has to put up with the selfishness and incompetence of men. All three have pasts blighted by sexual abuse. All three seem to be facing varyingly grim futures.
“None of the narratives in Three Women are inspirational or empowering,” writes Laura Miller in Slate, “but they are what the best long-form journalism should be, which is truthful.”
Ultimately, though, I found the pessimism at the heart of the book more alienating than enlightening — especially since, because of the style of Taddeo’s writing, it’s so hard to tease out where each subject’s stated point of view ends and where the author’s potentially hyperbolic flourishes begin. While I believe the book does present certain truths about these women’s lives, I don’t believe it necessarily presents the fullest truth.
The gulf between truth and more straightforward factuality in nonfiction is as wide as it is hotly contested. Though all three narratives in Three Women involve moments of triumph and happiness, even ecstasy, they all end where Taddeo has chosen to end them: with events based in fact, but strategically placed to suggest a bigger and messier “truth.” The real women behind the characters will keep on living, but their stories here culminate in moments of abandonment, worry, doubt, and despair.
The book, though seemingly written for the largest possible audience, seems to assume that men are a lost cause. Perhaps true; one of the top comments on Amazon is by a man who says he read the book because he wanted to know if all women are sexually repressed, and he was delighted to learn that these women, at least, are “aching for dirty sex, the kind men want, and that encourages me. There are women out there who are as sexually stoked as I am ... this is like reading porno.” The themes of women’s subjugation and violation seem to have really gotten through to him!
Men, particularly if they’re straight, white, wealthy, and powerful enough to conduct heinous acts in plain sight, can be monsters. But that’s old news. Taddeo seems far more interested in what her mother warned her about: the bitter jealousy and vicious, undermining behavior that some women can deploy against other women in the interest of getting what they want.
Pessimism about the state of men, I get. But am I really supposed to believe that the biggest threat to women’s sexual liberation in the United States today, in 2019, is...other women?
I found the pessimism at the heart of the book more alienating than enlightening.
Taddeo uses a clever device to construct one particular world of womanly scorn: Lina’s chapters are set during her visits to a women’s discussion group. (Reading the book without prior knowledge, you would assume the group had previously existed, but Taddeo was, in fact, the one who started it.) The nameless, tittering group members seem interested in hearing Lina’s sexy gossip, but that doesn’t mean they approve of her choices.
“I’m not in any pain when I’m with that man,” Lina tells them, once she’s started sleeping with her new lover. “And until you have felt my pain, you shouldn’t judge me. Women shouldn’t judge each other’s lives, if we haven’t been through each other’s fires.”
Maggie and Sloane, too, are tormented by the judgments of other women. Maggie, devastatingly, finds that her entire community has turned against her after she publicly accuses her former teacher, Aaron Knodel, of assault. Young women she thought were her friends testified against her in the criminal trial. After his exoneration, the school board voted unanimously to reinstate him in 2015, along with nearly a full year’s worth of back pay. On the morning he returned to school, Maggie and her brothers staged a protest and got booed and screamed at by passing cars of girls: “You’re the ugliest bitch I’ve ever seen and that’s why you’re crying rape!”
Sloane, too, sees her story come to an end with a climactic confrontation with another woman, perhaps the most significant one. Sloane’s husband, Richard, had selected Wes, a colleague and friend, for her to sleep with; throughout the affair, one of the best Sloane’s ever had in her life, she assumes that Wes’s wife, Jenny, must know about what her husband is getting up to. (She doesn’t.) The affair blows up, and a year later, Jenny asks if she and Sloane can finally talk.
“Why?” Jenny asks her. As in: Why’d you do it?
Sloane thinks about it, and concludes that she couldn’t tell Jenny the full story, which is that she wasn’t the initiator — “that it was Richard and Wes, always. That it wasn’t her desire, but mostly theirs, that she was serving.” She thinks about her own fantasy (which she also doesn’t dare tell Jenny about): making dinner while her children play quietly at the kitchen table, and Richard does the dishes without having been asked.
Here, again, it’s hard to tell where Sloane’s own testimony ends and Taddeo’s interpretations begin. Because earlier in the book, Sloane’s encounters with Wes and Richard did seem like her fantasy: “It was nice to fuck another man while her husband watched, approvingly. She never felt unclean. She felt loved. She felt that her and Richard’s desires had finally dovetailed in a way she hadn’t thought was possible.” Wes had brought an “unforeseen joy” into their marriage.
It’s easy to imagine that, suddenly feeling guilty, Sloane would cast the affair in a new light and attempt to downplay her own agency in all of it. But she can’t; she thinks she needs to protect her husband and Wes, even when Jenny says that women shouldn’t do horrible things to other women. “You let this happen,” Jenny said. “You’re the woman. Don’t you know you’re supposed to have the power?”
Am I really supposed to believe that the biggest threat to women’s sexual liberation in the United States today, in 2019, is...other women?
Sloane then thinks about all the ways in which she doesn’t have the power: She serves her husband’s desires in bed and his needs in their home; she’s starved herself to stay beautiful; her brother once asked her if she wanted to “mess around” when she was a child; her mother couldn’t love her the right way. But, Taddeo writes, “Sloane could not tell Jenny her own pain, because it was smaller than Jenny’s pain.”
It’s this apparently fundamental disconnect between women — their inability to forgo judgment of others because they haven’t, as Lina says, “been through each other’s fires” — that seems, to Taddeo, like the ultimate tragedy of human desire in the modern age. More so even than the nonsense metaphors, the book’s emphasis on this point is baffling to me.
Of course women can make each other feel bad, and sometimes do more damage to each other than men can. Maggie’s story is the most heartrending of the three in the book because she seems the least deserving of other women’s judgment; you can’t get much worse than vilifying a teenage assault victim for speaking her truth. But every adult woman with some degree of agency over her own choices — especially those with the privileges of whiteness, wealth, and beauty — shouldn’t necessarily be immune from the disapproving gazes of other women just for the sake of “sisterhood.”That sounds less like women’s empowerment and more like infantilization.
Establishing gender-based solidarity as the noblest goal for our society, or its absence as our most tragic failing, is a depressingly low bar. Shouldn’t we hope for a world in which each person, of any gender, can be free from subjugation and violence — and a world in which we can challenge each other, when those challenges are justified?
It seems as though Taddeo might, at one point in her reporting, have had a subject who wouldn’t only speak to woman-on-woman conflict, but also to woman-on-woman love and desire. She writes in the epilogue that she spent some time speaking with a woman from Dominica who “liked to sleep with black women and white men,” but “she dropped off because she fell in love and was afraid that talking about it would make it go away.”
But losing that one subject isn’t the only reason we don’t see much of women actually enjoying each other’s company (sexually or otherwise). Taddeo told GQ that when sourcing for the book, she’d talked to a lot of people who had positive threesome experiences with multiple genders. They told her they were sex positive, they set boundaries, they could trust their partners. “And I’m like, OK, but come on,” she thought. “Maybe these people are telling the truth, but I wanted to find someone who had a reaction to like what I would imagine I would have.” She was more drawn to someone like Sloane, who seems to enjoy her threesomes but is also jealous of the women her husband sleeps with, to the point that, during group sex, she’ll sometimes dissociate from her body.
Taddeo seems to have actively avoided subjects who aren’t as tortured by the male gaze or by other women’s judgment. She told Esquire that in San Francisco, she met a lesbian and her partner (she calls them “homosexuals”) who were respectively a director and an actor in straight porn. They told her that, while they were working, they could effectively “turn off” their feelings and focus on the job at hand. “But I wasn’t interested in people who just turned off,” Taddeo said. “I didn’t 100 percent believe that you could possibly turn off.” Here, Taddeo again selects her truths.
Bad sex is, of course, a fact of life. So is loneliness and fragility and heartache and unhappiness. But I’ve been surprised — and saddened — by books like Three Women and other similarly popular and “relatable” stories of women’s sexuality and physicality that focus so heavily on women’s disempowerment.
Two years ago, when Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person” — about a disastrous straight date — went viral, it was a bummer to see how many women publicly identified with the story’s arc of sexual misery. More recently, a viral New York Times opinion piece about how the “wellness” industry is just a “function of the patriarchal beauty standard” revealed still more women who are punishing their bodies — and punishing other women — for the sake of the male gaze.
Maybe what I find so dispiriting is that the people who “relate” so hard to stories like this (including, seemingly, Taddeo herself) also tend to be the women who have the best chance out of all of us of demanding and receiving better treatment, in regards to sex and far beyond it. They’re straight, white, financially comfortable; they’re thin and healthy; they’re smart and young. These are women, I would think, with the whole world at their feet.
I’ve actually spent a good deal of time this summer wondering if privileged straight women are OK: while watching the new season of Big Little Lies, in which the complex web of female camaraderie and solidarity established last season has fallen apart in poorly written episodes that don’t do justice to what I’d believed about these women’s relationships; while watching Ari Aster’s Midsommar, in which poor Florence Pugh’s character has a heartily cathartic screamfest with female cult members when faced with the actions of her dumb, shitty boyfriend; while reading Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s fabulous new novel, Fleishman Is in Trouble, in which straight marriage seems just as ghastly as I’ve always imagined it to be.
Queer desire is still not considered representative, apparently, of “human desire.”
I was reminded, when I finished Three Women, of discussing the first season of Girls in a college senior seminar about women in film. We were debating the merits and pitfalls of the show’s sex scenes, which portrayed sex as awkward and bad and, sometimes, as borderline assault. My professor asked the roomful of millennials, pityingly: “Guys, is this really the kind of sex you’re all having?”
It was, basically. At least in my case. (I was still identifying as straight at the time, which was a significant part of the issue.) But neither was bad sex my whole truth. Even when I still dated men, I had plenty of moments of clarity and tenderness and joy and real, human connection. And now that I have sex with women, a whole other universe has opened itself up to me. I’ve gotta tell you all, gay sex is where it’s at. But queer desire is still not considered representative, apparently, of “human desire.” Neither is the complicated range of friendship, love, and passion between women of all sexual orientations, which — despite the impression you might get from Three Women — does occasionally unfold between us when we’re not busy judging and envying each other.
The problem might be that for Taddeo, and for other readers and creators alike, good sex and good love — which doesn’t have to mean perfect, or good all the time — is just not as interesting or as profound.
“Some people have asked me why the book is glum, why the women are glum,” Taddeo told Katie Couric at her book launch. “Three Women is a study of trauma to the extent that life is a study of trauma. Trauma is a part of passion, even if the passion endures. At length, someone dies, or someone will die.”
That connection between sex and death was also what compelled Toni Bentley, according to her review: “Our grand passions ... are what we will remember on our deathbeds as the moments when we were most alive. Deep eros plunges one face to face with death, here, now. But is the price we pay worth it?”
I wonder how much some women might be missing out on when we ascribe so much literary and spiritual significance to passionate, dramatic tales of “doomed” love. Shouldn’t there be more to love, and passion, and desire, and human connection, than...this? I’d still like to hope so. ●