I have feelings about this book. It’s graphic. Sometimes maybe too much so, though it bothers me I would say that. The subject is clear: female desire. But in truth, there’s nothing clear about desire. We want what we want—or don’t—for reasons we sometimes don’t know, for reasons that stem from harmful situations or events. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s complicated—desire is complicated, sex is complicated, and the implications of sex and how sex affects us throughout our lives is complicated.
Three Women follows three women for a span of eight years. Each woman’s story is different: Maggie had a sexual relationship with her high school teacher when she was a minor, then comes forward several years later when he’s named Teacher of the Year. Lina was raped at a high school party by multiple boys and is now in an unfulfilling marriage. Sloane’s brother asked when she was young if she wanted “to fool around” and she grew up in a cold home and now is married to a man who likes to watch her have sex with other people. These experiences formed these women. These experiences and the experiences came after affected the decisions they made, shaped the desire they now feel.
There are flaws inherent to the book, to be sure. All three women in this book are white. All three have homes, jobs, and some form of income. Two are Catholic. It’s a relatively small, privileged sample of women which is something Taddeo acknowledges up front. Maggie’s story was documented in the news and through court proceedings. Lina and Sloane are pseudonyms.
But the stories that are shared here are interesting, powerful, and important. The graphic, frank accounts of sexual activity weren’t what was interesting to me in this book. Rather, it was the dynamic that became clear: the experiences we have when we’re young, the things that happen to us without our consent, the feelings of joy or lust or inadequacy or shame etch themselves so deeply in our psyches that not only can we not escape, but we seek more, often, as comfort. And sometimes, too often, that comfort is what others judge us for, what sets us apart as “other.”
I found Taddo’s writing erudite, interesting. She didn’t editorialize or judge these women; she reported what she saw, what was shared with her. Still, it didn’t read as reportage to me. It read as memoir: personal, often raw. I appreciated the personal story she shared in the Prologue and Epilogue, a story about her mother and a man who expressed his desire for her in a most inappropriate way, a story about trying to feed her mother as she lay in the hospital dying.
But the real importance of this book, I think, is what Taddeo writes in the Prologue: “It’s the nuances of desire that hold the truth of who we are at our rawest moments. I set out to register the heat and sting of female want so that men and other women might more easily comprehend before they condemn. Because it’s the quotidian minutes of our lives that will go on forever, that will tell us who we were, who our neighbors and mothers were, when we were too diligent in thinking they were nothing like us.”
Maggie was a minor when her adult, male teacher sent inappropriate texts and seduced her into a physical relationship; yet people who knew Maggie said “she wanted it.” Who was she to stand up for herself, to put him on trial? Lina wanted more than a life with a nice house and a husband who paid the bills—who was she to want more? Sloane sometimes liked the physical pleasure of being with someone in addition to her husband—who was she to indulge that fantasy? These are the real questions that run through this book: can women speak up, want more, express their “want” without condemnation, without judgment?