What do you learn when you spend eight years talking to three women about sex? Kim Knight meets Lisa Taddeo, the author who forensically examined female desire.
Lisa Taddeo has never met a man who regretted having sex.
She has not, she concedes, spoken to every man on the planet. "But I spoke to many ... they might have regretted cheating on a partner or whatever, but that's just a regret in terms of not hurting anyone. If it was just a one-night stand that everybody was okay with? Then no, they did not regret it at all."
Compare and contrast.
"For centuries, we have been conditioned to be okay with men's desire," says Taddeo. "To even nurture it. With women, we are not able to do that. Or we don't do that, rather. When we see men fighting for another woman or a job, they're looked at like lions in the wild. When women do it, it's more like cats. They're being catty.
"We have been okay with the male gaze. Things are changing, but we've been objects for so long and now we're trying to be the opposite. I think that's difficult for people to deal with."
Female sexual desire is the raw and bloody heart of Taddeo's book, Three Women. The true and forensically detailed sex lives of a trio of so-called "ordinary" women are traversed: Rape, first encounters, group sex, infidelity, passionless marriages and the court action one of her subjects takes (and loses) against a former high school teacher in small town North Dakota.
Taddeo spent eight years interviewing the women in this book. She crossed the United States, collecting their emails, reading their diaries, even moving to their home towns. She developed relationships so intense, it appears there was nothing she couldn't ask them. Meet Lina. Her mother is cooking meatloaf, she has a blood orange pimple in the middle of her forehead, she is 15 and wore jean shorts on the night she had her first romantic kiss. Years later, Lina drives to a layby near a river to have sex with a man who is not her husband. Taddeo describes the place like she was there. Actually, she was, just a little later in the day.
"I wanted the atmosphere," she says. "If I'm going to describe what she felt, besides asking her, I can describe it really well by seeing the trees and treeline. It's just extra, it's just making sure I have it right."
Taddeo is a journalist and this is her first book. "I care about the minutiae," she says.
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She was supposed to appear at the Auckland Writers Festival, and we speak on the phone ahead of the event that would eventually fall to coronavirus restrictions. Taddeo is in Connecticut and the Covid-19 news from America is getting grimmer and grimmer. Here, we don't know we are days away from a national lockdown. Eventually, the Writers Festival will be reimagined as a digital event. And, in the meantime, we can still read books. Still wonder how - and why - they were made. Confined to home, I email Taddeo a handful of follow-up questions.
"I remember speaking to you from outside my office where I was having lunch delivered," she replies. "And the woman left the bag on the street and I left her the money under a rock. And I thought, 'Are she and I being too much?' And now, I suppose we weren't."
Three Women is the story of three specific women that has been lauded as the story of Every Woman. It examines who has the power and it puts choice on a pedestal. It details how Maggie found the strength to take her teacher to court; how Lina felt mandated to look for pleasure outside her marriage; how Sloane processes the repercussions of having sex with someone else's husband while her own watches. Choice emerges as the Holy Grail. But what happens when there is no choice? When a pandemic traps you in your own home?
"I have been thinking a lot about women in abusive relationships who cannot in any way escape the terror," says Taddeo. "That there is currently no respite, nowhere to turn, no playground or mall or job to escape to. Many of us are experiencing difficulties in our relationships, but for me the ones I can't get out of my head are those women quarantined not in their homes, but in their nightmares."
I wonder, what is the role of sex in a crisis? And what might we be learning about following our heart's desires while we still had a chance?
"I think that Lina, the homemaker in Indiana in my book, I think that she followed her heart's desire to a point that many people derided her," says Taddeo. "She was, in a sense, quarantined in the life with the husband who did not want to kiss her on the mouth. But she burst free, she fought for her right to thrall and passion and love. I think that during these times, we will look forward to the outside world, to the things that we shied away from before."
When it comes to desire, says Taddeo, "I think women just want to be seen for who they are and loved for who they are."
The other theme that emerged from her research was "the weight their mothers had on their past. It dictated, in many ways, how they felt about their beauty. The way they walked around men, or other women, or whoever they desired".
Taddeo's parents were killed in a car accident; she has a daughter, Fox, and is married to screenwriter Jackson Waite. Three Women opens with a story about her mother - and the serial masturbator who followed her to work every morning. From the prologue: "As I began to write this book, a book about human desire, I thought I'd be drawn to the stories of men. Their yearnings. The way they could overturn an empire for a girl on a bended knee ... "
But, "the men's stories began to bleed together ... mostly, the stories ended in the stammering pulses of orgasm. And whereas the man's throttle died in the closing salvo of the orgasm, I found that the woman's was often just the beginning".
Taddeo's descriptions of bodies and what they do are highly detailed. It's hard to reconcile that with her declaration that she, herself, is "prudish in many senses".
Threesomes? "I have quite a normal marriage."
The thing is: "I just don't have the - I don't think I can deal with - I'm just not - I'm a very - I wouldn't you know, I wouldn't be able …"
She finishes, finally, in a rush. "I'm just not cool in a lot of ways like that. I spoke to so many women who were so cool and I don't know what cool means to others but for me it means somebody that isn't afraid of everything, and I mean, literally. I think 95 per cent of the people I spoke to I found to be more interesting than me in these matters."
Actually, she thinks we might all be surprised if we really asked our friends about sex.
"Like, I read something that someone I knew wrote. And I was like, 'Holy shit, I didn't know you did stuff like that?' That happens a lot. We don't know what our friends do behind closed doors. And I love to hear - I'm prudish in my own life, but I love hearing about it ... anyone who says they don't want to hear about sex stuff is lying."
She is surprised at the popularity of her book. (The hype is huge and star-studded - Oprah Magazine called it "an instant feminist classic"; Gwyneth Paltrow said: "I literally could not put it down.").
"I didn't think it was going to be widely read," says Taddeo. "I thought it might be emotionally resonant to some people, but I didn't think it was going to be read by that many."
The three women of the title all read a draft version and, says Taddeo, they could have made changes.
"They mostly added things, they didn't really take anything out ... I think it was [American journalist and author] Janet Malcolm who said when the subject is telling you things, they have the power. They can decide what to tell you. And then, when the writer writes the story, they then have the power. That's something I always think about. I always try to mitigate the amount of 'power' I wield."
Someone I know read the book and said they got bored, but I think, even before you consider Taddeo's sheer commitment to journalism (eight years?!), the writing is glorious. Taddeo's women are women you know. Consider Sloane: "She went to the same party so many times that she was able to perfect her public persona." Here's her description of Maggie May Wilken in court: "You swish your long, thought-out hair."
Of course, these are not "ordinary" women. Taddeo writes that everyone has been involved with a man "who has brought them to utter recklessness". She had multiple false starts finding women who were at a point in their lives when they could talk about that.
"These women were having certain moments of passion and pain. You know, Maggie has just ended a trial, it has just happened. So she was dealing with the fallout of him being found innocent and her being called a whore in the street. Maggie wanted me to tell her story. It has given her closure ... she's got letters from all over the country and the world, thanking her.
"With Lina, she also just wanted to talk. She wanted someone to listen, she wanted to talk as much as I wanted to listen and we became close. We still are close. I still talk to all of them."
Three Women by Lisa Taddeo (Bloomsbury, $35). Lisa Taddeo will be one of the guests at the Auckland Writers Festival's virtual Winter 2020 Series. See the Canvas Essential Guide for more.