Author Lisa Taddeo sets the record straight on sex positivity, #MeToo, and why she's not Carrie Bradshaw.
The rapid-fire stimuli of the digital age often prevent us from lingering with complex stories long enough to empathize. In her first book, Three Women, Lisa Taddeo challenges this dangerous reality. Taddeo condenses eight years of three women’s relationships with desire into a few hundred pages, giving the reader a fighting chance at achieving a rare level of understanding. The book brings the reader into the lives of Lina: an unhappily married woman having an extramarital affair, Maggie: a young woman struggling after a relationship with her high school teacher, and Sloane: a woman in a mutually fulfilling marriage whose partner enjoys watching her sleep with other people.
Lisa Taddeo’s conversation with Document took place on a particularly harrowing morning after: that of her book release. Though this is Taddeo’s first book, she’s no stranger to the literary world. She has published essays and stories in Esquire, New York magazine, and The Sun, among other publications. She also has an MFA from Boston University and two Pushcart prizes. But Three Women, released by Simon and Schuster, is her first major release. This unique work of long-form journalism has produced quite the buzz as people interpret it as a saucy catch-all for the romantic and sexual experience of ‘the American woman,’ whatever that is. It’s been widely praised for its brutal intimacy with the three subjects and sometimes criticized for their lack of diversity. Below, Taddeo explains her true, titular intentions to profile three women and discusses her creative process and the book’s early reception.
Genevieve Shuster—So Three Women was released yesterday, how do you feel?
Lisa Taddeo—I feel okay. I feel good. It’s a lot. I’m usually much more used to, and comfortable in, the interviewer position so this is a little bit, you know. But I’m quite happy with having a really lovely reception and I’m grateful for everything.
Genevieve—This book was a bit of an odyssey to write. It was eight years of work, right?
Genevieve—Could you talk a little bit about that? Not only the mechanics of doing it but also what it felt like to commit to a project so totally for that long?
Lisa—I drove across the country six times posting up flyers, calling people, editors, lawyers, and doctors, going to the Kinsey Institute and various places that I thought would be the genesis of sex. And gradually I moved away from sex into wanting to explore desire and the content behind sex and, to answer how it felt, it was hard. It was definitely emotionally exhausting in just every way. I never thought it was going to happen. I never wanted to give up but I also did not think I was going to turn in anything that was going to get published.
“I wasn’t interested in doing a blanket, ‘this is what desire in America looks like.’ It might have started that way, but it really organically shifted to wanting to talk about individual stories that were going to give me as much as possible.”
Genevieve—Is there a moment or a day in the very long process that sticks out at all?
Lisa—The first thing that comes to mind, it’s not by any means the most emotionally revelatory thing, but I went to the Porn Castle in San Francisco, which is no longer there. It was this place where pornographic film was being produced.I was profiling a young woman who was queer and was having sex with men on set while her partner, another woman, was directing. And it was really interesting to me. The sex aspect of it was not what was compelling; I really wanted to get behind the aspect of what the director was feeling watching her partner having sex with men. I watched a variety of things that were interesting, and I kind of moved away from that only because I began to feel that the two women were very much like, ‘it’s work.’ It’s a job—and that’s great to hear—but at the same time it wasn’t really plumbing the depths of what I wanted to talk about. So that was probably the first experience that was great because I really got to talk to people in depth, and I was there for a while. But ultimately I realized that I really needed someone, not to talk about pain, although passion and pain I think are inextricably linked. So that was sort of the first place I felt I had achieved some glimmer of a start to the project but also where I realized what I wanted to pursue.
Genevieve—Yeah and continuing on that, about the intention of the book, to my understanding, it’s more desire which obviously is totally intertwined with sex. But I’m wondering how you feel about the fact that the headlines about you and the book in interviews are like ‘Lisa Taddeo on Sex!’ Does that misrepresent—
Lisa—You know, it’s troubling because I haven’t really been asked too many questions about sex, but I’m concerned about being—even though I’m older than Carrie Bradshaw—portrayed in that way in the media. I love Sex in the City like every single other human being in the world, but that’s not who I am. Not that there was anything wrong with what she was, but that’s just not me. What I wanted to do was write immersive journalism, and I wanted to write it about a topic that was largely unexplored from a female perspective, not about the sex acts that are fun. Like what I saw at the Porn Castle was really interesting and it would have been great for a chapter in a larger book about desire, but I wasn’t interested in doing a blanket, ‘this is what desire in America looks like.’ It might have started that way, but it really organically shifted to wanting to talk about individual stories that were going to give me as much as possible.
“There are women who are like, ‘Well, it’s all about men.’ And it’s not…Men are the stand in for what they’re looking for and finding in themselves.”
Genevieve—Completely. And speaking about coverage and reception of the book and maybe even the process of writing it, how do you feel that, for you—right now and throughout the process—woman and writer are intersecting? Because I think it can either be sort of empowering or sort of reductive to have people be like, ‘this amazing woman writer writing about women.’ Just wondering your thoughts on that.
Lisa—You know what’s so funny is that men’s perception on both the critical and the personal level has been incredibly supportive, and I think that’s largely because men are in this place where they’re like, ‘every tiny thing you want is okay;’ like they’re scared. And that’s fine and normal but it’s also, they kind of have to move away from judgement because they kind of can’t in this current age. But I also think it’s sort of rare. And what I found about everyone that I spoke to is that female judgement is shocking. There’s a cattiness involved—and I hate using the word, “catty.” It’s a cliché, and I don’t want to say it but it’s there, and a ton of the women I’ve spoke to and women I’ve heard from have been like, ‘Maggie’s story has made me feel seen. Lina’s story has made me feel seen,’ just a variety of that, ‘they’re inspirational and this helped me.’ And then there’s been a lot of women who are like, ‘Is this really the state of female desire? And are we really back to the 1950s?’ And, first of all, I wasn’t trying to do a representative of female desire.
I spent a lot of time in the middle of the country and ‘Me too’ is not verbiage that’s used there almost at all. In the big cities, yes. But in the smaller rural towns, it’s just not. It has nothing to do with them; it’s the way that different communities are. Like it’s how the Amish don’t drive. So it’s just this idea that because one woman or everyone that you know or all your friends are having sex the way that they should be having sex, that doesn’t mean that all people are having sex that way. The reason that Sloane is in there is because she has a happy marriage and is having sex in a cool way. But still there are women who are like, ‘Well, it’s all about men.’ And it’s not! it’s about these women finding themselves. Because they happen to be heterosexual, it is about men—not the men who are there—but men are the stand in for what they’re looking for and finding in themselves.
Genevieve—And going forward, how has the process of writing this book affected you. What are you taking away as a person?
Lisa—It’s taught me so much about myself in terms of judgement and in terms of empathy and one of the reasons I got so granular with it is because I felt that I would say blanket statements about Maggie or Lina and my friends or editors or whatever would say, ‘Oh god. That’s pathetic,’ or ‘Oh god, I can’t believe she did that.’ And I was like, no. This person did this or this person did that for the same reason that you—for the same reason that whoever I was talking to had done the same thing because I knew because they had told me about them.