Sexual desire and the myriad of ways it can be expressed has always drawn inexplicable controversy for women in particular — both through fiction and non-fiction. We are primed from a young age, through films and books and television, to assume that any woman who is sexually dominant is deviant, that any woman who enjoys sex is promiscuous, and that any woman who isn’t heterosexual is confused. Thankfully, we are seeing a slow turn of the tide, as more people start to consider such things empathetically rather than from the depths of a crowd they’ve been caught in. This book, I think, will be pivotal going forward.
Three Women, which can hold its own with the best of them in modern literary fiction, is an intimate look at the lives of three very real women. Though Lisa Taddeo compiled their experiences into a single book, the words, thoughts, and encounters are entirely their own. It is a book about how very little trust women put into their own power when it comes to their sexuality, their gender, their decisions. It is about how society does everything in its power to tamp down those who slowly realize they have a voice, and use it. It is about the power of persuasion, the subtleties or power dynamics and the importance of intimacy in keeping us sane. These women are not characters on a page, they are tangible, flawed, living, breathing human beings.
Maggie is a young woman in the middle of legal proceedings, where she has taken her high school English teacher to court for having groomed and sexually used her when she was a seventeen-year-old student in his care. The events happened six years prior, and much of the proof that could have bolstered her case — text messages, phone conversations, outings—- are gone, mostly due to her teachers’ foresight at the time to have her remove them from her phone.
Lina is actively having an affair with her high school sweetheart, a boy who had broken up with her years before graduation, after rumours had spread that she was sleeping around. In reality, Lina had been drugged and raped by three older boys at a party. The repercussions of that event have carried through to her adulthood, where she is now heavily medicated for everything from depression to fibromyalgia, and in a dead-end marriage to a man who won’t even kiss her, let alone initiate sex.
Sloane is clever, charismatic, and powerful. Born from money, she owns a successful restaurant with her husband and lives the life of the rich, white, and beautiful. But behind closed doors, Sloane exercises obsessively, determined to keep herself svelte now that her eating disorder has been discovered. She sleeps with other men because it turns her husband on to watch her do it, and isn’t sure who she is anymore.
This is far from an easy book, and it isn’t an erotic exploration of the female form. If anything, it unsexualizes the sex. It puts it into perspective as just another aspect of someone’s personality, just another thing that goes into making up a person, as simple as the colour of their hair or the shoes they wear to work.
What I found most extraordinary about this book was just how quickly I judged these women, and just how closely I could relate to every single one of them. It immediately put into perspective for me just how much power societal standards of normalcy still have over me, despite my determination to educate myself and broaden my outlook. I grew up believing that sex before marriage was wrong and slutty, without knowing why. I grew up believing that once you get married — to a man, of course — it’s for life, even though my own parents are divorced. I grew up believing that having more than one intimate partner at a time was cheating, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.
My initial response to all of the stories was that vestigial tug against my judgement, trying to pull from me what my adolescent mind had worked so hard to unlearn. I think because of this, the experience of this book was more intimate for me. The initial judgement, followed by the close examination of myself in relation to the stories told, gave me an introspective look at things I had been avoiding, or things I hadn’t even known were there in the first place. Though the experiences of Maggie, Lina, and Sloane were different from my own, they were close enough to force me to confront past decisions and follow them through to the influence they have had on me as an adult today.
It is important to remember that difficult topics are covered here, including eating disorders, rape, gaslighting and grooming minors, and cheating. Everyone will have a different association, a different memory linked to those words and phrases that will shape their experience with this book. For me, it was cathartic, a release of past guilts I had for so long held against myself I had forgotten they were even there. For me, it was a powerful reminder of just how powerless women still are, when they don’t look or act or present a certain way to the public eye. For me, it was a reminder to keep fighting forward, to be more open, to make the taboo topics of today discussion topics of the next generation.
Taddeo spent eight years preparing the stories of these women for readers. A monumental undertaking that had her moving around the country to meet them, interview them, and become a trusted confidante. While Three Women is lauded as a major breakthrough in feminist literature and sexual liberation, critics have been quick to point out that the main players are all middle-class white women who are more sexually dysfunctional than liberated. Lisa mentions in her prologue and epilogue that at the beginning of the project, more women were involved who later chose to pull out. Women who were from the Carribean, and Central and South East Asia. Women who were not as wealthy or as educated. One woman, Lisa remembers, chose to leave the project because she had found love during the time it was being written. She was worried that should her new partner find out her story, he would no longer love her and she did not want to jeopardize that.
I think this in itself speaks volumes; I find that the lack of diversity in this book is incredibly telling, despite not being deliberate. I find that the lack of “happy” stories of sexuality is telling; there are not yet enough stories from women willing to be so vulnerable or an audience willing to listen to them with an open mind. I hope, sincerely, that Three Women is the start of a vital trend in feminist non-fiction, and that more stories will follow this one, from women of every race, age, sexual orientation, and background.
For me, Three Women was eye-opening and necessary.