When Gay Talese published Thy Neighbor’s Wife, his nonfiction chronicle of post–World War II sexuality, in 1981, he was flayed. Critics were aghast that he would desecrate his marriage by patronizing—and later managing—a midtown Manhattan massage parlor, or by passing months in a nudist resort for swingers in the Santa Monica Mountains. Much of Talese’s press tour included his wife, publishing titan Nan A. Talese, whose presence was required to attest that their marriage had survived the research and writing of the book, which had taken him nine years. His therapist even told him that he had committed career suicide.
What Talese’s critics were responding to in part was the book’s overtly male gaze, a point of contention that cropped up again when the writer published The Voyeur’s Motel in 2016, which followed a motel owner who spied on his guests. (Talese joined in the illicit spying on several occasions.) Still, with Thy Neighbor’s Wife, he established a precedent. Setting aside the question of the author’s apparent infidelity, the book opened a door into the bedrooms of ordinary Americans, exposing average sexual lives in explicit detail.
Since then, the advent of the Internet has created a forum for people to freely share all manner of sexual exploits, and most of us are aware of the possibilities beyond sex with a monogamous partner. In some circles, the practice of taking up multiple lovers has become so normalized that declaring this inclination can be considered gauche: “We get it, you’re poly,” goes one popular meme. What’s left to be revealed about the way we live our sexual lives?
Lisa Taddeo attempts a feminist update of Talese’s seminal work in her book Three Women, a sprawling sexual biography about a trio of women and their pursuit of desire. Over eight years, Taddeo interviewed hundreds of people across the country about their intimacies, eventually narrowing her focus to the three who would allow her full access to their lives. Taddeo’s subjects are Maggie, a 23-year-old woman who had a sexual relationship with her English teacher when she was 17 (and the only one in the book to go by her real name); Lina, a thirtysomething housewife entrenched in an unrepentant affair with her high school sweetheart; and Sloane, a married restaurant owner in her 40s who has sex with the men her husband picks out for her.
Unlike Talese, who explores both male and female subjectivities in Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Taddeo thought her book should deal solely with women; though she started off interviewing men, she grew tired of their stories, finding that they began to “bleed together” after a while. For Taddeo, there is something inherently complex—as well as universal—about women’s desire. Peeling back the layers of female sexual experience, Taddeo says, enabled her to uncover “the whole of what longing in America looks like.”
Taddeo never delivers on such sweeping statements, suggesting that readers are meant to accept at face value her proposed truisms about love, sex, and gender. And there are many: “Throughout history, men have broken women’s hearts in a particular way,” she writes in the book’s prologue. “Meanwhile, women wait.”
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It’s Taddeo’s prerogative to gather Maggie, Lina, and Sloane’s stories into an all-encompassing narrative that any woman can relate to—so long as she is heterosexual and miserable. Taddeo says she was drawn to tales in which “desire was something that could not be controlled, when the object of desire dictated the narrative.” Here, she begins to reveal that she hasn’t merely pursued stories that could lend the most dimension to a journalistic work; she’s carefully selected the ones that most closely reflect her prescriptions about how men and women relate to each other. As Taddeo closely tracks the highs and lows of her subjects’ turbulent relationships, one gets the creeping sense that she’s already consigned them to their fates, even though she may treat them with sensitivity and care.
Three Women amplifies this feeling with its literary approach: Taddeo erases herself as an interlocutor, writing about her subjects as though they are characters in a novel. The book is full of long, intricate sex scenes that make one wonder if the author has begun to embellish for effect. Not so, Taddeo says. She maintains that she recorded Lina’s sex scenes “verbatim”: Lina would often recount them via a phone call, text, or Facebook message in the immediate aftermath of her trysts with Aidan, the old boyfriend from high school with whom she has an affair. Maggie’s and Sloane’s sex scenes are usually more sparsely written, Taddeo explains, for reasons that have to do with their respective feelings about the sexual encounters: Maggie’s experiences with her teacher constituted a trauma, while Sloane’s extramarital affairs are a normal part of her relationship with her husband and therefore required no exhaustive play-by-plays.
Taddeo’s writing, though, is often overwrought. There are many opportunities for readers to roll their eyes, especially if they are skeptical of the grand myth of heterosexual longing that Taddeo unfurls in Three Women. While she can write deftly about the mechanics of sex, odd turns of phrase and cringe-worthy moments abound. Lina might pull Aidan’s briefs down “so that it looked like he was using the toilet,” take his penis “like a gearshift,” or become a “smooth-skinned, tough-gutted calf” when she orgasms. At some points, though, this awkwardness helps to emphasize the impossibility of desire or the absurdity of whom we exercise it on. Such instances are frequent in the parts of the book that deal with Lina, who has rekindled a romance with Aidan because her husband refuses to touch her; when he does want to have sex, he initiates by asking, “Feel like doin’ it?” Still, one wonders how Lina could find Aidan to be much smoother when, in the middle of a hookup, he learns that she has her period and crudely inquires, “So, you’re raggin’?”
Heterosexual desire is a kind of trap in Three Women—to possess it means being doomed to repeat the same dull rituals. Men and women are for Taddeo two poles with conflicting, predictable interests. No matter how active women are in pursuing their desire, men are the ones with the ability to take it in their hands and shape it—or, worse, crush it. This unfortunate set of circumstances is biologically predetermined, according to Taddeo, who said in a July interview that “the pain of childbirth” means that pain forms “the very core of who we are.”
Taddeo threads this depressing and, it should be said, regressive conception of womanhood throughout Three Women, denying her subjects their agency, even as she seems to insist on it. In the book’s prologue, Taddeo writes that her mother’s sexuality was a path “made by boots trampling tall grass,” lamenting that the confines of her parents’ marriage effaced her mother’s desires. Later, she explains that, at 17, Maggie is “unafraid and unpopulated,” as teenage girls are until “men come to insert themselves…. When they leave, their residue remains.” And unlike women, men don’t only want sex, Taddeo warns; “men needed” sex, and “everything a man takes a lifetime to build he may gamble for a moment.” It’s unclear why this couldn’t apply equally to Lina, who trades the security of her quiet nuclear family for the best sex of her life. Sloane too makes a risky bet when she sleeps with another woman’s husband, assuming that the couple have a mutual understanding—or perhaps ignoring the possibility that they don’t.
In one of the most astute criticisms of Three Women, Baffler contributor Nora Caplan-Bricker points out that Taddeo appears to enjoy reminding readers that “for all of feminism’s supposed gains, most people still live under a rigid sexual regime,” and seems “oddly scornful of the idea that it could be otherwise.” Taddeo has little interest in imagining a new reality. Instead, she clings to gender-essentialist tropes in search of a higher conclusion about female desire, a theory of everything that unifies the disparate experiences of not just Maggie, Lina, and Sloane but all women.
Unfortunately, Taddeo’s three subjects are poor representatives for the whole of female experience, given that they are white, middle to upper-middle class, cis, and, to our knowledge, straight, save for Sloane, whose sexuality is more fluid. And it never becomes clear why—or if—we are supposed to believe that their experience conveys a message larger than themselves. In an interview with Marie Claire, Taddeo herself seemed to admit that the only revelation she found in their stories is “how similar we all are in our desires”—an uninspiring verdict after eight years of investigation.
Taddeo’s is just the most recent work to continue the line of inquiry Talese pursues in Thy Neighbor’s Wife. In 2007, former New York magazine contributor Arianne Cohen launched “Sex Diaries,” an ongoing crowdsourced column that asks New Yorkers to record a week’s worth of sex and masturbation, as well as private thoughts and fantasies. In a print feature two and a half years later, Wesley Yang wrote that the magazine’s exploration of the public’s sex lives “cracked open a window into the changing structure, rhythm, and rhetoric of sex in New York,” which by then had come to be defined by the growing popularity of dating apps. In 2016, Emily Witt published Future Sex, which she said had been inspired by a 2008 reading of Thy Neighbor’s Wife. Witt also observed the ways that technology and the Internet had changed the nature of desire—it “assured each person of the presence of the like-minded: no one need be alone with her aberrant desires, and no desires were aberrant.”
These works are obvious products of their time, a quality which, rather than limiting them, gives them their strength. In Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Talese situates his subjects in their milieu, reporting on the country’s changing obscenity laws, landmark Supreme Court cases, and the rise and fall of controversial public figures who shaped American sexuality. Taddeo, however, insists on suspending her three women in a contextless void. There is, for example, no mention of the rise in activism surrounding campus sexual assault, the legalization of same-sex marriage, or conservatives’ mounting attacks on abortion, birth control, and sex education. Most glaringly, Taddeo also fails to address the shift in sexual politics brought about by #MeToo, the frame in which contemporary readers will consider Maggie’s sexual encounters with her teacher, the rape that formed Lina’s first sexual experience, and Taddeo’s observations about the power differentials implicit in male-female relationships. Were it not for the mentions of texting and Facebook, one might think that the stories in Three Women took place not long after those featured in Thy Neighbor’s Wife.
When Talese updated his book in 2009, nearly three decades after its original publication, he insisted that it too was “timeless and placeless.” More than self-flattery, his final appraisal reflects—confusingly—the same belief that Taddeo seems to hold about the nature of desire: that there is a universal story of human sexuality and longing we all participate in and have, as a species, since the beginning of time. “For what can it [Thy Neighbor’s Wife] tell about temptations and tempest between men and women that has not been told before, and lived before, in eons going back to the Dark Ages and companionship in caves?” Talese asks in the book’s afterword.
One wonders why, after dedicating nearly 600 pages to the variety of human sexual experience, Talese decided to undo his work with such a question. Of course, there is a sense in which our experiences of adolescent crushes, heartbreak, unrequited love, and so on are banal. We have not been the first to experience them, and at times, this may be a comfort to us—perhaps therein lies the impulse to combine our individual circumstances into a single story. But in the end, Talese and Taddeo both fetishize the experience of heterosexuality to the point of manifesting its supposed naturalness, leaving the reader with the feeling that instead of being infinitely rich, human desire is static, unexciting, and worst of all, mythical and storied only for those involved in heterosexual relationships.
Men and women have always spoken different languages “beyond translation and interpretation,” Talese writes at the close of his book, “whether spoken in a law office once occupied by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his ex-colleague and accuser Anita Hill, or spoken in a garden occupied by Adam and Eve. And so there is nothing new in Thy Neighbor’s Wife. Nor is there anything old.”
Unfortunately, the same is true of Three Women.