Books · Sex & Sexuality

“Three Women:” An Intimate Portrait of Intimacy

Maggie, Lina and Sloane are their names. In Three Women, writer Lisa Taddeo takes a close, extremely detailed, and graphic look at their sex lives. Researched over the course of a decade, crisscrossing the country six times, and sometimes living in their hometowns for months at a time, Taddeo’s stated goal was to give women’s sexuality the same kind of close-up that Gay Talese did in the 1980 study of the sexual revolution, Thy Neighbor’s Wife

Focusing on three white young women may not have given us a broad perspective but Taddeo makes up for that shortcoming by revealing some essential truths about the current zeitgeist. For example, though she never references the “#MeToo” movement, she makes its origins abundantly clear in her exploration of the abundant passivity of women’s sexuality.

The author begins and ends the book reminiscing about her mother, who was the victim of a stalker in her native Italian village for years. Later, when she married, Taddeo’s mother was a responsive partner to her husband’s desires, but it was not until after he died that she allowed herself to imagine her own.

Similarly, the titular three women in this book are united in their almost obsessive desire to please their partners, to be the object of their affection and attention, rather than to pursue their own sexual pleasure. They may think that’s what is motivating them, but the raw neediness that underlies their actions is palpable throughout.

Maggie, the youngest of the three, is in her early 20s when we meet her. She is still suffering from a relationship she had in high school with a married teacher. The stories are interwoven, as the author progresses through them coming back around again to each.

Maggie’s could be subtitled “seduced and abandoned.” The older man, a popular English teacher named Aaron Knodel, was twice named North Dakota teacher of the year—both before and after Maggie unsuccessfully sued him in court for abuse. She herself was shamed and vilified in her community for daring to attack such an upstanding man.

But her story is eminently believable—and typical. We are privy to all the details of how he groomed her by giving her extra attention, by telling her she was special, by pretending to take an interest in her problems as well as enthusiasms, such as the Twilight book series. Despite abundant physical evidence, in the form of hundreds of hours of phone calls (many during the night), and intimate post-it notes, etc., the jury chose to believe Knodel’s explanation that he was just a teacher going the extra mile for a troubled student with alcoholic parents.

As quickly as he built her up, when Knodel abruptly drops Maggie after his wife finds a text message from her, she is devastated. The aftermath of the trial and the verdict further cemented Maggie’s feelings that she was worthless to begin with.

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