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Thy Neighbor’s Sex Life

Two new books—Lisa Taddeo’s ‘Three Women’ and E. Jean Carroll’s ‘What Do We Need Men For?’—deal frankly with sex, desire, and power from a female perspective. Why do these books seem so radical?

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One evening several years ago, Lisa Taddeo walked through the door of the Kinsey Institute in Bloomington, Indiana, ready to listen to a group of local women talk about their sex lives. Eight of them, ranging in age from their early 30s to mid-60s, had shown up that night. Most were quiet at first, sipping wine out of plastic cups and munching on complimentary snacks. But after a while the youngest among them, a 32-year-old housewife named Lina, spoke up. “It’s interesting,” she said. “I am in fact right at this moment in the middle of a big change.”

She told the room’s suddenly perked-up ears about her deadening decade-long marriage, her years of silent yearning to be touched by a husband who seemed physically repulsed by her (he had told a marriage counselor that the “sensation” of kissing Lina “offended” him), and the silent pact she’d made with herself: If three more months passed without her husband initiating physical contact, she would leave him. That was about three months ago. But, Lina told the Kinsey group, she had just begun to take matters into her own hands: She was having an affair. With a married man. Who happened to be her onetime high school sweetheart, Aidan.

Taddeo leaned forward in her chair. “I was looking for something immediate and raw, for someone who wanted something desperately and beautifully,” she wrote recently in The Washington Post, of that fateful night she first heard Lina’s voice. “And then I found her.”

By then Taddeo had been working for years on a book about desire, though the shape of it kept shifting. “As I began to write this book,” she notes in the prologue of her vivid nonfiction page-turner Three Women, “I thought I’d be drawn to the stories of men.” But once she started talking to men about their sex lives, all their stories began to sound the same, because they were the stories we’d been told a billion times before. She did not feel this way when she started asking similar questions of women. “There was complexity and beauty and violence even, in the way women experienced the same event,” she writes. “In these ways and more, it was the female parts of an interlude that, in my eyes, came to stand for the whole of what longing in America looks like.”

Three Women tumbles onto shelves this week on an avalanche of buzz. “I can’t imagine a scenario where this isn’t one of the most important—and breathlessly debated—books of the year,” Dave Eggers enthuses on the cover of my copy. “As far as I’m concerned,” blurbs Elizabeth Gilbert, “this is a nonfiction literary masterpiece at the same level as In Cold Blood.” But the most obvious and frequent comparison is one that Taddeo, now 39, intentionally courted: Gay Talese’s 1980 best seller Thy Neighbor’s Wife, a controversial, nearly 600-page tome in which the author sought to take the quickening pulse of American sexuality in that sliver of time between Woodstock and AIDS.

From the repressive Comstock laws to the 20th-century bans on Ulysses and Lady Chatterly’s Lover, from the imprisonment of Wilhelm Reich and the litany of obscenity cases that went before the Supreme Court in the 1960s and 1970s, our country has a long history of repressing books and other artifacts that deal frankly with sex. As the writer Gershon Legman quipped in 1949, “Murder is a crime. Describing murder is not. Sex is not a crime. Describing it is.” Legal standards of obscenity and social mores have gradually loosened over the past few decades, though certain taboos (and America’s lingering sense memory of Puritanism) remain. Still, the silence surrounding sex in American culture and the reluctance plenty of Americans still have to discussing it openly can lead too often to shame, trauma, and systemic abuses of power, as we’ve seen everywhere from Miramax to CBS to the Catholic Church. If we want to address these problems and better understand each other, there’s no reason not to talk more freely about sex—or at the very least to read more books about it.

After Taddeo published a memorable New York profile of Tiger Woods’s mistress Rachel Uchitel, book editor Jofie Ferrari-Adler approached Taddeo and asked whether she’d be interested in writing “an updated version of Thy Neighbor’s Wife.” As she tells the book’s origin story, Taddeo picked up Talese’s book for the first time shortly after, in 2010. She “realized that it had been 30 years since Talese wrote a book about sex, and from a very male perspective. Nobody since had written so immersively about the complicated plains of desire.” Why not her?

Also: why not now? In these bleak times of reproductive-rights rollbacks and accounts of rape perpetrated by our sitting president, conversations about women’s sex lives are happening in public like never before, and taking on a new political urgency. In post-#MeToo publishing, it’s a pitch made in heaven: “Thy Neighbor’s Wife, but from a woman’s perspective,” as in “without the creepy chapter about Talese’s deeply immersive first-person research into sex communes and the world of massage-parlor hand jobs.”

It would seem, too, that the onetime blockbuster Thy Neighbor’s Wife—the film rights of which, before its publication, garnered what was then the most lucrative deal in publishing history, $2.5 million—is in aching need of a 21st-century, feminist-minded update. Though previous generations regarded Talese as a new-journalism titan who all but invented the modern celebrity profile with his legendary 1966 Esquire write-around “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” he has in the recent past come to be considered increasingly—what’s the word? ah—“problematic.” In the near decade since Taddeo first read Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Talese’s reputation has only endured further dings. In addition to the ethical questions raised by the dubious reporting process of his most recent book, The Voyeur’s Motel, Talese angered many people online when, at a 2016 conference, he admitted he could not name any female journalists who had inspired him. “I’m not sure it’s true, it probably isn’t true anymore,” Talese stammered, “but … when I was young, maybe 30 or so, and always interested in exploratory journalism, long-form … women tended not to do that.” On Twitter, the hashtag #WomenGayTaleseShouldRead was born.

Talese’s loss in relevance is probably Taddeo’s gain, though, even if she says he became something of a “mentor” to her in the early stages of her reporting. “He suggested I immerse myself,” she told Marie Claire recently. But in finding the independent voice of her own book, it was up to Taddeo to figure out exactly what that meant to her. Per a recent New York Times profile of Taddeo: “A friend suggested she sleep her way across the country, but that idea repulsed her.” She was not interested in making herself a test case. That is the first—hardly the last—place where Lisa Taddeo’s methods diverge from those of Gay Talese.

Instead Taddeo hit the road with some handmade flyers that read, “Looking for stories of love and passion.” She drove across the country half a dozen times, some of those “in an RV with a murmuring toilet,” searching for ordinary women who would talk to her frankly about their wants, their needs, their most private fantasies. Plenty took the bait. Taddeo estimates that, in the eight years it took her to write and report Three Women, she “spoke to hundreds of people, 30 or so at length, for weeks and months and even years.” But few had been so open, so forthcoming, so unafraid to embody their sense of want as Lina had that night at the Kinsey Institute. Taddeo continued to talk with Lina at length throughout the affair. Taddeo would sometimes even trail Lina and Aidan during their nighttime parked-car trysts, like a crime reporter might follow her suspect. “After they left,” she has said, “I would go to exactly where they’d been to take in the scenery and the smells and the sounds.”

Not long afterward, another female writer found herself driving past some of those very same towns—not in an RV this time but in a nine-year-old polka dot Prius that its owner had named Miss Bingley, “after Jane Austen’s mean girl in Pride and Prejudice.” The writer has a name you may have heard lately: E. Jean Carroll.

Carroll’s new book, What Do We Need Men For?, hit shelves a week before Three Women, and on the face of it these volumes would appear to take up the same question: How can women eke out a positive space for their own dreams and desires in a world still overrun by predatory men? Yet aside from the fact that both of these volumes are the product of cross-country voyages and that about a third of each takes place in Indiana (Carroll’s beloved home state), they are different beasts entirely.

While Taddeo is mostly a silent observer in Three Women, Carroll’s book is part memoir, part reported travelogue, part extended wink-wink misandrist satire (in the epigraph, Carroll quotes Jonathan Swift extolling the delectable taste of babies). Her plan was to take a road trip—accompanied by her 12-year-old poodle, Lewis Carroll—stopping only at towns named after women and asking local residents her Swiftian inquiry: “What do we need men for?” (The man who sold it to me at the bookstore took a performatively exaggerated affront to its title.) Responses vary, from “family structure” to “moral support” to “fixing cars,” but the most common answer seems to be the one our intrepid narrator agrees with most: “nothing.”

Carroll has been a freelance writer for decades and an Elle magazine advice columnist for 25 years, which, as she puts it, means that “for 25 years, I have been receiving letters from women complaining about men.” She is now 75. As she tells us in bracing detail, this indicates she has lived through three times as much.

Jeanie Carroll was, by her generation’s standards, the epitome of a woman who Did Femininity Right. In the early 1960s she was a perky Indiana blond with a datebook full of suitors. She was voted 1964’s Miss Cheerleader USA (“I have done the thing no Indiana University football team has ever done in history—I have won a national championship”). She was crowned Miss Indiana University, a “princess” at the Indy 500. And yet, as she reveals in this book in unblinking detail, none of this stopped men from fondling her, molesting her, shoving objects up her vagina when she was young enough to have only just recently “learned that an object could be shoved up the place where I tinkled.” She was nearly date-raped at knifepoint, said she was strangled repeatedly by her husband, groped in an elevator by a man she had been sent to interview for Esquire (that one she calls by his name, Les Moonves), and, among other indignities, raped in a Bergdorf’s dressing room. That last “Hideous Man,” as you probably now know, she says was Donald Trump.

Carroll’s lively prose careens in constant pursuit of pleasure. A woman’s ponytail is “fire-apple red.” Charlie Rose is a “giant dingleberry.” A man is described as assuming “the Dickwad Pose: hat on backward, tongue stuck out, six-pack declaring war on North Korea.” Not every single joke lands, sure, but on the whole Carroll is indefatigably funny and full of life. Which makes the times when she suddenly runs out of humor all the more devastating. “And that’s it,” says the usually ebullient, pleasure-seeking Carroll, at the end of her story about her traumatic encounter with Trump 23 years ago, recently excerpted in New York magazine. “I’ve never had sex with anybody ever again.”

Two of the women in Lisa Taddeo’s book are given fake names (“Lina” and “Sloane”) to protect their identities, and they spoke to her only on the condition of anonymity. The third woman has already been denied such a luxury by the outside world. The now-28-year-old Maggie Wilken, the youngest of the book’s protagonists, was the subject of a public scandal when she brought charges against her former high school English teacher, Aaron Knodel—North Dakota’s 2014 teacher of the year—for, she says, instigating a sexual relationship with her when she was underage. After a grueling trial at which Wilken testified and offered such evidence as the provocative Post-its she says her teacher stuck in her copy of Twilight, Knodel was acquitted and eventually reinstated as a teacher in West Fargo. “I will be telling the narrative as seen through her eyes,” Taddeo writes in the prologue of Three Women. “Meanwhile a version of this story was put before a jury who saw it very differently. Part of her narrative poses for the reader the all-too-familiar question of when and why and by whom women’s stories are believed—and when and why and by whom they are not.”

The third woman is Sloane—the richest, most quintessentially East Coast, and, in Taddeo’s own telling, least “vanilla” of the bunch. Taddeo sketches Sloane in her early years gliding cooly across a life of popularity and privilege. “[S]he knew that she was often the life of the party,” Taddeo writes. “She knew that people would say, Where’s Sloane? if they had not seen her by ten P.M., in a room she should have been in.” When asked to describe her father, Sloane just says, “Andover, Princeton, Harvard.” She started taking diet pills, at the suggestion of her mother, in the fourth grade. An eating disorder followed. Sloane’s early 20s are a succession of hip restaurants and dates with boss’s sons; she quietly rebels from her family’s ambitions by marrying a chef named Richard and decamping with him to Rhode Island to run an upscale restaurant in a resort town. One drunken evening not long after they’re wed, Sloane and Richard are lured into a threesome with someone who works at the restaurant, and Richard discovers that he enjoys watching his wife have sex with other people. Sloane believes this is what gets her off too. And so they arrange a complicatedly open marriage around this particular desire, the censorious whispers of their small town trailing incessantly behind them—but mostly behind Sloane.

Each of these stories is, in its own way, pungently sad. Maggie’s spirit is broken by the trial and her father’s concurrent suicide; Taddeo reports, in the epilogue, that in ways both sexual and not, “Maggie doesn’t want the same way she used to.” Sloane, too, eventually realizes she is not as forward-thinking and empowered as she believes herself to be; her husband Richard is the one in control of their sexual dynamic, and it’s made her feel estranged from herself. And although Lina’s story is at times the most “ordinary,” hers were usually the chapters I found most pulverizing to read. The second time she arranges a meeting with Aidan, via Facebook Messenger, she does so on the pretense that she would like to give him some of the old toys her children have outgrown, so he doesn’t have to work overtime so close to Christmas: “She took her phone down to the basement with her children trailing her and corralled all the items into an attractive bunch and said to herself, I can’t believe I’m doing this, just for the chance of seeing this guy.”

“I am confident,” writes Taddeo in an author’s note at the beginning, “that these stories convey vital truths about women and desire.” They also revolve almost obsessively around three men: Aidan, Richard, and Knodel. Taddeo might have set out in search of ordinary women’s untold tales, but from beginning to end each of these stories seems almost salaciously exceptional. How many women do you know who have brought criminal charges against a teacher who they say seduced them when they were underage; or fled unfulfilling marriages to once again hook up with their high school boyfriends; or have worked out a complex marriage that permits them to have sex with other people as long as they text a video of the encounter to their spouse immediately afterward? Maybe part of Taddeo’s point is that we’ll never really know the answer to that question, since sex and female desire are things we still don’t talk about openly in polite society.

But if it’s true that Taddeo “spoke to hundreds of people, 30 or so at length,” Three Women made me very curious to hear what she learned from those dozens of others. Her approach places a hermetic focus upon these three women’s dreams, desires, and fears, yes, and it certainly seems valuable to hear about their inner lives. But it also makes the book seem limited in its scope, disappointingly small, and suspiciously cherry-picked. Why not Thirty Women? In that Washington Post essay, Taddeo wrote a bit about the understandable difficulty of finding good subjects willing to talk to her frankly enough to be included in this book. Of the 30 women she talked to “at length,” she writes, “some dropped out on their own and others I let go. The most common hurdle was a subject’s fear of being found out, of being seen in the world as an X-ray. The ones I gradually stopped talking to had become less invested in their own narratives.” She also said, “Plenty of people had stories of sex they didn’t mind sharing. But I was looking for something inflamed.”

But what about the stories that don’t burn quite so hot? This book is so intimately focused on its three subjects’ internal lives that the rest of the world seems to fall away in an indeterminate blur, like the view out a fogged-up window. These stories are given little context; Taddeo makes no mention of scientific inquiries into female desire, reproductive rights legislation, or even a cursory paragraph summing up the history of female sexuality in America. Much of her reporting was done before the #MeToo movement, but Taddeo fails to even nod to that massive cultural sea change in her prologue. I enjoyed reading this book, and I gobbled it down in two consecutive sittings, but in the end I’m not sure it taught me anything definitive about “what longing in America looks like,” save for the specific kinds of stories Taddeo was longing to tell.

It is difficult to ignore the fact that all the women Taddeo speaks with are white, cisgender, and more or less heterosexual (even if Sloane’s story occasionally flirts with bisexuality, the implication by the end is that she is pursuing threesomes primarily to excite her husband). She acknowledges this briefly in the epilogue, as an almost conciliatory afterthought. She mentions that one of the first subjects she spoke with, a Dominican woman she calls Mallory, “liked to sleep with black women and white men.” Mallory, we are told, “dropped off because she fell in love and was afraid that talking about it would make it go away.” I wondered whether that was the whole reason she declined to tell her full story. Though in some sense I’d gotten to know the other women in the book much more intimately, it was Mallory I kept wondering about long after I’d finished reading.

At a certain point while reading Three Women, I realized, with mild irritation, that if I wanted to write anything serious about it I was probably going to have to read Thy Neighbor’s Wife. I checked it out of the library dutifully, thinking I’d skim 100 pages or so. Unexpectedly, I inhaled all 600 pages in about a week. It was not at all the book I’d imagined it to be. Talese’s book is a richly detailed panorama of American puritanism, transgression, and repression. While I did not always agree on the areas Talese chooses to zoom in on—I’m still not sure about 20 percent of this book needs to be an exegesis on Hugh Hefner—I had to admit that I learned a lot from it (about, say, the history of the Comstock Laws, and the Supreme Court’s obscenity cases in the ’60s and ’70s). Talese explores the inner psyches of his characters in depth, but he also places them within a legible historical context, the kind I found Taddeo’s book to be lacking.

Many of the female characters in it were also more fully realized than I was expecting and more tonally varied than those found in Three Women. A former centerfold model comes vividly, uncompromisingly to life. A middle-aged anthropology professor finds love in a hopeless place—a nudist colony. The feminist artist Betty Dodson makes an appearance in the penultimate chapter, and Talese quotes her at length. “The insidious thing about this system is that we end up accepting the self-serving male definitions of ‘normal’ female sexuality,” she declares. She advocates “social sex for life-affirmative pleasure instead of sex based on economics and power.”

Amid the continued reign of Hideous Men, even after the reckoning that has brought their behavior to light, Dodson’s words seem, decades later, as radical as ever. Like so many of the other stories we’ve heard about women and sex these past few years, Taddeo’s book is an evocative narrative of pain. Undersung, still, are those stories of pleasure.

On a recent, humid Saturday afternoon, I was talking to a thoughtful, decent male friend of mine about E. Jean Carroll. (Carroll, at the end of her book, refers to such rare specimens of the male species as “Honorary Women.”) Like myself, this friend was devastated that a well-known woman had credibly said the president raped her, and that, just as she had predicted, no one seemed to care. He was sad about smaller things, too. “That essay was so well-written,” he told me, referencing Carroll’s excerpt in New York. “One of the things about all this is that it sucks that I didn’t know who she was before this.”

“Really?” I said. I have been reading Carroll off and on since I was a teenager; Elle is still my go-to airport magazine purchase, and Carroll’s zippy, self-aware advice column “Ask E. Jean” is usually the first thing I flip to. Even across a wide generational gulf, I find something about her wise pluck deeply comforting. (I’ve been doing my own deeply unscientific version of Carroll’s line of questioning: I have been asking men in my life, “Before the accusations, had you ever read anything by E. Jean Carroll?” I’ve yet to find one who has.) In a recent piece about Carroll’s story, though, New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino gave her her due: “Her columns provided an early and crucial model for me—when I was little and waist-deep in the mistake of trying to understand life through women’s glossies—of never giving my personal problems more weight than was absolutely necessary.”

What’s one thing Carroll, Taddeo, and Talese all have in common? All have been published frequently in Esquire—a publication I’d bet has virtually never been referred to as a “men’s glossy.” Women like Taddeo, Carroll, and even Elizabeth Gilbert tend to cross into the realm of men’s magazines when they have a story they’d like to be taken seriously. Things don’t really flow the other way. Still, something about the convergence of all their voices has got me thinking once again about the prestige gap that still exists between women’s magazines, men’s magazines, and the people who write for them. Every few months it seems, a powerful man in journalism says something blasé that undermines the work and potential of female writers. In the spring of 2016, it was Gay Talese; last month, it was The Atlantic’s editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg, who said, “It’s really, really hard to write a 10,000 word cover story. There are not a lot of journalists in America who can do it. The journalists in America who do it are almost exclusively white males.” Carroll’s essay was only 6,500 words, sure, but I bought her book because I’d have read it at 10 times that length.

Carroll refuses to strike the somber tone of the victim. This might rankle some people, might make some people take her book—even her story about Trump—less seriously. She has lived long enough not to give a shit. A lifetime of cumulative trauma may have tamped down some of her sexual desires, but her life force persists in other ways. E. Jean Carroll has kept writing; she has kept speaking her mind in her own peculiar words. “I love a motel bed,” she sighs in the middle of the book, but not for the reason you think: “I love a motel bed because if I am in a motel bed it means I’m on a story, and when I am on a story, I am the happiest girl in the world.”

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