• Why Report on Desire? Saskia Vogel on Reading Lisa Taddeo

    “We’re all capable of throwing everything away in a moment, if the desire is strong enough.”

    The idea that we each have a hidden interior that holds the truth of our being is one of the most enduring ideas in Western culture, writes the Swedish author and historian of ideas Carl-Michael Edenborg in The Parapornographic Manifesto. In Swedish when we speak of us—as in humanity—the pronouns often used are she and her. In Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women, she and her take center stage in a moving piece of reportage on female desire through an intimate study of three American women’s lives that speaks to the she and her of women, but also of humanity, at least in the West. At least in America. For when thinking about this slippery topic, when trying to get to the heart of it, I must remember from where I am reading.

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    BOOKS DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY

    Three Women, Lisa Taddeo (Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster, July 9, 2019) · Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, adrienne maree brown (AK Press, February 26, 2019) · The Parapornographic Manifesto, Carl-Michael Edenborg (Action Books, April 1, 2013)

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    An assessment of the 1948 and 1953 Kinsey Reports on human sexual behavior that has stuck with me is that the big revelation for Americans was that even our grandmothers masturbate. In a saner society, we would have known this already. And though the conversation about sex and desire has moved along since then, books like Taddeo’s show us how far we have yet to go.

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    In Taddeo’s book, we meet Maggie, a woman who as a 17-year-old entered into a romantic relationship with her well-respected high school teacher Mr. Knodel, and who “by her account, was ruined by her teacher’s alleged crime”; Lina, a married Catholic whose husband Ed refuses to kiss her, and so initiates a passionate affair with Aidan, a man she dated in high school shortly before she was gang raped by three other boys at a party; and Sloane, a “poised restaurant owner” whose chef husband Richard likes her to have sex with other people.

    I read Three Women hungrily, full of empathy. Taddeo’s use of first and third person in her reporting made me feel entwined with the characters, drawing me into the intensity of “lovecrush” and “shamehot,” descriptors used in Maggie’s tale, and turned on when these women were turned on, even when the scenarios were uncomfortable because of the power dynamics involved. Yet, there was something about Taddeo’s prologue that made me feel resistant to the project: the she and her of it all. Yes, this is a document of witness, one that aims to create space for women’s often ignored stories to be heard, but when thinking about desire, there is benefit to thinking beyond gender lines. There is benefit to thinking beyond stories that don’t get told, and to consider the telling of the stories themselves. What language do we use to speak of desire? Might it need an overhaul?

    In an introduction to the book, Taddeo says she turned her attention to the stories of women because they were stories “wherein desire was something that could not be controlled, when the object of desire dictated the narrative.” These stories were where she found the “most magnificence” and “pain,” in contrast to men’s stories in which their desire was “bullish” and “propulsive, when it was looking for an end it could control.” Taddeo suggests that when it comes to desire, men need: “Everything a man takes a lifetime to build he may gamble for a moment,” like “…[p]residents who forfeit glory for blowjobs.”

    We are all capable of throwing everything away in a moment, if the desire is strong enough.

    I don’t think this need is unique to men. We are all capable of throwing everything away in a moment, if the desire is strong enough and if in that moment you are able to close off your heart to what or who might suffer from your choices. Still, the intensity of my resistance felt intrusive, itself not useful, too subjective. Having started and abandoned a nonfiction project about the BDSM community in Los Angeles over a decade ago, the project that morphed into my debut novel Permission (Coach House Books, 2019), I noticed I approached Three Women with a bias that took the shape of a question—why report on desire?

    When writing about sex, there seems to be an obsession with the question of “why.” Why do we desire the way we do? I abandoned my nonfiction project in favor of fiction because I did not have what it took at 23 to handle reportage. I also shirked at the responsibility of trying to convey truth. Whatever I wrote seemed to be an attempt to make a pronouncement about the state of desire and and excavation of hidden interiors, but I wanted it to remain amorphous, slippery, and dark. Nonfiction seemed bright and fixed. Ultimately, I think my frustration with not being able to explain these desires led me to jump ship, and I now think the question is not as important. We desire. It doesn’t really matter why. It’s not with the “why,” but with our desires, that we must contend in our everyday.

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    When a book like Three Women appears, I think there is an assumption that it will get us closer to “why.” I don’t know if this is what Taddeo wants, or what I want, or what I think other readers want— maybe nobody wants it—but the idea that this assumption might exist makes me uneasy. There’s so much potential for destruction when trying to get at something’s core. “Why” is a question aligned, for instance, with the early sexual scientists who gave us a language of sex bound together with pathology. The idea of a core gives you direction: you’re going in, you’re going deep and you’re going to get at the heart of the thing. But with this directional impulse we risk missing what else is all around, ruining our chances of getting close to what it is we are looking for.

    In Edenborg’s Parapornographic Manifesto, he recounts a story by Alphonse Allais about a bored maharaja. The maharaja’s boredom wanes a little when a young dancer catches his eye and then holds his attention as she strips down to her earring and ankle bracelets. But he wants more. She removes them, too. More, he demands, and the court is at a loss. The dancer doesn’t know what to do, but soon the guards realized what they are being asked to do. They flay the woman. Staring at her red, raw body, the maharaja isn’t bored anymore. The story ends there. Edenborg suggests that the maharaja feels content with having seen beyond what is skin deep, and senses a problem with going even deeper, so decides to stop; perhaps he realizes that going further would only lead to endless regression, revealing an emptiness that might be more difficult to endure than his boredom. This is the pornographic position. Pornography, Edenborg writes, replaces the emptiness of undressing with a constant supply of fresh bodies. If we read a book like Three Women with a similar eye, we’ll never get anywhere.

    The other story from the manifesto, perhaps the one I think about the most, is about the Marquis de Sade, who is said to have taken the greatest pleasure in tearing the petals off a beautiful rose until all that was left of the flowers was its ugly, downy pistil: “the beautiful flower’s dirty secret.” Edenborg asserts that both pornography and anti-pornography benefit from the illusion that there is something that can be considered fundamentally human and all beauty hides a shameful secret, but “Only as long as it is hidden, can it be held to be true.” We need a different approach.

    Imagine a story about desire where desire was not ruinous.

    As I read Three Women, this sentence from Taddeo’s prologue followed me across every page: “Revolutions take a long time to reach places where people share more Country Living recipes than articles about ending female subjugation.” This point was driven home when Sloane, a woman with access to a metropolis, economic privilege, and culture, who one could perhaps expect to have encountered articles about female subjugation, reads the Fifty Shades trilogy; only then does something click about her lifestyle. EL James’ books “made Sloane feel sane. They normalized her lifestyle. Romanticized it, even. Before reading them, she’d often felt unsure of her place in the world.” Earlier, Taddeo writes of Sloane: “Perhaps, she reasoned, the people she couldn’t tell [about her lifestyle] were the repressed ones, and she was the healthy person. But none of the books she read and none of the television shows and films she enjoyed reflected that lifestyle. There had to be an anomaly in her.”

    The Fifty Shades trilogy gives Sloane a framework and a vocabulary with which to understand her husband: he had been taking the dominant role in their sexual life, and she the submissive. When Sloane discusses her revelation with a friend on the beach, the friend does not speak the same language, does not know this framework and does not possess the vocabulary. How isolated Sloane must have felt, without a shared language of desire. (And how isolated Sloane is—Lina and Maggie, too. Until this point, I had assumed that the fact of the people who guested in Sloane and Richard’s sex life meant that she was at least aware a likeminded community existed.) Desire is slippery and will sometimes lead us to situations that complicate existing arrangements, and we need a shared framework to aid us as we explore. The lack of one is why we so often stumble, I think, and why pleasure for pleasure’s sake can be so hard won, but also why playing with power dynamics can be so erotic. Imagine the pain and unhappiness that could be avoided if we were taught to cultivate our language of desire. Imagine a story about desire where desire was not ruinous.

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    Lina just wants her husband to kiss her, a deep French kiss. She and her husband Ed visit a therapist who suggests that, like how Lina doesn’t like the feeling of the scratchy blanket on the couch, Ed doesn’t like the feeling of kissing her: “The sensation offends him.” Later, when Lina asks, “have you thought about all the stuff we talked about in therapy, he said, Yeah, and I don’t have to do stuff I don’t wanna do.” Lina realizes that when Ed rejects her erotic advances, she forces compensations, like fixing something around the house. She finds no support among her friends: “Her friend doesn’t really get it. She thinks at least Ed is fixing things around the house. She is confused as to why Lina would want to have sex with her husband. She is confused about what Lina’s problem is.”

    Lina’s problem? Perhaps it is the same as Sloane’s: She is an anomaly in the circles within which she moves, and she craves community. Lina, at least, seeks out a support group where she can speak of her desire. I read her participation in the group as such: it was a space where she could talk about her desire, though not necessarily to a sympathetic crowd. Similar to her sexual encounters with Aidan, the act of telling her story to these women whom, I assume, she only sees in this context, is significant. Their opinions and quips don’t quite matter, even though their reactions have a disconcerting resonance with advice Taddeo’s mother gave her about never letting other women see you happy, along with a sense that the way we’re taught to speak ourselves is designed to leave us in isolation. What I’m also reading in these scenes is Lina showing up for herself, in spite of those women. She’s finding a way to listen to what is inside her, asking to be heard. Another way she reaches for this is in sex with Aidan.

    Aidan is that guy: average, doesn’t communicate with her in a way that is particularly caring or respectful, but their chemistry is off the charts. It’s heartbreaking how potent Lina’s relief is in those moments of ecstasy with him; the tiniest morsels he offers are cause for joy. They literally take the pain of her fibromyalgia away: “He reassures her it’s more than just sex. He says he’s not a player. He fills her ears with these wonderful words. It’s their first real conversation. He is not drunk. He is speaking! Her aches and pains disappear again.”

    “He is speaking!” What a crumb, what a tiny crumb. Let’s set Lina’s hope for love or a relationship aside. What stays with me is Lina’s relief. Getting her desires met, because “God how she missed and needed this sort of touch and affection. She missed big dicks! She’d never really had that many. She grew up Catholic and is still Catholic and is not the kind of person who jokes about being a recovering Catholic, but she’s also in touch with these needs she has.” These needs she has stand in conflict with the life she knows and the storytelling (Catholicism, for instance) that has provided a framework for her life and values.

    Fulfilling her erotic desires is a state of exception, taking place in a free zone of sorts, but out of place in the story of her life. Again, desire becomes linked with isolation, a lack of community. I can’t help up be reminded that people who are isolated from a community are easier to manipulate and control. This sort of manipulation comes to the fore in Maggie’s story of the secret relationship she had with her teacher: the stolen minutes he’d arrange for them in an empty classroom, and how when this story was brought up in court, it was impossible for the defense to imagine that a busy teacher and father could find the time for a tryst during the school day.

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    “Pornography eats us,” Edenborg writes. “Anti-pornography spits us out. Neither of the two love us.”

    Everyday details are especially devastating in Maggie’s story. On the night her high school teacher invites her over to his home—where he will watch a movie with her and eat her out and she will bleed on his comforter—she takes pains selecting her outfit (including a garment from a brand prized among her peers). When he waves her into his garage, our hearts drop along with hers when she sees he has made no similar effort. He’s wearing a Spamalot t-shirt. A young girl’s life is rattled off the tracks by a seducer who doesn’t even bother to dress for her on what is one of the most special occasions of her young life.

    These kinds of details underscore the tragedy of Maggie’s story: “Society treats girls like the one Maggie was as adults who have the faculty of making good decisions. She was a bright child with some hardship. A brilliant teacher like Aaron Knodel could have been the catalyst that propelled her into a lifetime of confidence and greatness. Instead, he became the opposite.” And indeed, when their relationship reaches its end because, as Mr. Knodel tells Maggie, his wife has seen their text messages, we are left knowing that Mrs. Knodel knows Maggie’s story is true but chooses to circle the wagons around her husband’s good reputation. If we believe Maggie, we can assume Mrs. Knodel lies under oath when her husband is brought to trial. In America, the only thing more sacrosanct than the individual is the family. Mrs. Knodel, and everyone who refuses to believe Maggie’s story, is complicit in sacrificing the well-being and reputation of this individual to the idea of a good family man. This is when I am reminded of the Marquis de Sade’s rose and the bored maharaja: the conditions of a society that enable such destruction.

    “Pornography eats us,” Edenborg writes. “Anti-pornography spits us out. Neither of the two love us.” To him, pornography is about exposure, and anti-pornography is about concealment. Both are phallocentric and “characterized to an extent on a similar view of gender, sexuality and truth. “Together they build a pornographic-antipornographic complex that presupposes the existence of a given, natural being, an inner, authentic character that can be twisted, exploited and sold.” Edenborg offers us a way out, a post-pornographic “salvation”: the parapornographic. It is a philosophy of pleasure beyond notions of purity and goodness. The body is non-Euclidian: instead of something with an interior that can be revealed, it is has an endless number of shifting sides. Edenborg wants us to be baptized in our bodily fluids, to embrace our filth.

    I’d like to take his idea of salvation a little further, to the idea of pleasure activism, which was introduced to me through the work of the genderqueer porn performer and pleasure activist Jiz Lee. The idea has come to fore recently with adrienne maree brown’s recent book Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, which weaves together strands of sex-positive feminism, healing and social justice to explore how “pleasure gets lost under the weight of oppression, and it is liberatory work to reclaim it,” according to Man Repeller. As Audre Lorde writes in “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” one of brown’s touchstones in her book, women have been taught to suppress the erotic as a “considered source of power and information in their lives,” and this is one of the ways oppression perpetuates itself. Pornography, in this context, “is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling.”

    In this way, Taddeo’s book reveals how sorely we need a shared language of desire and suggests the radical potential of the erotic empowerment in everyday life. If in our reading we reject the idea of a hidden interior and the beauty that hides a shameful secret, then we can begin to break down the patriarchal narratives that have been handed down to us establish values and norms—but that, as Taddeo’s shows us with these women’s stories, do not serve us at all.

    Saskia Vogel
    Saskia Vogel
    Saskia Vogel is a writer and Swedish-to-English literary translator from Los Angeles. Her debut novel Permission (Coach House Books, 2019), a story of love, loss and sacred sexuality, was published in five languages. She is a PEN Translation Award finalist and was awarded the Berlin Senat grant for non-German-language literature in 2021.





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