Three Women is a fascinating new book on sexual desire written by journalist Lisa Taddeo. It takes a deep dive into the sex lives and relationships of three American women who live in different parts of the country.
These women include Maggie, who has a sexual relationship with one of her teachers in high school that ultimately devastates her psychologically. Then there's Lina, who is in a passionless relationship with her husband that prompts her to seek out an affair with her high school crush. Finally, there is Sloane, who has an active sex life with her husband—a man she desires above all others—yet she has sex with other men, and sometimes with women, while her husband watches.
I had the honor of interviewing Taddeo recently about Three Women and, in a series of posts, I will be sharing some of the highlights from our discussion. Today, I’d like to start by exploring the psychology behind Sloane’s relationship.
Sloane is engaged in a sexual practice known as cuckolding, meaning she is having sex with other people while her partner/spouse looks on. I’ve written and spoken a lot in the past about cuckolding, but mostly from the perspective of the person watching (the voyeur, if you will). As a result, it was fascinating to have the chance to learn more about the perspective of the partner who is being watched and taking on the more performative, exhibitionistic role.
A excerpt from my conversation with Taddeo appears below, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
Justin Lehmiller: Let's talk about Sloane. She's engaged in a cuckolding relationship in which her husband is watching her have sex with other people. What I see in my data on sexual fantasies—and what we see in data on frequency of porn searches, too—is that cuckolding appears to be a very popular fantasy. A lot of people seem to be turned on by the idea of watching their partner having sex with someone else. Did you find this to be the case in researching your book as well?
Lisa Taddeo: Yes, I definitely think that's true. For example, beyond the story I tell in the book about Sloane and her husband Richard, I met another woman in Indiana whose boyfriend had cuckolding fantasies; however, he didn't want to watch in person. Rather, he asked his girlfriend to tell him about other men she’d been with. But she had to be careful not say that any of the penises were bigger than his. There were all of these lines that she couldn’t cross.
Cuckolding is so interesting to me. I wanted to explore cuckolding from the perspective of Sloane’s husband, too. But one of the reasons I didn't was because I didn't want to infringe upon Sloane's marriage. I think that she was able to tell me so much because it was kind of one-sided and her husband wasn't a part of it. So, while I would have liked to get a 360-degree approach to it, I also got to a point where I really just wanted to tell the women's stories.
Justin Lehmiller: I think it's interesting that in Sloane's experience with cuckolding, she sees herself as taking on a very submissive role. However, in my research on cuckolding fantasies, what I find is that people who picture themselves in the voyeuristic role—where they're watching their partner have sex with someone else—those people tend to have more fantasies about sexual submission in general. And the partners who want to have sex with somebody while their partner is watching them, that's actually linked to more fantasies about dominance.
So when I start looking at my fantasy data, I see that the power dynamics tend to be a little different than in the scenario that you described with Sloane. So, that made me wonder—do you think it could also be empowering for a woman to be in Sloane’s position?
Lisa Taddeo: I think that Sloane was in fact in a position of power. There were several instances that I mentioned in the book, but also more instances that I didn't put in the book, where she's walking around the room and feels completely in charge. She just feels like an exalted being. And she also feels like she is Richard’s [her husband’s] fantasy, and I think that's empowering.
I found that for a lot of people, the objects of the cuckolding fantasy felt empowered. It's a very give-and-take kind of relationship, because one person is very desired and the other person wants the other person to be desired by multiple people.
Justin Lehmiller: It's interesting that you say that. The way you approached writing this book was that you were trying to tell these women's stories through their eyes. And in the case of Sloane, you mentioned how when she read Fifty Shades of Grey—a story about female submission and male dominance—this gave her a framework for thinking about her cuckolding relationship. It led her to see herself as the submissive partner in the relationship. In fact, she started describing herself as a submissive to other people after reading Fifty Shades. At the same time, however, I also got the sense that she does have feelings of power, too.
It's interesting that, looking at it from the outside, you can see her in this position of power, but she doesn't feel like she's in a position of power and actually characterizes herself as a submissive. As a social psychologist reading this, I find that interesting in terms of the way we label our own sexual experiences, versus how outsiders perceive them.
Lisa Taddeo: Yes. I think that for Sloane, she thought it was submissive to be in that position. I think she didn't really know what it was, and I think she was happy with it, but the way that other people responded to her was unhappily. So for her, it was more like she felt like she was in a position of power, but people were telling her that she wasn't. Her best friend was telling her that she wasn't, and so it was difficult for her to see herself objectively. And then she read Fifty Shades of Grey and she's like, "Well, I'm a submissive." It was so wild to me when she called herself a submissive, because I did not think she was submissive.
I told her that and she said, "Well..." We talked a lot about that, and obviously my reading of her is just an opinion, but I would never call her submissive. The way that she ruled her husband's desire was so dominant to me. I didn't see what she was seeing. But I also think that part of what she was seeing was informed by what other people around her were telling her that she was.
Stay tuned for more from my conversation with Lisa Taddeo and be sure to check out her book Three Women.
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