Opinionista Amy Heydenrych 30 September 2019

What kind of sex do women really want? Two recent books may have an answer

As gender-based violence dominates the news, it is difficult to write about sex without couching it in risk, violence and, for many, the uncomfortable vulnerability of giving something away. Yet sex should be joyful – a way to connect and an affirmation of life, even when the world around us is at its darkest.

In Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women, desire is complex, visceral and conflicted. She writes, “It’s the nuances of desire that hold the truth of who we are at our rawest moments… It’s the quotidian moments of our lives that will go on forever, that will tell us who we were, who our neighbors and our mothers were, when we were too diligent in thinking they were nothing like us.”

The non-fiction book – which has attracted global praise from huge names such as Esther Perel and Elizabeth Gilbert – promises an unflinching account of the sexual lives of three women. There is Maggie, a woman in her early twenties suffering from the fallout of a relationship with a married teacher in her high school, and Lina, who rekindles a high school romance after the end of her first marriage. Finally, there is Sloane, a seemingly immaculate woman who has it all, including regular threesomes with her husband.

It is a stunningly written portrait, filled with astute one-liners capable of voicing a new, unspoken perspective of female desire. Taddeo observes, “We pretend to want things we don’t want so nobody can see us not getting what we need,” and in voicing this, heterosexual female desire can be truly seen, stripped of the male gaze that has held it captive for centuries.

It is an important book written with captivating ease of storytelling, the kind that you can consume quickly yet still feel you have learned something through the fever of it. However, it is a grim portrait, too.

It feels as if every woman, no matter how hard she tries to assert her agency over her experience, feels the persistent impact of gender inequality framing her story for her.

Taddeo writes, “My mother never spoke about what she wanted. About what turned her on or off. Sometimes it seemed that she didn’t have any desires of her own.”

Three Women voices a new facet of female desire. It asks the question, “What now?” I believe SA sex expert Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng’s book, Dr T: A Guide to Sexual Health and Pleasure provides some sort of answer. She says, “The Pleasure Revolution is about understanding the many ways that sex happens, it is about consent and what it takes to have fulfilling sexual experiences.”

Like Taddeo’s Three Women, Dr T’s observations are based on conversations with men and women throughout her career as a doctor. Instead of focusing on three characters, she casts her net wider, which gives the book a sense of inclusiveness that Three Women (a tale, essentially of three white American women) sometimes lacks.

The book opens with a section on anatomy and bodily functions, then moves on to sexual pleasure and sexual rights. Where Taddeo exposes the beating emotional heart of the problems women may face in sex, Dr T gives us the language to identify what exactly is wrong and how to fix it.

Her book and the advice in its pages is not limited to women, “It’s for anyone who wants comprehensive sexual health information inclusive of anatomy, physiology of different bodily functions, medical conditions and discussions and tips about ways to have safer and more enjoyable sexual experiences.”

While any non-fiction book that includes definitions and anatomical discussions may sound textbook-dry, this is just the opposite. Dr T elevates sexual pleasure “to its rightful place alongside sexual health and sexual rights”. Sex is not something done to women, and sex should never be something that is feared.

As South Africans, we have a lot of work to do to eliminate gender inequality and gender-based violence. It is time for men, in particular, to step up. Books like these play an important role in reminding us that change begins at home, and that the more we speak and air the unspoken, the greater our chance to have the positive, life-affirming sexual experiences we deserve. ML

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo is published by Bloomsbury Publishing and distributed through Jonathan Ball.

Dr T: A Guide to Sexual Health and Pleasure is published by Pan Macmillan SA.

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