Why Do Women Waste Emotional Energy on Men?
Journalist Lisa Taddeo's new blockbuster, 'Three Women,' asks the big questions.
Posted Jul 08, 2019
The Beginning of Desire
Women’s and men’s desires are different, as most everyone knows. And in this difference lie the seeds of a universe of regrets.
A man’s yearning to possess his partner tends to vanish once he ejaculates. For women, the climax is often merely the beginning of desire.
The exhaustibility of male desire, and the relative inexhaustibility of female desire, have alarming implications for the average heterosexual woman’s peace of mind. If you’re a woman, you’re much more likely to be left yearning for more.
Preparing to Meet a Lover
In the prologue to her new book, Three Women, journalist Lisa Taddeo describes how she set out to write a book about desire in general. But she quickly discovered that most men’s desire, bookmarked as it tends to be by their orgasms, was too limited to be interesting. Women’s desire, having no such limitations, more readily provided the material for a good story.
“For some women,” writes Taddeo, “preparing to meet a lover is nearly as hallowed a time as the actual meeting. In some cases, it’s better, because at length the lover leaves, or someone loses interest, but the tender moments of anticipation remain.”
The fact that female desire often grows stronger after sex while a man’s desire tends to diminish is manifestly unfair to women. As Taddeo notes, “Throughout history men have broken women’s hearts in a particular way. They love them or half-love them and then grow weary and spend weeks and months extricating themselves soundlessly, pulling their tails back into doorways, drying themselves off, and never calling again. Meanwhile, women wait. The more in love they are and the fewer options they have, the longer they wait, hoping he will return with a smashed phone, with a smashed face, and say, I’m sorry, I was buried alive and the only thing I thought of was you....”
The Most Potent Aphrodisiac of All
But love ordinarily turns unpleasure into erotic lemonade. Men tend to not enjoy stories of erotic love and heartache, but for many women, these are the most potent aphrodisiacs of all.
What gives such a story shape, as Taddeo notes in the passage quoted above, is the intensity of the female protagonist’s love and the limited number of other options she has. In Three Women, it’s the latter element that gives the stories their heft. The most erotic of the stories is that of a woman named Lina, a single mother for whom a one-night stay at an inexpensive hotel becomes a risky economic proposition.
As in Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives, to which the title of Taddeo’s book pays a kind of homage, the three protagonists in Three Women are the sorts of individuals whose passions don’t ordinarily get committed to paper. Taddeo is both a journalist and an accomplished fiction writer. She spent years interviewing and researching the lives of her three main subjects, then transformed this immense amount of raw material into stories that one simply can’t put down.
Love and Waiting
In the first story, 17-year-old Maggie turns to her favorite teacher in high school for advice—only to have him fall in love with her. Eventually she reciprocates his love. That’s when the waiting begins. Now several years later, 30 pounds heavier, and dependent on a cocktail of psychotropic medications to get through the day, she’s decided to press charges against him for corrupting a minor.
In the first chapter, Maggie begins her deposition to the opposing attorney. Hooked, you eagerly turn to the next chapter to find out how the deposition will end, only to find instead the beginning of another story—of another teenage girl, Lina, who, as the chapter begins, gets asked out on a date by someone she’s fantasized about for a long time. By the end of the chapter, grown bored with him, Lina accepts a date with an older boy and ends up drugged and raped by him and his friends.
Then this story, too, gets suspended mid-way, and a third story begins. At first, it’s hard to follow all three stories at once. But you’re in the presence of a master storyteller, and after a while, you find you can keep all three stories quite easily in your head.
A Holograph of Desire
As the stories ping back and forth, you recall the author’s stated intent to assemble a picture of women’s desire from the fragments on hand. And, in fact, the stories do seem to coalesce into a kind of holographic portrait of desire.
Heterosexual relationships, Taddeo implies, seem fated to be sad for women. The average adult, heterosexual man doesn’t ask for very much, and he’s limited in how much he’s able to give. He’d like a good meal, a bit of praise for helping with the dishes, then permission to go watch a ballgame in the den. Women in my office often tell me they’ve given up hoping their husbands will desire them in the way they need to be desired.
As Edith Wharton wrote a century or so ago in her story, “The Fulness of Life”: “I have sometimes thought that a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms. There is the hall, through which everyone passes in going in and out; the drawing room, where one receives formal visits; the sitting-room, where the members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.”
Sex, Gender, and Emotional Processing
The average heterosexual man doesn’t come near to engaging his female partners’ erotic capacities. Her mind simply has more rooms than his. What’s more, her ability to delight in sensations is far greater—as any man who’s ever accompanied his wife to a crafts fair can attest.
Biology surely plays a part in this. Male-to-female transgender activist Julia Serano describes how, when she first started on female hormones, she’d kiss or nuzzle her wife, and it felt as though fireworks were going off in her brain—something she’d never felt as a man.
For hundreds of thousands of years on the plains of Africa, women specialized in nurturing the young—something that required a high degree of attunement. Men specialized in hunting wild animals and defending the group from attackers—activities where emotional sensitivity might be a disadvantage.
It’s likely that high levels of prenatal testosterone produce a numbing of men’s senses and a dumbing-down of their capacities for connection. An adult encounter between a heterosexual woman and her male partner often comes to resemble a supercomputer encountering a mobile phone.
How to Love Your Most Unappealing Child
So why do women waste so much emotional energy on men?
Adult, heterosexual, female love often seems to involve a misfiring of maternal feelings. Nature equips a woman to love even her most unappealing child, and women seem to draw on this capacity when faced with a disappointing man.
In Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person,” which went viral in 2017, the female protagonist seems initially drawn to a somewhat downtrodden partner chiefly because his initial appearance activates a kind of motherly concern for his well-being.
In Stephenie Meyer’s book Twilight, which plays a part in one of the stories in Three Women, a large part of vampire hero Edward’s appeal is his ability to suffer for his beloved. It’s such a captivating trait, as it is in most romance novels, because it’s something rarely found in nature.
The Erotics of Suffering
Most men lack a woman’s ability to enjoy a bit of suffering as part of the erotic drama. Sexual masochism would seem to provide an interesting exception to this rule.
In the last of Taddeo’s stories, a woman named Sloane learns that her husband gets turned on by seeing her have sex with other men, an activity that presumably provides him with a mixture of voyeuristic and masochistic pleasure.
Might this give Sloane a psychological advantage over her husband? Unfortunately not. Turns out the main reason she consents to keep doing it is to serve him. It turns her on to be subservient to his will.
When the debate begins over the composite portrait of women’s desire that emerges in Three Women, one of the most contested aspects may be Taddeo’s implicit suggestion that there’s always a certain measure of unhappiness in the mix. Perhaps it’s simply the residue of patriarchy. Maybe the next generation will experience things differently. Only time will tell.
Perhaps suffering is only necessary for a story about desire, and not necessarily in the thing itself. But given how central the construction of stories seems to be for so many women, it’s possible that some measure of torment will always be required to move the plot along.
Stein, Gertrude. Three Lives (1909). NY: Penguin Classics, 1990.
Taddeo, Lisa. Three Women. NY: Simon and Schuster, 2019.