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Female desire is all the rage. But are the stories still too driven by men?

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What women want is a supposedly elusive mystery that has preoccupied writers for centuries. It’s the question posed to the rapist knight in Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale, whose life depends on finding the “correct” answer. In the 2000 film What Women Want, knowing that was a telepathic gift magically bestowed on Mel Gibson’s sleazy ad executive by a freak accident, a sly suggestion that this is the only way a man could hope to understand the complexity of a woman’s desires.

Nancy Friday’s 1970s books, My Secret Garden and its successors, supposedly lifted the lid on women’s fantasies, sold millions of copies and were received as either groundbreakingly feminist or damagingly anti-feminist, depending on who you asked. EL James’s astronomically successful Fifty Shades trilogy was credited with opening up a conversation about sexual power dynamics while reinforcing the most depressingly traditional and reactionary of them.

Now another exploration of female desire – Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women – is the No 1 bestseller in the UK and No 5 in the US. The writer Dave Eggers predicted that it would be one of the most “breathlessly debated” books of the year, and so it has proved – but why are we still so fascinated by the idea of “uncovering” the secrets of what women want, as if female sexuality remained uncharted territory?

Taddeo spent eight years on the book, immersed in the day-to-day lives of her three subjects, Maggie, Lina and Sloane. The result is a compelling account that braids their individual stories into a broader picture that........

© The Guardian