Feminist Fridays: Masturbation Madness?

As I mentioned in my review of Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus collection, I’m currently taking senior seminar that solely focuses on Philip Roth. A few weeks ago I was assigned to read his 1969 novel Portnoy’s Complaint, and I have some thoughts. 

Portnoy’s Complaint is essentially one man’s long tirade about sex to his therapist. He starts by recounting his early years of experimenting with different ways of masturbating, from his sister’s bras to the liver that his family then ate for dinner. Throughout the novel we learn all about the women he’s hooked up with over the years, from prostitutes to random women he meets in his travels. Everything is described in graphic, explicit detail, including both the physical events as well as Alex’s (the narrator) thoughts about his many sexual experiences.

I don’t have a problem reading explicitly sexual books in class. What I have a problem is the blatant sexism in Roth’s novels and how it is often brushed off as being a mere “product of the time period.” Nope. Not an excuse. Just because something was written in a specific time and place does not mean it get’s a free pass to be read without any sort of discussion about its problematic elements. 

It also doesn’t help that the only women represented in Portnoy’s Complaint are those objectified for their bodies and who are thought of strictly in sexual terms. Even Alex’s mother is portrayed in this way, as shown when he implies that he wants to have sex with her (this novel is the definition of Freudian). And don’t get me started about Roth’s portrayal of menstruation: not only does he compare menstrual blood to that of meat, but he also claims that it was “better she should have bled herself out on the bathroom floor, better that, than to have sent an eleven-year-old boy in hot pursuit of sanitary napkins” (Roth 44). Why is this okay? And why don’t we talk about how it’s not okay?

Upon leaving my senior seminar on the day we discussed Portnoy’s Complaint, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed by all the things we hadn’t talked about. What about the way Alex calls one of the women he hooks up with “The Monkey”? What about how he only values women for their bodies, and once they start to talk about committed relationships or (gasp!) marriage, he calls them crazy and leaves them? Or what about the scene toward the end of the novel where he nearly rapes a woman? In what setting is it okay for these things to be brushed off in order to talk about Roth’s portrayal of Jewish identity for the millionth time this semester instead? 

Reading so much about masturbation from a man’s point of view also made me ask another important question: Why aren’t we reading about this from a woman’s point of view? Is there even an equivalent of this book written by a woman? If so, why isn’t it being talked about? If not, why hasn’t it been written? In a class dedicated to talking about the experiences of a man, I would hope for a bit more discussion about those of women. Considering recent events (particularly those in the United States), I feel as though Roth’s voice may not be the one that most desperately needs to be heard right now.

I understand the literary significance of Portnoy’s Complaint: it was revolutionary for its time, exploring topics of sex and masculinity in ways that hadn’t been done in such an explicit, graphic nature before. With that being said, there is absolutely no reason why we can’t discuss its enduring literary merit while also criticizing its problematic, sexist aspects. To do otherwise is to imply that what I feel as a woman reading this text doesn’t matter, that I should be able to turn off those emotions simply because it’s a “product of its time.” I’m sorry–I guess I’m just a product of my time, too.

Click here to check out other Feminist Friday posts!

What are your thoughts on Portnoy’s Complaint or about reading problematic/sexist texts in class? Have any feminist texts you would recommend? Let me know in the comments section below!



17 Replies to “Feminist Fridays: Masturbation Madness?”

  1. Wow, such an intense and powerful discussion. I have never read any of Roth’s though I still have his works on my shelves. I was kinda unsure if I wanted to read this book as I started reading your post, but then your words resonated with me and I felt the same angst that you feel for more sensible books from female PoV. I loved it!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. it’s always insane to dismiss biases as a “product of their time,” but that’s especially insane to say about a book from 1969?? it’s not like we didn’t know women were also people fifty years ago.

    i definitely think that it’s worth reading classics or other significant literary works even if they’re problematic – but it has to be done with care. i hate when i’m in a class in which we’re reading a problematic work and that aspect of it is brushed off in order to move on to the more positive elements of it. in a class i took a couple years ago, we read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and i was totally stricken by the sheer amount of sexism and female objectification in that book. but whenever i brought it up, my points were brushed off in favor of what’s easier to discuss. it made me really upset, and only more so when #MeToo allegations were made against Junot Diaz earlier this year.

    anyway. i think reading problematic works in classes can be a really worthy endeavor, but it has to be done carefully. it’s tempting to just say “this is problematic – now let’s talk about other stuff,” but what’s the point of that? if you don’t want to participate in a real, unrelenting critical discussion of a work, then you shouldn’t be teaching or learning that book in the first place, imo.


  3. “I guess I’m just a product of my time too.” High five!

    They should cleanse your palette with a class discussion of Little Women, paired with a reading of Anne Boyd Rioux’s new book contemplating its relevance in classrooms today.


  4. “I’m sorry–I guess I’m just a product of my time, too.” — what a badass line. You are awesome. 😊

    This post was really insightful, and I don’t really have much to add because I haven’t experienced or read a book that was blatantly sexist. I’m keeping your arguments in mind for any future books I read that might fall under that category, though.

    This was a really great & empowering post, Holly! ❤️


  5. okay Holly, first of all I need to say that I was reading parts of this to friends at a party last night and we were all enjoying it and getting irritated at ingrained sexism. I’s so with you–in my English Literature degree programme, I want to be doing wayyyy more feminist analyses than we currently are. we just finished reading a graphic novel that is about fantasies, among other things, and includes many graphic depictions of (mostly male) fantasies, which I really struggled with. the lecturer seems to think that critiquing a stereotype by continuing to depict it is something without repercussions, and while I appreciate in some ways what the author is trying to do (make us really uncomfortable with how we are invited to fantasise, I guess) I am also really sick of it. the author is coming in to talk to us next week and I will be asking some pointy (but polite) questions. thanks so much for you thoughts!


  6. While there are definitely problems of stalking and rape, Tampa by Alissa Nutting is a book about feminine sexual desire based on a real Florida case: a middle school teacher in her mid 20s, who was very sexually attractive, was seducing and having sex with her male students. She got out of going to prison because people had a hard time believing that the boy was affected negatively by his relationship with her–that because he’s a boy who had sex with a hot teacher, he’s “living the dream” or “the man.” Here is my review: https://grabthelapels.com/2017/09/05/tampa/


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