Roiphe's Sexual Continuum: A Phallic Narrative
The great thing about Katie Roiphe’s recent essay in the Times, The Naked and the Conflicted, a historical analysis of male authors' approach to sex scenes (or lack thereof in the case of contemporary authors) is that it got everyone talking. No matter what your take might be, Roiphe hit upon a cultural nerve, something that any lit reader must reckon with.
It's the kind of essay that people will refer to years from now. In fact, it's the kind of essay written to be the kind of essay that people will refer to years from now.
And it all began with a friend of Roiphe’s throwing away a Philip Roth novel (The Humbling of all books) in a New York subway because she was revolted by his sex scenes—the “disgusting, dated, redundant” nature of them.
“But why, I kept wondering, did she have to throw it out?” Roiphe asks. “Did it perhaps retain a little of the provocative fire its author might have hoped for?”
Roiphe eloquently provides a literary history of male authors' (all white and straight) embrace and indulgence in provocative sex scenes as a way to explore life and assert an existential stance of dare and virile conquest—at least those authors who came of age in the ‘50s.
In short, she’s validating the efforts of writers who have been maligned for their sexism, giving a long overdue shout-out for the nuances of their carnal endeavors. After all these years, she sees that their writing is about sexual connection and what that means to human connection. (To think that anyone could have maligned them as immature sex pots, traffickers in lit porn, specialists in the male gaze!?!—which they're guilty of, of course.)
“After the sweep of the last half-century, our bookshelves look different than they did to the young Kate Millett, drinking her nightly martini in her downtown apartment, shoring up her courage to take great writers to task in Sexual Politics for the ways in which their sex scenes demeaned, insulted or oppressed women,” Roiphe writes.
But Roiphe’s challenge isn’t so much in taking on Millett’s narrow view. It’s questioning the "heirs" of Roth, Updike, and Mailer—those emasculated, sensitive souls such as David Eggers, Michael Chabon, and Jonathon Franzen (who all probably read Millett in college, talked with their female friends about feminist theory, and did their damndest to be upstanding gentlemen of this new world in their behavior and their writing—only to end up being chastised for not slinging their dicks more in their prose—ouch!).
She describes today’s straight male authors as “cautious, entangled, ambivalent, endlessly ironic,” while the old guard is “almost romantic”: “it has a mystery and a power, at least. It makes things happen.”
“Our new batch of young or youngish male novelists are not dreaming up Portnoys or Rabbits. The current sexual style is more childlike; innocence is more fashionable than virility, the cuddle preferable to sex,” writes Roiphe.
Roiphe recounts a scene in Egger’s road trip novel, “You Shall Know Our Velocity,” where the hero leaves a disco with a woman and she undresses and climbs on top of him, and they just lie there: “Her weight was the ideal weight and I was warm and wanted her to be warm.”
Contrast that with a passage from Mailer’s “controversial obsession” of the “violence in sex, the urge toward domination in its extreme.” A sampling: “I wounded her, I knew it, she thrashed beneath me like a trapped little animal, making not a sound.” “He must subdue her, absorb her, rip her apart and consume her.”
While Roiphe’s points are compelling and worth a great deal of pondering—and Eggers' scene of warmth might be a tad laughable—she misses something. Perhaps it’s in her insistence that Eggers, Chabon, and Franzen are Mailer, Updike, and Roth’s heirs. They’re not.
Even as Roiphe's post-feminist feminism is reclaiming the male maestros of the sex scene, men have moved on. The above passages from Mailer sound utterly ridiculous now to a man exploring sexual attraction—or even conquest. If you’re a straight white man writing today (and for the first time in literary history, this is actually a fairly problematic endeavor, as Roiphe’s essay certainly demonstrates), a sex scene like Mailer’s has not only been ridiculously overdone, it’s become absurd in the past thirty or so years (let's call it game over with Bukowski).
Such writing is often only a few lyrical phrases above a Penthouse Forum column, and the contemporary male writers that Roiphe chastises for being, um, not man enough to write a sex scene, are man enough to plumb other nuances of male/female relationships that Mailer, Updike, and Roth are only scarcely aware of at best.
And who is to say that Eggers’ “cuddling” isn’t a different sort of commentary on the human connection that Roiphe claims to value?
In other words, the sex scene doesn’t make the man. And it’s a bit insulting to value an author’s work in such a scanty, narrow way. These contemporary authors haven’t posited sex as their subject like Mailer, Updike, and Roth did, so Roiphe’s comparisons aren’t truly relevant (i.e., she calls them “heirs” relentlessly, just because they are white, male, straight, and critically celebrated, not because they’ve patterned themselves after this old guard—in fact, they’ve disregarded the old guard).
One has to feel sorry for poor David Eggers and Benjamin Kunkel on Roiphe’s chart, doomed to reside on the “snuggling” end of the sexual continuum while Roth and Updike are celebrated with a long (gosh, even penile!) bar on the other end for their “outrageous behavior.” It's as if Eggers and Kunkel are the nerdy, bookish boys in high school being teased for not having muscles.
Isn’t Roiphe's graphic strangely phallic, but without irony? Suddenly the old, leering, lascivious professor seems to be back in vogue.
Still, Roiphe says that the “crusading feminist critics” who objected to the likes of Mailer “might be tempted to take this new sensitivity or softness or indifference to sexual adventuring as a sign of progress.”
But, no, this isn’t progress, Roiphe says. “The sexism in the work of the heirs apparent is simply wilier and shrewder and harder to smoke out. What comes to mind is Franzen’s description of one of his female characters in The Corrections: “Denise at 32 was still beautiful.”
Is that all of the sexism she can come up with. Is that wilier and shrewder and harder to smoke out?
Gosh, a guy can’t win for losing. A youngish male author has to feel somewhat doomed. Most of one’s young adult years spent hearing about how that “outrageous behavior” was, well, outrageous. Now it’s as if Katie Roiphe is hanging around Jack Nicholson, chuckling and winking with him, calling him “Uncle Jack.”
She seems to think that sexism is inherent in men, so they might as well embrace it in a Maileresque way, to spear rather than cuddle? In this sense, she posits such a ridiculous either/or of masculinity that her arguments become adolescent despite their erudite veneer. She reduces straight men to a single, highly limited sexuality. It’s a view that’s as reductive as, well, pornography.
I applaud Roiphe for revisiting these authors’ "outrageous behavior" and saving them from the politically incorrect graveyard. But I think she needs to rethink her position on the likes of Eggers and Chabon and grant them their own existential pursuits, their conquests—not as heirs, but as independent creators.
Journeys and battles and conquests don’t all have to happen in the bedroom, after all. Isn’t this one of the great benefits of feminism? Feminism didn't only unshackle women; it set some men free as well.