The XX Factor

If Philip Roth Hates Women, Why Does He Want To Have Sex With Them, Hmmm?

President Obama presents the 2010 National Humanities Medal to novelist Philip Roth in 2011.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

For Philip Roth’s 80th birthday, New York magazine put together one of its delightful poll pages asking other writers to weigh in on the author. Seventy-seven percent of those surveyed say that Roth is the greatest living American novelist, and 97 percent think he deserves to win the Nobel Prize. Inevitably, the question of Roth’s misogyny came up, with 17 percent of the literati saying that, yes, he is a misogynist, 30 percent saying no, and 52 percent saying “Wel l…”

Instead of acknowledging Roth’s sexism and then reconciling themselves to the fact that great artists can say terrible things in their art—this is my strategy for remaining a fan of the Rolling Stones—the interviewees decided to just skirt the obvious. Or deny it altogether, a la Keith Gessen, whose response was simultaneously ponderous and thoughtless: 

Does Roth hate women? What does that mean? If you hated women, why would you spend all your time thinking about fucking them? I do think he sometimes thought, as many men have also sometimes thought, that women were a foreign country.

“Women are a foreign country,” is, of course, one of the longest standing justifications for misogyny around, an artful way to reject seeing a woman’s point of view by claiming it’s impossible to do so. But to answer Gessen’s question (or to pretend that Gessen actually wants an answer), there’s a simple reason why one might hate women even while spending all his time “thinking about fucking them”: If you believe that women exist to cater to male desires, including the desire for sex, then a woman’s relentless insistence that she is a full human being with needs and desires of her own—which can include a desire not to have sex with you now or ever—must be very frustrating. It’s like being told by Let’s Go that the foreigners in the country you’re visiting are all accommodating and gracious and then finding out when you get there that they’re abrupt and uninterested in helping you with anything. You’re going to come home and complain to everyone you meet about how terrible that country is, and feel swindled.

But hey, I’m just a foreigner, so what do I know? (Or, as writer Nell Freudenberger told New York: “I don’t like the way [Roth] writes about women, and I don’t like the way I sound complaining about it.”) Better to quote David Wong at Cracked, a bona fide man, who last year explained very well how society teaches men to hate women by teaching them that they’re entitled to women’s bodies: 

From birth we’re taught that we’re owed a beautiful girl. We all think of ourselves as the hero of our own story, and we all (whether we admit it or not) think we’re heroes for just getting through our day.

So it’s very frustrating, and I mean frustrating to the point of violence, when we don’t get what we’re owed. A contract has been broken. These women, by exercising their own choices, are denying it to us. It’s why every Nice Guy is shocked to find that buying gifts for a girl and doing her favors won’t win him sex. It’s why we go to “slut” and “whore” as our default insults—we’re not mad that women enjoy sex. We’re mad that women are distributing to other people the sex that they owed us.

If you’re, say, a wealthy and beloved artist, you can get away with this frame of mind. Keith Gessen’s not famous enough.