The issue of homosexuality in Portnoy’s Complaint is raised as a corollary to Portnoy’s sexual identity. Throughout the book he speaks of his wild sexual endeavors with women and it seems to the reader that he is almost obsessed with his heterosexuality. He is constantly reminding the reader how much he lusts after women and one of the driving forces in his life is engaging in sexual relationships, whether it be with a woman or with himself. The question emerges however, after listening to countless sexual fantasies and their executions, why is this man so concerned with his sexuality?
While it is normal to some extent for many men to be sexual and concerned with their sexual needs, it seems that Portnoy is oversexed, raising the issue of overcompensation and the question of why he feels the need to do this. Much of the text plays around Portnoy’s relationship to Judaism and his loathing of the strict laws that are placed upon him by his mother. As we have previously discussed, Judaism and homosexuality are often compared and it can be understood that because Portnoy is so ashamed of his Judaism he is overcompensating through sex.
It is as if he wants the world to know that he is a “muscle Jew,” masculine in all ways, and full of sexual prowess. To further exemplify his shame about his Jewish identity, Portnoy can only be sexually potent with non-Jewish women. He fantasizes about Shiksas, and seeks out non-Jewish women to fulfill his sexual desires. We are privy to his fear of homosexuality in the text when he explains his testicle debacle and fears, “What if breasts began to grow on me too? What if my penis went dry and brittle, and one day … snapped off in my hand? Was I being transformed into a girl?
Or worse, into a boy such as I understood… that Robert Ripley of Believe it or Not would pay ‘a reward’ of a hundred thousand dollars for? “(Roth 39). In this excerpt Portnoy is acting hysterical, wildly imagining all the horrific things that might happen to his manhood. Rather than fear for his physical health and well-being, he is much more concerned with what the outside world will think of him and what sexual or gender category he will be placed into when they find out his abnormality. In Gilman’s, “The Jew’s Body,” he states that Jewish males suffer much more often from hysteria than non-Jewish males.
He says, “it is evident from the visual representation of the cases of hysteria that there is a clear ‘feminization’ of the male Jew in the context of the occurrence of hysteria”(Gilman 311CR). Because Portnoy is so fearful of being an inferior, queer Jew, he is absolutely hysterical, and determined to beat the odds, and prove to the non-Jewish world that there can be manly Jews. A similar example of Portnoy’s aversion to homosexuality emerges when he is ranting about his mother and saying what a miracle it is that he turned out to be heterosexual.
He says, “After all those years of setting up those tiles… ow I made it into the world of pussy at all, that’s the mystery”(125), and he goes on to describe what his idea of a gay lifestyle is, “Mother, the beach at Fire Island is strewn with the bodies of nice Jewish boys, in bikinis and Bain de Soleil, also little gentlemen in restaurants… “(125). Portnoy’s revelation that it is a mystery that he did not turn out to be homosexual exemplifies his fear and his hatred for the idea of the effeminate Jew, and his adamant decision to place himself outside of that category, he feels can only be done by exploiting women and advertising his masculinity.
In his endeavors to be in heterosexual relationships with shiksas, Portnoy cannot be satisfied. There are never enough sexual encounters to satiate his hunger, and as soon as one is finished he is already creating another fantasy to fulfill. This comes to fruition in Rome, when Portnoy has a three-some with The Monkey and a whore, calling it a “triumvirate. ” Portnoy says to himself before the event begins, “Oh God, isn’t she enough? Isn’t she rally sufficient for my needs? How many cocks have I got? “(137).
The answer here of course, is no. It is never enough; Portnoy will never be satisfied until the entire world knows that he is a strong, fornicating male. This is so imperative that he must engage himself sexually with not one, but two women; as if to say to the world, Look at me, I am a man! ” It seems that Portnoy must act in this way regardless of what sexual encounters he has because to him, it would be better to be dead like Ronald Nimkin than to be gay, as if that meant giving in to the sterotype of the queer Jew.
He wanted to be as manly, if not manlier than any non-Jewish man he could compare himself to. He was in awe of the shiksa girls, ice skating in Irvington, dreaming about what their brothers were like, and how to emulate them. He says, “For these are girls whose older brothers are the engaging, good-natured, confident, clean, swift, and powerful halfbacks for the college football teams”(145). In denying himself the possibility of being homosexual, Portnoy must be overtly masculine and denounce all that is to the contrary.
He refuses to accept the passive role of an inferior man, as this would point to the accepted notion that all Jews are queer and inferior. Lastly, it is ironic, that the one idol in Portnoy’s Jewish family is his cousin Heshie, the athletic, masculine, disobedient cousin who dated a shiksa girl named Alice. It is clear through Portnoy’s lauding description that he truly admires him. What is ironic about this admiration of Heshie, the bold, non-Jew-like idol, is that he is killed in the war, cementing the inevitability of Jews taking the role as queer regardless of their determination.