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Memories of World War II


Sex in the '50s
Philip Roth Writer
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You came all this way. My sexual awakening; well I guess it began when I was about 12 and I awakened. Nothing happened; there was nothing that could happen. You have to realize that I woke up to sex in a tremendously repressive era, and I didn't know anything, you know, what I could gather from the other boys, and they didn't know anything either. And the girls were… the girls were straight jacketed, you couldn't get near them. You could kiss a girl, you know, but… and maybe you could even touch her, but that's… and you had to struggle for that. Elaborate wrestling matches ensued, you know. So I was 12, 13, 14, 15 and that's… that was my experiencing of sex, just what I described. In my last year of high school I had a girlfriend, Betty Rogo her name was, very sweet pretty girl; now dead. I don't know what we did, we wrestled, you know, and we panted and we secreted. But… we never had intercourse. It was out of the question, it wasn't in the cards. And then I went off to college and it was pretty much the same. I took out some girls who I found very pretty and I wrestled with them. And finally I got a girlfriend in the last few years of college and we became lovers and we learned with each other. We were clumsy and then we were less clumsy. But it wasn't much to write home about, nor would I have written home about it. The thing… now we're in 1954 and this is… this is what it was like in the '50s, maybe not for everyone, maybe there were some lucky guys, you know, who had more vivid and varied experiences, but I didn't. I don't say this with any regret or remorse, those were just the rules of the game. The girls… no… you couldn't go inside the girls' dormitory if you were male. You couldn't bring a girl into your dormitory. You couldn't… you had to live in the dormitory. You couldn't have a car. Where was… where was this thing supposed to take place, you know? And it took place… something took place at the end of the night when you'd walk the girl back to the dormitory and there would be all these couples, vertical couples in each other's arms doing the best they could do standing up, clothed. Things have changed. So that's what the era was like, and I try to write about it in Indignation. When I wrote that book I wanted to write about several things. One was having Korea hang over one's head while you were in college, the war, and the other was the social norms, which are so wildly different from the social norms today; wildly different. Who'd have thunk it, you know?

The fame of the American writer Philip Roth (1933-2018) rested on the frank explorations of Jewish-American life he portrayed in his novels. There is a strong autobiographical element in much of what he wrote, alongside social commentary and political satire. Despite often polarising critics with his frequently explicit accounts of his male protagonists' sexual doings, Roth received a great many prestigious literary awards which include a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1997, and the 4th Man Booker International Prize in 2011.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Indignation, Korea

Duration: 4 minutes, 41 seconds

Date story recorded: March 2011

Date story went live: 18 March 2013