This is a book anyone involved in rape education should read. Roiphe runs the gamut on some of the most common arguments for victim-blaming. And because the media so embraced her book, and gave Roiphe so much publicity, some of her new arguments have been embraced by those determined to keep gender inequities at the status quo. --Aaron
"STICK to straight liquor," my father advised me when I left for college, in the fall of 1967. "That way, you'll always know how drunk you are." I thought he was telling me that real grownups don't drink brandy Alexanders, but, of course, what he was talking about was sex. College boys could get totally plastered, and the worse that would happen to them would be hangovers and missed morning classes. But if I didn't carefully monitor my alcohol intake one of those boys might, as they used to say, take advantage of me. Or, as they say now, date-rape me. Veiled parental warning like the one my father gave me- don't go alone to a boy's room, always carry "mad money" on a date, just in case- have gone the way of single-sex dorms, parietal hours, female-only curfews, and the three-feet-on-the-floor rule, swept away like so much Victorian bric-a-brac by the sexual revolution, the student movement, and the women's movement. The kids won; the duennas and fussbudgets lost. Or did they? In "The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus" (Little, Brown; $19.95) Katie Roiphe, a twenty-five-year-old Harvard alumna and graduate student of English at Princeton, argues that women's sexual freedom is being curtailed by a new set of hand-wringing fuddy-duddies: feminists. Anti-rape activists, she contends, have manipulated statistics to frighten college women with a nonexistent "epidemic" of rape, date rape, and sexual harassment, and have encouraged them to view "everyday experience"- sexist jokes, professional leers, men's straying hands and other body parts- as intolerable insults and assaults. "Stranger rape" (the intruder with a knife) is rare; true date rape (the frat boy with a fist) is even rarer. As Roiphe sees it, most students who say they have been date raped are reinterpreting in the cold grey light of dawn the "bad sex" they were too passive to refuse and too enamored of victimhood to acknowledge as their own responsibility. Camille Paglia, move over. These explosive charges have already made Roiphe a celebrity. The Time Magazine ran an except form her book as a cover story: "Rape Hype Betrays Feminism." Four women's glossies ran respectful prepublication interviews; in Mirabella she was giddily questioned by her own mother, the writer Anne Roiphe. Clearly, Katie Roiphe's message is one that many people want to hear: sexual violence is anomalous, not endemic to American society, and appearances to the contrary can be explained away as a kind of mass hysteria, fomented by man-hating fanatics. How well does Roiphe support her case? "The Morning After" offers itself as a personal testimony, with Roiphe- to use her own analogy- as a spunky, commonsensical Alice at the mad women's studies-and-deconstructionism tea party familiar from the pages of Paglia and Dinesh D'Souza. As such it's hard to challenge. Maybe Roiphe's classmates really are as she portrays them- waiflike anorexics, male-feminist wimps, the kind of leftist groupthinkers who ostracize anyone who says Alice Walker is a bad writer. Maybe Roiphe was, as the claims, "date-raped" many times and none the worse for it. The general tone of her observations is unpleasantly smug, but in her depiction of a tiny subculture on a few Ivy League campuses, she may well be onto something. The troupe is that "The Morning After," although Roiphe denies this, goes beyond her own privileged experience to make general claims about rape and feminism on American campuses, and it is also, although she denies this, too, a "political polemic." In both respects, it is a careless and irresponsible performance, poorly argues and full of misrepresentations, slapdash research, and gossip. She may be, as she implies, the rare grad student who has actually read "Clarissa," but when it comes to rape and harassment she has not done her homework. HAVE radical feminists inundated the nation's campuses with absurd and unfounded charges against men? Roiphe cites a few well publicized incidents: at Princeton, for example, a student told a Take Back the Night rally that she had been date-raped by a young man she eventually admitted she had never met. But Roiphe's claim that such dubious charges represent a new norm rests on hearsay and a few quotations from the wilder shores of feminist theory. "Recently," she writes, "at the University of Michigan, a female teaching assistant almost brought a male student up on charges of sexual harassment," because of some mildly sexist humor in a paper. When is "recently"? In what department of the vast University of Michigan did this incident occur? How does Roiphe know about it- after all, it only "almost" happened- and know that she got it right? Roiphe ridicules classmates for crediting and magnifying every rumor of petty sexism, but she does the same; hysterical accusations are always being made at "a prominent university." Don't they teach the students at Harvard and Princeton anyone about research anymore? Where I was able to follow up on Roiphe's sources, I found some fairly misleading use of data. Roiphe accuses the legal scholar Susan Estrich of slipping "her ideas about the nature of sexual encounters into her legal analysis" in "Real Rape," her study of acquaintance rape and the law - one such idea being that women are so powerless that even "yes" does not necessarily constitute consent to sex. In fact, in the cited passage Estrich explicitly lays that view aside to pursue her own subject, which is the legal system's victimization of women who say no. Nowhere does Roiphe acknowledge that- whatever may happen in the uncritical, emotional atmosphere of a Take Back the Night rally or a support-group meeting for rape survivors (a term she mocks)- in the real world women who have been raped face enormous obstacles in obtaining justice in the courts or sympathy from their friends or families. Nor does she seem to realize that it is the humiliation and stigmatization and disbelief reports by many rape victims, and documented in many studies, that have helped to produce the campus climate of fear and credulity she deplores. Indeed, the only time Roiphe discusses and actual court case is the argue that the law veers too far to the victim's side:In 1992 New Jersey's Supreme Court upheld its far reaching rape laws. Ruling against a teenager charged with raping his date, the court concluded that signs of force or the threat of force is [sic] not necessary to prove the crime of rape- no force, that is, beyond that required for the physical act of penetration. Both the plaintiff and the defendant admitted that they were sexually involved, but the two sides differed on whether what happened that night was rape. It's hard to define anything that happens in that strange, libidinous province of adolescence, but this court upheld the judgment that the girl was raped. If the defendant had been an adult he could have gone to jail for up to ten years. Susan Herman, deputy public defender in the case, remarked, "You not only have to bring a condom on a date, you have to bring a consent form as well."Roiphe should know better than to rely on a short item in the Trenton Times for an accurate account of a complicated court case, and she misrepresents even the sketchy information the article contains: the girl was not the boy's "date," and they did not both "admit" they were "sexually involved." The two, indeed, disagreed about the central facts of the case. The article does mention something Roiphe chose to omit: the girl was fifteen years old. The Supreme Court opinion further distinguishes this case from Roiphe's general portrait of date-rape cases: the hypersensitive female charging an innocently blunder male with a terrible crime for doing what came naturally and doing it without a peep from her. The offender, it turns out, was dating another girl living in the house where the rape took place, and not the victim, who, far from passively enduring his assault, did what Roiphe implies she did not: she slapped him, demanded that he withdraw, an, in the morning, told her mother, whereupon they went immediately to the police. It is absurd to use this fifteen-year-old victim- who had surely never heard of Catharine MacKinnon or Take Back the Night- as an example of campus feminism gone mad. And it is equally absurd to suggest that the highly regarded New Jersey Supreme Court, which consists of one woman and six middle-aged men, issued an unanimous decision in the victim's favor because it had been corrupted by radical feminism. The court did affirm that "signs of force or the threat of force"- wounds, torn clothes, the presence of a weapon- were not necessary to prove rape. This affirmation accord with the real life fact that the amount of force necessary to achieve penetration is not much. But it is not true that the court opened the door to rape convictions in the kinds of cases Roiphe takes fort the date-rape norm: sex in which the woman says yes but means no, or says yes, means yes, but regrets it later. The court said that consent, which need not be verbal, must be obtained for intercourse. It's easy to parody this view, as the defense counsel did with her joke about a "consent form"- but all that it really means is that a man cannot penetrate a woman without some kind of go-ahead. Roiphe ridicules this notion as "politically correct" and objects to educational materials that remind men that "hearing a clear sober 'yes' to the question 'Do you want to make love?' is very different from thinking, 'Well, she didn't say no'" But is that such terrible advice? Roiphe herself says she wants women to be more vocal about sex, yet here she is dismissive of the suggestion that men out to listen to them. Roiphe's attempt to debunk statistics on the frequency of rape is similarly illinformed. A substantial body of research, but no means all of it conducted by feminists, or even by women, supports the contention that there is a staggering amount of rape and attempted rape in the United States, and that most incidents are not reported to the police- especially when, as it usually the case, victim and offender know each other. For example, the National Women's Study, conducted by the Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center at the Medical University of South Carolina, working under a grant from the National Institute of Drug Abuse, which released its results last year, found that thirteen per cent of adult American women- one in eight- have been raped at least once, seventy-five per cent by someone they knew. (The study used the conservative legal definition of rape which Roiphe favors: "an event that occurred without the woman's consent, involved the use of force or threat of force, and involved sexual penetration of the victim's vagina, mouth or rectum.") Other researchers come up with similar numbers or even higher ones, and are supported by studies querying men about their own behavior: in one such study, fifteen per cent of the college men sampled said they had used force at least once to obtain intercourse. Roiphe does not even acknowledge the existence of this sizable body of work- and it seems she hasn't spent much time study the scholarly journals in which it appears. Instead, she concentrates on a single 1985 article in Ms. Magazine, which presented a preliminary journalistic account of an acquaintance rape study conducted by Dr. Mary Koss, a clinical psychologist now at the University of Arizona. Relying on opinion pieces by Neil Gilbert, a professor of social welfare at Berkeley. Roiphe accuses Koss of inflating her findings- one in eight students raped, one in four the victims of rape or attempted rape- by including as victims women who did not describe their experience as rape- by including as victims women who did not describe their experience as rape, although it met a widely accepted legal definition. It is unclear what Roiphe's point is- that women don't mind being physically forced to have sex as long as no one tells them it's rape? Surely she would not argue that victims of other injustices- fraud, malpractice, job discrimination- have suffered no wrong as long as they are unaware of the law. Roiphe also accuses Koss of upping her numbers by asking respondents if they had ever had sex when they didn't want to because a man give them alcohol or drugs. "Why aren't college women responsible for their own intake of alcohol or drugs?" Roiphe asks, and it may be fair to say that the alcohol question in the study is ambiguously worded. But it's worth noting that the question doesn't come out of feminist fantasyland. It's keyed to a legal definition of rape which in many states includes sex obtained by intentional incapacitation of the victim with intoxicants- the scenario envisioned by my father. Be that as it may, what happens to Koss's figures if the alcohol question is dropped? The number of college women who have been victims of rape or attempted rape drops from one in four to one in five. ONE in five, one in eight- what if it's "only" one in ten or twelve? Social science isn't physics. Exact numbers are important, and elusive, but surely what is significant here is that lots of different studies, with different agendas, sample populations, and methods, tend in the same direction. Rather than grapple with these inconvenient data, Roiphe retreats to her own impressions: "If I was really standing in the middle of an epidemic, a crisis, if 25 per cent of my female friends were really being raped, wouldn't I know about it?" (Roiphe forgets that the one-in-four figure includes attempts, but let that pass.) As an experiment, I applied Roiphe's anecdotal method myself, and wrote down that I know about my own circle of acquaintance: eight rapes by strangers, (including one on a college campus), two sexual assaults (one Central Park, one Prospect Park), one abduction (woman walking down street forced into car full of men), one date rape involving a Mickey Finn, which resulted n pregnancy and abortion, and two stalking (one ex-lover, one deranged fan); plus one brutal beating by a boyfriend, three incidents of childhood incest (none involving therapist-aided "recovered memories"), and one bizarre incident in which a friend went to a man's apartment after meeting him at a part and was forced by him to spend the night under the shower, naked, which he debated whether to kill her, rape her, or let her go. The most interesting think about this tally, however, is that when I mentioned it to a friend he was astonished,- he himself know of only one rape victim in his circle, he said- but he knows several of the women on my list. It may be that Roiphe's friends have nothing to tell her. Or it may be that they have nothing to tell her. With her adolescent certainty that bad things don't happen, or that they happen only to weaklings, she is not likely to be on the receiving end of many painful, intimate confessions. The one time a fellow student tells her about being raped (at knifepoint, so it counts), Roiphe cringes like a high-school vegetarian dissecting her first frog: "I was startled... I felt terrible for her, I felt like there was nothing I could say." Confronted with someone whose testimony she can't dismiss or satirize, Roiphe goes blank. ROIPHE is right to point out that cultural attitudes toward rape, harassment, coercion, and consent are slowly shifting. It is certainly true that many women today, most of whom would not describe themselves as feminists, feel outraged by male behavior that previous generations- or even those women themselves not so long ago- quietly accepted as "everyday experience." Roiphe may even be right to argue that it muddies the waters when women colloquially speak of "rape" in referring to sex that is caddish or is obtained through verbal or emotional pressure or manipulation, or when they label as "harassment" the occasional leer or off-color comment. But if we lay these terms aside we still have to account for the phenomenon they point to: that women in great numbers- but no means all on elite campuses, by no means all young- feel angry at and exploited by behavior that many men assume is within bounds and no bid deal. Like many of those men, Roiphe would like to short-circuit this larger discussion, as if everything that doesn't meet the legal definition of crime were trivial, and any objection to it mere paranoia. For her, sex is basically a boys' game, with boys rules, like football, and if a girl wants to make the team- whether by "embracing experience" in bed or by attending a formerly all-male college- she has to play along and risk taking some knocks. But why can't women change the game, and add a few rules of their own? What's so "utopian" about expecting men to act as though there are two people in bed and two sexed in the classroom and the workplace? Roiphe gives no consistent answer to this question. Sometimes she dismisses the problems as inconsequential: coerced intercourse is bad sex, widespread sexual violence a myth. Sometimes she suggests that the problem is real, but is women's fault: they should be more feisty and vociferous, be more like her and her friends, one of whom she praises for dumping a glass of milk on a boy who grabbed her breast. (Here, in a typical muddle, Roiphe's endorsement of assertive behavior echoes the advice of the anti rape education materials she excoriates.) Sometimes she argues the women's movement has been so successful in moving women into the professions that today's feminists are whining about nothing. And sometimes she argues that men, if seriously challenged to charge their ways and habits, will respond with a backlash, keeping women students at arm's length out of a fear of lawsuits, retreating into anxious nerdhood, like her male-feminist classmates, or even, like the male protagonist of David Mamet's "Oleanna," becoming violent: "Feminists, Mamet warns, will conjure up the sexist beast if they push far enough." Coming from a self-proclaimed bad girl and sexual rebel, this last bit of counsel is particularly fainthearted: now who's warning women about the dangerous of provoking the savage male? When Roiphe posits a split between her mother's generation of feminists- women eager to enter the world and seize sexual freedom- and those of today, who emphasize the difficulties of doing either, she has it wrong, and not just historically. (Sexual violence was a major theme of seventies feminism, in whose consciousness-raising sessions women first realized that rape was something many of them had in common.) The point she misses is that it was not the theories of academics or of would-be Victorian maidens masquerading as Madonna fans that made sexual violence and harassment an issue. It was the movement of women into male dominated venues- universities, professions, blue-collar trades- in sufficiently great numbers to demand real accommodation from men both at work and in private life. If Roiphe's contention that focussing on "victimhood" reduces women to passivity were right, the experience of Anita Hill would have sent feminists off weeping, en masse, to a separatist commune. Instead, it sparked a wave of activism that revitalized street-level feminism and swept unprecedented numbers of women into Congress. Roiphe is so intent on demonizing the anti-rape movement that she misses an an opportunity to address a real deficiency of much contemporary feminism. The problem isn't that acknowledging women's frequent victimization saps their get-up-and-go and allows them to be frail flowers; it's that the discourse about sexuality says so little about female pleasure. Unfortunately, Roiphe, too, is silent on this subject. We hear a lot about heavy drinking, late nights, parties, waking up in strange beds, but we don't hear what made those experiences worth having, except as acts of rebellion. In a revealing anecdote, she cites with approval a friend who tells off obscene phone callers by informing them that she was her high school's "blow job queen." Not to detract from that achievement, but one wonders at the unexamined equation of sexual service and sexual selfhood. Do campus bad girls still define their prowess by male orgasms rather than their own? It's sad for Roiphe and her classmates that they are coming of age sexually at a time when sex seems more fraught with danger and anxiety than ever. Indeed, AIDS is the uneasily acknowledged specter hovering over "The Morning After": the condom, not the imaginary consent form, is what really put a damper on the campus sex scene. Certainly AIDS gives new urgency to the feminist campaign for female sexual self-determination, and has probably done a lot, at both conscious and unconscious levels, to frame that quest in negative rather than positive terms. But that's just the way we live now- and not only on campus. Rape, coercion, harassment, the man who edits his sexual history and thinks safe sex kills passion, the obscene pone call that is no longer amusing because you're not in the dorm anymore but living by yourself in a not so safe neighborhood and it's three in the morning: it's not very hard to understand why women sometimes sound rather grim about relations between the sexes. It would be wonderful to hear more from women who are nonetheless "embracing experience," retaining the vital spark of sexual adventure. Roiphe prefers to stick to the oldest put-down of all: Problems? What problems? It's all in your head.
Return to InteractiveTheatre.org