Magazine article Insight on the News

Youthful Voice Roils Rape-Crisis Debate

Magazine article Insight on the News

Youthful Voice Roils Rape-Crisis Debate

Article excerpt

Summary: Intrigued by suspiciously high reports of date rape on campuses, Princeton graduate student Katie Roiphe wrote a book challenging the politically correct wisdom - and found herself at the center of a controversy that may redefine feminism.

To her admirers, she is a fresh voice rebelling against images of women as fragile creatures in need of protection; to her detractors, she's a callous elitist propagating an insidious notion that women must learn to accept sexual abuse as a fact of life.

Katie Roiphe, only 25 years old, is at the center of a controversy that shows no signs of abating. Although she has supporters (conservative columnist George Will and liberal author Wendy Kaminer) and critics (Katha Pollitt of the left-wing Nation and Carol Iannone of the neoconservative Commentary) at both ends of the political spectrum, she doesn't see herself as part of a political movement. But she certainly knew, as she was writing her book, The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus (Little, Brown), that it would be debated in political terms - though she says she had no idea the debate would be this intense.

The book had its origins in an op-ed piece in the New York Times two years ago comparing college pamphlets on date rape prevention to Victorian guides on proper conduct. Campus activists, Roiphe concluded, were blurring the lines between rape and bad sexual experiences, in the process breathing new life into musty stereotypes of weak, delicate women preyed upon by lewd, brutish men.

"What spurred me on to write the book was that people were so angry, there were so many letters," says Roiphe, a graduate student in English at Princeton University, where she is completing her dissertation on Freudian psychoanalysis and American literature of the forties and fifties. Several of her fellow graduate students circulated a petition (signed by two faculty members) castigating her for failing to accept "the extent to which gender, race and class have radically been given voice in the academy."

"I felt the need to clarify the point and defend myself," Roiphe explains. "It also made me feel that this is something that should be said, because a lot of people feel this way and yet it's not a commonly articulated position."

While Roiphe was not the first to question the date rape crusade, she was in a unique position to challenge it. Not only does she belong to the generation most directly affected by what she calls "rape-crisis feminism," but she also is hard to peg as a reactionary. Her mother, Anne Roiphe, is the author of the 1970 novel Up the Sandbox, widely regarded as a feminist classic.

Indeed, The Morning After explicitly incorporates the perspective of a young woman raised in a home where feminism meant freedom - to explore the world, assert your own opinions, be everything that you could and wanted to be.

In her freshman year at Harvard University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in English in 1990, the annual "Take Back the Night" march on campus gave her a glimpse of something different: "All of a sudden, being a feminist meant being angry about men looking at you in the street, or shouting about date rape - things I didn't associate with the kind of feminism that I grew up with or that I learned from my mother." She found the often-repeated statistic that one in four college women is a victim of rape or attempted rape hard to believe, in light of the rarity of reports or even rumors of sexual assault on campus. Yet the pressure to conform kept Roiphe from openly stating her misgivings. The accumulated frustration ("I've been on campuses now for seven years," she notes archly) is one reason for her present outspokenness.

Outspoken she certainly is. In The Morning After, she writes that the feminists who devise sexual harassment guidelines "seem to have forgotten childhood's words of wisdom: sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me. …

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