The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus

Katie Roiphe
New York: Little, Brown, 1993
174 pp., $19.95 hc

Deborah Schaffer

Katie Roiphe's mother, Anne Richardson Roiphe, wrote Up the Sandbox, '60s feminist novel turned Barbra Streisand film. Roiphe herself grew up, after a childhood of feminist advantages, to write The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus. The book, she says, arose as a reaction to "current feminist sensibility" about date rape and sexual harassment, "out of the deep belief that some feminisms are better than others" (7). But her brand of "superior" feminist philosophy is so removed from the everyday upbringing and experiences of most women that one has to wonder whether it is lack of exposure or complete denial that colors her understanding of "bedroom politics" (6) and larger gender issues.

Roiphe's premise is that feminists are overstating the dangers of date rape and sexual harassment, thereby returning women to the same role of fragile, passive victim of men's evil that early feminists "fought so hard to get away from" (6). But her supporting evidence and arguments are less than convincing. In fact, her case for survival-of-the-fittest feminism, where only strong women exist, rests primarily on her own reactions to and (often specious) interpretations of the actions and statements of feminists and of rape and harassment victims--the more extreme and therefore atypical of the mainstream, the easier for her to argue against.

Take one of the most publicized of her arguments, that so many of the rape stories told at Take Back the Night rallies are so similarly worded that "the individual details fade, the stories blend together, sounding programmed and automatic.... As intimate details are squeezed into formulaic standards, they seem to be wrought with an emotion more generic than heartfelt" (36). This characterization is certainly offensive; why shouldn't a universally traumatic experience provoke universal descriptions, and even if the similar language is a result of shared counseling, how does that make the problem of rape itself any less real?

But Roiphe goes beyond trivializing the form of rape accounts to questioning their veracity: from two examples of false rape accusations, she hastily generalizes that "in the heat of the moment...the truth may be stretched, battered, or utterly abandoned. It's impossible to tell how many of these stories are authentic, faithful accounts of what actually happened. They all sound tinny, staged" (42). Margaret Emery (Time, 20 Sept. 1993), calls this accusation "a cheap shot, unprovable and callous," but it is also simply bad reasoning. If she truly doubts the authenticity of the majority of rape stories because two were spurious, I can only wonder how she would respond to Holocaust revisionists who tried to deny the existence of Nazi death camps on the basis of two false survival stories.

Roiphe actually contends that the anti-date-rape movement provokes false rape accounts, besides perpetuating a climate of fear and the stereotype of women as victims (44). She apparently thinks that if we don't put a name to something, it hasn't happened, and if we don't publicize women's vulnerability to sexual violence, then women will feel safe and liberated. Never mind that these events do happen, and that education and safety measures such as emergency phones on campus can reduce the dangers for women. Instead of recognizing education as an instrument both for empowerment and for changing the attitudes and behaviors that cause problems in the first place, Roiphe believes anti-rape programs debilitate and patronize women. She evidently would rather have us ignorant, proud, and susceptible than informed, cautious, and safe.

Roiphe's disregard for the rules of logic extends also to the use of statistics and social-science methodology. First, in Chapter 3 she enthusiastically reports criticisms of two landmark sociological studies of rape, but her attacks are themselves open to criticism. For example, she takes the 1985 Ms. rape study to task for saying that 25% of college women are raped. Roiphe argues, "If 25 percent of my female friends were really being raped, wouldn't I know it?" (52), evidently unaware both of statistical variability in small samples and of the findings in the same Ms. study that over a third of the victims had never before told anyone about the rapes. Moreover, the statistic she criticizes is not even accurate: the actual findings were that 15.3% of the survey respondents had been raped, while another 11.8% had experienced rape attempts (Sweet, Ms., Oct. 1985).

Likewise, in Chapter 6, Roiphe poisons the well of anti-pornography activist Catharine MacKinnon by denigrating her use of "studies and statistics" and "the language of empiricism" to give her discourse "a patina of scientific accuracy" (145), as if the very use of such methodology invalidates MacKinnon's arguments. Whatever difficulties opponents of MacKinnon's positions may have with her reasoning or the use to which she puts her data, her attempt to gather those data shouldn't be at issue.

In both of these chapters, Roiphe appears to be arguing that since date rape is such a subjective matter, perceived so differently by individuals involved in the same incident, trying to quantify aspects of it is not just pointless but misleading. And yet we take seriously other scientific, statistics-based studies of social phenomena; why should we exclude date rape from this avenue of research simply because it provokes such strong and varied reactions? Would it not in fact help everyone understand the complexity of the issue to investigate not just the incidents themselves, but also beliefs about rape and gender roles? And how can she exclude date rape from social-science investigation while at the same time arguing that the anti-rape movement, because it "unites such disparate elements" as political conservatives and radical feminists, "demands scrutiny" (49)?

This sort of contradictory reasoning becomes even more glaringly obvious when Roiphe decries date-rape education programs in one breath and in the next scolds college women for allowing themselves to get so high on alcohol or drugs that they become easy targets (53-54). Where else can these young, often inexperienced women be guaranteed a reliable education about avoiding the pressures not just to have sex but to drink or take drugs? Does Roiphe really believe that being "raised on Madonna videos and the six o'clock news...horror movies and glossy Hollywood sex scenes" (72) prepares someone to avoid a situation that arises so subtly that most victims can only recognize how they were manipulated after the fact?

Having "demythified" date rape to her satisfaction, Roiphe then tries to do the same for sexual harassment, a problem she also believes to be exaggerated, since "unwanted sexual attention is part of nature" (87). She finds the very idea that males of lower status (say, students) can sexually harass females of higher status (say, professors) "insulting" (89), and holds that it is "dangerous" (89) to support the view that men in our society are still more powerful than women because it serves "only to reinforce the image of women as powerless" (90)--another instance of her "don't admit it and it won't exist" philosophy.

She also makes serious charges specifically about academic sexual harassment: that the fear of being accused of it distances male professors from their female students, often to the point where females feel ignored (as if that situation were not already prevalent); and that "many" universities fail to follow due process in cases where faculty are accused of it, in one instance resulting in a professor's firing without legal counsel or a hearing. Certainly, if these situations are common, the anti-harassment movement needs to be restrained by the same legal safeguards that govern other employment decisions, but once again Roiphe paints a harsh picture without backing up her claims with hard evidence.

All in all, Roiphe seems to have an old-fashioned notion of sexual harassment. She apparently agrees with one French ministry's recommendation to respond to co-worker harassment with "a good slap in the face" (99), even though this gesture perpetuates violence as an all-purpose solution to problems and even though it fails to address harassment by superiors. She also speaks approvingly of a friend's response to a molester in a coffee shop: pour milk over his head (101). She seems to prefer that harassment recipients (let's not call them victims) attack their harassers physically or verbally rather than have us all learn about the nature of harassment and how to prevent or stop it, since here, as with date rape, she argues that such education, by "institutionalizing female weakness" (74) and reinforcing views of rape as defilement, simply make women more fearful and paranoid.

Roiphe's view of what qualifies as sexual harassment is also distinctly out of date. For example, her claim that "naughty words...have no special power to harm, humiliate, or invade" (163) is belied by years of linguistic research on language-and-power issues such as the effect of racist and sexist language on self-image. Perhaps she would acknowledge that some of the other categories of harassment included in the AAUW Educational Foundation's survey of schoolchildren (Hostile Hallways, 1993), such as touching, grabbing, forced kissing, and other forced sexual behavior, do qualify as harassment, but then she might take issue with the statistics indicating the frequency of these actions (although the credibility of the sample size and distribution is obvious). Would she take seriously the educational and emotional effects the harassed students reported, especially the findings that 70% of the girls but only 24% of the boys were "somewhat" to "very" upset by the harassment (17), and that a quarter or more of the girls reported various combinations of decreased school involvement and performance? I suspect she would see it all as more scare "rhetoric," which she claims is the real problem, transforming "perfectly stable women into hysterical, sobbing victims" (112).

Roiphe does voice a number of valid concerns about current sexual politics that should be taken seriously. Some activists may indeed be trying too hard to protect women at the cost of trust, risk-taking, and healthy sexuality; the danger of violence is truly real for everyone, men even more than women; there are real dangers posed by extremist positions if they gain dominance as official policy; the force of the word "rape" is weakened when it is used for lesser forms of verbal or emotional pressures that don't result in coerced sex. But her persuasive claims are overwhelmed by the illogic and lack of understanding she displays so frequently elsewhere. And what is perhaps most worrying is that similarly unaware people will believe her flawed arguments and will halt or even reverse the progress so painfully achieved by women over the past three decades.

In the end, I feel perhaps equal parts bemusement, impatience, and anger toward Roiphe's theses and arguments. She appears to have no grasp of the lives most women live, of the pressures they face from birth to conform and to please others; nor does she seem aware that women often lack the resources to fight back even if they recognize the need to do so. As one reviewer suggests, perhaps Roiphe "should spend some time in hospital emergency rooms, rape crisis centers and battered women's shelters to witness first-hand the frightening and increasing pattern of violence against women" (Onyango, Feminist Majority Report, Dec. 1993, 12).

After all her attacks on the most extreme and unrepresentative fringes of feminist thought, Roiphe turns out to be yet another extremist, and one who is especially dangerous because of her appeal to misogynists and social reactionaries alike.

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