Roiphe is a doctoral candidate in English literature
at Princeton University. This article is adapted
from her book, "The Morning After: Sex,
Fear, and Feminism on Campus," published
in September 1993 by Little, Brown.
One in four
college women has been the victim of rape or
attempted rape. One in four. I remember standing
outside the dining hall in college, looking
at the purple poster with this statistic written
in bold letters. It didn't seem right. If sexual
assault was really so pervasive, it seemed strange
that the intricate gossip networks hadn't picked
up more than one or two shadowy instances of
rape. If I was really standing in the middle
of an "epidemic," a "crisis"-
if 25 percent of my women friends were really
being raped- wouldn't I know it?
were not presenting facts. They were advertising
a mood. Preoccupied with issues like date rape
and sexual harassment, campus feminists produce
endless images of women as victims-- women offended
by a professor's dirty joke, women pressured
into sex by peers, women trying to say no but
not managing to get it across.
of the delicate female bears a striking resemblance
to that 50's ideal my mother and other women
fought so hard to leave behind. They didn't
like her passivity, her wide-eyed innocence.
They didn't like the fact that she was perpetually
offended by sexual innuendo. They didn't like
her excessive need for protection. She represented
personal, social, and intellectual possibilities
collapsed, and they worked and marched, shouted
and wrote to make her irrelevant for their daughters.
But here she is again, with her pure intentions
and her wide eyes. Only this time it is the
feminists themselves who are breathing new life
Is there a rape
crisis on campus? Measuring rape is not as straightforward
as it might seem. Neil Gilbert, professor of
social welfare at the University of California
at Berkeley, questions the validity of the one-in-four
statistic. Gilbert points out that in a 1985
survey undertaken by Ms. magazine and financed
by the National Institute of Mental Health,
73 percent of the women categorized as rape
victims did not initially define their experience
as rape; it was Mary Koss, the psychologist
conducting the study, who did.
One of the questions
used to define rape was: "Have you had
sexual intercourse when you didn't want to because
a man gave you alcohol or drugs." The phrasing
raises the issue of agency. Why aren't college
women responsible for their own intake of alcohol
or drugs? A man may give her drugs, but she
herself decides to take them. If we assume that
women are not all helpless and naive, then they
should be responsible for their choice to drink
or take drugs. If a woman's "judgment is
impaired" and she has sex, it isn't always
the man's fault; it isn't necessarily always
As Gilbert delves
further into the numbers, he does not necessarily
disprove the one-in-four statistic, but he does
clarify what it means-- the so-called rape epidemic
on campuses is more a way of interpreting, a
way of seeing, than a physical phenomenon. It
is more about a change in sexual politics than
a change in sexual behavior. Whether or not
one in four college women has been raped, then.
is a matter of opinion, not a matter of mathematical
That rape is
a fact in some women's lives is not in question.
It's hard to watch the solemn faces of young
Bosnian girls, their words haltingly translated,
as they tell of brutal rapes; or to read accounts
of a suburban teen-ager raped and beaten while
walking home from a shopping mall. We all agree
that rape is a terrible thing, but we no longer
agree on what rape is. Today's definition has
stretched beyond bruises and knives, threats
of death or violence to include emotional pressure
and the influence of alcohol. The lines between
rape and sex begin to blur. The one-in-four
statistic on those purple posters is measuring
something elusive. It is measuring her word
against his in a realm where words barely exist.
There is a gray area in which one person's rape
may be another's bad night. Definitions become
entangled in passionate ideological battles.
There hasn't been a remarkable change in the
number of women being raped; just a change in
how receptive the political climate is to those
The next question,
then, is who is identifying this epidemic and
why. Somebody is "finding" this rape
crisis, and finding it for a reason. Asserting
the prevalence of rape lends urgency, authority
to a broader critique of culture.
In a dramatic
description of the rape crisis, Naomi Wolf writes
in "The Beauty Myth" that "cultural
representation of glamorized degradation has
created a situation among the young in which
boys rape and girls get raped as a normal course
of events." The italics are hers ["as..."
in italics in original]. Whether or not Wolf
really believes rape is a part of the "normal
course of events" these days, she is making
a larger point. Wolf's rhetorical excess serves
her larger polemic about sexual politics. Her
dramatic prose is a call to arms. She is really
trying to rally the feminist troops. Wolf uses
rape as a red flag, an undeniable sign that
things are falling apart.
From Susan Brownmiller-
who brought the politics of rape into the mainstream
with her 1975 best seller, "Against Our
Will: Men, Women, and Rape"- to Naomi Wolf,
feminist prophets of the rape crisis are talking
about something more than forced penetration.
They are talking about what they define as a
"rape culture." Rape is a natural
trump card for feminism. Arguments about rape
can be used to sequester feminism in the teary
province of trauma and crisis. By blocking analysis
with its claims to unique pandemic suffering,
the rape crisis becomes a powerful source of
eyes wide open with concern, a college senior
tells me that she believes that one in four
is too conservative an estimate. This is not
the first time I've heard this. She tells me
the right statistic is closer to one in two.
That means that one in two women are raped.
It's amazing, she says, amazing that so many
of us are sexually assaulted every day.
What is amazing
is that this student actually believes that
50 percent of women are raped. This is the true
crisis. Some substantial number of young women
are walking around with this alarming belief:
a hyperbole containing within it a state of
Rape: Is Dating Dangerous?" is a pamphlet
commonly found at counseling centers. The cover
title rises from the shards of a shattered photograph
of a boy and a girl dancing. inside, the pamphlet
offers a sample date-rape scenario. She thinks:
really good looking and he had a great smile...
We talked and found we had a lot in common.
I really liked him. When he asked me over to
his place for a drink I thought it would be
O.K. He was such a good listener and I wanted
him to ask me out again."
She's just looking
for a sensitive boy, a good listener with a
nice smile, but unfortunately his intentions
are not as pure as hers. Beneath that nice smile,
really hot, wearing a sexy dress that showed
off her great body. We started talking right
away. I knew that she liked me by the way she
kept smiling and touching my arm while she was
speaking. She seemed pretty relaxed so I asked
her over to my place for a drink... When she
said 'Yes' I knew that I was going to be lucky!"
stereotypes don't just educate freshmen about
rape. They also educate them about "dates"
and about sexual desire. With titles like "Friends
Raping Friends: Could It Happen to You?"
date-rape pamphlets call into question all relationships
between men and women. Beyond warning students
about rape, the rape-crisis movement produces
its own images of sexual behavior, in which
men exert pressure and women resist. By defining
the dangerous date in these terms- with this
type of male and this type of female, and their
different expectations these pamphlets promote
their own perspective on how men and women feel
about sex: men are lascivious, women are innocent.
The sleek images
of pressure and resistance projected in rape
education movies, videotapes, pamphlets, and
speeches create a model of acceptable sexual
behavior. The don'ts imply their own set of
do's. The movement against rape, then, not only
dictates the way sex shouldn't be but also the
way that it should be. Sex should be gentle,
it should not be aggressive; it should be absolutely
equal, it should not involve domination and
submission; it should be tender, not ambivalent;
it should communicate respect, it shouldn't
communicate consuming desire.
Rape," Susan Estrich, a professor of law
at the University of Southern California Law
Center, slips her ideas about the nature of
sexual encounters into her legal analysis of
the problem of rape. She writes: "Many
feminists would argue that so long as women
are powerless relative to men, viewing a "yes"
as a true consent is misguided... Many women
who say yes to men they know, whether on dates
or on the job, would say no if they could...
Women's silence sometimes is the product not
of passion and desire but of pressure and fear."
most rape-crisis feminists claim they're not
talking about sex; they're talking about violence.
But, like Estrich, they are also talking about
sex. With their advice, their scenarios, their
sample aggressive male, the message projects
a clear commentary of sexuality: women are often
unwilling participants. They say yes because
they feel they have to, because they are intimidated
by male power.
The idea of
"consent" has been redefined beyond
the simple assertion that "no means no."
Politically correct sex involves a yes, and
a specific yes at that. According to the premise
of "active consent," we can no longer
afford ambiguity. We can no longer afford the
dangers of unspoken consent. A former director
of Columbia's date-rape education program told
New York magazine, "Stone silence throughout
an entire physical encounter with someone is
not explicit consent."
practical, apparently clinical proscription
cloaks retrograde assumptions about the way
men and women experience sex. The idea that
only an explicit yes means yes proposes that,
like children, women have trouble communicating
what they want. Beyond its dubious premise about
the limits of female communication, the idea
of active consent bolsters stereotypes of men
just out to "get some" and women who
don't really want any.
feminists express nostalgia for the days of
greater social control, when the university
acted in loco parentis and women were protected
from the insatiable force of male desire. The
rhetoric of feminists and conservatives blurs
and overlaps in this desire to keep our youth
safe and pure.
By viewing rape
as encompassing more than the use or threat
of physical violence to coerce someone into
sex, rape-crisis feminists reinforce traditional
views about the fragility of the female body
and will. According to common definitions of
date-rape, even "verbal coercion"
or "manipulation" constitute rape.
Verbal coercion is defined as "a woman's
consenting to unwanted sexual activity because
of a man's verbal arguments not including verbal
threats of force." The belief that "verbal
coercion" is rape pervades workshops, counseling
sessions and student opinion pieces. The suggestion
lurking behind this definition of rape is that
men are not just physically but intellectually
and emotionally more powerful than women.
sitting around in a circle talking about how
she called him impotent and how she manipulated
him into sex, how violated and dirty he felt
afterward, how coercive she was, how she got
him drunk first, how he hated his body and he
couldn't eat for three weeks afterward. Imagine
him calling this rape. Everyone feels the weight
of emotional pressure at one time or another.
The question is not whether people pressure
each other but how our minds and our culture
transform that pressure into full-blown assault.
There would never be a rule or a law or even
a pamphlet or peer counseling group for men
who claimed to have been emotionally raped or
verbally pressured into sex. And for the same
reasons- assumptions of basic competence, free
will and strength of character- there should
be no such rules or groups or pamphlets about
rape, campus feminists often slip into an outdated
sexist vocabulary. But we have to be careful
about using rape as a metaphor. The sheer physical
fact of rape has always been loaded with cultural
meaning. Throughout history, women's bodies
have always been seen as property, as chaste
objects, as virtuous vessels to be "dishonored,"
"ruined," "defiled." Their
purity or lack of any purity has been a measure
of value for the men to whom they belonged.
I call it rape whenever a woman has had sex
and feels violated," writes Catherine MacKinnon,
a law professor and feminist legal scholar best
known for her crusade against pornography. The
language of virtue and violation reinforces
retrograde stereotypes. It backs women into
old corners. Younger feminists share MacKinnon's
vocabulary and the accompanying assumptions
about women's bodies. In one student's account
of date rape in the Rag, a feminist magazine
at Harvard, she talks about the anguish of being
"defiled." Another writes, "I
long to be innocent again." With such anachronistic
constructions of the female body, with all their
assumptions about female purity, these young
women frame their experience of rape in archaic,
sexist terms. Of course, sophisticated modern-day
feminists don't use words like honor or virtue
anymore. The know better than to say date-rape
victims have been "defiled." Instead,
they call it "post-traumatic stress syndrome."
They tell the victim she should not feel "shame,"
she should feel "traumatized." Within
their overtly political psychology, forced penetration
takes on a level of metaphysical significance:
date-rape resonates through a woman's entire
about rape is one of the central missions of
the rape-crisis movement. They spend money and
energy trying to break down myths like "She
asked for it." But with all their noise
about rape myths, rape-crisis feminists are
generating their own. The plays, the poems,
the pamphlets, the Take Back the Night speakouts,
are propelled by the myth of innocence lost.
All the talk
about empowering the voiceless dissolves into
the image of the naive girl child who trusts
the rakish man. This plot reaches back centuries.
it propels Samuel Richardson's 18th-century
epistolary novel, "Clarissa": after
hundreds of pages chronicaling the minute details
of her plight, her seduction and resistance,
her break away from her family, Clarissa is
raped by the duplicitous Robert Lovelace. Afterwards,
she refuses to eat and fades toward a very virtuous,
very religious death. Over a thousand pages
are devoted to the story of her fall from innocence,
a weighty event by 18th-century standards. But
did these 20th-century girls, raised on Madonna
videos and the 6 o'clock news, really trust
that people were good until they themselves
were raped? Maybe. Were these girls, raised
on horror movies and glossy Hollywood sex scenes,
really as innocent as all that? Maybe. But maybe
the myth of lost innocence is a trope- convenient,
appealing, politically effective.
As long as we're
taking back the night, we might as well take
back our own purity. Sure, we were all kind
of innocent, playing in the sandbox with bright
red shovels-- boys, too. We can all look back
through the tunnel of adolescence on a honey-glazed
childhood, with simple rules and early bedtimes.
We don't have to look at parents fighting, at
sibling struggles, at casting out one best friend
for another in the Darwinian playground. This
is not the innocence lost; this is the innocence
we never had.
The idea of
a fall from childhood grace, pinned on one particular
moment, a moment over which we had no control,
much lamented, gives our lives a compelling
narrative structure. It's easy to see why the
17-year-old likes it; it's easy to see why the
rape-crisis feminist likes it. It's a natural
human impulse put to political purpose. But
in generating and perpetuating such myths, we
should keep in mind that myths about innocence
have been used to keep women inside and behind
veils. They have been used to keep them out
of work and in labor.
It's not hard
to imagine Clarissa, in jeans and a sweatshirt,
transported into the 20th century, at a Take
Back the Night march. She would speak for a
long time about her deception and rape, about
verbal coercion and anorexia, about her ensuing
post-traumatic stress syndrome. Latter-day Clarissas
may worry more about their "self esteem"
than their virtue, but they are still attaching
the same quasi-religious value to the physical
it Rape," a play by Sonya Rasminsky, a
recent Harvard graduate, is based on interviews
with date-rape victims. The play, which has
been performed at Harvard and may be taken into
Boston-area high schools, begins with "To
His Coy Mistress," by the 17th-century
poet Andrew Marvell. Although generations of
high-school and college students have read this
as a romantic poem, a poem about desire and
the struggle against mortality, Rasminsky has
reinterpreted it as a poem about rape. "Had
we but world enough, and time, this coyness,
lady, were no crime." But what Andrew Marvell
didn't know then, and we know now, is that the
real crime is not her coyness but his verbal
the actors recount a rape that hinges on misunderstanding.
A boy and a girl are watching videos and he
starts to come on to her. She does not want
to have sex. As the situation progresses, she
says, in an oblique effort to communicate her
lack of enthusiasm, "If you're going to
[expletive] me, use a condom." He interprets
this as a yes, but it's really a no. And, according
to this play, what happens next, condom or no
condom, is rape.
This is the
central idea of the rape crisis movement: that
sex has become our tower of Babel. He doesn't
know what she wants (not to have sex) and she
doesn't know what he wants (to have sex)-- until
it's too late. He speaks boyspeak and she speaks
girlspeak and what comes out of all this verbal
chaos is a lot of mixed signals and crossed
stars has to do with more than just gender politics.
It comes in part, from the much-discussed diversity
that has so radically shifted the social composition
of the college class since the 50's.
Take my own
Harvard dorm: the Adams House dining hall is
large, with high ceilings and dark paneling.
It hasn't changed much for generations. As soon
as the students start milling around gathering
salads, ice cream and coffee onto green trays,
there are signs of change. There are students
in jeans, flannel shirts, short skirts, girls
in jackets, boys in bracelets, two pierced noses
and lots of secondhand clothes.
Not so many
years ago, this room was filled with boys in
jackets and ties. Most of them were white, Christian
and what we now call privileged. Students came
from the same social milieu with the same social
rules and it was assumed that everyone knew
more or less how they were expected to behave
with everyone else. Diversity and multiculturalism
were unheard of, and if they had been, they
would have been dirty words. With the shift
in college environments, with the introduction
of black kids, Asian kids, Jewish kids, kids
from the wrong side of the tracks of nearly
every railroad in the country, there was an
accompanying anxiety about how people behave.
When ivory tower meets melting pot, it causes
tension, some confusion, some need for readjustment.
In explaining the need for intensive "orientation"
programs, including workshops on date rape,
Columbia's assistant dean for freshmen stated
in an interview in The New York Times: "You
just can't bring all these people together and
say, 'Now be one big happy community,' without
some sort of training. You can't just throw
together somebody from a small town in Texas
and someone from New York City and someone from
a conservative fundamentalist home in the Midwest
and say, 'Now without any sort of conversation,
be best friends and get along and respect another.'"
a University Professor at Rutgers and lifelong
advocate of women's studies programs, once pointed
out that it's sometimes easier for people to
talk about gender than to talk about class.
"Miscommunication" is in some sense
a word for the friction between the way we were
and the way we are. Just as the idea that we
speak different languages is connected to gender-
the arrival of women in classrooms, in dorms,
and in offices- it is also connected to class.
When the Southern
heiress goes out with the plumber's son from
the Bronx, when the kid from rural Arkansas
goes out with a boy from Exeter, the anxiety
is that they have different expectations. The
dangerous "miscommunication" that
recurs through the literature on rape and sexual
harassment is in part a response to cultural
mixing. The idea that men don't know what women
mean when women say no stems from something
deeper and more complicated than feminist concerns
asked me if I have ever been date-raped. And
thinking back on complicated nights, on too
many glasses of wine, on strange and familiar
beds, I would have to say yes. With such a sweeping
definition of rape, I wonder how many people
there are, male or female, who haven't been
date-raped at one point or another. People pressure
and manipulate and cajole each other into all
sorts of things all of the time. As Susan Sontag
wrote, "Since Christianity upped the ante
and concentrated on sexual behavior as the root
of virtue, everything pertaining to sex has
been a 'special case' in our culture, evoking
peculiarly inconsistent attitudes." No
human interaction s are free from pressure,
and the idea that sex is, or can be, makes it
what Sontag calls a "special case,"
vulnerable to the inconsistent expectations
of double standard.
With their expansive
version of rape, rape-crisis feminists are inventing
a kinder, gentler sexuality. Beneath the broad
definition of rape, these feminists are endorsing
their own utopian vision of sexual relations:
sex without power, sex without persuasion, sex
without pursuit. If verbal coercion constitutes
rape, then the word rape itself expands to include
any kind of sex a woman experiences as negative.
Amis spoke at Princeton, he included a controversial
joke: "As far as I'm concerned, you can
change your mind before, even during, but just
not after sex." The reason this joke is
funny, and the reason it's also too serious
to be funny, is that in the current atmosphere
you can change your mind afterward. Regret can
signify rape. A night that was just a blur,
a night you wish hadn't happened, can be rape.
Since "verbal coercion" and "manipulation"
are ambiguous, it's easy to decide afterwards
that he manipulated you. You can realize it
weeks or even years later. This is a movement
that deals in retrospective trauma.
Rape has become
a catch-all expression, a word used to define
everything that is unpleasant and disturbing
about relations between the sexes. Students
say things like "I realize that sexual
harassment is a kind of rape." If we refer
to a whole range of behavior from emotional
pressure to sexual harassment as "rape,"
then the idea itself gets diluted. It ceases
to be powerful as either description or accusation.
actually collapse the accusation between rape
and sex. Catharine MacKinnon writes: "Compare
victims' reports of rape with women's reports
of sex. They look a lot alike. ...In this light,
the major distinction between intercourse (normal)
and rape (abnormal) is that the normal happens
so often that one cannot get anyone to see anything
wrong with it."
There are a
few feminists involved in rape education who
object to the current expanding definitions
of sexual assault. Gillian Greensite, founder
of the rape prevention education program at
the University of California at Santa Cruz,
writes that the seriousness of the crime "is
being undermined by the growing tendency of
some feminists to label all heterosexual miscommunication
and insensitivity as acquaintance rape."
From within the rape-crisis movement, Greensite's
dissent makes an important point. If we are
going to maintain an idea of rape, then we need
to reserve it for the instances of physical
violence, or the threat of physical violence.
But some people
want the melodrama. They want the absolute value
placed upon experience by absolute words. Words
like "rape" and "verbal coercion"
channel the confusing flow of experience into
something easy to understand. The idea of date
rape comes at us fast and coherent. It comes
at us when we've just left home and haven't
yet figured out where to put our new futons
or how to organize our new social lives. The
rhetoric about date rape defines the terms,
gives names to nameless confusions and sorts
through mixed feelings with a sort of insistent
consistency. In the first rush of sexual experience,
the fear of date rape offers a tangible framework
to locate fears that are essentially abstract.
When my 55-year-old
mother was young, navigating her way through
dates, there was a definite social compass.
There were places not to let him put his hands.
There were invisible lines. The pill wasn't
available. Abortion wasn't legal. And sex was
just wrong. Her mother gave her "mad money"
to take out on dates in case her date got drunk
and she needed to escape. She had to go far
enough to hold his interest and not far enough
to endanger her reputation.
Now the rape-crisis
feminists are offering new rules. They are giving
a new political weight to the same old no. My
mother's mother told her to drink sloe gin fizzes
so she wouldn't drink too much and get too drunk
and go too far. Now the date rape pamphlets
tell us: "Avoid excessive use of alcohol
and drugs. Alcohol and drugs interfere with
clear thinking and effective communication."
My mother's mother told her to stay away from
empty rooms and dimly lighted streets. In "I
Never Called It Rape," Robin Warshaw writes,
"Especially with recent acquaintances,
women should insist on going only to public
places such as restaurants and movie theaters."
There is a danger
in these new rules. We shouldn't need to be
reminded that the rigidly conformists 50's were
not the heyday of women's power. Barbara Ehrenreich
writes of "re-making love," but there
is a danger in remaking love in its old image.
The terms may have changed, but attitudes about
sex and women's bodies have not. Rape-crisis
feminists threaten the progress that's been
made. They are chasing the same stereotypes
that our mothers spent so much energy escaping.
One day I was
looking through my mother's bookshelves and
I found her old battered copy of Germaine Greer's
feminist classic, "The Female Eunuch."
The pages were dogeared and whole passages marked
with penciled notes. It was 1971 when Germaine
Greer fanned the fires with "The Female
Eunuch" and it was 1971 when my mother
read it, brand new, explosive, a tough and sexy
terrorism for the early stirrings of the feminist
feminists threaten to create their own version
of the desexualized woman Greer complained of
20 years ago. Her comments need to be recycled
for present day feminism. "It is often
falsely assumed," Greer writes, "even
by feminists, that sexuality is the enemy of
the female who really wants to develop those
aspects of her personality... It was not the
insistence upon her sex that weakened the American
woman student's desire to make something of
her education, but the insistence upon a passive
sexual role [Greer's italics]. In fact, the
chief instrument in the deflection and perversion
of female energy is the denial of female sexuality
for the substitution of femininity or sexlessness."
It is the passive
sexual role that threatens us still, and it
is the denial of female sexual agency that threatens
to propel us backward.
MenWeb: Men's Voice Magazine