Commentary Magazine

Sex & the Feminists

If there is a young woman today who could be said to have imbibed feminism with her mother’s milk, it is Katie Roiphe, daughter of the Anne Roiphe who wrote Up the Sandbox, a landmark feminist novel of the 60’s. When she was little, Katie Roiphe tells us in her new book, The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus,1 she thought of feminism as “something like a train you could catch and ride to someplace better” than the limited world her grandmother, Anne’s mother, inhabited. And as she grew older, Katie came to believe that feminism meant being one’s own person and speaking one’s own mind.

But as an adolescent Katie emerged from her maternal home into the larger world, and there she was met by people ready to tell her what to think and feel, to treat her as a delicate flower in constant danger of assault, to see her as a passive, naive innocent in need of protection from male predators obsessed with sex.

Where did the young Roiphe encounter such backward attitudes? At the debutante ball? The Junior League? The DAR? No, it was at Harvard, and later at Princeton, where she is now a twenty-four-year-old graduate student in English.

At these great progressive institutions, Katie Roiphe was introduced to the world of date-rape workshops, sexual-harassment peer-counseling groups, women’s-center hot lines, “Take Back the Night” anti-rape marches, and blue lights burning ceaselessly all over campus so as to lessen the chance of sexual assault. This is a world, she writes, that is a complete reversal of the one she had thought feminism was striving to create, a world closer to the one her grandmother inhabited before the feminist train left the station.



Despite some shortsighted and superficial analysis, The Morning After is remarkable—the first intelligent cry of protest from Roiphe’s generation against what feminism hath wrought in the name of woman. With freshness, honesty, sincerity, and common sense, Roiphe describes the new campus “rape-crisis” movement which is based on ever-expanding definitions of sexual humiliation.

Thus, Princeton’s guide for students identifies sexual harassment as “unwanted sexual attention that makes a person feel uncomfortable” (emphasis added), and instructs that it “may result from a conscious or unconscious action, and can be subtle or blatant.” Such attention can include “leering and ogling, whistling, sexual innuendo, and other suggestive or offensive or derogatory comments, humor, and jokes about sex.”

The definition of rape is also expanding, now encompassing, according to the author of one essay on the subject, “a woman’s consenting to unwanted sexual activity because of a man’s verbal arguments not including verbal threats of force” (emphasis added).

So subtle are these forms of harassment and rape that one pamphlet quoted by Roiphe cautions: “Many have difficulty recognizing their experience as victimization.” Therefore, counselors must “use the words that fit the experience, validating the depths of the survivor’s feelings and allowing her to feel her experience was serious.” Or, as Roiphe remarks caustically:

. . . if you don’t tell the victim that she’s a victim, she may sail through the experience without fully grasping the gravity of her humiliation. She may get through without all that trauma and counseling. Buried within this description of helping students overcome the problem of “recognizing their experience as victimization” is the nagging concern that the problem may pass unnoticed, may dissolve without political scrutiny.

Roiphe stresses that the atmosphere of “crisis” on campus is not just the work of a few vocal individuals or groups, and “not just the product of a bureaucratic mechanism” (as some have claimed), but rather involves students from “a cross section of the college community” who enjoy direct administrative sanction at the highest level. “At Princeton, in 1988,” for example, “the university’s president, a provost, and the dean of students marched” for “Take Back the Night.”



The classroom, too, is supporting the new feminist vision of life, if at a slightly more abstract level. Here Roiphe offers some priceless glimpses into what is passing for advanced literary studies these days at our nation’s very best schools. Take this description of a spirited exchange on Edith Wharton among our future preceptors of literature:

Someone argues that her novels are elitist and bourgeois. Another person adds that Wharton is anti-feminist, because some of her female characters are insufficiently developed, . . . one of the men in the class [contends that] “Edith Wharton’s characters are necessarily anti-feminist because within the hegemonic male discourse, it is impossible for the female voice to be empowered.”

Given this atmosphere, and given definitions of sexual harassment and rape like the ones cited above, it is not surprising that “epidemic” numbers of women are being found to have been raped or sexually harassed on today’s campus. It is almost as if feminism had finally discovered a problem that can unite all women across all barriers: the existence of men.

One essay, accordingly, warns that “the harasser is similar, perhaps disturbingly so, to the average man.” A book advises: “Since you may not know who has the potential for rape, be on your guard with every man.” A pamphlet asks, “Is Dating Dangerous?” Roiphe reports a sophomore fretting over the risk she incurred by letting a young man who had confessed to an infatuation with her drive her home. “Nothing happened, thank God,” says the young woman, “but it scares me to think what could have, it scares me to think that I trusted him after I knew how he felt about me.” A friend agrees, adding that “you have to stay in public places in situations like that.”



For Katie Roiphe, the assumptions embedded in the movement against date rape are a jargon-ridden, psychobabble-filled version of the Victorian cult of femininity still operative in her grandmother’s world: “men want sex, women don’t”; “women are innocent, men lascivious.” She cautions that “in generating and perpetuating these kinds of myths we should keep in mind that [similar] myths surrounding female innocence have been used to keep women inside and behind veils.” But fat chance of that today! In her fresh-faced, earnest way, Roiphe underestimates the rising feminist tyranny her book amply documents. If there is any coercion, it is coming from the feminist end; again, the evidence is right there in the pages of The Morning After.

At Princeton’s Terrace Club, for example, “refuge of the fashionable, left-leaning, black-clad undergraduates,” a sign proclaims: “What constitutes sexual harassment or an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment is to be defined by the person harassed and his/her own feelings of being threatened or compromised.” Thanks to this kind of thinking, professorial careers are being ruined over charges of sexual harassment as due process is disregarded by administrations yielding to political pressure, and innocent young men are accused falsely at “Take Back the Night” speak-outs.

To her credit, Roiphe is distressed that many feminists actually excuse all this, on the ground that the system is so stacked against women that men need no protection, or that the larger truth of female degradation is being properly conveyed even if the details are not in every instance literally true. As she herself observes with some wonder:

Although the rhetoric and statistics may be the stuff of airy political visions, they also affect real students and real financial decisions on college campuses. Universities channel money and resources, rooms, energy, and ideas into rape-counseling and -education programs.

Just so. Hence it is more likely that feminists will rework the entire landscape of America (remember those blue lights) than that women will be forced to wear veils.



But if our new sexual commissars listen too closely for women’s complaints, it seems that Roiphe may not listen closely enough. A relatively uncritical believer in progress, she does not notice what her own study suggests: that some aspects of Grandma’s world may have been quite wise after all, or at least based upon an understanding of female nature woefully lacking today. For behind the newly discovered sexual vulnerability which women report, there lies something that birth control, abortion, careers, financial independence, sex manuals, and “that Cosmopolitan girl” have not quite obviated or offset. Indeed, the hysteria over rape and sexual harassment—irrational and in many cases inexcusable as it may be—is surely prompted in large part by a quite rational reaction to the decline in civility, the cheapening of sex, and the denial of the feminine that are rooted in movements begun in the 1960’s.

It is hard for Roiphe to see this because to her the idea of female purity is just about completely devoid of significance. She mocks the “quasi-religious value” attached to it, and puzzles over what she sees as the Victorian notions of “defilement” which women in the anti-rape movement claim to feel. Yet even if much of what now passes for date rape is not really rape, is it ridiculous that a young woman might feel sullied afterward by a casual act of sexual intercourse she never genuinely wanted?

Roiphe is perfectly right to emphasize the need for individual responsibility; but one nevertheless understands that women want also to feel a sense of cultural support—some awareness of the difference of their sexual makeup, some sense of being respected as women by men (to say nothing of the benefit this would confer on young men). The date-rape literature harps on the problems girls have in saying no forcefully enough, and the “experts” attribute this to low self-esteem. But it clearly has more to do with a cultural climate in which sex is easy, expected, “no big deal.”

The rape-crisis movement refuses to admit the true sources of the problem. For to do so would mean admitting the part feminism, including Katie Roiphe’s brand of feminism, has played in creating it—by promoting an ideal of sexual equality which in many ways does violence to women’s needs; by mocking the traditional asymmetric emphasis on feminine purity which was at least based on an understanding of deep feminine feelings; by ridiculing the little courtesies men used to extend; and by inviting, even demanding, that men think of women as just female versions of themselves. All of this has gone a long way toward making men more predatory and women more confused.

Instead of facing any of this, feminism indicts the entire male sex as guilty until proven . . . guilty. And as the fabric of attachment between men and women is progressively destroyed, the ensuing pain and chaos become arguments for more feminism: more programs and campaigns and syndromes and crises and traumas and epidemics, and, unbelievably enough, more demands for legislatively enforced “equality.”



Enter Catharine A. MacKinnon, prominent law professor and feminist theorist and herself the author of a pertinent new book, Only Words.2 In many ways Catharine MacKinnon is also the éminence terrible of The Morning After. For it is she, according to Katie Roiphe, who has fostered many of the ideas that constitute the rape/harassment-crisis mentality: the “hostile-environment” standard for sexual harassment; the subjective definition of rape as “whenever a woman feels violated”; the equation of even ordinary sex with rape; the habit of indicting whole groups. During the date-rape trial of William Kennedy Smith, for example, MacKinnon argued (in words quoted by Roiphe) that “the truth of a given accusation should be weighed in the larger political balance: did this member of a group sexually trained to woman-hating aggression commit this particular act of woman-hating aggression?”

But even as she paints a world in which women are sexual prey, stalked, degraded, humiliated, defiled, MacKinnon, too, is unwilling to conclude that men and women have differing natures. Rather, her remedies are framed in terms of legalistic notions of “equality” that will supposedly offset the political “oppression” which she interprets as the source of the problem.

Indeed, MacKinnon seems incapable of seeing anything except through the lens of equality and inequality. “Pornography is sex inequality,” she has written, “prostitution is sex inequality,” child pornography is based on inequality, poverty is a matter of inequality, the main issue in education is inequality, the problem with group defamation is that it promotes inequality, and even genocide is the “ultimate inequality.” Sometimes the word “equality” is syntactically deployed by her as if it were an entity or personage in its own right, as in: “What is wrong with pornography is that it hurts women and their equality.”

Although it may seem to some that Catharine MacKinnon has done more than her fair share of feminist damage to the social fabric, her new book was actually written out of frustration that U.S. courts have in some cases ruled, on First Amendment grounds, against the kind of legislation she has been promoting—namely, prosecution of pornography as a violation of the equality and the civil rights of women, and the imposition of campus speech codes to ensure “equal access to education on the basis of race and sex.” Her ideal is to make equality “a compelling state interest that can . . . outweigh First Amendment rights in certain settings,” leading to “a new model for freedom of expression in which the free-speech position no longer supports social dominance.”

In other words, instead of recognizing the equality of all individuals before the law, MacKinnon wants us to recognize the in-equality of certain groups before the law, and to promote greater equality among them through court rulings outlawing what she designates as the “practice of discrimination in verbal” or “expressive” form.



Ironically, as with the date-rape/ sexual-harassment hysteria, one can find in MacKinnon’s concerns a grain of truth that demands sympathy. Many conservatives have watched with dismay as increasingly disgusting pornography is ever more widely purveyed under free-speech protection. This is why some of MacKinnon’s strongest allies in her efforts to secure civil-rights legislation against pornography have been groups on the religious Right.

Yet in the Orwellian world mandated by her vision of “equality,” MacKinnon would suppress ideas that are at least debatable (including some espoused by the religious Right) along with ideas that are totally disreputable. At one point she lumps together arguments “that some races or genders or sexual persuasions are inferior to others” (emphasis added). Elsewhere she lists as offensive “academic books purporting to document women’s biological inferiority to men, or arguing that slavery of Africans should return, or that the Fourteenth Amendment equality should be repealed, or that reports of rape are routinely fabricated.” No citations are given, but one greatly longs to know which “academics” are arguing, for example, that Africans be returned to slavery.

“Legal attempts to suppress [such] books should not be precluded on the grounds that the ideas contained in them cannot be assumed false,” MacKinnon writes, adopting the “ignorance is strength” inspiration of Orwell’s 1984. And in a dictum worthy of the barn wall in Animal Farm, she assures us that adopting her model of group equality as a constitutional mandate will “not mean that ideas to the contrary cannot be debated or expressed,” but “should mean . . . that social inferiority cannot be imposed through any means, including expressive ones.” Get that difference?

MacKinnon’s work is a symptom of a larger syndrome operating in the culture today, manifest also in the rape/harassment-crisis movement. Traditional moral structures having been shredded by counter-cultural assaults, the only acceptable guiding principles today are those framed in terms of power politics and “minority” imperatives—“rights,” “equality,” “victimization,” “oppression,” and so forth. Not only the whole range of subtle interactions in the relationship between the sexes, but all the complex dynamics of being human at all, have been reduced to politicized group factionalism. If this stunted view of human existence were systematically codified into law, it would really mark the end of a free society.



In some ways the ideals of Katie Roiphe and Catharine MacKinnon, otherwise exact opposites, are curiously linked. They both want equality. But Roiphe wants hers based on freedom, detached from onerous traditions and unbuttressed by protective political movements. Even as she looks for ward to such a world, however, she expresses anxiety at its lack of certainties, anchors, and landmarks, and acknowledges how this kind of vacuum can create a susceptibility to forces, like the rape-crisis movement, that promise more order.

Exactly so. The more the world is shorn of legitimate guidelines based on an understanding of the limits, structures, and nuances of human existence, the more will people look to protective mechanisms that can shield them from the Hobbesian war of all against all thereby unleashed—and the more the MacKinnons of our time will succeed. The trouble with Katie Roiphe is that she sees MacKinnonism as a problem that can be overcome without changing the conditions that led to it—and that will never happen.


1 Little, Brown, 188 pp., $19.95.

2 Harvard, 112 pp., $14.95.


About the Author

Carol Iannone reviewed Wendy Wasserstein’s Elements of Style in the September 2006 COMMENTARY.

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