Katie Roiphe discusses contemporary feminism.
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GUEST: Katie Roiphe
“The Morning After … Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And what first suggested today’s discussion to me is a rather compelling if lurid New York Times Sunday Magazine cover proclaiming that “Rape hype betrays feminism.” But, titled “Date rape’s other victims,” the Times article itself argued that in their claims of a date rape epidemic on campus, contemporary feminists are exaggerating and subverting their own cause. That article was adapted from an equally compelling and quite controversial Little Brown book, The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campus. And their author is my Open Mind guest today, Katie Roiphe, recent Harvard graduate and doctoral candidate in literature at Princeton.
Now, publishers usually treat interviewers somewhat like ninnies. And perhaps they’re really not so wrong in sending along lists of questions to put to their authors. That just may save everyone from having to think too hard. But the fact is that the suggested questions accompanying The Morning After are actually quite insightful. And if I may pass over the first, “What compelled you to write this book,” I think the second is quite appropriate enough to put to Ms. Roiphe: “Do you consider yourself a feminist?”
ROIPHE: Yes, I do. Definitely.
HEFFNER: Now, there are an awful lot of feminists who are rather disturbed by your book, right?
ROIPHE: That is true, yes.
HEFFNER: And how are we going to put those two facts together?
ROIPHE: Well, I think that it’s important for feminism to have many voices. And that I see myself as the inside of this larger feminist debate. I think feminism right now, there’s sort of us against them, the backlash against women and against, you know, the right party line, and that there’s not much space for other, sort of maverick views. And I think there should be, and I think the debate should be open to include other kinds of opinions.
HEFFNER: Okay, where does the maverick quality of your views come in?
ROIPHE: Well, I think that, I mean, a lot of people are very angry by the questioning in this book and in the New York Times article of, you know, certain feminist orthodoxies like, for example, the existence of a rape crisis, or in the book I talk about sexual harassment and other issues and sort of question whether we should actually be focusing on different things or whether there’s something wrong with these specific feminist priorities.
HEFFNER: You say “feminist priorities.” You’re implying, and your book states it very clearly, that this is a major factor on America’s campuses today.
ROIPHE: Yes. It is. I mean, these are, I think for a various series of complex reasons, my generation has focused on a certain set of ideas, and that our, that this, the younger feminists are very concerned with victimhood and sexual vulnerability, you know, which is a sort of uniting force behind, propelling all of these issues.
HEFFNER: Is that because the victimhood as it was acted out in the past had to do less or the focus was less upon victimhood that had to do with sexuality and today there would be a diminution of the battle, the battle between the sexes, and so the emphasis is upon sex itself?
ROIPHE: Well, I think that that’s certainly true. I mean, certainly, you know, it’s like a zoom lens or something, and we focus down on these particular issues about the relations between the sexes for all of these reasons. And I think that, you know, and away from … And one of the things I’m trying to argue in this book is away from the original goals of early feminists, feminists, you know, like my mother in the 70’s. And I think that we actually have come pretty far in our interests, you know, in our feminist concerns now. And that’s what I’m sort of getting at in this book. And I think it’s important that we stop and think about, you know, why we’re interested in these things, why are we calling ourselves victims, why are we saying that we feel oppressed when men stare at us in the street, and how is this different from the original sort of vital, strong, desire for equality that, you know, characterized early feminism.
HEFFNER: You don’t think it’s simply another phase and a very natural phase?
ROIPHE: Well, it may be another phase, except for that I think it’s congealing into something which is more like a long-term stance. I mean, my concern with the feminist interest in victimhood now has to do with the fact that I think it’s no longer simply a phase, and that it’s in danger of becoming … I mean, part of the reason I’m writing this book is that I think we can change this. But I think it is in danger of becoming something which, you know, solidifies. You know, it’s like when your grandmother says, you know, “Don’t keep your face in that funny way or it’s going to freeze that way.” I mean, I think at a certain point you have to be careful that we’re no longer, you know, I think of course any movement has to say, you know, “We’re victimized,” you know, at the initial point and at some point. But at a certain point this becomes, you know, your long-term stance as opposed to a sort of short-term political strategy.
HEFFNER: Do you think there is any truth to the concept of victimization in terms of male/female relationships?
ROIPHE: Certainly, I mean, I think, you know, in a lot of different areas. I mean, I’m not claiming in any way that we’re achieved some sort of feminist utopia. I think actually there’s a lot of areas which we really need to focus on. On, you know, daycare, pay equality, all of these things. And I think, I mean, and I’m not denying, and this is something that comes up constantly in this discussion, that women are raped, or that, you know, there is violence against women. That’s certainly something that I know that there is.
HEFFNER: But what then has led to this solidification, this focus on the question of sexuality? And you certainly say the other battles haven’t been won. Why now the shift in this direction? Not that they weren’t always within the feminist movement, those who pressed this issue. You mention Katherine McKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, people like that, certainly always had this set of ideas to push. Why now do you think your generation is focusing on this?
ROIPHE: Well, that’s a huge question. And I think part of it has to do with the political climate on campuses today. I think that there’s a lot of emphasis on being a victim on and on a certain kind of status and a certain kind of authority that is achieved through saying you are oppressed, and that you see this, you know, in classrooms, out of classrooms, all kinds of, you know, all of the issues that we think of in terms of campuses today, hate speech, all of these kind of things, people are finding this sort of identity in declaring themselves oppressed. And I think unfortunately that kind of identity, that kind of authority is not the kind that we should be, you know, reaching toward. And that’s my criticism of it. I mean, I think that it’s also complicated by the sexual climate. I mean, that’s the political climate; I think the sexual climate is also complicated today.
HEFFNER: What do you mean?
ROIPHE: Well, I think that – and I certainly suggest as part of the backdrop against the escalation of this kind of anxiety about sexual vulnerability does have something to do with AIDS – and I think that, you know, when you watch in these college campuses these groups of, you know, young women carrying these candles, marching through the campus shouting, you know, “Two, four, six, eight, no more date rape,” or, “Women unite, take back the night,” there’s something vague, and there’s this fear which you feel, this palpable fear. But I think that the fear is about something more complicated than date rape. I mean, I think that part of what’s going on here is a response to a difficult sexual climate.
HEFFNER: Well, wait a minute. You’re saying, “Fear of more than date rape.” Fear of more than AIDS? Fear of sexuality?
ROIPHE: Well, I think it’s, I mean, these are sort of, these are large and immeasurable issues. I mean, I think there’s definitely, what I’m trying to suggest is that there’s a blending. That somewhere, you know, when you watch these marchers, you know, and it really is this sort of, you know, these take-back-the-night marches are sort of these coming-of-age rituals now on many campuses across the country. And what’s really going on, I think, has something to do with more than sexual violence. I mean, the question that you have to ask is, “What’s going on?” You know, why at Columbia are women coming up to these microphones from nine at night until nine at morning, in the morning, telling these stories, why, you know, why are thousands of people attracted to this, this kind of, you know, these kind of marches. And I think that the answer has to do with something that’s complicated. And I think you’re right. I mean, I think there’s a fear, I think that we live in a time that both pushes young people to have sex and also tells them not to have sex and that somewhere in this confusion you have an ideology, you know, which is this ideology about rape and sexual harassment which is making sense of these very abstract fears, which is giving us very tangible ideological framework for what our, you know, some of them, sort of the ageless confusions attached to sexuality, and some of them, you know, very specific.
HEFFNER: And the degree to which those who want to be able to continue their marches and to be able to insist upon this picture of the campus as filled with date rapers, what degree of validity is there to that? And I’m taking now about the psychology of men and of male students on the campus. What validity do you find in that?
ROIPHE: In their portrayal of …
HEFFNER: In their portrayal as acquaintance rapers.
ROIPHE: Well, that’s the thing that I’m objecting to. And that, I can tell by the number of letters I’ve been getting about the Times piece that there are many men out there objecting to.
HEFFNER: No, I don’t mean men.
ROIPHE: Okay, well, all right. All right. I mean, the thing is that there’s a portray of men which, I guess to clarify first, as I think that what the portrayal of men that comes out of this interest in rape, in date rape and sexual harassment, is that men are, you know, one in four women are being raped. That means that a lot of men are rapists. And that means that, you know, men are leering at us, men are sexually harassing us, men are making dirty jokes that make us uncomfortable. And all of what comes out of all of this rhetoric is the idea of men as the sexual aggressors, as these insatiable sexual beasts which, you know, and I think the corresponding, you know, image of two, which is not your question, but, you know, is women as passive women, as gullible women, as innocent women, as vulnerable. And I think that these two portraits don’t correspond to reality. I mean, I think we have these ideas of this man and this woman, and I think that they are totally mythical and distorted and they’re stereotypes. And I think stereotypes are damaging and are dangerous, because they’re very loaded. They’re very classic. I mean, these are the traditional views of men and women that we’ve had, you know, as I sort of point out in the book by quoting these Victorian guides to conduct, you know, for centuries. And I think that it’s dangerous to in the name of feminism be invoking these two types.
HEFFNER: You seem to believe that it essentially is dangerous to the objectives of feminism.
ROIPHE: Oh, yes. I mean, I think that by telling – which is, in effect, what we’re doing – by educating young women, and when we look at this, you know, younger and younger and younger, you know, you hear stories of eight-year-olds, you know, who press charges against boys on their bus for sexual harassment. We are educating young women to feel very sexually vulnerable, to feel that they are somehow always about to be violated. And it’s this kind of education process that is what I think is the opposite of, you know, the sort of initial goals of feminism which were about raising women to be strong.
HEFFNER: When Linda Fairstein was here on The Open Mind several years ago talking about not date rape, but violence against women in general, I didn’t think one could contradict the figures that indicate that there was increasing violence against women, increasing violence within the home. Now, I would suspect that that increase feeds itself of feelings very much this growth of concern on the campuses, extends itself to a picture of sexual miscalculation, misinterpretation, dissatisfaction, into this phase date rape. Do you think that that’s a possibility that what’s happening in the outer world is making what’s going on on the campus seem much more horrendous?
ROIPHE: Well, it’s interesting that you say this. I mean, I think that that may be true, although, you know, I’ve spoken to Linda a lot recently and she certainly shares my concern about this, about everything, you know, the kind of things you’re talking about being called rape, about, you know, this miscommunication or, you know, uncomfortableness and all of these things being called rape precisely because this detracts from, you know, what she sees as this very difficult, you know, and legitimately this very difficult struggle, you know, legal and struggle against this real violence. And I think that they’re very separate things. And she’d be the first to tell you this. They are very separate things. And I don’t, I mean, what I’m talking about is not, what I’m talking about is looking at, you know, something that happened when you were drunk as rape, looking at something that happened where he pressures you into sex without any use of force as rape. I mean, I’m talking about a whole way of looking at, you know, what I think is a whole way of looking at life, a whole way of looking at experience, which isn’t about the violent ends of the spectrum. I mean, we all would agree that violent rape is a terrible thing, it is part of, you know, that sort of all kinds of violence against women.
HEFFNER: But you think this is more a matter of being politically correct on the campus, given what you can do and can’t do on the campus these days in terms of PC? Rather than actual rape as Linda Fairstein would …
ROIPHE: Right. I think that …
HEFFNER: Identify it legally.
ROIPHE: Yes. And I think that that’s a big distinction, that there’s a huge gap between, you know, the things that are being sort of characterized as date rape on the one hand, and what Linda Fairstein especially in her new book which she is writing about, you know, all the rapes she discusses are very violent, you know, really involved. You know, certainly the serious threat of force if not force, most of them are really about physical force.
HEFFNER: But you see, when I read The Morning After, about sex and fear and feminism on the campus, I have to ask myself whether with all that smoke there mustn’t be some roaring fires on the campus, whether indeed it could be as much of a witch-hunt, as much of a psychological phenomenon having to do with a, the kind of inward look on the part of a number of feminists, rather than having something significant to do with man’s behavior, changing man’s behavior. Now, you’re a much better judge of that than I am …
ROIPHE: But see, this is …
HEFFNER: … to be sure, because I teach, and you are on the campus in a different frame of reference.
ROIPHE: Uh hum. I, and again I speak, you know, I’m writing from what I know and from what I’ve seen. And from what I’ve seen I don’t believe that men really are these, you know, kind of have this overwhelming sexuality that they have, that they will, you know … And I don’t just mean all men. I mean pretty much, you know, the men that I know are not like this. You know, they are not these aggressive sexual animals in this particular way that we are being led to believe. And I don’t think that that’s what’s changed. I honestly don’t. I think if anything, you know, women are more able to assert their own sexuality, which equalizes things a lot. And I don’t really think that we have this whole set of, you know, very violent 17-year-olds. And I think if you go to one of these freshman orientations and you look at these 17-year-olds, I mean, some of them are men and some of them are … And you look at them, and the first thing that occurs to you, I promise you, is not, “These men are so threatening.” It’s really, you know, “Look at how sort of insecure all these people are. Look at how, you know, they’re sort of confused, they’re sort of young, they’re sort of arrogant, they’re sort of adolescent, all of these, you know, that mixture of things.” But, you know, I honestly don’t believe that those 17-year-old boys are really thinking about raping somebody or are really going to rape somebody. That’s …
HEFFNER: Yeah, but I think the question that one may fairly ask after that is that, okay, the definition of rape cannot legitimately be expanded to the degree that a number of people on the campus have expanded it. But could it be true that many young men on the campus, naïve perhaps, insecure, etcetera, have expanded their own concept in these days of what is permissible activity sexually in relation to the women they date? You don’t find that …
ROIPHE: I don’t think it’s true. No. I think actually if anything people are more sensitive about the issue of rape. I mean, you know, we have, everyone’s being taught, you know, in these date rape workshops as they enter colleges, all about the sort of, you know, rules of propriety, you know. They’re really given this set of behaviors which is acceptable. Some universities, two universities that I’ve heard of have actually passed, you know, rules saying you have to ask first permission at every stage of sexual activity.
HEFFNER: Well, that’ll kill sex in a hurry.
ROIPHE: (Laughter) Well, yeah, I mean … But the thing is that I think that there’s an awareness of this. And, well, you’d have to be in some strange corner not to have any sense of it. And I don’t think, you know, the truth is and part of one of my problems with the whole conversation – not our conversation, but whole, larger conversation about this – is that the assumption here which is even your assumption as we’re talking about these things, is that women can’t take care of themselves. Which is the assumption that I don’t agree with. I mean, there’s an assumption that women are innocent, passive, vulnerable. You know, if men aren’t actually using this sort of really, you know, physical force, which is what is rape, then when you’re talking about manipulation or, you know, behaving badly and all of these things, which I think don’t actually fall in to the category of rape but certainly fall into the category of bad behavior, I think that, you know, basically the women I know, and myself included, you know, are able to take care of themselves.
HEFFNER: Well, listen, don’t misunderstand me. I don’t belong to the school of thought that women can’t take care of themselves. Quite the contrary. But we needn’t go into that.
The question though, in my mind, remains, why Andrea Dworkin and Katherine McKinnon’s positions have taken hold in such a way today that essentially … I remember when Professor McKinnon was here I couldn’t quite derive from what she said that as I almost do from what you have written about the situation around the campus, that sex is rape, that heterosexual sex is rape, and essentially that’s what we’re talking about. Is that a fair statement that increasingly it looks as if sexual relations, that rape plays a much larger role semantically in any discussion of sexual relations?
ROIPHE: Yes. I mean, I think, you know, if you, even, just let’s look at the statistic, which is the common and accepted statistic, one in four women are the victim of rape or attempted rape. I mean, once you’re talking about one in four, you really, you know, or the number of women, you know, I’ve heard 88 percent of women are being sexually harassed on campuses. I mean, once you’re talking about numbers like that you’re talking about everyday experience. You’re not, you’re no longer talking about, you know, this isolated event. And that’s what I’m objecting to. I mean, I think this ends up kind of in a way of describing, you know, the world instead of a way of talking about these very specific aberrant events.
HEFFNER: Then what do you think is going to happen, not just on the campus, but what do you think these signals in terms of female/male relations, your generations attitude toward sexuality?
ROIPHE: Well, I suppose there are two possibilities. I mean, the one possibility is that we go farther and farther in this escalating direction where more and more is impermissible and there are more rules and codes and laws about, you know, all kinds of sexual behavior, until such a point as we reach, you know, another sexual revolution. Or, you know, on the other hand, which is what actually I tend to think, this will correct itself. There are more and more people who are objecting to this kind of feminism. And it’s hard to, and it’s been hard to on the campus for a long time. But I think more people are going to say, you know – and maybe this is wishful thinking on my part, always a possibility – but I think that more people are going to start saying, you know, this has gone too far. And I think a lot of people actually in the privacy of their own homes think that this has gone too far. And I think possibly this will correct itself.
HEFFNER: But the take-back-the-night marches go on and on.
ROIPHE: Yeah. Yeah. Although, and five years from now, I don’t know. They’re certainly, you know, now they seem to be going strong. But, you know, I would hope that, you know, enough kind of self-critique, enough, you know, people saying, you know, “Let’s stop and think about this,” will have some kind of effect.
HEFFNER: We have two minutes left. But I do want to ask you what kind of support you are getting in terms of the publication of The Morning After, in terms of what you have written in The Times, what kind of support are you getting from traditional feminists, the former leaders, or the leaders of feminism up to this point?
ROIPHE: I am getting support. Not from every direction, but certainly I’ve gotten some support. And I think that Betty Friedan, I think, though, I don’t want to speak for her, but I think, you know, is basically in agreement with this, with my position. And I think, you know …
HEFFNER: That there are a lot of people who, like Betty, aren’t really feminist.
ROIPHE: Well, that’s true. I mean, you know, that’s a lot of what’s going on now, is, you know, with the backlash and all of these ideas is that, you know, you’re on our team or you’re off our team, there’s no, you know, there’s us and them. And I think that there are a lot of, increasing number of feminists who are really on the side of “them” now, and that those people are starting to gather together. And I mean that there’s certainly, you know, Wendy Kaminer, who has been writing on feminism, there are other sort of free-speech feminists who support me, who have always been concerned with, you know, Katherine McKinnon and anti-pornography.
HEFFNER: Well, Katie Roiphe, when you come back here, let’s say, five years from now, and we discuss what’s happening to feminism, what’s happening to this country, it will be interesting to see what’s happening to these take-back-the-night marches. Meanwhile, thank you very much for joining me today on The Open Mind.
ROIPHE: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, about our guest, please write: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts, send $2.00 in check or money order.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”