Katie Roiphe is a brave woman. She counters the “Take Back the Night” ideology with what might be tagged “Take Back the Mind.” Specifically, she urges young women to think twice or three times about what they are being urged to endorse in the name of victim feminism. Is there an “epidemic” of rape on college campuses? Are all young men sexual predators just waiting to pounce? Are all women helpless before the vulgar jokes, the sexual metaphors, the “unsolicited ogling” (an actionable offense on many campuses, by the way), the sexual innuendo, the ride “alone” with a man on a first date, the many subtle and egregious ways, so the ideology claims, men make their “power” felt, yea even irresistible, in each and every encounter that involves what used to be called the sexes before we started talking about “constructed genders”? (One shudders, by the way, to recall that “reckless eyeballing” got black men lynched in the Jim Crow South if their eyes wandered the “wrong” way toward a white woman.)
Perhaps the best way for me to introduce Roiphe’s text is to recall a recent experience of my own. I was in Colorado, visiting family, and I picked up the “Welcome Back to Campus” edition of the newspaper of a large state institution in Northern Colorado. There were the usual greetings to students from all the local merchants; the usual upbeat message from the college president; the usual detailed information about registration and the rest. But there was also a full page, put out under the auspices of something called the “Equal Opportunity Developmental Office,” listing some twenty pointers about sexual harassment and date rape. The one that caught my eye read: “Do not believe that if you dress provocatively, drink to excess, and go to a boy’s room you are asking for sex or to blame if sex occurs.”
Say what? Let me see if I get this straight. I dress provocatively. I drink, not a few drinks, but “to excess.” I go to a boy’s room. Then I wake up the next morning and accuse him of rape? Is that the plot line? You bet it is. What is pernicious about this sort of business is that it “constructs” the young woman as a wholly irresponsible agent whose one act of agency consists in accusing the young man of an opportunistic (at best), violent (at worst) act. She bears no responsibility of any kind for the outcome. Surely, however, in the scenario at hand the young woman’s agency is involved in how she presents herself (“provocatively”), how she comports herself (“drinks to excess, goes to boy’s room”). How, then, can it be that she bears no responsibility”none at all”for what subsequently happens?
That is the question Roiphe poses. She does not “blame” women for men’s actions. Rather, she suggests that there are spheres of co-responsibility: men and women are in this together.
But the dominant narrative, now a standard genre, holds that women are once more sexual innocents, men once more sexual brutes. Virginia Woolf suggested that feminism needed to kill the “angel in the house,” the image of the eternally sacrificing, forever innocent wife. Having put her out of her misery, what mainstream feminism appears to have done is to relocate this angel: she is now in the polity, proclaiming her rectitude and hurling anathema at men”all men”for all are either rapists, proto-rapists, or pimps. In fact, Catharine MacKinnon, the eminence grise behind this movement, claims that women who argue against the “all men are rapists” formulae are also “pimps,” they and their male colleagues who worry about the civil rights of the accused and other such “bourgeois niceties” readily dispensed with for the sake of the greater cause.
And what is that cause? In a word: power. Not power of the sort Hannah Arendt talks about, the power citizens create when they come together to know a good in common that they cannot know alone. No, it is power as “dominance over” some other. It is power as the imposition of my will over yours. It is power of the most unredeemable variety. Roiphe wants women to have power, yes, and she is a feminist, but one of the “older” sort who believes men and women alike should share the risks and adventures of life, read the books they want to read, get the educations of which they are capable, enter the world on their own terms. This, of course, is an idealized portrait of what the world is all about, but it is far more attractive than that represented to the hapless “freshpersons” Roiphe describes, bombarded with propaganda based on a “rigid orthodoxy.” “You couldn’t suggest that the fascination with sexual harassment had to do with more than sexual harassment, you couldn’t say that Alice Walker was just a bad writer, and the list of couldn’ts went on and on.” What happened to the energy and the verve, Roiphe wonders, the “let’s stride forth into the world” ethos of her mother’s generation of feminists?
Having spent twenty years in the academy, I find Roiphe’s description of the “impression of imminent danger” imparted to young women uncannily apt. I recall some of the battier stuff from my own experience of such incantations of pervasive, menacing danger, including a proposal by feminists on one Northeast campus to cut down most of the trees and bushes on the campus because rapists might be lurking there at all hours. Now, mind you, the number of “stranger rapes” of the sort when someone unknown to the woman accosts her in an alleyway, or breaks into her house, or bursts out from bushes is quite small as a percentage of the overall number of reported assaults. Of course, no more than murder is one violent rape acceptable. But the idea that young women on our elite campuses are uniquely vulnerable is nonsense.
If you check out the most reliable crime figures (U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, among others), you learn that the rate of reported forcible rape is not on a rise at a rate markedly out of line with other crimes of violence (constituting about 6 percent of violent crimes overall) and, moreover, you learn that if you are a white woman you are in the group least at risk for being a victim of a violent crime of any kind. As Roiphe notes of her own campus, between 1983 and 1992 “only two rapes have been reported to campus security” at Princeton University. In fact, crime statistics at both Princeton and Harvard show that a man is “more likely to be attacked than a woman” when he is walking to his dorm or home at night. These figures are entirely consistent with all the others now available. So why don’t senior women, professors, and administrators take heart and cheer young women on: “Yes, do be careful. Don’t take unnecessary risks. But your chances of being a victim of a violent attack are actually quite small.” Why indeed?
The explanation is this: the campus “rape crisis” feminists have shifted the terrain. They have made rape virtually indistinguishable from sexual intercourse itself”and that is, of course, their primary intent. Leading movement ideologues claim there is no distinction, that, in fact, rape and sex between men and women collapse into one another in a “rape culture” of patriarchal dominance.
Hence all the talk about women as “powerless,” and “empowered” only when they make public confessions of the sort the culture now encourages, shameless displays of the Oprah/Geraldo sort, as part of “rallies” on campuses. You are not permitted into the conversation unless you proclaim your victimization and pain. The result is to do real damage to real victims whose pain is not so readily prepackaged and served up as genre fare. As Roiphe writes: “These Princeton women, future lawyers, newspaper reporters, investment bankers, are hardly the voiceless, by most people’s definition. But silence is poetic. Being silenced is even more poetic.”
“Breaking the silence,” then, is a way to belong, to be one of the group, not to stand out, not to question, not to challenge, not to criticize, not to do any of the things college is there to encourage young people to do. A watery therapeutic goo spreads over situations and scenes. If you haven’t been damaged by some awful thing some man has done to you at some point you are either lying or repressing or “silencing” other women by refusing to sign on. Roiphe notes several scandals, women claiming victimization who confessed later that they had been overcome by the moment and made up a story to “raise awareness” even though a specific young man was falsely charged in the process. A small price to pay, again, in the interests of the greater cause.
A recent piece in the New York Review of Books , titled “Guilty If Charged,” told a chilling tale of one hapless professor at a New Hampshire university put through the torments of purgatory over what were, if uttered, rather pathetic but harmless words. Vogue (of all places) published a similar piece, “The Burden of Proof,” by a woman journalist fed up with the witch-hunt atmosphere victim feminism has generated. She wrote: “It is OK in the name of a politically correct cause to damn the truth, damn proof, damn rights to privacy or free speech.” A novelist in another “woman’s magazine,” under the title “Big Sister is Watching You,” tells tales of receiving hate letters from “women who identified themselves as feminists,” claiming that she had a responsibility to present only “positive” (read: sinless) female “role models.” And because her female characters were not all purity, goodness, and light, she was obviously another of those female pimps, in MacKinnon’s lexicon, doing the dirty work of patriarchy. So lots of women are fed up, Roiphe being just one of a growing number.
Roiphe does yeoman’s work in showing the ways in which responsible scholars, male and female, have systematically discredited the inflated “statistics” taken as gospel by rape crisis centers and the purveyors of victim ideology. But her frustration, and that of anyone in this area who wants to be able to respond with compassion and forthright decency to the real victims, is that ideologues have no use for reliable data. They are pushing a worldview in which everything falls into place. That ideology relies on a world of woman as ur-victim, man as ur-victimizer. The narrative unfolds predictably. If you say: “But if we live in a rape culture, why is rape a crime? If, in fact, rape is the normalized way men and women engage one another why do we not train men to rape, reward them when they do? What have the police and courts been doing all these years? What is all the aggressive law enforcement and prosecution about?” And the answer is that all of this illegality and prosecution is but a vast pretense, lulling “us women” into believing something is really being done when, in fact, “the system” just pinpoints a sufficient number of men to keep the whole edifice of the “rape culture” intact overall. As my mother might say, “There’s no talking to such people.” The still, small voice of reason gains no hearing in such circles.
Two other points are worth mentioning: Roiphe, correctly, sees victim feminism as a hankering for days of greater control, more policing of male-female relations. She opposes all of that. For Roiphe, freedom and responsibility are the key terms. I’m for both, and I think she is quite right that the newly refurbished myth of lost innocence is “a trope”convenient, appealing, politically effective.” But perhaps, just perhaps, eighteen-year-olds are not quite ready for a free-for-all. When universities gave up in loco parentis , they set up very little in its place. A lot of ideological busybodies have filled the vacuum; people, mind you, who don’t talk about “ethics” but only about “power” and “empowerment” and “silencing” and the like. MacKinnon and her minions explicitly eschew any talk of “ethics.” For them that reeks of Christianity, and Christianity is just another name we give to “patriarchy.” My argument, pace Roiphe, would be to bring ethics back in to the discussion. Young people, at least the ones I talk to and see, are searching, sometimes rather desperately, for an ethic of co-responsible freedom and they are getting precious little assistance from the campus powers-that-be.
Finally, and most disarmingly, Roiphe targets the assaultive, bitter nature of the feminism she criticizes for its reductionistic treatment of the literature she loves. She laments the cultural “dumbing down” in which we have been engaged for a good many years now. A text is no longer read; it is ripped apart. Roiphe describes a discussion in one of her literature classes about the work of Edith Wharton. Wharton is taken to task for being “antifeminist.” One inflamed student tells Roiphe that “Edith Wharton’s characters are necessarily antifeminist because within the hegemonic male discourse, it is impossible for the female voice to be empowered.” That, presumably, is that. Literature offers us powerful and ambiguous worlds, worlds without clear-cut villains and victims; worlds of nuance and innuendo; worlds of passion enacted and passion restrained; worlds of unspoken yearning and the dignity of chosen silence. Those are worlds the ideologues disdain and must work to destroy because that is what “real life” is like.
If I were to sum up Roiphe’s book, it would be quite simple. Her message to feminists is: grow up. There is no world, anywhere, and there never will be in which any group can or should exercise perfect and total control. Were there such a world, it would be unlivable. In the meantime, we must work to bind up the wounds, tend to the suffering, succor the ill, serve the less fortunate. But they do not come to us in tidy packages determined solely by gender. Perhaps it is time to remind victim feminists that a man, too, like Shakespeare’s Shylock, bleeds when he is pricked. Is he not a human, imperfect like the rest of us? Can we not try to walk into the future together, men and women in relation, however imperfect, rather than as isolated and isolating serial monads distinguished by our enmity, fear, suspicion, and loathing of one another? Until our college campuses wake up and take on the real purveyors of hatred, many of them ensconced in offices with nice-sounding titles, enmity, fear, suspicion, and loathing it will be. Friendship, even love, between men and women will blossom despite, not because of, the atmosphere Roiphe so vividly describes.
Jean Bethke Elshtain , a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of First Things , is Centennial Professor of Political Science and Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University.