Revisiting '90s Feminists on Campus Rape

#TBT: We've been having the same sexual-assault debate for more than 20 years.


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"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 a purple poster with this statistic written in bold letters. It didn't seem right. … 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?" 

That's from the opening to Katie Roiphe's New York Times polemic  against "rape crisis feminism" and the politics of trauma on college campuses. 

It was published in 1993. 

Yes, folks, we've been debating this same slippery statistic for more than 20 years. 

The whole Times piece—an excerpt from Roiphe's (then-upcoming) 1994 book The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campusis worth a read (or re-read), whatever your thoughts on the current campus-rape conversation. Some will cringe and some will cheer at lines like "the so-called rape epidemic on campuses is more a way of interpreting, a way of seeing, than a physical phenomenon" and "there is a gray area in which one person's rape may be another's bad night." But no one now paying attention can deny that most of the piece could have been written in 2015. All we're missing is a few references to Twitter and Barack Obama. 

A few snippets, to whet your appetite. On the climate on college campuses: 

Dead serious, eyes wide with concern, a college senior tells me that she believes 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 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 perpetual fear.

On affirmative consent: 

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."

This apparently 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.

[…] 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 beneath this definition of rape is that men are not just physically but also intellectually and emotionally more powerful than women.

As you may have guessed, Roiphe's ideas and writing were controversial. Reading Roiphe's critics can also be enlightening (and déjà vu inducing). Our battle lines have barely budged in the interim two decades. 

If you feel like going further down the rabbit-hole of retro writing on rape, sex, and feminism, see: "Not Just Bad Sex," Katha Pollitt's New Yorker review of Roiphe's first book; George Will's 2014 op-ed about victimhood on college campuses in its 1993 form; Harvard's "New Policy on Campus Rape" (1993); "Date Rape and a List at Brown"; and "Beating Swords Into Bustiers," in which Jennifer Weiner deconstructs the hot 1994 trend that Esquire labeled "Do Me" feminism.