Little Women

GEORGE F. WILL

October 25, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- "My grandmother lived in a world of manicures, hair salons and no place to go in the mornings.'' That felicitous first sentence is the fuse that lights Katie Roiphe's bombshell of a book in which she argues that a perversion of feminism is reviving stereotypes that constricted her grandmother's world.

In today's victimization sweepstakes, many prizes, including media attention and therapeutic preferences from government, go to those who succeed at being seen as vulnerable and suffering. So hell hath no fury like that directed against someone like Ms. Roiphe, who casts a cool eye on the claims and logic of some women who consider their victimhood compounded by any calm analysis of their claims. This Ms. Roiphe provides in ''The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campus.'' It is giving some feminists the vapors.

Ms. Roiphe, 25, a Ph.D. candidate in English at Princeton, dissects the contemporary feminist obsession with sexual harassment and rape, both broadly -- very broadly -- defined. Behind this obsession she detects the old image of woman as exquisitely delicate, ''with her pure intentions and her wide eyes,'' constantly on the verge of victimization.

Into what Ms. Roiphe calls ''the normal libidinous jostle of coeducation'' has come a gothic feminism. It portrays men as predators and women as prey -- women who by nature are innocent, passive, manipulable and almost asexual and whose fragile composure crumbles when they encounter male sexuality.

This feminism explains a feature of contemporary campus life, the ''Take Back the Night'' marches. At these rituals, ''survivors'' of sexual ''violence,'' very broadly defined, ''speak out'' about their ''voicelessness.'' They describe being ''silenced'' by a shadowy force with several names -- ''men'' or, for the intellectually up-scale, ''patriarchic hegemony'' and ''phallocentrism.''

As Ms. Roiphe dryly notes, being ''silenced'' is an experience of the articulate, whose tone is often self-congratulatory: I have survived victimization, so I am very brave. Participants in these marches-as-therapy, she says, are ''more oversaturated with self-esteem than with cholesterol.''

One often-repeated statistic of suffering is that one in four college women is a victim of rape or attempted rape. One study that popularized that factoid has interesting flaws. Seventy-three percent of the women categorized as rape victims did not themselves define their experiences as rape. Some feminists say that just proves how much those women need their consciousnesses ''raised.''

But at Berkeley, with 14,000 female students, only two rapes were reported to the police in 1990. And Ms. Roiphe considers it remarkable that she supposedly lives amid an epidemic, with 25 percent of her peers encountering rapists, yet she never noticed it. ''Somebody,'' she says, ''is 'finding' this rape crisis, and finding it for a reason.''

They find it by postulating that women are trapped in a ''rape culture'' where they are powerless and hence true sexual consent is problematic, perhaps impossible. The chorus about the ubiquity of ''date rape'' or ''acquaintance rape'' generates a climate of constant fear that Ms. Roiphe says sequesters feminism ''in the teary province of trauma and crisis.'' In the process, the brutal crime of rape is trivialized.

Pamphlets titled ''Is Dating Dangerous?'' and ''Friends Raping Friends'' warn freshmen women to ''be on your guard with every man.'' Such literature expresses what Ms. Roiphe calls ''the old sugar-and-spice approach to female character.'' It infantilizes women, portraying them as helpless before the onslaught of insatiable male desire.

''We've come a long way,'' writes Ms. Roiphe, ''and now it seems we are going back.'' In its portrayal of female competence, character and free will, ''rape-crisis feminism'' echoes an 1848 book warning young women about verbally adroit men who will ''dazzle and bewilder her mind'' using ''a subtlety almost beyond the power of her detection.''

The preoccupation of rape-crisis feminists with explicit, verbal, step-by-step consent to everything sexual -- anything less supposedly is rape -- rests, Ms. Roiphe says, on antique assumptions about the way men and women experience sex. Men are supposedly lascivious; women are innocents who, like children, have trouble ascertaining or communicating their desires.

One pamphlet defines rape to include ''a woman's consenting to unwanted sexual activity because of a man's verbal arguments not including verbal threats of force.'' By means of ''verbal coercion,'' cunning rakes (the language of Victorian melodramas seems natural here) turn the pretty little heads of weak-willed women.

No wonder feminists who think like this are so smitten with that quintessential contemporary victim, the woman whose story was so uncannily -- or perhaps cannily -- congruent with this latest fashion in feminism, the woman who herself said she passively followed her supposed sexual harasser from one job to another: Anita Hill.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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