Roiphe's 'Paradise': searching for codes

March 09, 1997|By Stephanie Gutmann | Stephanie Gutmann,Special to the Sun

"Last Night in Paradise: Sex and Morals at the Century's End," by Katie Roiphe. Little, Brown, 193 pages. $21.95. The end of a century is upon us and with it the "taking stock" books. Inevitably there will be a stampede of tomes about what we citizens of the 20th did about sex. With Alan Bloom (who could have done a brilliant macro analysis) dead and witty sex-analyst Germaine Greer apparently preoccupied with menopause, the torch has ended up in the hands of someone extremely young but also extremely able and brave, a 28-year-old New Yorker named Katie Roiphe.

In 1993, with her first book, "The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus," Roiphe risked running her fledgling career into the ground by taking on what was then one of feminism's sacred cows, the idea that the campuses were overrun with what newspapers liked to call an "epidemic" of acquaintance rape.

Roiphe dissected the "crisis," tracing it back to its roots in media hype and the man-hating branch of the woman's movement, then advanced a psychological interpretation for this outbreak of hysteria and victim-mongering. Seeing rapists everywhere was a way for some young people to put rules back in a world where, at least concerning sex, rules had fallen out of fashion.

Since the author was then actually spending a great deal of time on campuses (she was finishing a doctorate in English literature at Princeton) the book had special credibility, also a feeling of immediacy derived from Roiphe's "new journalist" style, a style that relies on a torrent of real-life details rather than statistics and "experts."

In her new book, (like "Morning" a slim little thing) Roiphe carries on in very much the same effective "new journalism" vein except this time she is attempting a broader, end-of-the-century type goal: to analyze the effect of the sexual revolution on people who are now in their teens and 20s. As in "Morning," her point is that there has been a retreat from that "anything goes" ethos but that the retreat is being expressed dishonestly.

This time she talks about the retreat by focusing on the strange "embrace" and "zealous marketing" of the AIDS epidemic. Roiphe's point is that the outsized fear of AIDS (and, by extension, of sex) she sees among teens and college students (it is a given in this book that the risk has been oversold to non-drug-abusing heterosexuals) masks "the vestigial need for strong social codes, for judgement, context, and tradition, for a sense that whatever happens has some meaning outside our own bedrooms."

To show the strange "ardor" with which the fear of AIDS is sold we visit, among other places, a Manhattan boutique called "Condomania" and a high school class in New Jersey where bored kids are obliged to sit through a lesson on masturbation and safe sex.

All of these "once mores" and "this times" may convey that the book seems repetitive after "Morning." It does, but there is also much that is new here, much that is powerful, haunting and true.

Stephanie Gutmann's articles have been published in the New Republic, Woman's Day, Playboy and the New Yorker and elsewhere. She has been on the staffs of the Wilkes-Barre Times-Herald and the New York Post.

Pub Date: 3/09/97

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