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Sharon Smith

Letter from the US

The right turn to rape

(December 1993)

From Socialist Review, No. 170, December 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

‘The use of force by men is incorporated in varying degrees within the parameters of what is widely regarded as “normal” sexual relations’

The backlash against women has opened a new chapter. ‘Sexual correctness’ is the latest media term ridiculing claims that date rape and sexual harassment are serious problems faced by women. ‘Stop whining’ whined a headline in one article of Newsweek magazine’s recent ten page spread on sexual correctness.

In the article Republican Mary Matalin argues that the vast majority of sexual harassment charges are ‘frivolous’ claims which ‘clog the system’. Newsweek claimed to represent both sides of the issue, yet the main article assails feminists’ alleged ‘obsession with correct codes of behaviour’, charging that ‘this defensive mind set is at the heart of the escalating battle over date rape.’

The excuse for this latest ideological onslaught comes from The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campus, a new book claiming that the problems of date rape and sexual harassment against women have been greatly exaggerated. The book’s author, Katie Roiphe, a recent graduate of Harvard University, blames feminists for creating an atmosphere of ‘rape crisis melodrama’ on college campuses which has turned women students into whimpering, whining ‘helpless victims’ much like those of the Victorian era. She rejects the accepted statistic, based on a Ms magazine study, that one in four women college students in the US has had an experience which meets the legal definition of rape or attempted rape since the age of 14.

Most of Roiphe’s ‘evidence’ for her case is impressionistic, based mainly upon her own personal experiences. She asserts, for example, without supporting facts and figures, ‘rape is much less common than other forms of assault.’ Evidence? ‘When I was living in New York, I knew lots of men who had been attacked, and fewer women.’

She goes on to ask, ‘If I was really standing in the middle of an epidemic, if 25 percent of my female friends were really being raped, wouldn’t I know it?’ Unlikely. Roiphe is probably the last person her Harvard classmates would have turned to after a date rape. She first disputed the existence of a problem of date rape in 1991, in an article she wrote entitled, Date Rape Hysteria, which was prominently featured on the opinion page of the New York Times.

Roiphe also misses the point when she attacks separatist feminism to show that claims of date rape are just part of a crusade against men.

For example, she challenges feminist Catharine MacKinnon’s statement that only 7.8 percent of women in the United States are not sexually assaulted or harassed in their lifetimes. MacKinnon’s figure tells us next to nothing because it includes all possible forms of sexual harassment such as obscene phone calls, along with rape. But striking down MacKinnon’s conclusions does not disprove the one in four statistic about date rape.

Moreover, the sources Roiphe quotes favourably are no more reliable. In refuting the one in four statistics she relies heavily on the questionable figures of Neil Gilbert, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley whose hobbies include campaigning against federal funding for rape prevention and sexual abuse programmes.

Gilbert’s own estimate is that just one in every 1,000 women college students has experienced a rape or attempted rape. Put differently, Gilbert believes that the problem of rape is virtually non existent. His figure is based upon the National Crime Survey (NCS), which didn’t even ask women whether they’d ever been raped – they had to volunteer the information. Moreover, the NCS study doesn’t include forced oral or anal sex in its definition of rape and it only includes rape which occurred within the previous six months, not since age 14.

Since the vast majority of rapes go unreported it is impossible to debate precise figures. But the recognition that most rapists aren’t strangers who jump out from behind a bush – that rape can and does happen between two people who know each other – represents a huge step forward in understanding the sexual aspects of women’s oppression. Acknowledging acquaintance rape means understanding that the inequality between women and men in society affects sexual relationships as well.

The Ms survey, published in 1988, found that 84 percent of those raped knew their attacker, and 57 percent of the rapes happened on dates. And only 27 percent of the women whose sexual assault met with the legal definition of rape thought of themselves as rape victims. In other words, the use of force by men is incorporated in varying degrees within the parameters of what is widely accepted as ‘normal’ sexual relations.

Nowhere in The Morning After does Roiphe acknowledge the existence of women’s oppression. Nowhere does she express the least bit of compassion for victims of rape or other acts of sexual harassment. Instead, she ridicules rape victims. In fact she argues that our society encourages young girls to believe, ‘being a victim of sexual harassment is a way to get attention, a way to get the final word.’ Roiphe dismisses the vast majority of date rape as a figment of women’s ‘imaginations run wild’, charges formulated in hindsight after a disappointing sexual encounter. She writes, ‘someone’s rape may be another person’s bad night.’

According to Roiphe, claims of rape and sexual harassment have been cynically used by feminists to manipulate women, unfairly intimidating men in the process. As an example of this, she tells the story of David Mamet’s controversial play Oleanna which, she argues, dramatises the consequences of sexual harassment propaganda. Oleanna takes place on a college campus. The plot involves a feminist student who falsely accuses her male professor of attempted rape and causes him to lose his job. In the end, backed into a corner he beats her, throwing her to the ground.

Roiphe summarises Mamet’s message approvingly.

‘The student’s charges are seen as what they are: a self fulfilling prophecy. The professor has turned into what she always thought he was ... Feminists, Mamet warns, will conjure up the sexual beast if they push far enough’.

There is a phrase which describes this viewpoint perfectly. It’s called ‘blaming the victim’. Katie Roiphe has been called the Clarence Thomas of women, with good reason.

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