BOOK REVIEW / Take back the herd instinct: Anna Blomefield on Katie Roiphe's study of feminism and the rape crisis movement: The morning after: Sex, Fear, and Feminism - Katie Roiphe: Hamish Hamilton, pounds 7.99

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The Independent Culture
THE APPEARANCE of this book crystallises public uncertainty over the rights and wrongs of the date rape issue. It is a thought-provoking work that purports to represent a reappraisal of the achievements and goals of the feminist movement over the past 30 or so years. Roiphe returns continually to her own family life as a genuine, if somewhat smug, yardstick in her enterprise. Yet it is a book which, though scarcely to be faulted as a piece of rhetoric, leaves one with a sour taste in the mouth. At the risk of sounding reactionary, I'd say the book falls prey to the very attractions of ideological manipulation it sets out to denounce.

Roiphe's critique is one of means rather than motives. Targetting her dissatisfaction on what she calls the 'rape crisis movement' on United States campuses, she proposes that women have latterly begun to revel in victimhood. Protesting about the date rape issue, she argues, is just another way of perversely asserting that women are weak, feeble, and unable to make up their own minds in a situation of any delicacy. So 'Take Back the Night' marches, in stating date rape as a social 'given', reduces women to the status of passive, trembling weaklings.

What has feminism come to? asks Roiphe. It's not what it was in her mother's day, back in the glorious, liberated Seventies when sexuality was a matter of celebration and not communal fear and hysteria. Roiphe demonstrates considerable nostalgia for the Seventies. Not that she recalls them herself. But they seem an era when feminism stood up for women's individuality. Then, women did not need to find consolation in the herd-instinct which groups them together on anti-rape marches.

But Roiphe's criticisms are misplaced on many counts. She seems to think that feminism originated in the Seventies. She has no concept of phases: of development of a political truth through progressive stages. What would she make of the Suffrage movement, I wondered. Certainly, some of its methods may have been then termed 'hysterical' but without its efforts where would we be today? To put it rather crudely, Roiphe is criticising unfairly what is intended by feminists in good faith. And she unwittingly belittles what are, quite plainly palpable fears. 'Men don't really use the night 'to erase us', and we are not so easily erased,' writes Roiphe, but this abstract dismissal ignores a practical danger. There is a certain glibness in the author's well-intended pep-talk which I found distasteful.

It is clear that the rape crisis movement (which in the course of the book comes to stand for contemporary American feminism in general) is, in the US especially, particularly virulent and prone to jargonised snobbishness and sloppiness of thought. Roiphe's objection to this phenomenon is welcome, since the construction of neologism after neologism by any political movement only reduces its credibility.

But by Chapter five we begin to lose sight of the fact that Roiphe's intention was to criticise means, as here her polemic becomes more personal. The chapter dealing with pornography indeed makes use of the shock tactics which it denounces in Catherine MacKinnon. Peppered with strategically placed obscenities selected from the MacKinnon lectures, it not only glosses over the painful conflict between freedom of expression and censorship, but threatens to approximate a pornographic effect itself.

And Roiphe's self-adopted position outside and above the realm of other feminist thought at times verges on the arrogant. By the book's end this has descended into pure sentimentality, a state which, it could be argued, a feminist treatise should avoid at all costs.

This is a book which ultimately forces us to make simplistic assessments which we are no longer prepared to make, and which reflect unattractively upon ourselves. Roiphe is in this respect brave, and for this her book is important. She recognises the value of polemic to the full. But this is an emotive issue, inhabiting one of those grey areas of human thought which has yet to be mapped out with accuracy. Roiphe's daring attempt to do just that reveals the flaws in Western thought which still pertain to issues of gender.