No means no. But what does rape mean?: American feminists are propounding a new myth of sexual relations that could put women back 40 years, argues Katie Roiphe

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', if 25 per cent of my women friends were really being raped, wouldn't I know it?

These posters were not presenting facts. They were advertising a mood. Preoccupied with issues such as date rape and sexual harassment, campus feminists produce endless images of women as victims - women offended by a professor's dirty joke, pressured into sex by peers, trying to say no but not managing to get it across.

This portrait of the delicate female bears a striking resemblance to that Fifties ideal my mother's generation fought so hard to leave behind. They didn't like her passivity, her wide-eyed innocence, the fact that she was perpetually offended by sexual innuendo. They didn't like her excessive need for protection. So they worked and marched, shouted and wrote to make her irrelevant for their daughters. But here she is again, only this time feminists are breathing new life into her.

Is there a rape crisis on campus? Neil Gilbert, a professor of social welfare at the University of California at Berkeley, points out that in a 1985 survey 73 per cent of the women categorised as rape victims did not initially define their experience as rape; it was Mary Koss, the psychologist conducting the study, who did.

One of the questions used to define rape was: 'Have you had sexual intercourse when you didn't want to because a man gave you alcohol or drugs?' The phrasing raises the issue of agency. If we assume that women are not all helpless and naive, then they should be held responsible for their choice to drink or take drugs. If a woman's 'judgement is impaired' and she has sex, it isn't necessarily always the man's fault.

As Gilbert delves further into the numbers, he does not necessarily disprove the one-in-four statistic, but he does clarify what it means - the so-called rape epidemic on campuses is more about a change in sexual politics than a change in sexual behaviour.

That rape is a fact in some women's lives is not in question. We all agree that rape is a terrible thing. But today's definition has stretched beyond bruises and knives, threats of death or violence, to include emotional pressure and the influence of alcohol. The lines between rape and sex begin to blur. The one-in-four statistic is measuring something elusive. There is a grey area in which one person's rape may be another's bad night. Definitions become entangled in passionate ideological battles.

The next question, then, is who is identifying this epidemic and why.

In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes that 'Cultural representation of glamorised degradation has created a situation among the young in which boys rape and girls get raped as a normal course of events.'

The italics are hers and the rhetorical excess serves her larger polemic about sexual politics. Her dramatic prose is a call to arms for the feminist troops. From Susan Brownmiller - who brought the politics of rape into the mainstream with her 1975 best-seller, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape - to Naomi Wolf, feminist prophets of the rape crisis are talking about something more than forced penetration. They are talking about a 'rape culture'. Rape is a natural trump card for feminism. Arguments about rape can be used to sequester feminism in the teary province of trauma and crisis.

Eyes wide with concern, a final-year student tells me 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. It's amazing, she says, that so many of us are sexually assaulted every day.

What is amazing is that this student actually believes that 50 per cent of women are raped. This is the true crisis. A substantial number of young women are walking around believing a hyperbole containing within it a state of perpetual fear.

'Acquaintance Rape: Is Dating Dangerous?' is a pamphlet commonly found at counselling centres. It offers a sample date-rape scenario. She thinks: 'He was really good-looking and he had a great smile . . . We talked and found we had a lot in common. I really liked him. When he asked me over to his place for a drink I thought it would be OK. He was such a good listener and I wanted him to ask me out again.'

Unfortunately his intentions are not as pure as hers. Beneath that nice smile, he thinks: 'She looked really hot, wearing a sexy dress that showed off her great body. We started talking right away. I knew that she liked me by the way she kept smiling and touching my arm while she was speaking. She seemed pretty relaxed so I asked her back to my place for a drink . . . When she said 'Yes' I knew that I was going to be lucky]'

By defining the dangerous date in these terms, these pamphlets promote the perspective that men are lascivious, women innocent. The sleek images of pressure and resistance projected in rape-education movies, videotapes, pamphlets and speeches also create a model of acceptable sexual behaviour. Sex should be gentle, it should not be aggressive; it should be absolutely equal, it should not involve domination and submission; it should be tender, not ambivalent; it should communicate respect, not consuming desire.

In Real Rape, Susan Estrich, a professor of law at the University of Southern California, writes: 'Many women who say yes to men they know . . . would say no if they could . . . Women's silence sometimes is the product not of passion and desire but of pressure and fear.' The message is clear: women are often unwilling participants. They say yes because they feel they have to, because they are intimidated by male power.

Politically-correct sex involves a yes, and a specific yes at that. We can no longer afford the dangers of unspoken consent. The idea that only an explicit yes means yes proposes that, like children, women have trouble communicating what they want, and the notion of 'active consent' bolsters stereotypes of men just out to 'get some' and women who don't really want any.

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 pervades workshops, counselling sessions and student opinion pieces. The suggestion lurking beneath is that men are not just physically but also intellectually and emotionally more powerful than women.

Imagine men sitting around in a circle talking about how she called him impotent and manipulated him into sex, how violated and dirty he felt afterwards, how coercive she was, how she got him drunk first, how he hated his body and couldn't eat for three weeks. Imagine him calling this rape. Of course there would never be a rule or a law or even a pamphlet or peer counselling group for men who claimed to have been emotionally raped or verbally pressured into sex. And for the same reasons - assumption of basic competence, free will and strength of character - there should be no such rules or groups or pamphlets for women.

'Politically, I call it rape whenever a woman has sex and feels violated,' writes Catharine MacKinnon, a law professor and feminist legal scholar. In one student's account of date rape in the Rag, a feminist magazine at Harvard, she talks about the anguish of being 'defiled'. Another writes: 'I long to be innocent again'. These young women frame their experience of rape in archaic, sexist terms.

Combating myths about rape such as 'She asked for it' is one of the central missions of the rape-crisis movement. But with all their noise about rape myths, rape-crisis feminists are generating their own. The plays, poems, pamphlets, the Take Back the Night speakouts, are propelled by the myth of innocence lost.

All the talk about empowering the voiceless dissolves into the image of the naive girl child who trusts the rakish man. This plot reaches back centuries. It propels Samuel Richardson's 18th-century epistolary novel, Clarissa: after hundreds of pages chronicling her seduction and resistance, her break from her family, Clarissa is raped by the duplicitous Robert Lovelace. She refuses to eat and fades toward a very virtuous, very religious death. It's not hard to imagine Clarissa, in jeans and a sweatshirt, transported into the 20th century, at a Take Back the Night march. She would speak for a long time about her deception and rape, anorexia, and her ensuing post-traumatic stress syndrome. Latter-day Clarissas may worry more about their 'self-esteem' than their virtue, but they still attach the same quasi-religious value to the physical act.

But do these 20th-century girls, raised on Madonna videos and the six o'clock news, horror movies and glossy Hollywood sex scenes, really trust that people were good until they themselves were raped? Sure, we were all kind of innocent, playing in the sand box with bright red shovels - boys, too. We can all look back through the tumultuous tunnel of adolescence on a honey-glazed childhood, with simple rules and early bedtimes. We don't have to look at parents fighting, at sibling struggles, at casting out one best friend for another in the Darwinian playground. This is not innocence lost; this is the innocence we never had. We should keep in mind that myths about innocence have been used to keep women inside and behind veils. They have been used to keep them out of work and in labour.

Calling It Rape, a play by Sonya Rasminsky, a recent Harvard graduate, is based on interviews with date-rape victims. The play begins with 'To His Coy Mistress' by the 17th-century poet Andrew Marvell. Although generations of students have read this as a poem about desire and the struggle against mortality, Rasminsky has reinterpreted it as a poem about rape. 'Had we but world enough, and time, this coyness, lady, were no crime.' But what Marvell didn't know then, and we know now, is that the real crime is not her coyness but his verbal coercion. Later, the actors recount a rape that hinges on misunderstanding. A boy and girl are watching videos and he starts to come on to her. She does not want to have sex. In an oblique effort to communicate her lack of enthusiasm, she says: 'If you're going to (expletive) me, use a condom'. He interprets that as a yes, but it's really a no. And, according to this play, what happens next, condom or no condom, is rape.

This is a central idea of the rape-crisis movement: that sex has become our Tower of Babel. He doesn't know what she wants (not to have sex) and she doesn't know what he wants (to have sex) - until it's too late. He speaks boyspeak and she speaks girlspeak and what comes out of all this verbal chaos is a lot of rapes. But the theory of mixed signals has to do with more than gender politics. It comes in part from the shifts in the social composition of the college class since the Fifties.

Take my own Harvard dorm: the Adams House dining hall is large, with high ceilings and dark panelling. It hasn't changed much for generations, but as soon as the students start milling around there are signs of change. There are students in jeans, flannel shirts, short skirts, girls in jackets, boys in bracelets, two pierced noses and lots of second-hand clothes.

Not so many years ago, this room was filled with boys in jackets and ties. Most of them were white, Christian and what we now call privileged. It was assumed that everyone knew more or less how they were expected to behave with everyone else. With the introduction of black kids, Asian kids, Jewish kids, kids from the wrong side of the tracks, there was an accompanying anxiety about how people behave. When ivory tower meets melting pot it causes tension, some confusion, some need for readjustment. When the Southern heiress goes out with the plumber's son from the Bronx, they have different expectations. The idea that men don't know what women mean when women say no stems from something deeper and more complicated than feminist concerns with rape.

People have asked me if I have ever been date-raped. And thinking back on complicated nights, on too many glasses of wine, on strange and familiar beds, I would have to say yes. With such a sweeping definition of rape, I wonder how many people there are, male or female, who haven't been date-raped. People pressure and manipulate and cajole each other into all sorts of things all of the time. But with their expansive version of rape, rape-crisis feminists are endorsing their own utopian vision of sexual relations: sex without struggle, sex without power, sex without persuasion, sex without pursuit. Rape has become a catch-all expression, a word used to define everything that is unpleasant and disturbing about relations between the sexes.

There are a few feminists involved in rape education who object to the current expanding definitions. Gillian Greensite, founder of the rape-prevention education programme at the University of California at Santa Cruz, writes that the seriousness of the crime 'is being undermined by the growing tendency of some feminists to label all heterosexual miscommunication and insensitivity as acquaintance rape'. From within the rape-crisis movement, she makes an important point. If we are going to maintain an idea of rape, then we need to reserve it for instances of physical violence, or the threat of violence.

But some people want the melodrama. Words such as 'rape' and 'verbal coercion' channel the confusing flow of experience into something easy to understand. The idea of date rape comes at us when we've just left home and haven't yet figured out where to put our new futons or how to organise our new social lives. In the first rush of sexual experience, the fear of date rape offers a tangible framework to locate fears that are essentially abstract.

When my 55-year-old mother was young, navigating her way through dates, there was a definite social compass. There were places not to let him put his hands, invisible lines. The pill wasn't available. Abortion wasn't legal. And sex was just wrong. Her mother gave her 'mad money' to take out on dates in case her date got drunk and she needed to escape. She had to go far enough to hold his interest and not far enough to endanger her reputation.

Now the rape-crisis feminists are giving a new political weight to the same old no. My mother's mother told her to drink sloe gin fizzes so she wouldn't get too drunk and go too far. Now the date- rape pamphlets tell us: 'Avoid excessive use of alcohol and drugs. Alcohol and drugs interfere with clear thinking and effective communication.' My mother's mother told her to stay away from empty rooms and dimly lit streets. In I Never Called It Rape Robin Warshaw writes: 'Especially with recent acquaintances, women should insist on going only to public places such as restaurants and cinemas.'

There is a danger in these new rules. We shouldn't need to be reminded that the rigidly conformist Fifties were not the heyday of women's power. Rape-crisis feminists are chasing the same stereotypes our mothers spent so much energy escaping.

I was looking through my mother's bookshelves and I found her old battered copy of Germaine Greer's feminist classic, The Female Eunuch. It was 1971 when my mother read it: a new, explosive, tough and sexy terrorism for the early stirrings of the feminist movement.

Today's rape-crisis feminists threaten to create their own version of the desexualised woman Greer complained of 20 years ago. 'It is often falsely assumed,' Greer writes, 'even by feminists, that sexuality is the enemy of the female who really wants to develop these aspects of her personality . . . In fact, the chief instrument in the deflection and perversion of female energy is the denial of female sexuality for the substitution of femininity or sexlessness.' It is the passive sexual role that threatens us still, and it is the denial of female sexual agency that threatens to propel us backward.

Katie Roiphe is a PhD studentat Princeton University. This article is adapted from her book 'The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campus', to be published in September in the United States by Little, Brown.

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