She's just a girl who won't cry rape: Katie Roiphe, enfant terrible of feminism, flies in

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The Independent Online
KATIE ROIPHE has just got in from the airport. Her hair is still wet from the shower, she's not entirely sure what time it is, and she has to launch into the first of her many interviews. Everybody wants to see her - all the vaguely serious newspapers, and a clutch of radio and TV programmes - because at the tender age of 25, she has caused a furore in America.

Roiphe has written a book challenging the rape crisis movement, and by extension, Nineties' American feminism: it's been serialised as a cover story in the New York Times magazine and attacked in Newsweek, and she's been labelled neo-conservative, anti-feminist and careerist, when she thought she was just making a commonsensical point about victim feminism. Which is what, in fact, she was doing. Her book, The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism (Hamish Hamilton, pounds 7.99), began life as a 1,000-word piece in the New York Times, comparing Victorian guides to conduct with contemporary college date rape pamphlets. Both, she claimed, assume men are sexual predators and women must resist them - not, she says, a healthy attitude for women to be taking in the 1990s. 'Again and again,' she writes, 'the rape-crisis movement peddles images of gender relations that deny female desire and infantilise women.'

But the temptations of passivity are great, as she acknowledges: 'If you feel bad, it's probably helpful to think you've been date-raped.'

The book expands the argument, but fails to take it any further. Roiphe's point is simple - that women shouldn't think of themselves as victims, and that the rape crisis movement's emphasis on date rape now does precisely that. In the early chapters she makes this point powerfully, with descriptions of Take Back The Night marches, in which women testify, in an atmopshere of mass hysteria, to the times they were date-raped or otherwise made to feel victimised by male desire.

She also offers evidence of warnings to undergraduates that one in four will be the victims of rape or attempted rape during their college career, and 80 per cent of them sexually harrassed on campus.

To a British feminist it seems remarkable that Roiphe's complaints should be controversial; like so many of the attacks on political correctness viewed from this side of the Atlantic, her book appears to be taking a sledgehammer to a nut. I ask whether she thinks the arguments apply to Britain. 'OK, um . . . you know I just got here, so it's tricky for me, but I've been reading about the Donnellan case and I think really the point is about expanding the definitions of rape and I'm sort of specifically talking about American campuses, but you know this is something that goes well beyond campuses. What are we teaching young people about sexuality, and what kind of images of men and women are we projecting?' She does not appear to be familiar with the Diggle case.

She appears to be unfamiliar, indeed, with anything much beyond the rather rarified atmosphere of American universities. I ask whether she thinks positive discrimination is ever justified, and she starts talking, not about political representation, or business, but literature: 'I do think people should read Toni Morrison, but I don't think people should stop reading Milton. I don't think we should have to read every 19th century spinster who ever wrote a poem.'

Roiphe (it's pronounced Roifee) grew up in an 'ultra- liberal household' on New York's Fifth Avenue. Her mother is a feminist novelist, her father a Freudian psychoanalyst, and she has four sisters aged between 22 and 37. She went to an all-girls school, then to Harvard and Princeton, and is currently writing her PhD thesis, Psychoanalysis and The Literary Self, about American writers of the 1940s and 1950s. Finishing it is her next priority.

She doesn't quite say so - she is on a book tour, after all - but she evidently thinks the tide has turned since she put her ideas to paper. She doesn't ascribe this to her book, about which she is modest.

'It's just something in the air at a particular moment, and things are sort of picked up, or not picked up. And I just happened to say this thing at a moment when people wanted to talk about it, and now you're seeing articles saying, 'Isn't it crazy that we're getting these sexual harassment cases involving seven-year-olds?' '

Roiphe is visiting universities in her tour of Britain; it will be interesting to see whether she gets anything like the response she has had at Princeton, where 'some graduate students won't speak to me any more, or even look at me'. She has had no response so far from British students, but all that is likely to change in the next two weeks, if her publishers have anything to do with it. My guess is that the response here will be much more muted than at home. As Roiphe herself recognises, what she is saying is not so amazing.

'This is a difficult time to be young,' she says, 'well, perhaps it's always difficult. And there are, like, all these conflicting pressures. I don't believe men only want sex and women only want love, and it's important to me to say women sometimes just want sex, and men sometimes want love. To me I'm just making this very basic point, that like, tons of people would also say. And much as people will try and put me in a corner, really I'm not saying anything that extreme.'

(Photograph omitted)

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