FOR A LONG TIME, what I thought about Katie Roiphe was that everything would have been different if she hadn't neglected (or was it refused?) to make one crucial point. If only, in The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism, her 1994 treatise on the sexual politics of what was commonly called the "date rape crisis," she had said something like this: the problem with broadening the definition of sexual violence to the point where plain old regrettable or even unenjoyable sex is sometimes classified as "rape" is that it ultimately achieves the opposite of its intended goal. It downplays the seriousness of rape. By bestowing equal measures of victim (or survivor) status onto those who let their boyfriends go too far one drunken night as onto those who, through violence or other forms of coercion, have sex against their will, the whole notion of rape becomes a fluid concept. It becomes subject to interpretation as well as felony prosecution. And while that might not necessarily be the end of the world, it can sure be confusing.
I realize this is not the most opportune moment to attempt to justify or clarify the rather muddy message of one of the most controversial books on sexual politics of the last quarter century. As I write this, the country is embroiled in a rancorous debate about reproductive rights that has been amplified by a congressman who used the term "legitimate rape," and I do not mean to conflate the ideas of a young writer in the 1990s with the political discourse defining the run-up to the 2012 election. But when it comes to Katie Roiphe, I believed then as I do now that what she was trying to get at was the irony of the whole phenomenon. Amid the cherry-picked examples and bald pronouncements, I believed that she was criticizing women because she cared about women, that she was questioning the contours of contemporary feminism because she was a feminist herself. She just, for some reason, didn't get around to saying that part outright. Maybe it seemed too obvious, too pedestrian. Maybe, as the daughter of a prominent feminist, she felt her pro-woman credentials were so unassailable that she needn't waste her printer ink assuring her readers she knew rape was abhorrent. Or maybe, as the daughter of a prominent feminist (and, no less significantly, a prominent Manhattan psychoanalyst known for his research into early childhood sexual identity), she was playing out the oldest coming of age story in the world. Maybe she just wanted to be a bad girl.
And, as Norman Mailer said of Mary McCarthy back in 1963, Roiphe has been a very bad girl these years. At least that's the rap on her. By this I do not mean to suggest that, in the annals of legendary American literary rabble rousers, Roiphe's shoulder is anywhere near McCarthy's. There are similarities between the two; a penchant for scandalizing the polite sensibilities of their fellow intellectual elites (McCarthy's breakout hit, the short story “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt,” was in some ways The Morning After of its day), a certain glee in thwarting traditional notions of domesticity (McCarthy was married four times, unapologetically prolific in her sexual dalliances, and was known to scoff when old friends went all bourgeois and Republican on her; Roiphe, a divorced mother of two children by different fathers, has written of her exasperation with peers who use parenthood as an excuse not to have sex or be interesting at parties). But Roiphe is more fluent in literature than in politics, more libertarian-minded than so...read more