Sex and the single post-feminist

Bad girl Katie Roiphe used to be disgusted. Now she's just confused.


Laura Miller
February 27, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

pity Katie Roiphe, the young writer who brashly contradicted feminist orthodoxy with "The Morning After: Sex, Fear
and Feminism," a challenge to anti-date-rape women's groups on today's
university campuses. She has a lot to prove.

When, in the early '90s, "post-feminists" like Roiphe resisted the priggish
dogmas of '80s feminism, they presented themselves as dashing, sexy
"bad girls" who dared to defy sob sister victimology, protectionism and
male bashing. The fact that Roiphe is literally the daughter of Old Guard feminism -- her mother, Anne, is the author of the feminist classic, "Up the Sandbox" -- gave her publishing debut a piquant Oedipal twist. "The Morning After" nabbed the 25-year-old Roiphe a cover story in the New
York Times Magazine and ink in many national publications. But sassing Mommy is the easy part, especially when you get
plenty of attention for doing it. Now is the time for thinkers like Roiphe to
deliver the goods: some intimation of a next generation of feminism that
will inspire women to new heights.

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Roiphe has just published "Last Night in Paradise: Sex and Morals at the
Century's End," a work mostly concerned with how the AIDS crisis has
affected Americans' sex lives. It's a noticeably edgy and evasive second
book, as if Roiphe hopes that by constantly shifting her position she'll
avoid some of the body blows she took as a result of her first. Katha
Pollitt briskly decimated "The Morning After" in The New Yorker,
dispatching Roiphe's critique of rape frequency statistics like a lioness
gruffly swatting down a cub whose friskiness has grown tiresome. Of course,
Roiphe expected ideological critiques -- she'd already been the target of
many outraged sophomore fanatics. But Pollitt hardly needed to bother with
that; she simply analyzed Roiphe's "reporting," in one example after another,
and showed it to be lazy, shallow and inaccurate, based on rumor,
exaggeration and, at times, just plain stupidity. "Don't they teach
students ... anything about research anymore?" Pollitt growled.

The problem with commentators like Roiphe is that the same half-cocked,
extravagant assertions that make them such good copy also make them easy to
dismiss. The overwrought, fear-mongering mentality of the campus anti-rape
movement in the early '90s (particularly freshman "orientations" pitched to
the upper registers of gender-war hysteria) deserved to be debunked. But
Roiphe's rank carelessness in questioning rape statistics (a relatively
minor issue) enabled her opponents to disregard her solid complaints that rape "education" programs only fostered female helplessness and
dependency on institutions.

Although Roiphe insisted that "The Morning After" was "not a political
polemic," it was just that. With "Last Night in
Paradise," by contrast, it's impossible to glean any clear indictment or
recommendation from her tortured musings. Roiphe sees American culture as
having seized upon AIDS as an excuse to resume a puritanical stance on
sexuality. All too quickly, pious headlines calling the disease the "price"
of the sexual revolution appeared. The public's eagerness to embrace
homilies and codes about safer sex, abstinence and monogamy betrays, she
argues, a panicky discomfort with the rampant hedonism of the '60s and
'70s. "All the indulgent voices left some fundamental need for control
unsatisfied."

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This crackdown bothers Roiphe, who mourns "an ideal of recklessness and
abandon that's in the process of being lost." But then again, she also
welcomes it.

Roiphe describes having felt a deep, intermittent "revulsion"
about the casual sexual relationships of her college years, the parade of
young men who traipsed through the flat she shared with three female
roommates. "I felt almost sick with the accumulated anonymity of it," she
writes. "It was then that I first felt a hint of our absolute readiness for
limits, for someone to say, for whatever reason, this is not a healthy way
to live." Later, she watched a TV commercial warning, "If you've had
sex with two people, and each of those two people have had sex with two
people ..." and showing a lone waltzing couple gradually joined by more and
more people until finally they're dancing in a crowded room. In this light,
"my own fairly average romantic history seems impossibly sordid."

That said, Roiphe returns to lamenting the new mania for "caution." Readers
of "The Morning After" will recognize this yearning for chaos, danger and
mystery, things Roiphe finds essential to her notion of passion. She
admiringly and at length describes the autobiographical French film "Savage
Nights," written and directed by Cyril Collard, an HIV-positive bisexual
who also stars. This slab of Gallic dreck (I've seen it, unfortunately)
concerns a group of young, leather-clad urbanites who spend most of the
movie shrieking about l'amour and chewing up the scenery. The hero,
a preening Lothario, beds a young woman without informing her beforehand
that he's infected. When the woman discovers this, she melodramatically
casts away their condoms, crying "I want to share everything with you, even
your disease."

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"This is love," Roiphe gushes. "True love is not concerned with
self-protection" or "the selfishness and prudence written into our new
sexual ethic." That Roiphe sees pointless self-obliteration as the pinnacle
of love reveals her startling similarity to the passive girls she decries
in "The Morning After." In fact, in a recent essay in Esquire, Roiphe
confesses further to "forbidden" fantasies about being "taken care of" by
a man of means. In traditional sex roles, she writes, "you can take a rest from
yourself ... equality is not always, in all contexts and situations,
comfortable or even desirable."

Actually, it's being in charge of your own life that's not always comfortable,
and many people go to great lengths to avoid it, Roiphe apparently among
them. Whether fretting about "permissiveness" or balking at excessive
"caution," she seems to see her sexuality as public property constructed of
magazine articles and surveys, a weather vane that obediently turns with
whatever trend is currently breezing through the culture. She's one of
those feminist writers who's forever kvetching about what women are "supposed to
be," as if we all have to be the same and feminism is just a matter of
settling on the right boilerplate.

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A conversation with Christine, a self-described "secondary virgin" (someone
who has abandoned premarital sex and intends to remain celibate until
marriage), lashes Roiphe into a frenzy. At first, she envies the other
woman's "glow" and serenity, but if Roiphe acknowledges the legitimacy of
Christine's choice -- according to her own crazy logic -- that would mean
she'd have to follow her example. Instead, Roiphe decides that Christine's
"calm" is "delusion" and "I find myself infuriated. I suddenly want to
convert her more desperately than she wants to convert me, although there
are definitely times when I wish that, like Christine, I had a giant book
that would tell me how to live my life." Whew! No wonder Roiphe's confused.
The possibility that Christine's is a purely personal decision that works
for her and has no bearing on Roiphe's own sex life never seems to occur to
her.

For all Roiphe's touting of willful passion and adventure, "Last Night in
Paradise" is really just a book about norms; it's remarkable how much she
dwells on what other people think. When promiscuity was
fashionable (in her early college years), Roiphe dreaded being thought a
virgin. Now she frets that "if you smoke a cigarette or order a glass of
wine at lunch, people will look at you as if you are somehow polluting ...
the moral environment of the nation." There's nothing here, really, about
sexual pleasure or freedom, nothing about the demanding but ultimately
liberating discovery of private truths. Roiphe just ping-pongs between
wishing it were considered "OK" to collect sexual experiences and longing
for someone else to impose structure and morals on her emotional life. Whether she obeys or rebels, Roiphe
doesn't know who she is.

With "Last Night in Paradise," Roiphe still shows herself to be a bad girl, but the title
proves entirely unironic. And the operative word is "girl."

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Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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