Is feminism dead at Duke?

A Rolling Stone article paints elite sorority members as indicators of feminism's failure.

Published June 9, 2006 6:53PM (EDT)

From reading Rolling Stone's article about the Duke rape case -- which gets more convoluted each day -- one might conclude that today's female college students aspire to a fame no greater than a starring role in the latest Girls Gone Wild installment. "Today's female college students are the impressionable middle-schoolers of the late 1990s -- the ones who made Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera icons of sexy, powerful young-womanhood," Rolling Stone writer Janet Reitman notes. "Now, these girls, too, can have sex -- with whomever they choose and whenever they might want it, in a number of ways, without even thinking about what it all means."

What's more, Reitman suggests, this sad generation has a "retro view of rape;" they assume that guys like the Duke lacrosse players can get any girl they want, so consent is a moot issue for them.

As for what the rape case itself means -- well, Reitman says it's less about race, class or violence than about what currently passes for youthful sexuality: "I've begun to see the story as not a 'he said/she said' tale, nor a story about sexual violence, but rather a story about sex itself. Not sex in its nitty-gritty, anatomical sense, but more in the collective sense: sex as a sport, as a way of life, as a source of constant self-scrutiny and self-analysis." (Never mind that she just told us young women are having sex indiscriminately without thinking about what it all means -- now they're nevertheless engaging in self-scrutiny.)

Reitman gleaned all this on a recent visit to Durham, N.C., where she hung out with members of an elite sorority. And superficially, some of her points seem reasonable: It isn't unbelievable that many young women have a for-sale mentality -- turn MTV on at any given moment and you'll find plenty of examples. But Reitman makes an absurd connection between the outrageous sexual behaviors of coeds nationwide and the twisted views of rape and violence exhibited by some students at Duke. (Especially considering that coverage of the incident has been inevitably slanted by the throngs of journalists who have flocked to Durham, salivating like starving dogs over their share of a juicy sirloin.)

Sure, Reitman's sources for the story aren't particularly articulate (though the piece did teach me two new vocab words: "Frat-tastic" and "Super-frat"). And yes, certain sorority sisters at Duke -- where frat-party themes range from "Give It to Me, Daddy, I Want It" to "Pimpin' All Over the World" (oh-so-humorously sponsored by Duke's Africa organization) -- are still struggling with their understanding of feminism. But are we really to take these girls as representative of Duke undergrads (the fifth-most-competitive school in the country), let alone coeds nationwide? This overreach is reminiscent of this spring's media storm surrounding women's allegedly outrageous spring break behavior, which turned out to be hung on one flimsy and wholly unscientific study.

Having established that her sample of Duke students speaks for all collegiate young womanhood, Reitman argues that female college students today have only an abstract understanding of sexual equality. But even in an informal magazine piece, there's something problematic about letting the sex-as-sport behavior of elite sorority members -- who are searching out mainstream social approval -- speak for today's generation of female college students. When reporters search for the next generation of feminism, they'd do well to consult a larger sample before declaring the movement dead.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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