Thirty years ago, Katie Roiphe’s The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism challenged the emphasis on “rape culture” and “date rape” that defined 1980s and 1990s feminism. The 25-year-old enfant terrible of a feminist discourse that focused on women’s victimization at the hands of men, Roiphe argued that, in the sexual realm, feminists should celebrate liberation and accept responsibility, not seek protection and embrace victimhood.
In 1993, Roiphe’s controversial contention was both reflective and constitutive of “pro-sex feminism.” This orientation had undergirded the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s but had been, since the AIDS crisis of the early 1980s, uniformly marginalized in favor of what Roiphe termed “a new bedroom politics” of “just say no,” “no means no,” and sexual “trauma and disease.” This new politics often demonized men while patronizing women. For Roiphe, a feminist emphasis on sexual danger reflects an alarmingly infantilizing and neo-Victorian return to an obsession with womanhood as “delicate,” with “pure intentions and wide eyes.”
In perhaps the most forceful passage of her uniformly powerful polemic, Roiphe chides feminists for their insistence that verbal coercion into sex constitutes rape because “lurking beneath this definition of rape is that men are not just physically but intellectually and emotionally more powerful than women.” Roiphe continues her rebuke:
We should not nurture this woman on her back, her will so mutable, so easily shaped; we should not support her in her passivity. We are not this woman on her back. We do not have the mind of an eleven-year-old in the body of a twenty-year-old. All competent female college students are compromised by the association of gullibility, low self-esteem, and the inability to assert ourselves with our position in relation to men. … Allowing verbal coercion to constitute rape is a sign of tolerance toward the ultrafeminine stance of passivity. … Whether or not we feel pressured, regardless of our level of self-esteem, the responsibility for our actions is still our own.
Three decades after The Morning After, the book remains relevant, controversial, and confounding.
This is in part because Roiphe’s seminal defense of women’s sexual agency, of which the above passage is the provocative crux, renders seemingly inextricable what are really two distinct arguments. The first, about women’s sexual indistinguishability from men, has proven too influential for our own good; the second, about women’s intellectual parity with men, has been utterly ignored, much to our detriment.
Roiphe’s foundational contention is that women’s physical vulnerability in relation to men (which, like everyone in 1993, she did acknowledge as a biological reality) requires no unique legal protections, nor should it inspire any gendered social mores. In Roiphe’s view, women’s unequal sexual danger is an acceptable price for our equal sexual freedom: “Sex might be dangerous, but then so [is] driving a car.”
The presumption that women’s admittedly unique physical vulnerability requires no particular legal or social deference has mostly prevailed across American culture in the decades since The Morning After. Indeed, at women’s great expense, it is this assumption that undergirds today’s feminist consensus around trans issues in ways that Roiphe could not have foreseen and likely did not intend.
Across the country, female students and their parents are fighting to maintain our daughters’ privacy in bathrooms and locker rooms, as well as their safety and victories on athletic fields. Boys and men who identify as trans girls and women spike balls with dangerous force, steal athletic championships and records, and invade intimate spaces where women should be entitled to the same privacy and safety that men enjoy in their bathrooms and locker rooms (not to mention their prisons and shelters). As political and cultural commentator Bridget Phetasy recently argued in Unherd, “A generation of women is being taught to disregard the fear that they might feel in a threatening situation.” They are “being called bigots” if they insist that the nonconsensual admission of biological men to the spaces where women undress puts women in real danger.
Two-year-olds have voices. So do dogs. But most of us don’t consider it fitting to set toddler tantrums or canine yaps on a level with substantive argument.
It does not do to exclaim in equality’s name that girls and women who identify as trans boys and men can enter male spaces just as their male counterparts can enter female ones; the politically inconvenient but empirically indisputable truth is that boys and men are in virtually no physical danger from girls and women, trans or otherwise. And it does not do to counter that most men, including most men who identify as women, are not sexual predators. No, most men (including those who identify as women) do not pose a threat to women. But those individuals who do pose any threat to others—women or men—are overwhelmingly male. Moreover, as 2017’s “#MeToo” movement and any broad acquaintance with history makes clear, the threats that a substantial minority of men can and do pose to women differ in kind and degree from those that virtually any woman is likely to pose to others. As a result, the blanket admission of men into women’s spaces means that women are correct to be anxious about the potential danger that newly lurks in the very places where it is ethical, prudent, and customary to ensure that we are protected from male lurkers.
Roiphe’s screed against special legal or cultural protections for women’s bodies proved so persuasive that we have invited a reality in which women are the only people without any basic protections at all. For Roiphe, of course, nonconsensual invasion remained distinct from consensual encounters. But once the idea of women as not just the equals of men but sexually indistinguishable from men took root, it proved to have a trajectory to which few of us would ever have consented.
The second, related but distinct, strand of Roiphe’s argument was clearly, with 30 years’ hindsight, prophetic. It is that if to any extent women are more apt than men to be agreeable, easily influenced, or intellectually dominated (whether due to biological predisposition or, as Roiphe would no doubt contend, to cultural norms), there should be no intellectual or psychological accommodation made within educational institutions (in class or outside of it) for these deficiencies. Nor should we misappropriate the language of progressivism to pretend that such weaknesses are really strengths. When Roiphe’s friend complains that class discussion is too “phallogocentric” to make space for female voices and Roiphe counters that she always talks in class, the friend responds, “That’s because you have a masculine style of thinking.”
So much for feminism’s alleged presumption of academic equality between men and women. Roiphe assumes women’s intellectual parity with men, as do I; feminists in good standing, apparently, do not.
But any feminism that denigrates reason itself as the sole province of dominating men while elevating utopian musings as the rightful province of other-regarding women is patently against women’s equality. The human capacity for reason is what separates us from the lower animals; women are every bit as human as men. Feminists who redefine sentiment as morally superior to reason in an attempt to exempt their ideas from the thrust and parry of intellectual debate, instead imposing their cultural preferences by fiat, are asking not for equality but for special—infantilizing and subhuman—treatment. Two-year-olds have “voices.” So do dogs. But most of us don’t believe that morality requires equating toddler tantrums or canine yaps to substantive argument.
Sadly, we are left today with an iteration of “feminism” that insists on protection from ideas that might offend and simultaneously elevates the feelings of the ostensibly marginalized over any facts that might refute those feelings. This approach, against which Roiphe argued so presciently thirty years ago, now defines not just feminist discourse but progressive political discourse as a whole. The patronizing presumption of women’s and other historically marginalized groups’ incapacity to hold their own in an unmediated competition of ideas reflects the very prejudices that proponents of this intellectual protectionism allegedly deplore: sexism, racism, heteronormativity, and so on.
“Trigger warnings” slapped on the front of Greek myths and concessions to omit any descriptions of rape in criminal law classes infantilize women and stoke the very anxiety they are meant to ease. “Feminist” and “antiracist” classrooms that decenter knowledge and argument in favor of impressions and experiences cultivate the impression of women and racial minorities as less authoritative and capable than white men. “Some feminisms,” per Roiphe, “are better than others.” Indeed, we have been elevating the wrong feminisms in academia for nearly half a century. As a result, we are now elevating the wrong progressive politics more broadly, as well.
It is long past time to offer women the unique physical protections we require and to withhold from us the infantilizing intellectual protections we don’t.
Take the kangaroo courts on college campuses that “try” collegiate men for often unfounded accusations of sexual assault. These circuses are a national disgrace. In addition to ruining the college and career prospects of many demonstrably innocent (and disproportionately minority) young men, they manage to simultaneously encompass both our disdain for women’s physical safety and our sycophantic devotion to their psychological comfort.
It was, after all, the 1960s and 1970s feminists’ total lack of regard for women’s unique physical vulnerability that created the “date rape” crisis in the first place. By throwing their lot in with the sexual revolution’s “free love” ethos, eliminating colleges’ “in loco parentis” authority, and embracing co-ed dorms and unisex bathrooms, second-wave feminists put women in constant danger. The single-sex dorms and proprietary rules of yore may indeed have made some young women feel infantilized and overprotected. But their purpose was to offer female students access to the intellectual formation of a college education without subjecting them to the predictable indignities and dangers of unpoliced interaction with young males.
Heedless of women’s physical vulnerability and invested in the fantasy of a disembodied version of equality, feminists threw collegiate women overboard. An increase in female students’ sexual victimization foreseeably ensued. Then, instead of recognizing and correcting their mistake by pulling young women out of the water, feminists began trying to rid the sea of all sharks. This is, of course, an impossible, impractical, and nonsensical project. It leaves women in chronic danger while victimizing innocent young men, as the Title IX net ensnares many harmless fish while still failing to capture most sharks.
As Camille Paglia has argued in various forums for nearly 40 years, there will always be rapists, and no amount of feminist education will change that. These criminals deserve lengthy prison sentences, not mere collegiate expulsions. If a young woman has been sexually assaulted or sexually threatened, she should call the police. Campus bureaucrats may help her seek legal redress, but should not be operating as unlicensed cops, judges, and juries in deference to a supposed concern for women’s well-being that, in addition to violating men’s due process rights, actually leaves open the possibility of more women being harmed by sexual predators.
Conversely, however, if a young woman has been merely offended by some sexual innuendo, or regrets sex that she was persuaded to engage in, she should grow up. The world is dangerous and cannot be made free from unsavory ideas. Moreover, there is a difference between coercion and persuasion. Coercion is not to be tolerated. But, evolutionarily as well as socially, sex and romance often do involve persuasion—typically male pursuit and female capitulation. Women, no less than men, are responsible for their own uncoerced decisions, whether those decisions were the result of persuasion or not.
Thirty years after The Morning After, it is long past time to offer women the unique physical protections we require and to withhold from us the infantilizing intellectual protections we don’t. But because society and academia today mostly do the exact opposite, women are being made into a new kind of second-class citizen.
Yes, unlike in the nineteenth century, women today have the right to compete and live as free individuals. But our increased physical victimization is the inevitable result of legal and cultural norms that treat us as biologically indistinguishable from men.
And yes, unlike in the nineteenth century, women today have untrammeled access to higher education and to political discourse. But the offer of intellectual protection to women (as to any historically marginalized group) represents, as Roiphe intoned, our “personal, social, and psychological possibilities collapsed.”