Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Landmark article from the archives

June 25, 1993


A few months ago, there were "Take Back the Night" rallies in cities all over the country, all with the purpose of making the streets safe for women to walk.

The concept was a good one, and I didn't think much more about "Take Back the Night" until I later saw some literature from one of the rallies with this statistic: One out of every four college women has been the victim of ''rape" or "attempted rape."

I tried to let that sink in. One in four? I graduated from college 19 years ago, when rape statistics for college women were either much lower or there were a whole lot of us keeping mum. One in four? Where was I when things changed so drastically for college women, that every fourth date could bring a rape attempt? Why are the several college women in my family not talking about it?

And if it's true, why aren't we responsible adults yanking them back home?

Yet, according to material I read and rape counselors I've talked to, these statistics are generally accepted within the profession.

In a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine, Katie Roiphe, author of The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campus, takes issue with the roots of the one-in-four claim. She cites one troubling 1985 survey, undertaken by Ms. magazine and financed by the National Institutes of Health.

In that survey, University of California at Berkeley social welfare professor Neil Gilbert points out that 73% of respondents didn't initially define their experiences as rape. It was the psychologist conducting the study who was said to have interpreted the responses as rape. One of the survey questions was: "Have you had sexual intercourse when you didn't want to
because a man gave you alcohol or drugs?"

Roiphe takes issue with the definition some rape counselors use for the word "rape" - that even "manipulation" or "verbal coercion," based on women's perceived powerlessness to men, constitute rape. No physical violence, no force, just smooth talk.

If this were a perfect world, none of us would wheedle anyone else into doing something he or she didn't want to do, nor be coerced into it ourselves. But is coercion rape? We humans cajole, manipulate and wangle each other all the time, knowing full well the other person doesn't want what we want.

Let's suppose you have a teen-age son, a college sophomore. He's a kid who studies, works in a grocery store and doesn't bring the police knocking on your door in the middle of the night. He's on a date. He and the girl have had too much to drink, and he paid for the drinks. He wants very much to have sex and he uses phrases everyone would agree have more to do with manipulation than truth:

"You know you want to do it, too. It's normal for people to have sex and abnormal for them NOT to have sex. Don't you like me? We seemed to be having such a great time . . . am I not attractive enough? You're the most beautiful, the smartest girl I've ever been out with . . . ." The girl gives in and has sex with your son, even though she doesn't want to. Is your son a rapist?

It is not OK to coerce anyone into sex, especially when sex carries the possibility of pregnancy, venereal disease or AIDS. But rape has historically been defined as an act of force, violence or, at the very least, non-consent. To define "talking into" as rape is to dilute the power of the forcible, absolutely non-consensual and often violent crime.

It is also to deny that we humans sometimes think differently about our own actions after the fact, especially after a relationship breaks up, after a partner has treated us badly, when we wish we could visit some grief on an ex- partner.

Our college students need the tools of personal power and responsibility, not a false definition of rape. So do we all. Lacking the skills or confidence to resist verbal coercion doesn't make it a crime.