Sexual Correctness

THE WOMEN AT BROWN University play hardball. Three years ago, fed up with an administration that wasn't hopping into action, they scrawled the names of alleged rapists on the bathroom stalls. Brown woke up, revamped its disciplinary system and instituted mandatory sexual-assault education for freshmen. But that really hasn't calmed the siege mentality. This fall, Alan S., class of '94, returned to Brown after a one-year suspension for "non-consensual physical contact of a sexual nature," the first student to come back after such disciplinary action. And two weeks ago, all over Brown--on the doors of dorms, on bulletin boards, by the mailroom in Faunce House--posters cropped up. Under a mug shot cut from a class book, it read, "These are the facts: [Alan S.] was convicted of 'sexual misconduct' by the UDC, was sentenced to a one-year suspension; he has served his term and is back on campus." It was signed "rosemary and time." As these posters go, it was low-key. But that doesn't matter. Alan S. had been publicly branded as an "assaulter."

No big deal, said senior Jennifer Bothblatt, hanging out in the Blue Room, a campus snack bar. "As a protest against the system, it's valid and necessary," she said, brushing her long, golden-brown hair off her face. Besides, she added, the posters simply state the facts.

Well, wait. What are the facts? Who is the victimizer here and who is the victim? In the ever-morphing world of Thou Shalt Not Abuse Women it's getting mighty confusing. Crimes that hurt women are bad; we know that. But just as opportunities keep expanding for women, the list of what hurts them seems to grow, too. A Penn State professor claims Goya's luscious "The Naked Maja," a print of which hangs in her classroom, hurts her ability to teach; it sexually harasses her. A Northwestern University law professor is trying to make street remarks--your basic "hey baby" stuff--legally punishable as assaultive behavior that limits a woman's liberty. Verbal coercion can now constitute rape. But what is verbal coercion--"Do me or die"? Or, "C'mon, Tiffany, if you won't, I'm gonna go off with Heather." If the woman didn't want it, it's sexual assault. And thanks to nature, he's got the deadly weapon.

Feminist politics have now homed in like missiles on the twin issues of date rape and sexual harassment, and the once broadbased women's movement is splintering over the new sexual correctness. "The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campus," a controversial new book by Katie Roiphe, argues that issues like date rape reduce women to helpless victims in need of protective codes of behavior. The much-publicized rules governing sexual intimacy at Antioch College seem to stultify relations between men and women on the cusp of adulthood. Like political correctness on campuses, there's pitifully little room for debate or diverse points of view. For expressing her ideas, Roiphe has received threats. A NEWSWEEK photographer at Antioch--a woman who had permission to photograph--was attacked by a mob of students and, yes, sexually harassed by several who exposed themselves.

The workplace, the campuses and the courts are the new testing grounds of sexual correctness. Complaints of harassment on the job have ballooned in the last three years (page 57) as men and women try to sort out when they can and cannot flirt, flatter, offer a friendly pat. Too many rules? Maybe. The obsession with correct codes of behavior seems to portray women not as thriving on their hard-won independence but as victims who can't take care of themselves. Will the new rules set women free? Or will they set them back?

Young men and women used to be sent off to college with a clear sense of how it would be. Back in the dark ages, when guys still Wielded mighty swords and girls still protected their virtue (which is to say, the mid-1960s), in a military school overlooking the Tennessee River, a colonel gathered his graduating cadets for the everything-you-need-to-know-about-sex lecture.

"Gentlemen," he drawled, "soon you'll go off and get married and before you do, you need to understand the differences between men and women."

He began to draw a chart on the blackboard. At the top of one column he wrote MEN, at the top of another, WOMEN. It looked like this: MEN WOMEN love LOVE SEX sex

"That's what men and women believe in," he said, and then went on to describe a typical wedding night. When the bride finally climbs into bed and sees the groom, he warned, "chances are she'll scream and probably throw up. Don't worry: this is perfectly natural."

Bette Midler had a name for a night like that. Back in the early '70s, she sang of romantic disappointment in a little ditty called "Bad Sex." Everyone had bad sex back then and, to hear them tell, survived just fine. Now feminists on campus quote Andrea Dworkin: "The hurting of women is...basic to the sexual pleasure of men."

Rape and sexual harassment are real. But between crime and sexual bliss are some cloudy waters. To maneuver past the shoals, corporations and universities try a two-pronged approach: re-education and regulations. Some rules make sense: "It is unacceptable to have sex with a person if he/she is unconscious." Others seem silly. After attending mandatory sexual-harassment seminars at Geffen Records where she works, Bryn Bridenthal is rethinking every move she makes. "Everybody is looking for anything to be misinterpreted." Bridenthal used to quite innocently stroke the arm of a man who had a penchant for wearing luxuriously soft cashmere sweaters. "I never thought anything about it, but through the seminars I realized that I shouldn't do that," she says. "It's not worth doing anything that might be construed by anyone as sexual harassment."

If it's chilly in the workplace, it's down-right freezing on campus. No school has concocted guidelines quite as specific as Antioch College's. Deep among the cornfields and pig farms of central Ohio in the town of Yellow Springs, Antioch prides itself on being "A Laboratory for Democracy." The dress code is grunge and black; multiple nose rings are de rigueur, and green and blue hair are preferred (if you have hair), Seventy percent of the student body are women (for the uninitiated, that's women--without the dreaded men). And the purpose of the Sexual Offense Policy is to empower these students to become equal partners when it comes time to mate with males. The goal is 100 percent consensual sex, and it works like this: it isn't enough to ask someone if she'd like to have sex, as an Antioch women's center advocate told a group of incoming freshmen this fall. You must obtain consent every step of the way. "If you want to take her blouse Off, you have to ask. If you want to touch her breast, you have to ask. If you want to move your hand down to her genitals, you have to ask. If you want to put your finger inside her, you have to ask." Well, Molly Bloom would do fine.

How silly this all seems; how sad. It criminalizes the delicious unexpectedness of sex--a hand suddenly moves to here, a mouth to there. What is the purpose of sex if not to lose control? (To be unconscious, no.) The advocates of sexual correctness are trying to take the danger out of sex, but sex is inherently dangerous. It leaves one exposed to everything from euphoria to crashing disappointment. That's its great unpredictability. But of course, that's sort of what we said when we were all made to wear seat belts.

What is implicit in the new sex guidelines is that it's the male who does the initiating and the woman who at any moment may bolt. Some young women rankle at that. "I think it encourages wimpy behavior by women and [the ideal that women need to be handled with kid gloves," says Hope Segal, 22, a fourth-year Antioch student. Beware those boys with their swords, made deaf by testosterone and, usually, blinded by drink.

Drink--the abuse of it, the abuses that occur because of it-- is key. In up to 70 percent of acquaintance rapes, alcohol plays a role, says Manhattan sex-crimes prosecutor Linda Fairstein, author of "Sexual Violence: Our War Against Rape." And because alcohol poses such a powerful problem, it is the rule at almost every school (and the law in most states) that "consent is not meaningful" if given while under the influence of alcohol, drugs or prescription medication. If she's drunk, she's not mentally there, and her consent counts for zip. If the man is just as drunk as the woman, that's no excuse. Mary P. Koss is a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona and the author of a highly regarded, if controversial, survey of rape and college-age students. "The Scope of Rape" indicates that one in four college-age students has been the victim of a rape or an attempted rape. In those numbers Koss includes women who have been coerced into having sex while intoxicated. "The law punishes the drunk driver who kills a pedestrian," she argues. 'And likewise, the law needs to be there to protect the drunk woman from the driver of the penis."

"Men and women just think differently," Antioch president Alan Guskin says, "and we've got to help the students understand the differences." It's a policy, he says, designed to create a "safe" campus environment. But for all the attempts to make them feel secure, a lot of young college women just feel like sitting ducks. "As a potential survivor..." a Barnard student said to a visiting reporter. As a what? Potential survivor equals an inevitable victim. Every Wednesday night at Dartmouth, a group of undergraduate women gather to warn one another about potential date rapists. At the University of Michigan, and several other schools as well, when sorority women attend frat parties, a designated "sober" monitor stands guard over her friends. "Whenever people start going upstairs, You go up to them right away says Marcy Myers. "You ask, 'Do you know this guy? You're drunk, do you want to go home? You can call him tomorrow.'" "My friends won't go to parties at Dartmouth without other women," says Abby Ross, and before they leave the dorm, they check each other's outfits, too. No one wears short skirts. "You should be able to wear whatever you want. But the reality is that you're not dealing with people who have the same set of values," says Ross.

This defensive mind-set is at the heart of the escalating battle over date rape. Critics charge feminists with hyping the statistics and so broadening the definition of rape that sex roles are becoming positively Victorian. Women are passive vessels with no responsibility for what happens; men are domineering brutes with just one thing on their minds. "People have asked me if I have ever been date-raped," writes Katie Roiphe in "The Morning After." "And thinking back on complicated nights, on too many glasses of wine, on strange and familiar beds, I would have to say yes. With such a sweeping definition of rape, I wonder how many people there are, male or female, who haven't been date-raped at one point or another ... If verbal coercion constitutes rape, then the word 'rape' itself expands to include any kind of sex a woman experiences as negative."

Roiphe, 25, a Harvard graduate and now a doctoral candidate at Princeton, argues that a hysteria has gripped college campuses, fomented by "rape-crisis feminists." "The image that emerges from feminist preoccupations with rape and sexual harassment is that of women as victims, offended by a professor's dirty joke, verbally pressured into sex by peers. This image of a delicate woman bears a striking resemblance to that '50s ideal my mother and the other women of her generation fought so hard to get away from. They didn't like her passivity...her excessive need for protection...But here she is again, with her pure intentions and her wide eyes. Only this time it is the feminists themselves who are breathing new life into her."

ROIPHE IS GETTING WHOMPED FOR her provocative, though too-loosely documented, book. A "traitor," says Gail Dines, a professor of sociology and women's studies at Wheelock College, who lectures about rape and pornography. She calls Roiphe the "Clarence Thomas of women," just trying to suck up to the "white-male patriarchy." She thinks Roiphe will get her comeuppance. Warns Dines, in a most unsisterly fashion: "[When] she walks down the street, she's one more woman."

So how much of a threat is rape? What are women facing on dates with acquaintances or on the streets with strangers? Throughout her book, Roiphe wrestles with Koss's one-in-four statistic. "If I was really standing in the middle of an epidemic, a crisis," she asks, "if 25 percent of my female friends were really being raped, wouldn't I know about it?"

Heresy! Denial! Backlash! In an essay in The New Yorker, Katha Pollitt fired back: "As an experiment, I applied Roipbe's anecdotal method myself, and wrote down what I knew about my own circle of acquaintance: eight rapes by strangers (including one on a college campus), two sexual assaults (one Central Park, one Prospect Park), one abduction (woman walking down street forced into car full of men), one date rape involving a Mickey Finn, which resulted in pregnancy and abortion, and two stalkings (one ex-lover, one deranged fan); plus one brutal beating by a boyfriend, three incidents of childhood incest (none involving therapistaided "recovered memories"), and one bizarre incident in which a friend went to a man's apartment after meeting him at a party and was forced by him to spend the night under the shower, naked, while he debated whether to kill her, rape her, or let her go."

Holy moly. Pollitt is one of the wisest essayists around; a fine poet, too. And far be it for us to question her list. So what does the list prove? Well, that even wise feminists fall precisely into the same trap as Roiphe: you can't extrapolate from your circle of acquaintance; friends don't constitute a statistical average. What's more, Pollitt is almost 20 years older than Roiphe; her friends presumably have lived more years, too. Still, Pollitt's litany is shocking. It's punch-my-victim-card time: How full's yours?

"When one woman is raped on campus, all women are afraid to go to the library and finish their chemistry homework," Pat Reuss, a senior policy analyst with the NOW Legal Defense Fund, told a workshop at the NOW National Convention this summer. Today, college students are handed, as part of their orientation programs, pamphlets that spell out the threat and, over and over, the same dire figures appear: As Penn State's Sexual Assault Awareness pamphlet reads, in can't-miss-it type: "FBI statistics indicate that one in three women in our society will be raped during her lifetime."

Except there are no such FBI figures. The figures the FBI does have to offer are both out-of-date and so conservative that most people dismiss them. The FBI recognizes rape only as involving forcible penetration of the vagina with a penis. Oral sex, anal sex, penetration with an object--these do not officially constitute rape. It doesn't matter to the FBI if a woman was made incapacitated by alcohol or drugs, and the agency certainly isn't interested in verbal coercion. Rape is as narrowly defined by the FBI as could be imagined.

So, in the rape-crisis mentality, the numbers keep being bloated. Which is crazy, considering the fact that even the most conservative numbers are horrifying. College students are a high-risk group. The No. 1 group to be sexually assaulted in this country are 16- to 19-year-olds. The second largest group hit are the 20- to 24-year-old age bracket. Women are four times more likely to be assaulted during these years than at any other time in their lives. Fortyfive percent of all rapists arrested are under 25. And as for the most conservative, yet trustworthy numbers: according to the National Victim Center survey last year--a survey that did not include intoxication--13 percent of adult women are victims of forcible rape. That's one in seven.

THAT'S A LOT. BUT IT DOESN'T mean all women are victims--or survivors, as we are supposed to call them. And it sure doesn't mean all "suffering" warrants attention or retribution--or even much sympathy. When New York state Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg misspoke during a speech and said "sex" instead of "six," he covered up his error by looking at Assemblywoman Earlene Hill (Democrat of Hempstead) and joked, "Whenever I think of Earlene, I think of sex." Another brutish colleague wouldn't move his legs so she could get to her seat and made her climb over him. Sexual harassment, she cried, saying: "If I don't speak up, then they won't realize it's wrong and there will be a new victim." Oh, please. A student at the University of Virginia told The New York Times that she favored a ban on all student/faculty dating because "One of my professors asked me out and it made me really uncomfortable." So tell him to bug off. Artist Sue Williams plopped a six-feet-in-diameter piece of plastic vomit on the floor of the Whitney Museum as her protest against the male-dominated beauty-obsessed culture that makes women stick fingers down their throats. Tell them to get some therapy and cut it out. You want to talk victimization? Talk to the mothers all over America whose children have been slaughtered in urban cross-fire.

"I'm sick of women wallowing in the victim state," says Betty Friedan. "We have empowered ourselves. We are able to blow the whistle on rape. I am not as concerned with that as I am with violence in our whole society."

It does seem ironic that the very movement created to encourage women to stand up and fight their own battles has taken this strange detour, and instead is making them feel vulnerable and in need of protection. From the grade schools to the workplace, women are asking that everything be codified: How to act; what to say. Who to date; how to date; when to mate. They're huddling in packs, insisting on a plethora of rules on which to rely, and turning to authority figures to complain when anything goes wrong. We're not creating a society of Angry Young Women. These are Scared Little Girls.

For all the major advances in the status of women in the last 25 years, the shifts in attitudes don't seem to have percolated down to our kids. Parents still raise girls to become wives, and sons to be sons. "I think to some extent we're dealing with a cultural lag," says Janet Hansche, a clinical psychologist and director of the Counseling and Testing Center at Tulane University. "Society still trains women to be pliant, to be nice, to try to avoid saying no, and my guess is that that's most everywhere."

And we're not doing any better raising boys. Obviously something's still screwy in this society. Boys are still being brought up to believe it's the height of cool to score as if ejaculation were a notable achievement for an adolescent male. Young men still "get tremendous status from aggressiveness," says Debra Haffner, executive director of SECUS (the Sex Information and Education Council of the U.S.). "But no one teaches them how to live in the real world." It is a weird real world when "nice" boys in a "nice" community good students, good athletes, good family, rape a mentally handicapped girl with a broomstick handle and a plastic baseball bat, and try to claim it was consensual. "Aren't they virile specimens?" Don Belman boasted to a New York Times reporter about his three Spur Posse sons, one of whom was awaiting trial for allegedly trying to run over several girls with a pickup truck while another had been arrested on sexual charges.

All right. Not all boys turn into Glen Ridge, Spur Posse, Tailhook-grabbing beings. But when it comes to human sexuality, the messages that are being sent to kids--male and female--remain cloaked in myth. In 1993, girls who want sex are still sluts, those who don't are still teases. And those who finally make it to college are completely befuddled.

Which is why it's time for everyone who doesn't have a serious problem to pipe down. What is happening on the campuses is scary, because it is polarizing men and women. Rather than encouraging them to work together, to trust one another. to understand one another, it is intensifying suspicion. Brown sophomore David Danon. complains, "Women have all the power here on sexual conduct...It's very dangerous for us." If women are so profoundly distrustful of men, how will they raise boys? And if men are so defensive about women, how will they raise little girls? The most pressing problem the majority of American women face isn't rape or sexual harassment. It's the fact that, in addition to holding down full-time work, they still are burdened with the lion's share of parenting and housework responsibility. Add it up, says sociologist Arlie Hochschild, and it comes to a full month's worth of 24-hour days. Line up the 100 most involved fathers you know and ask one question: what size shoes do your children wear'?

Real life is messy, rife with misunderstandings and contradictions. There's no eight-page guide on how to handle it. There are no panels of mediators out there to turn to unless it gets truly bad. Those who are growing up in environments where they don't have to figure out what the rules should be, but need only follow what's been prescribed, are being robbed of the most important lesson there is to learn. And that's how to live.