Sunday, August 01, 2004

Women Warriors

by Adele M. Stan

This piece originally ran on the New York Times Op-Ed Page
on December 17, 1993.

WEEHAWKEN, N.J.--Were it not for an event in my own life, I might view the current debate over date rape and the rape crisis movement with detached amusement, the way one does whenever opposing pockets of the intellectual elite have a go at each other. But for me, the issue runs far deeper than that, and it seems to me that neither side has really got it right.

In 1978, I was raped by an acquaintance in my college form room. This was no murky instance of date rape; I was asleep when the perpetrator, a guest at a party my roommate was giving in our campus apartment, let himself in, gripped my arms over my head and bored his way into me.

Of course I protested, but I was afraid to do so too loudly, for just outside the door lurked the beer-soaked players of an entire hockey team, and I had heard too many boasts from athletes about girls who had “pulled the train” for a team, who had serviced 10 or 15 members in a single night. So I resigned myself to my fate, taking the advice of police experts on violent crime against women: “Resistance only excites them.”

Today’s debate is fueled in part by Katie Roiphe’s book, “The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campus,” which argues that young women are being whipped by feminists into a frenzy of fear about a rape crisis that doesn’t exist.

Revisionists like Ms. Roiphe often point out that some women are categorized as rape victims in studies even though they do not identify themselves as such. But if you asked me, even several years after my dorm-room horror, if I had ever been raped, I doubt I would have said yes. It was years before I told anyone about the assault; the experience was too painful, and the guilt at not having resisted harder was overwhelming. Revisionists who believe they would have been more forthcoming could at least show a little gratitude to the women’s movement for their untroubled psyches.

On the other side are the protectionist feminists, those so focused on shielding women from harm that they inadvertently encourage us to exalt our status as victims. In their advocacy for anti-pornography legislation, Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin often refer to the powerlessness of women as if it were innate.

I resist the notion of women as sexually pure damsels in need of special protections. In the 1980’s, when I was working at Ms. magazine, I heard an editor express concern about her politically incorrect sexual fantasies, and was shocked by the puritanism I saw creeping into the women’s movement. More concerned with reality than fantasy, I came to this movement for sexual parity, not sexual purity.

The revisionists and the protectionists cling to one or another clause of the old social contract between the sexes. Though Katie Roiphe acknowledges the widespread problem of sexual harassment, and she rightly insists that we are each responsible for our own actions (e.g., having sex with someone because you’re tipsy doesn’t mean he raped you), she implies that nearly any level of aggression visited upon us, short of stranger-rape at knife-point, is no big deal.

On the other hand, what are we to make of Andrea Dworkin’s statement that women’s silence over the dangers we face at the hands of men is “that silence into which we are born because we are women”?

I reject both assumptions. Since being raped, a remarkable thing happened to me--I became violent, and in this violence found liberation. I have been grabbed several times by strangers on the street, and I never let the culprit go without physically attacking him. When a vile remark is shouted at me, I shout back something equally vile.

Yet feminists often discourage women from such behavior. Some six months ago, Newsday ran a front-page article on a women who wielded a kitchen knife to foil a would-be rapist who broke into the apartment. The next day, a number of experts, including the sex crimes prosecutor Linda Fairstein, cautioned readers not to try the same thing--you could get killed. Isn’t it time we applauded women who defend themselves against attack? Why assume that women don’t have the judgment to assess their chances of success?

Likewise, we must reconsider how we raise our children. I believe that the pattern of sexual harassment that begins in grade school could be altered if we taught our daughters to fight back when attacked by boys. We expect girls to be comforted with the admonition not to pay them any mind; boys are like that. In other words: get used to it.

If more boys received more negative reinforcement at the hands of girls, the offensive behavior might be discouraged. At the very least, girls would feel less powerless. If their really is a war against women, then we ought to be raising women warriors.

Until all feminists are willing to rethink the social contract--including the provisions that cede our well-being to the good will of men and that proclaim us to be, like cows, one of nature’s mute and gentle creations--we will be left to the task of laying blame when we could be seeking real solutions.

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