When feminists exaggerate the prevalence of date rape and sexual harassment on campus, they rehash outdated conceptions of women as passive victims, Katie A. Roiphe '90 told a packed audience of 500 at the Institute of Politics last night.
Roiphe criticized women who call any sexual encounter that doesn't include explicit consent rape because, she said, this attitude portrays women as constantly in need of protection.
"The image of the delicate woman bears a striking resemblance to the 50s ideal that my mother and the other women of her generation fought to get away from," she said.
Roiphe spoke of the controversial reception of her recent book The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus and said that feminism has stifled divergent views on rules of sexual conduct.
"In issues like sexual harassment and date rape there has been one accepted position in the media, recycled and given back to us in only one form," she said.
Roiphe said she first found this conformity of opinion here at Harvard. "You couldn't question the existence of a rape epidemic on campus," she said.
Roiphe recounted her doubtful reaction to posters stating that one in every four women on campus is a victim of rape, or attempted rape.
The definition of rape was made so broad, Roiphe said, that it made women seem powerless to communicate whether they want to have sex. It also stereotyped women as innocent and pure, and men as lascivious "beasts," she said.
"In all honesty, people have very miserable sexual experiences but that's not rape, because that implies there's a rapist," she said. "It's dangerous when we start using 'rape' to label all these things because it trivializes its meaning."
Roiphe said feminist groups have not tolerated voices of dissent.
She said a group of graduate students at Princeton would not look at her after she published an article in The New York Times three years ago which criticized rape crisis feminists.
And Newsweek called her the "Clarence Thomas of women," she said.
"If feminism is going to be a vital movement, then it is going to have to be able to sustain criticism," she added.
Rophie said she considers herself a feminist, but "some feminisms are better than others," she explained. Current feminism, she said, confines women to Victorian notions of gender and sexuality.
But Roiphe also said she believes the political climate is becoming more tolerant.
The mood of the audience, she said, was also more supportive than in the past. "I felt like if I had come three years ago it would have seemed very different," she said.
Barbara E. Johnson, professor of English and Comparative Literature, spoke in response to Roiphe's speech.
Johnson agreed with some of Roiphe's views but said that feminism is more open to discussion than Roiphe had portrayed.
She also said that Roiphe implied women should just accept sexual harassment as a fact of life.
Roiphe responded, "I'm not saying [to] women, 'Grit your teeth--so you were forced to have sex, who cares?'"