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The Selling of Katie Roiphe

It was the beginning of the nineties and the New York Times needed a woman. Not just any woman, though. It needed a smart and sassy one. Someone who could buttress the paper’s sagging image. Someone who could catapult the Times to the forefront of the sexual politics debate. Someone who could put a young, fresh face on the Gray Lady’s old-fashioned views.

So it created her.

Katie Roiphe, 25, could not have asked for a better public relations agent. When her first book, The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campus, came out in September 1993, she received more media attention than most writers get in a lifetime. Ultimately, the Times’ months-long promotion of Roiphe’s book translated into more than three hundred book reviews, interviews, excerpts, and features in publications ranging from the St. Louis Post Dispatch to the Toronto Star, from Playboy to Mirabella, from the Jerusalem Post to the Irish Times.

As the only young woman permitted in the date rape debate, Roiphe became the leading “authority” on this “rape crisis movement.”

The Morning After offers a scathing critique of current sexual politics. Roiphe’s provocative conclusion: the “rape crisis movement” sweeping college campuses is a fraud. Roiphe scoffs at the claim that one in four college women have been raped and she ridicules young feminists for wallowing in their own “victimization.” A Princeton graduate student, Roiphe rails against “Take Back the Night” speak-outs where young women stand before a microphone and tell stories of rape and abuse to an audience of hundreds. Roiphe recalls feeling “perplexed” and “annoyed” watching her peers share the painful, intimate details of their lives.

Throughout The Morning After, Roiphe paints herself as a campus outsider, a dissenting voice among the “politically correct” masses. She even closes her book with the comment that “sometimes it is even your friends you have to fight.” But as the Times promoted Roiphe’s book and controversy ensued, any distinction between commentator and spokesperson collapsed. Roiphe played both roles. As the only young woman permitted in the date rape debate, Roiphe became the leading “authority” on this “rape crisis movement”—as well as its loudest critic.

The Times’ creation of Roiphe-as-controversy-stirrer dates from before the release of The Morning After. In November 1991, the Times published “Date Rape Hysteria,” a 680-word op-ed piece by Roiphe. Later, in an interview accompanying the Times review of her book, Roiphe nodded politely to her benefactors when she credited her decision to write The Morning After with the response her op-ed piece had generated.

But, to those who missed her op-ed piece, it seemed Katie Roiphe had shot out of nowhere when on June 13, 1993 the New York Times Sunday Magazine plastered her story on its front cover. “Date Rape’s Other Victim,” the magazine’s 4,700-word excerpt of her book, was an author’s dream come true. Suddenly, Roiphe’s ideas were on more than 1.5 million coffee tables across the country, and reviews of her book were appearing everywhere.

In September 1993, the Times made Roiphe their cover girl all over again. A page one review by Wendy Kaminer in the Sunday Book Review lauded The Morning After as “brave” and “nervy.” If a book is reviewed in the Sunday Book Review, it means that hundreds of bookstores across the country automatically order it. If it is well-received on page one, bookstores will not only rush to get copies of it, but they will display it prominently. This is what happened with The Morning After.

Two months later, the Times continued its Roiphe promotional campaign when it ran a cozy mother-daughter interview on the first page of its “Living” section. The shameless gushing of “At Lunch with Anne and Katie Roiphe” officially crowned Katie with celebrity status. In her opening paragraph, the Times writer dubbed Katie the “social critic-slash-prodigy at the center of the most intense debate since Betty Friedan pitched a fit about lesbians two decades ago.” By “intense,” the Times meant that it had been covered in the Times. After the magazine cover story and the page one book review, the Times commentary on the size and significance of the Roiphe controversy became only an exercise in self-congratulation—a nod to its own ability to manufacture controversy with far-reaching influence.

From hundreds of feminist writers vying for exposure, the Times had carefully selected one. A young female embodiment of Times values, Roiphe came with all the proper credentials: an upbringing in a liberal-intellectual Manhattan family plus diplomas from Brearley (an exclusive East Side girls school) and Harvard. Roiphe also possessed the requisite connections, including a writer-mom who has a two-decade history with the Times. Dozens of Anne Roiphe’s book reviews and articles have appeared in the Times and her reputation as a respected feminist writer (her late-1960s novel, Up the Sandbox, chronicled a housewife’s fantasy world) boosted the younger Roiphe’s authority as a commentator on the new feminist generation.

By making Katie Roiphe the new celebrity feminist, the Times aimed to create the illusion of being on the cutting edge of sexual politics.

In late 1993, with the Mike Tyson and William Kennedy Smith cases still fresh in the public’s memory, the Times tossed Roiphe into the murky waters of the date rape debate. The Times‘ edited version of her ideas provided a simple, and seemingly authoritative, explanation for an otherwise sticky dilemma: date rape really does not happen all that often and, even when it does, it is not only the man’s fault. Never mind that Roiphe had become a symbol for an idea far more simplistic than what she was actually saying. While she criticized other feminist debates for being too black-and-white, this is precisely what happened with the debate over her own book.

By making Katie Roiphe the new celebrity feminist, the Times aimed to create the illusion of being on the cutting edge of sexual politics. Its discovery and single-handed championing of this latest variety of feminism may have ostensibly served to “further debate,” but it actually did little more than prop up the Times‘ long-standing opposition to feminism’s more radical strains. Coming out of the mouth of a young, self-proclaimed feminist, the idea that date rape is the product of young women’s hysteria had legitimacy.

The Times extensive promotion of Roiphe’s ideas eventually made them seem worthy of export. In January 1994, the London Sunday Times editor, Andrew Neil, brought Katie Roiphe, Erica Jong, and Naomi Wolf together in England for a debate on The Morning After. The result was, by most accounts, a complete flop.

The debate hall was packed with fuming English feminists (none had been invited to join the panel which included only one English representative: a man). And the debate’s organizers had failed to ask the most basic questions: How much sense do Roiphe’s arguments make in a country where, until very recently, the concept of date rape did not even exist? How interesting could Roiphe’s railing against “victim feminism” be to an English audience when “Take Back the Night” speak-outs—Roiphe’s key example of this phenomenon—are not held in England? Even Roiphe herself readily admitted to the Guardian that The Morning After is only a “limited record of the sexual pressures on American campuses.”

But, for the most part, the English media did not seem to worry much about the relevance of Roiphe’s arguments. As her ideas had worked to serve a deeper purpose for the New York Times, so they did for the British press, which gleefully promoted what the Independent called “Hot American Feminists.” The effect of glamorizing these women, of printing lengthy interviews and glossy color photos, was three-fold. It not only packed a debate hall and helped sell books, magazines, and newspapers, but it also put English feminists—the ones most likely to have a lasting impact—in check.

The handful of English feminists with access to the major daily papers fought back. Feminist writer Joan Smith told the Observer, “They [Roiphe, Wolf, and Jong] were charming, very marketable, perfect for television and the U.S. lecture circuit. But that has propelled them to a prominence unjustified by the quality of their ideas.”

Meanwhile, journalist Maureen Freely said in the Guardian, “They assume the whole world is middle-class and college educated.” The undeniable elitism of Roiphe’s approach—the fact that she draws conclusions only from her own Ivy League experiences—is less glossed over in England where only 10 percent of the population attends university (compared with 25 percent in the U.S.) and class consciousness is far greater. In the debate following the debate, English feminists agreed that Roiphe’s arguments held little relevance.

The American media, however, failed to consider that perhaps The Morning After is not all that important a book even for this country. The New York Times had put Roiphe’s book on the front of its book review section, automatically bestowing it with considerable significance—and making it a frequent subject of cocktail party chatter.

In her favorable review, Times critic Wendy Kaminer said Roiphe “reports on speak-outs, sexual behavior workshops and feminist orthodoxies.” In fact, Roiphe does little which even verges on reporting. In her introduction, Roiphe even admits: “The book is not a scientific survey of campus life … I have written my impressions.” Nonetheless, the media immediately took up The Morning After as accurate documentation of a nation-wide phenomenon.

In the mainstream media, virtually no twentysomething women got the chance to respond to Roiphe.

“Take Back the Night” speak-outs had never before received substantial media attention, despite the fact that they had been one of the best-attended political events on many campuses for the last decade. Consequently, Roiphe’s impressions as she sat in her dorm window peering down at her peers determined how speak-outs were to be etched in the public consciousness. Established journalists—most of whom have not set foot on a college campus in years—took Roiphe’s sketch of campus life at face value. From it, they drew their own sweeping conclusions about date rape, third wave feminism, nineties love, and campus activism. Ultimately, Roiphe’s personal impressions defined the terms—and, more significantly, the limits—of the date rape debate.

In the mainstream media, virtually no twentysomething women got the chance to respond to Roiphe. No rebuttals by “rape crisis feminists”—who Roiphe claims instill a sense of fear and vulnerability in younger female students—appeared on the Times op-ed page. The result was a strangely one-sided national debate pitting faceless “rape crisis feminists” against everyone else. The discussion could have been interesting had it moved away from a handful of elite college campuses and asked probing questions about how everyone else—the vast majority of the country—negotiates sex. But, in the wake of the book’s release and its promotion by the Times, the nation’s commentators could write of little else. So much for affordable day care and equal pay for equal work. The excesses of Roiphe’s “rape crisis feminists”—combined with Antioch’s controversial sex rules—commanded more media attention than either of those age-old issues.

Katie Roiphe sells. At least that was the thinking behind her marketing and promotion. Only, in this case, not too many people actually bought the hardcover version of The Morning After. Little, Brown’s marketing director described hardcover sales as “disappointing.” But, from the Times point of view, this was irrelevant. The Times promotion of Roiphe was intended to sell her ideas and to manufacture controversy. And the Times succeeded.

After receiving far more than her fifteen minutes of fame, Roiphe has all but drifted into obscurity. Minimal fanfare greeted the recent publication of her paperback and, for at least the moment, the date rape debate has been put on the media’s back burner. Now Roiphe herself is left wondering exactly what happened and why. In the new introduction to The Morning After paperback, she writes, “I don’t think there is … in the pages of this book, anything worthy of the fury it inspired.”