Sex in the USA

January, 1999
When Woody Allen was accused of child molesting, a TV interviewer asked him if he had done it. Instead of answering, Woody pointed out the improbability that if he were going to do such a thing he would have chosen to do it at an unusually inconvenient time in a house full of people (as was alleged). Whether or not Woody is innocent, I think he is smart. If he had responded as the interviewer probably wanted him to, saying, “I would never do that! This is my daughter we’re talking about!” he would only have made people think how horrible the alleged crime was, without giving them any reason to think him innocent. And the more horrible the crime, the more guilty the accused. A denial – the most seemingly healthy response – would have hurt him.

In the state I live in, the government has created long periods of incarceration without the possibility of parole for anyone convicted of a sex crime, and posted those people’s names and photos on the internet. One has to assume that sex crimes have received this special treatment not because they are the sorts of crimes of which people are most often wrongly convicted, but because of some other unique characteristic of sex crimes. But what?

There still exists in this country the idea that a woman who flirts is not entitled to the full protection of the law. I see that view as part and parcel of an obsession with sexual purity which, when combined with a desire for sophisticated casualness in sexual matters, leads to serious conflicts within individuals. I would like to see us rid of both perspectives, rid of all social pressure to have and to abstain from sex.

Like flirtatiousness, experience is generally taken as a reason why a woman should receive less than the full protection of the law. What our laws value is not just a woman’s freedom from assault, but her virginity. I disagree with this thinking, and therefore to some degree approve of recent “rape shield” laws which prevent a defendant in a sexual assault case from inquiring into the past of his accuser. But this often means that a defendant cannot obtain any medical information on his accuser however relevant and however unrelated to a “she was not a virgin” defense, or for that matter any record of psychiatric trouble, or even any record of previous accusations against others. Psychiatric histories of defendants are fair game for prosecutors, however, and although some people regard a defendant’s having seen a shrink as a sign of health, prosecutors (and defense lawyers) often see it as a sign of criminality.

It’s also worth noting that the “she was not a virgin” defense is something of an anachronism in a country where there aren’t very many virgins. According to every study I’ve seen, a very high percentage of women and men in the U.S. have had sex by the time they’re 18. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, as cited by Patricia Hersch, 16 percent of girls have had sex by the age of 13. The numbers rise rapidly with each year above 13. Whether this conflicts with and / or actually encourages growing female concern with “violation” (something known in previous eras as “defilement” or “deflowering”) I cannot say. But surely a woman’s having had sex cannot weigh against her testimony as an alleged sexual assault victim when virtually all women have had sex.

When I was 13 and 14, there were girls the same age who wanted to have sex with me, and I didn’t have much idea how or desire to oblige them. Fifteen years later, all the stories one sees in print about early sex depict girls with no desire giving in to demanding boyfriends (who, of course, immediately dump them and recommend an abortion). These sexless girls have sex not because they want to, but because “it’s inevitable.” See, for example, Hersch’s 1998 book A Tribe Apart: A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence. This shift may be due to regional variation or the limitedness of my own experience. But I suspect that it has a lot to do with what it is currently popular to write about, and how young women are currently being taught to think.

In her 1993 book The Morning After, Katie Roiphe commented on the conflict created by sexual pressure in two directions:

“What further complicates sexual existence is that the sexual revolution hasn’t been entirely erased by a new ethos of sexual conservatism. Free love hasn’t been entirely eclipsed by safe sex. Sexual climates do not move across our experience like cold fronts on a weather map. Instead, they linger and accumulate. Today’s culture of caution coexists with yesterday’s devil-may-care. Encouraged, discouraged, condemned, condoned, youthful sexual activity is met with powerful and conflicting responses. Everywhere we look there are signs of sexual puritanism, but there are also signs of sexual abandon. Adding to the mixed messages are signs of sexual danger.”

This is confirmed in A Tribe Apart, where Hersch writes:

“Parents are rightfully confused. Who’s a troublemaker and who is not is never clear anymore. ‘It’s not like when we were kids,’ one mom laments. ‘There are no Greasers versus Preppie-types; there is no such thing as the clean-cut college type and the low-class dropout, certainly no rules for what “nice” girls do or don’t do.’ ”

Here is how Katie Roiphe in The Morning After recounted a speech made by a young woman at a Take Back the Night rally:

“A boy she knew was flirting with her, he asked her to go back to his room – it all happened so fast. Her friends told her not to. They told her she was too drunk to make decisions. She went anyway, and he raped her. Later, she says, his roommates thought he was cool for ‘hooking up.’ She left her favorite blue jean jacket in his room. She finally went and got it back, but she never wore it again. She pauses. Later the boy apologized to her, so, she says angrily, he must have known it was rape. She stops talking and looks into the crowd. Everyone applauds to show their support.”

Why did she doubt his knowing it was rape? Why didn’t she report it to the police? Why did she go back for a jacket? And what does his apology mean? Does it mean that he has come to “recognize” what rape is, or that he wishes she weren’t sad and troubled?

The following quote from Mary Gaitskill writing in Harper’s magazine, March, 1994, suggests the sort of “reason” some women may have for making false accusations:

“For some time afterward I described this event as ‘the time I was raped.’ I knew when I said it that the statement wasn’t quite accurate, that I hadn’t, after all, said no. Yet it FELT accurate to me. . . At times I even flat-out lied about what had happened, grossly exaggerating the violence and the threat – not out of shame or guilt but because the pumped-up version was more congruent with my feelings of violation than the confusing facts. Every now and then, in the middle of telling an exaggerated version of the story, I would remember the actual man and internally pause, uncertain of how the memory squared with what I was saying or where my sense of violation was coming from – and then I would continue with my story.”

Gaitskill did not press charges against her “rapist.” Other “victims” are not so forbearing. Men are being released from prison on the basis of newly available DNA evidence with greater and greater frequency.

This is how Katie Roiphe described the current college climate in The Morning After:

“As we are settling into our new surroundings, there are fliers and counselors and videotapes telling us how not to get AIDS and how not to get raped, where not to wander and what signals not to send. By the end of freshman week, we know exactly what not to do. Once we make it through the workshops and pamphlets on date rape, safe sex, and sexual harassment, no matter how bold and adolescent, how rebellious and reckless, we are left with an impression of imminent danger. And then there are the whistles. Female freshmen arriving at Wesleyan and other campuses are given whistles to protect them against rape and assault. For the past couple of years at Princeton, there has been someone outside the building during registration offering these whistles to female students on their way out.”

In date rape culture becoming a survivor of assault allows a young woman to demand praise for everything she does in the future, including rolling out of bed and eating breakfast, and especially for having done her part toward “raising awareness” of the problem. “Raising awareness of the problem” has been the admitted sole motivation of some famous false accusations.

In Rape: Controversial Issues, 1995, John Macdonald listed 28 common motives for false accusations of rape. Some of them are absurdly trivial in relation to the horrors that follow a rape conviction. One of the motives listed is a feeling of guilt:

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