The Last Thing Young Adults Need Is Katie Roiphe's Take On Sexuality.
By Stacey Richter
Last Night In Paradise: Sex and Morals at the Century's End, by Katie Roiphe (Vintage Books). Paper, $12.
KATIE ROIPHE HAS been called a "babe" feminist, a pseudofeminist, an idiot, and worse. This twenty-something, Princeton-educated writer (with a Ph.D. in English Literature) was taken to task for her first book, The Morning After, which attacked old-school feminists for positioning women as powerless victims. As this didn't seem like an entirely irrelevant argument, I'd assumed that Roiphe was criticized for her youth and stridency as much as for her poor scholarship and narrow outlook. But then I read her latest book, Last Night In Paradise: Sex and Morals at the Century's End, and discovered that it's true: Roiphe is an idiot.
Even if you never pick up a book by Roiphe (say it Roy-Fee), you're likely to come across her prose in popular magazines. She has become a self-proclaimed expert on Gen-X sexuality, and frequently writes about the lay of the land between the genders. Nothing in Roiphe's background or temperament qualifies her for this job, as Last Night in Paradise makes abundantly clear. Roiphe seems to be an insecure, frightened young woman who's having difficulties herself negotiating the chasm between guilt and sin, risk and pleasure. Describing an interaction with an 18-year-old counter guy who scolds her for not choosing skim milk, Roiphe writes: "I hurried out into the street with my iced coffee feeling like I was taking some kind of obscene and shameful risk." Gee, that's some cup of coffee. And is the girl drinking it really who we want discussing sexuality with us?
Last Night in Paradise is a difficult book to describe. It's "about" sex in the age of AIDS in a loose sense, but Roiphe lacks an argument or position. That AIDS has been used as an excuse for calling for a return to a repressive, '50s style of mating is the closest the book comes to having a thesis--and this is certainly not an original idea. Rather than developing an argument, Roiphe cycles through a series of cultural phenomena, starting with a portrait of her HIV-positive sister, Emily. (Emily Roiphe, by the way, is a fiction writer who deals with the subject of AIDS with a humor and warmth that unfortunately has not infected Katie.)
She goes on to tackle subjects like Magic Johnson and Alison Gertz, the "nice" Park Avenue girl who picked up HIV from a single, heterosexual encounter. (Molly Ringwald played her in the made-for-TV movie.) Roiphe can be trenchant in her arguments--as when she points out that the "AIDS Can Happen to Anyone" campaign that used Allison Gertz as its poster child really meant, "It can happen even to the rich." But it's hard to take Roiphe's intellectual analysis seriously because, like a teen rebel, she's anti-everything. She has no positive picture of sexuality. She only sees things she doesn't like. Everything annoys her, everyone is closed minded; the nineties are repressive, but the openness of the seventies (which she does write of with real, though unexamined, nostalgia) was silly, too.
The risk of contracting HIV from heterosexual sex is overestimated, she writes, and condoms are 99-percent effective, and straight college kids who get blood tests are paranoid. Then, a few pages later, she adds that on the night that Gertz contracted HIV, the bartender she was with "didn't even have an orgasm." Hmmm. There seems to be a discrepancy here.
This book would have benefited enormously from a healthy dose of statistical information. Roiphe writes about sex education, the abstinence movement, and the relative risk of different sexual practices. But she never endeavors to clarify the issues by actually resorting to reliable statistics. At one point, she describes a student asking her sex-ed teacher how dangerous it really is to give a blowjob without a condom. "Don't even put yourself in that position," Roiphe quotes the teacher as replying.
This, no doubt, is an interesting interaction, but Roiphe misses her chance to set the record straight. This is a shame, especially since this book is written in a glib, easy-to-read style that might appeal to teens who could benefit from a little hard information. (The Center for Disease Control classifies fellatio without a condom as a high-risk activity, though other organizations, including the AIDS Commission of Toronto, have placed it on the lower-risk list. For a discussion of the facts, try this web site: http://www.gai.com/aids/ aids22.html-ssi)
Though Roiphe likes to write about teenagers, she does not seem interested in writing for them, and in fact gives them little respect. Of the common practice among sex educators of exaggerating the risk of HIV in certain groups in order to scare teens into having safer sex, Roiphe writes: "Better safe than sorry. It's hard enough to get teenagers, with their crazy moods and hormones, their consumption of beer and pot and vodka stolen from their parent's liquor cabinets...to be careful." That's right Katie, the best way to foster responsibility in youth is to lie to them.
While Roiphe avoids factual research, she loves to write about literature. She illuminates her cultural studies by drawing parallels to The Scarlet Letter, Lady Chatterley's Lover, and the novels of Jane Austen, among others. Surely this is due to her background in literature, and indeed these sections read like term papers. Roiphe goes to great lengths to explain how Lady Chatterley's Lover deals with sex between the classes, when a sentence or two would do the job. It feels at times like Roiphe is trying for a good grade in literature class with Last Night in Paradise, which at least explains its complete lack of a coherent viewpoint: If this book were a sort of term paper on literature and society, it would actually be quite interesting. But as a discussion of sexuality it's a dismal failure.
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