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Germaine Greer’s Predictably Awful Comments On Rape

Good grief, she’s at it again

Germaine Greer, by Helen Morgan [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Germaine Greer is in the news once again, for saying something outrageous (once again). There’s so much wrong with so many of the things she says, but in order to deconstruct all of them, I’d need a book deal and a sizeable advance. If there’s a publisher reading this who’s willing to entertain that idea, drop me a message in the comments. I’m going to specifically criticise the lecture she gave at the Hay Literary Festival last week, where she opined on the nature of rape, and how we should deal with it.

She acknowledges that most rapes are not as violent as we have traditionally believed, and that they are often encounters with people that are known to the victim (great, she’s finally catching up with everyone else), but then she goes on to conflate rape with bad sex, and suggests that the price for believing women is to reduce the penalty for rape (oh dear Lord, what?).

She has always held controversial views on many subjects with an overlap with feminist politics, but as time passes she just looks more and more ignorant and contrarian. It’s as though she is stuck in time, completely unwavering from the views she held in 1974. Back then, she was seen as edgy and cool, a fighting feminist, not afraid to speak her mind and be sexually liberated. Of course, the sexual environment of the 1970s meant that being free with one’s sexuality meant putting up with a lot of potentially dangerous shit.

Greer is a second-waver, but she’s also a liberal feminist, and very individualistic. Greer’s brand of watered-down feminism is less “MeToo”, and more “me, me, me”. In much of her writing she encourages women to do something themselves about whatever problem it is, assuming that everyone is able to. But most women are not as fortunate as Greer. They don’t have access to the national media, nor do they have lucrative book deals, or the type of privileged background she comes from. She expects women to square up to The Man, ignoring the fact that most women do not have the support or resources to even dare. It would be great if all women’s words were taken as seriously as Greer’s are — but it’s not the reality we live in.

Greer made many of her statements about sex in the context of a world that was far less kind to women, and a type of feminism that expected women to “lean in” and make the change themselves — ignoring the fact that external pressures existed to thwart these attempts. As a result, she expresses opinions that sound practically Victorian to us — that sexual freedom necessarily includes being treated like trash, and that women must take responsibility for their own rapes. As well as her detachment from reality, a lot of what she says is just plain unkind to other women — for someone that claims to be a feminist, she sure hates women.

In her heyday, her harsh words may have seemed like useful advice for navigating our cruel and virulently misogynistic world. But that same attitude seems shocking now — not because we are prudish, but because we are more aware. However, we can take something away from her statements at the Hay Festival, so let’s look in a little more detail. First off, her comments haven’t been taken out of context. But as galling as they are, there’s some thoughtful points alongside them.

This is from the press release for Greer’s talk:

“Centuries of writing and thinking about rape — as inflicted by men on women — have got us nowhere. There are those who, like Quentin Tarantino, think it is one of the most violent crimes in the world, and others for whom it is simply what happens when a woman endures sex she doesn’t want. Bestial or banal, a proven rape may carry a prison sentence of many years, even life, but very few rapes ever find their way into a court of law. The prosecution of a selected minority of cases seldom results in a conviction. The crucial issue is that of consent, which is thought by some to be easy to establish and by others as impossible. Rape statistics remain intractable. Again and again crime surveys tell us that one woman in five will experience sexual violence. Despite all efforts to root sexual assault out of workplaces and colleges, predatory individuals still inflict lasting damage with apparent impunity. The only result of desperate attempts to apportion blame and enact chastisement has been an erosion of the civil rights of the accused. Sexual assault does not diminish; relations between the sexes do not improve; litigation balloons. There has to be a better way.”

That sounds like a worthwhile and interesting event. There’s a lot of pertinent issues in there, and an insightful deconstruction of these issues could help society immensely, as we don’t seem to have reached the point where we are able to deal with rape appropriately. Let’s see what Greer actually said during her talk:

“It’s one thing to be raped, it’s another thing to try to get the person who outraged you brought to justice and then be totally discredited. That humiliation must be even worse than rape.”

Fair point — although not all rape victims would agree. Taking one’s rapist to court can be harrowing, but many women would still choose to do so. But I guess this ties in with her later comments about how rape should be tried and punished, which aren’t as palatable.

“I want to turn the discourse about rape upside down. We are not getting anywhere approaching it down the tunnel of history,”

This is quite interesting, for a couple of reasons. Greer has always been known for being outspoken and oppositional to contemporaneous feminist thinking — a practice she continues to this day, much to the delight of the popular press and the chagrin of many other feminists. But her mention of the historical view of rape is something that she has covered before:

“Historically, the crime of rape is not an offence against women, but an offence committed against men by other men. The man who has control of a woman, historically her father, guardian or husband, has a case against the man who makes unauthorised use of her. When the state seeks redress, it acts on behalf of the patriarchy and not on behalf of the injured woman.”
- Speaking in The Independent, 1 April 2006

Her argument seems to be that because women were once (very recently) deemed property, that rape is a crime of property damage, and not a violation of a person’s rights and bodily autonomy. That’s the crucial thing she’s missing here — that she may have a particular political opinion on the matter, but that doesn’t mean that everyone else sees things through her lens — a fact that she has also ignored in the past. We can also look to the problem of dogmatism within radical feminism generally, to see where this type of stubborn thinking ends up:

Due to the problems the legal system has in proving guilt, and the fact that accusers need to be cross-examined to determine what actually happened, she described women as being merely

“bits of evidence”.

There is some truth to this — cross-examination can be gruelling, and in rape cases it is complicated by the highly personal nature of the crime and the questions that need to be asked. Judges and defence barristers do not always operate sympathetically, and where rules are broken this is often ignored.

But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take rapists to court! I’m sure that if the world played by her rules, and women just changed their attitudes and sense of self and dignity around, this idea would work just great. But again, the world doesn’t work like this. Many victims do want justice to be served upon their attacker, and whereas Greer sees it as a bad thing that rapists are tried against the state, this is actually a very important legal concept for all crimes. We do not go to court to seek revenge, although victims may be glad to see their assailant punished. We take cases to court because of the serious nature of the transgression and the harm it poses to society. It would send a very dangerous signal if we minimised the severity and impact of rape — but this is also something that Greer doesn’t wish to entertain:

“Most rapes don’t involve any injury whatsoever. We are told that it is a sexually violent crime, an expert like Quentin Tarantino will tell us that when you use the word rape you’re talking about violence, a throwing them down… it is one of the most violent crimes in the world. Bullshit Tarantino.
“Most rape is just lazy, just careless, insensitive. Every time a man rolls over on his exhausted wife and insists on enjoying his conjugal rights he is raping her. It will never end up in a court of law.
“Instead of thinking of rape as a spectacularly violent crime, and some rapes are, think about it as non-consensual … that is bad sex. Sex where there is no communication, no tenderness, no mention of love.”

She’s got some things right — namely that rape isn’t necessarily a violent crime, and that it does skirt a border with “bad sex” in many cases. The problem is that she sees this as a reason to diminish the effects and severity of the crime, rather than using this observation to state that we need to do something about this epidemic, and that we should be taking it far more seriously than we do. Most rapes are committed by somebody known to the victim, and are generally not “violent”, it is true. That doesn’t make it any less serious.

She clearly thinks that “violent” rape is more serious, reminiscent of the rape myths about what constitutes a “real rape”. She goes on to say that more violent rapes deserve harsher sentences, based more on the violence than the rape itself — completely ignoring the harm done to victims by the act of rape. I’m also questioning Quentin Tarantino’s status as an expert. On what, exactly?

And if we needed further evidence that Greer’s stuck in the past, marital rape has been a crime in the UK since 1991. This reflects the notion in English law that wives are no longer the property of the husband, and rape is a crime that harms a person and not a possession. That’s why it carries such a high sentence, and why it demonstrates that her strongly-held belief about marriage as property ownership has no basis in fact.

It is also very difficult to secure a conviction, particularly for rapes where the assailant is known to the victim. The issue is mostly with proving that consent was not given, not that sex occurred — and that’s really hard to do. We need to find better ways of gathering evidence, and I don’t know how we’re going to do that. But until we can, it shouldn’t mean that we just give up, or lower the bar for conviction, or dole out ridiculously light sentences in exchange for a lower standard of evidence (that’s not how the justice system works!). Although that’s one way that Greer tries to “resolve” the low conviction rate:

“If we are going to say trust us, believe us, if we do say that our accusation should stand as evidence, then we do have to reduce the tariff for rape. Why not believe the woman and lower the penalty?”

Because we would then be sending the message that a woman’s word and dignity is worth less than a man’s, it’s not fucking difficult. Bizarrely, Greer went on to prove that she can be wrong in other fields of enquiry too, by wading into psychiatry and doubting the PSTD diagnoses of soldiers and rape victims, blasting the “official position” (i.e. medical evidence) that 70% of rape victims & 20% of veterans experience the condition:

“At this point you think, what the hell are you saying? That something that leaves no sign, no injury, nothing, is more damaging to women than seeing your best friend blown up by an IED is to a veteran?”

Oh dear. That’s not how PTSD works at all. But then, Greer’s not one for science & evidence. Her Magnum Opus, The Female Eunuch, is full of misinformation and conjecture (this does not make it useless — for exploring certain concepts it does have value). Her opinions are derived from belief, and yet she expects everyone else to treat them as fact. Her next claim is that society “pathologises” rape — hmmm, I wonder why that might be?

“We haven’t been destroyed, we’ve been bloody annoyed, is what we’ve been.”

That’s not for Greer to say. Just because she sees her own rape as no big deal, it doesn’t dictate the emotional response of half the population. Things get a little weird here:

“I reckon 200 hours of community service will do — would do me. I suggested a long time ago that maybe a little tattoo would be a good thing. Maybe an ‘R’ on your hand. I’d prefer it on your cheek.”

200 hours of community service is obviously a totally inappropriate sentence for rape. But this idea of tattooing rapists’ faces seems a little… extreme. I thought she was in favour of lighter sentences, rather than some sort of eye-for-an-eye violation of a person’s body?

Although the Lisbeth Salander treatment is always an option.
“Well I’ll tell you what … You might want to believe that the penis is a lethal weapon and that all women live in fear of that lethal weapon, well that’s bullshit. It’s not true. We don’t live in terror of the penis … A man can’t kill you with his penis.”

Back to her previous work with this one. She’s spoken of the penis as a symbol of power before, but again she is relying on a concept that is useful for philosophical debate, but useless for dealing with real-world transgressions. How many rape victims are likely to proclaim that it wasn’t all that bad because the rapist’s penis is simply “an expression of male phallocentricity”? Anyone? No?

She acknowledges that her views will be seen as controversial (or wrong, if we’re being honest):

“It is moments like these, I can hear the feminists screaming at me, ‘you’re trivialising rape!’”

That’s mainly because she is trivialising rape. She perhaps inadvertently reveals her true nature by referring to “the feminists”, as if to say that she isn’t one — which is what we knew all along. Even her earlier work in the 60s and 70s was not always beneficial to women or the feminist movement, although she did make significant contributions to the second wave. But she has seriously lost the plot with this, and a lot of other drivel.

LIFE magazine, 7th May 1971

It has been noted that The Female Eunuch seems to have been written primarily for men, perhaps in a misguided attempt to make feminism seem more appealing to them. This is, remember, “the saucy feminist that even men like”. I can’t help but feel she’s conceded too much ground. In doing so, she devalues the cause and sacrifices women’s concerns in order to further her own agenda and to seem relevant. Is she the first ever “cool girl”?

Apparently she’s got a book out in September, which would explain the near-constant media train-wreck Greer is commanding. It’s called On Rape, and I don’t have particularly high hopes for it. In an interview for The Sydney Morning Herald, she spoke about her reasons behind writing it, and revealed even more of her terrible views. There’s a summary in this article from The Bookseller:

There was one useful thing we could take away from her speech. She laments the way that we treat sex in general:

“Love-making is not a matter of an organ, it is a matter of communication and somehow we’ve got to rescue it. It is in deep trouble, heterosex.”

If only we could agree on that without throwing rape victims under the bus.