Former celebrated feminist turned public polemicist Germaine Greer is no stranger to controversy. In fact, the author seems to court the headlines, especially when promoting a forthcoming book.
You may remember when Greer made transphobic comments in the run-up to the publication of her 1999 book The Whole Woman. She’s reiterated these opinions many times in the years since. And then in 2003, she claimed she’d be accused of paedophilia while promoting The Beautiful Boy – her lavishly illustrated book about “why boys have always been the world’s pin-ups”.
Now Greer is preparing for the publication of her latest book, On Rape – with a series of troubling observations on #MeToo and sexual (non-)violence.
Greer started her promotional campaign earlier this year when she opined that the rise in representations of sexual violence on TV was due to women’s enjoyment of watching other women being sexually assaulted and that women fantasised about being subjected to sexual violence.
What makes it different is when the man has economic power, as Harvey Weinstein has … if you spread your legs because he said ‘be nice to me and I’ll give you a job in a movie’ then I’m afraid that’s tantamount to consent, and it’s too late now to start whingeing about that.
Speaking at the 2018 Hay literary festival, Greer attracted criticism by calling for more lenient sentences for rapists. Despite contemporary movements lobbying for a long overdue overhaul of how survivors of rape can access justice, Greer suggests that 200 hours of community service – or an “R” tattoo on the hand, arm or cheek – may be more appropriate punishment for rapists.
While acknowledging the considerable obstacles rape survivors face in navigating the criminal justice system (the consequences of which are abysmal conviction rates of rapists which, arguably, contribute to more rapes), Greer suggests that accepting a drastically reduced sentence for rape would result in more convictions.
Greer recounts her own experience of rape – but seems to imply that she hasn’t experienced any long-term damage as a consequence of the assault. The leap from her own emotional reaction to sexual violence (to which she is, of course, entitled) to her cavalier response to others’ experience of sexual violence is troubling.
Misunderstanding sexual violence
Greer also draws a bizarre distinction between violent and non-violent rape, which demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of sexual assault. She comments: “We are told that it is a sexually violent crime … Every time a man rolls over on his exhausted wife and insists on enjoying his conjugal rights he is raping her.” She’s right: penetration without consent is always rape – but to suggest that it isn’t “violent” is a mistake and dangerously misrepresents the real experiences of many survivors of sexual assault and rape.
It is surprising, too, that even some of the criticisms of Greer’s position concede that rape isn’t always violent. For instance, in her response to Greer’s comments, Suzanne Moore said: “Greer is correct to say not all rape is violent, but all rape surely involves the threat of violence.” The idea that rape can be a “non-violent” act seems to be a widely held myth in rape culture. The non-consensual penetration of a human body is an inherently violent violation.
With astonishing flippancy and no appeal to evidence, Greer went on to tell the audience at Hay: “Most rapes don’t involve any injury whatsoever. We are told it’s one of the most violent crimes in the world – bull.” As if the lack of visible evidence of external physical violence diminishes the damage caused by rape. While it’s true that other kinds of physical violence may be perpetrated alongside rape, the absence of visible evidence of punches, kicks or bites does not negate the violence of the act of rape.
Greer’s comments echo those of other public figures such as Richard Dawkins, Kenneth Clarke, Judy Finnegan and NYPD officer Peter Rose, who have assumed a “hierarchy of rape” – the idea that some rapes are “worse” than others (although Clarke and Finnegan later apologised) and only victims who display the external marks of physical violence are worthy of serious concern.
Trivialising sexual violence
When trivialisation and disbelief lie at the heart of a rape culture, attitudes that can be traced right back to the Bible, (see Judges 19: Levite and his wife where a woman is gang raped and cut up into pieces), the impact of comments such as these from those who identify as feminists cannot be underestimated. They provide a platform to the myths that create environments where sex crimes become normalised.
And despite lamenting the role of women in rape trials as little more than “bits of evidence”, Greer locates rapists at the centre of the narrative. By describing rape as “just lazy, just careless, insensitive”, she privileges the experiences of men over women. She presents rape as something men do (exclusively in a heterosexual context), rather than something survivors are forced to endure.
Greer’s comments on sexual violence are glib, ill-informed and potentially dangerous. Let’s hope she’s put more thought into the content of her forthcoming book.