On Rape by Germaine Greer

Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth

To say that the statistics are grim is a blatant understatement. One woman in five will experience sexual violence, but very few cases end up in court, and the perpetrator faces punishment in even fewer. Non-consensual sex may be more common than consensual. Intense fear of rape is something of a permanent epidemic, with one study finding that one third of women worry about rape once per month or more. 70 per cent of rape victims will suffer from PTSD, more than victims of any other violent crime – compare that to the 10 to 20 percent of war veterans. To take this on in a book, especially in the #metoo era of heightened awareness of sexual assault, identity politics, and even gender wars, is not an uncontroversial task.

Germaine Greer is certainly no stranger to controversy. For example, in the run up to the publication of On Rape, she made headlines at the Hay literary festival by claiming that most rape is not violent, but rather sex that is “lazy, careless and insensitive”; lace that with her calls for lowering criminal penalties for rape, and you have a storm. On Rape does deliver a surprise, but not because it is the crystallization of Greer’s controversial views on rape that everyone expected, but because it is not. There are no definite calls for anything, really, but rather an essay with more grey areas than blacks and whites, offering something of a stream-of-consciousness analysis of issues associated with rape and their practical repercussions.

From the outset, Greer makes it clear that she will only discuss cases of women being raped by men: for the purposes of the book – crucially, not as a statement about rape in general – she defines rape as the “penetration of the vagina of an unwilling human female by the penis of a human male.” Whether or not that is a wholly sensible methodological standpoint is a different matter in the face of Greer’s subsequent arguments. Later on in her essay, for example, she claims that rape is not a matter of penises or high testosterone levels, and that it is fundamentally a hate, and not sex, crime. Why then propose such strict parameters to the discussion?

While Greer’s methodological take can be dismissed as a theoretical squabble and a slight internal inconsistency, there are other questions about what counts as rape and what does not that result in very real problems when it comes to evidence, prosecution and punishment. It is these issues that are at the heart of Greer’s discussion.

Many of the practical problems of dealing with rape, according to Greer, boil down to idea of consent. Campaign refrains such as ‘no means no and yes means yes’ or ‘consent is not the absence of no but the presence of yes’ make the definition simple enough, but the reality is more convoluted. What if the victim herself doesn’t know? Greer cites the example of Ella, a single mother who lives together with her four-year-old daughter. She’s recently ended a brief relationship with a co-worker, but one night, said ex comes shouting and knocking on her door, and eventually forces himself upon Ella. In the end, Ella gives in to avoid her daughter waking up from the noise, and to save her from the ensuing shock and terror. The result? Ella isn’t sure if there was consent, and if she was raped. From the outside, it’s well and good to define the incident as rape – clearly, there was an absence of yes, not just an absence of no – but what would any of this mean in practice?

The answer, in short, is that it gets complicated in the courtroom. While the need for evidence of resistance is now removed in many legal systems (no other crime requires resistance to count as a crime; a cashier handing the money over to an armed robber without putting up a fight is not accused of consenting), many countries still require there to be violence for an act to qualify as rape. In several countries there are now campaigns to change this – some successful – by making the absence of consent the key defining factor of rape, whether or not violence is involved. What is often omitted from the public discourse, though, is the potential averse implications of the switch. Greer argues that taking the victim’s statement that she did not consent as sufficient ­­– and thereby discounting any possible claim by the defendant to the contrary –may result in reduced penalties: the proof – the victim’s account – will thus be weaker and cannot therefore justify hefty sentences.

Ironically, more severe punishments are exactly what the public cries for, many arguing that rape is the worst possible crime. Again, Greer points to a conundrum: if the punishment for rape is more than for, say, killing someone, the perpetrator is more likely to kill. If there is no evidence for rape – a dead victim is a silent one – the perpetrator will get away with less.

If this strikes a reader grounded in a culture where the often destructive effects of rape are emphasized and harder punishments are called for as a bold claim, then Greer’s alternatives may come across as even more bizarre – at least at first sight: she mentions civil cases, mediation and restoration as possible options to a criminal case and prosecution. Importantly, though, and contra to much of the debate preceding the book’s publication, Greer does not propose these as an only, or unproblematic, solution. Rather, her argument goes, outside the criminal system the victim will be treated less as forensic evidence and more of a human being with a very real narrative. This could allow the victim to speak out her experience and perhaps even find acknowledgement from the perpetrator that her experiences are real, as in one case Greer cites. Greer’s argumentation is also very pragmatic: when the evidence so rarely leads to sentences in court because of the nature of the proof, the victim may have better chances of getting compensation through an alternative route. For some, this will read as giving up the fight for rape victims’ rights; but Greer suggests no definite solutions, rather just alternative routes that may work better in some cases than in others.

Granted, Greer’s writing is more of a thought experiment than an empirically backed solution to how to handle rape, but she nevertheless raises some very valid issues with the current thinking about rape that too often go unquestioned. As such, On Rape offers a valuable contribution to current discourse, and certainly a thought-provoking one; it paints a picture of rape as a multifaceted issue that cannot be solved by a one-size-fits-all model.

This is why the one solution Greer does suggest without any caveats as a conclusion to the book is at best banal and at worst insulting to victims of rape, veering into the controversy anticipated of the book: more conversations between men and women. “Men and women can between them create ecstacy if they invest time, energy and creativity in their lovemaking. Routine sex shades too easily into mere sufferance,” she writes. “If we women love men, and we surely do, rather more than I would say than they love us, we will have to find a way out of the slough of bitterness and recrimination into which we seem to have fallen.” Sure, better communication between different parties – here, different genders – is always heralded as very much a good thing, but the guiding light in addressing rape? Hardly. Quite frankly, to end an otherwise thought-through and well-discussed book on rape – undoubtedly, as Greer agrees, a severe, horrific crime – by calling for better conversations falls desperately flat. This is a shame given the quality of the rest of the book, and I hope On Rape won’t be judged solely by Greer’s wobble at the finish line.

Anna is a bookworm, linguistics student and student journalist.

Germaine Greer, On Rape, (Bloomsbury, 2018). 978-1526608406, 96pp., hardback

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