In 1971 Germaine Greer hosted two episodes of the Dick Cavett Show on American television. How she moved from being a guest on the programme while she was promoting The Female Eunuch to being its stand-in presenter isn’t clear (the suspicion is that the ABC network thought ‘the saucy feminist that even men like’ – in the words of Life magazine – would be a useful weapon in the ratings wars). But she briefly changed the face of the programme. The topic of the first discussion was abortion, then illegal in many states; the topic of the second was rape, and it broke new ground not just in talking about rape in the first place, but in allowing a woman who had actually been raped to speak for herself (though she remained anonymous). It was broadcast four years before the publication of Susan Brownmiller’s book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, which is often credited with opening up the debate about rape, and putting male power, rather than sexual desire, at the heart of it. Greer presented rape as a crime of patriarchy, embedded in the notion that it is a woman’s duty to be sexually available to men; she exposed the police’s lack of sympathy when dealing with rape cases, and the general tendency to blame the victim.
In Germaine, her unauthorised biography of Greer, Elizabeth Kleinhenz is sometimes awkwardly caught between starstruck admiration for Greer and irritation that Greer refused to co-operate with her project in any way.The irritation is understandable: if, like Greer, you sell your archive to a major library, you have to expect that people will want to work on it – and you. Kleinhenz does, however, offer a well-judged account of the immediate context of Greer’s appearances on the Dick Cavett Show (she was then enjoying huge popular acclaim for The Female Eunuch, while at the same time being vilified by hardline feminists for selling out to the media for rich rewards). Kleinhenz rightly stresses the programmes’ impact, one measure of which is the correspondence that followed: Greer received more letters than anyone else in the show’s history; more than four hundred are preserved in her archive at the University of Melbourne.
A few of these are enough to remind us that the vitriol of modern Twitter is nothing new. One writer threatens Greer with the clap, another observes that she is so disgusting she is never likely to need an abortion anyway; and then there’s the familiar list of crimes women commit: not brushing their hair, ‘looking like a worn-out whore’, having ‘no business sitting in the interviewer’s seat’ and so on. But the vast majority of responses were from people who applauded her for raising the subjects and handling them so sensitively. Several women who had been raped wrote to say how grateful they were. As one of them put it, ‘to be able to discuss rape on television is HEROIC, honest, necessary and an incalculable contribution to a lot of mixed-up females.’
How is it then that, a few decades on, Greer has written a ‘deeply ill-informed’ book about rape that has been criticised for going soft on the crime, for ‘sham[ing] victims who allow themselves to be deeply affected by rape’, and for focusing on women’s ‘rape fantasies’, while advocating lower penalties for rapists, as if we simply had to ‘accept rape as “part of the psychopathology of everyday life”’? Worse still, how could she harangue the audience at the Hay Festival last year, ‘posturing like some rad-fem Katie Hopkins’, claiming that rape was ‘often not a “spectacularly violent crime” … but, more often than not, just “lazy, careless and insensitive”’ – meriting perhaps two hundred hours of community service, or maybe the letter ‘R’ tattooed on the culprit’s cheek? Is it really the case, as Naomi Wolf, one of the book’s most hostile reviewers, claimed, that ‘one of the best minds of her generation’ has woken up from a forty-year nap only to ‘blunder, again and again, into long discredited errors from the distant past’?
If these really were Greer’s revised views on rape, she would deserve the animosity directed at her. Happily, they are not. Many of the critiques of both the book and her Hay lecture were a combination of misrepresentation and careless (or wilful) selective quotation. It is hard to believe that those who attacked the lecture had attended it or watched it online (where it is still available). A large part of the thirty-minute talk is taken up with Greer’s very powerful account of recent cases in which brutal rapists were acquitted, and of the way in which the victim’s initial trauma was redoubled by the indignity of the legal process and the humiliation of not being believed. She also addresses her own rape, sixty years ago, and explains why she didn’t report it to the police. They are reasons (not least the imperative of just wanting to go home and wash him off you) that any person – myself included – who has been raped and has taken the matter no further, would understand.
The incendiary quotations, often gleefully recounted as evidence against her, are only ‘accurate’ in the most limited sense of the word. Greer did say at Hay that rape is more often than not ‘lazy, careless and insensitive’. But, as the context makes plain, this was not to downgrade rape as conventionally understood, but to upgrade the other versions of non-consensual sex that we usually refuse to see in those terms. She makes this clearer in On Rape where she insists that the way women ‘give in’ to sex they don’t want with their long-term partners is no less corrosive, no less demeaning to their sense of self, than ‘rape’ as we usually talk about it (correct or not, this is a very different, and serious, point). It is also true that she suggested, in response to a question from the audience, that two hundred hours of community service might be an appropriate penalty for rape. But that was in the context of a bigger argument: that if we wish to secure more convictions for rape, we may have to pay the price of lighter penalties. Her answer was also, dare I say, a little light-hearted. Is it appropriate to be light-hearted in the context of rape? Some would think not. But the audience at the lecture seems to have been happy. They clapped at the idea of tattooing rapists with an ‘R’ (Rosie Boycott, who was chairing, made the equally light-hearted suggestion that rapists could be tagged with microchips).
In her lecture, Greer was attempting to overturn some assumptions about rape, and to think differently about how to prosecute and punish it – to end the current impasse. It is hard to imagine things being worse: only a tiny number of successful prosecutions, which cannot possibly reflect true levels of guilt; those women who do report a crime feel assaulted all over again by the invasive procedures that accompany the investigation (courtroom interrogation is just one). Several of the questioners at Hay pushed Greer quite hard: some took issue not with her ‘victim shaming’, but with what they saw as her ‘victim-centred’ approach. Ella Whelan, Spiked columnist and author of What Women Want: Fun, Freedom and an End to Feminism, claimed that Greer disempowered women by focusing on consent and on the problematic nature of that notion (‘I’m quite capable of saying yes or no, even if I have had a glass of vodka,’ was Whelan’s line). Another questioner wondered whether Greer was being unfair to men. Do men really love their mothers less than mothers love their sons, as she had claimed? ‘Probably,’ Greer said.
Many of these topics are discussed in On Rape. The book, or pamphlet (at ninety pages, that’s really all it is), asks why the modern legal system fails to secure convictions for rape; why so few people pursue cases against their rapists, successfully or not; and considers the difficulties in dealing in court, pace Whelan, with the dilemmas of consent. (The amount of data that can now be offered as evidence has complicated this. In Greer’s own case, as she explained in the lecture, the rapist forced her to cry out ‘fuck me,’ which wouldn’t have played well for her in court had it been recorded, as it now could be, on the defendant’s mobile phone.) There are numerous misrepresentations of all this by Greer’s critics. To take just one small but telling example, she does write about women’s rape fantasies, but only in order to dismiss them as not relevant to sexual assault. Her point (as some critics recognised) is that in women’s fantasies, they are in control.
Greer’s argument isn’t a plea to ‘go soft’ on rape. She is trying to make the argument that non-consensual sex – with its long-term, repeated, low-level humiliation of women – is much more prevalent (‘in the psychopathology of everyday life’) than we like to admit. It was, after all, only in 1991 that rape within marriage became recognised as a crime in English law. Even now very few wives feel they have any redress against unwanted sex, least of all by making a visit to the local police station (it’s a price many women are prepared to pay for partnership and the other ‘advantages’ of marriage). Greer is also saying that if we cannot deal with the crime of rape by the traditional legal strategies, we might have to look for a radically new approach. If one of the main factors preventing convictions is the central criterion of consent (juries cannot convict if there is the smallest doubt that the rapist might have believed that the victim consented), then maybe we ought to lower the burden of proof. But, if we do that (to the necessary disadvantage of the accused), it follows that we should lower the penalty. This is not an attempt to diminish the seriousness of the crime. Whether you like the idea or not, Greer’s contention is that raising conviction rates is more important than securing lengthy punishment: better one hundred men found guilty than two locked up for five years. Little of this was acknowledged in the furore that followed the book’s publication.
The fact that On Rape was widely misrepresented does not mean that it is a wholly good book, or that the lecture was without its faults. Greer’s performance at Hay was apparently given without notes, which added to the immediacy of her words, but detracted from the structural coherence of her argument. Her notion that ‘heterosex’ is in trouble because we have forgotten about the communication involved in ‘love-making’ is strangely nostalgic, schmaltzy and not entirely relevant; the joke about Harvey Weinstein being bad at sex (‘I would be embarrassed to be such a dreadful fuck’) may have got a good laugh but didn’t take us any further. The book repeats some of these claims (‘heterosex is in serious trouble,’ she writes near the end, without saying why this is particularly so now, or how it relates to other things she discusses, like the behaviour of Julian Assange or the millions of orgasms faked in the UK each week). And, more to the point, there are serious inconsistencies, which cannot be excused on the grounds of spontaneity or off the cuff, lecture hall badinage.
On the first page, Greer narrows her subject down to the ‘penetration of the vagina of an unwilling human female by the penis of a human male’. This was one of the major faults identified by critics: What about oral or anal rape? What about instruments other than the penis? What about men as victims? Whether the restriction is justifiable or not (for such a short book, I think it probably is), the critics failed to notice that she does not, in fact, keep to her own definition. Just twenty pages later, she describes a horrible case of anal rape where the rapist was acquitted on appeal – the judge was convinced that he believed the woman had consented, even though she believed she had not. There is a similar inconsistency in Greer’s view of rapists. On the one hand, she wants to see rape as much more ‘ordinary’ than is often allowed, taking place on a regular basis in suburban bedrooms. On the other hand, she elsewhere identifies ‘rapists’ in the more traditional sense of the word, as an almost professional class of repeat offenders (according to one database that she cites they commit 90 per cent of assaults). It is not clear how she thinks those very different landscapes of rape relate to each other. Is ‘everyday rape’ a different category from attacks by serial criminals? If so, does that not undermine her claim that ‘bad sex’ and rape should be seen as part of the same phenomenon? Where, exactly, do these different ‘kinds’ of rape meet?
She is also uncharacteristically unreflective on the question of violence. She rightly says that ‘rape itself need involve no violence at all,’ which is true, if you mean that many, if not the majority, of victims do not emerge with obvious physical injuries, cuts and bruises. But, as critics (in this case correctly) observed, to claim that women can be raped while sleeping does not mean that such rape is a ‘non-violent’ act. It can only be on the crudest equivalence of violence with visible injury that the insertion of an uninvited penis into the vagina of a comatose woman does not count as, at least, a violation. Greer is uncompromising in seeing all rape as a ‘hate crime’; why not ‘violent’ (on a more nuanced definition of the term) too?
There is also the question of the cultural and intellectual baggage around rape that we have inherited. Greer is strong on some of the inconvenient shadows that earlier definitions of rape still throw over our own debates. She usefully observes that, in the UK at least, the law has never successfully managed the transition from rape as a crime (of theft, from the Latin rapio) committed against the woman’s owner or guardian, her husband or her father, to rape as a crime (of sexual assault) committed against the woman herself. But when she trails the idea that consent, as a touchstone of guilt or innocence, has been part of the discourse of rape since at least the 12th century, she sells the history of the subject rather short. The fact is that, as far back as we can trace it in the West, the question of consent has been, as it remains, the slippery conundrum at the heart of discussions about guilt, innocence and victim-blaming. In ancient Rome, the (mythical) rape of Lucretia was the key example, and the story continued to be invoked for centuries by those probing the dilemmas of sexual assault, from St Augustine to any number of 17th-century English moralists.
In Livy’s account, in the late sixth century, Tarquin, a member of the Roman royal family, set out to rape the virtuous Lucretia, the wife of a leading citizen. She at first resisted, but in the face of her refusal, Tarquin threatened that, if she didn’t give in, he would kill her and one of her slaves; when their bodies were found it would look as if they had been killed in the act of adultery. The prospect of this shame made Lucretia relent but, as soon as Tarquin had gone, she summoned her husband and other male relatives, told them what had happened, and then killed herself in front of them. The debates around this story have centred on the conduct, motivation and will of Lucretia. Had she actually consented to Tarquin? (Yes, said some – but only under duress, argued others.) If she was entirely innocent, why did she feel that she had to die? And, in a predictable follow-up, would it make a difference to your understanding of consent if you imagined that Lucretia had enjoyed the encounter? (There were plenty of male fantasies about female rape fantasies at play here.) It seems clear to me that some of these ingrained historical prejudices and debates weigh more heavily on modern discussion than Greer (or her critics) allow.
On Rape has its faults. It is not (nor did it set out to be) a heavyweight contribution to discussion of the causes, effects and judicial problems of rape across the globe. Even on its own narrower terms, it can seem a rather sloppy, sometimes inconsistent, occasionally eccentric little pamphlet. But it is also full of flashes of insight, clever analysis, radical new proposals and powerful arguments that have been missed, or dismissed, by many critics, who seem determined to warp Greer’s arguments into the reactionary rant of an angry old lady. What is driving these attacks? Why are her critics so determined to deplore and ridicule? What lies behind the selective misreading that turns a provocative pamphlet, no more flawed than many others of the genre, into a case for the prosecution?
Part of this may be simple iconoclasm (with a dash of ageism thrown in). But it is hard to resist the suspicion that Greer was being punished for her much quoted remarks on the trans community; or to put it differently, that the anger at what she has said on that topic has clouded fair judgment of her arguments on rape. How accurately her views on trans politics have been reported, I do not know, but even those of us who think that we urgently need a careful and frank discussion of what now constitutes sexual difference, or of what makes a ‘woman’, find it hard to imagine that Greer’s ‘Just because you lop off your dick and then wear a dress doesn’t make you a fucking woman’ is a productive opening to any such debate. Others, understandably, find it grossly insulting. (There is, I should add, some debate about when or where she actually said this. Kleinhenz, who is not the best guide to these controversies, says that it was in a television interview with a trans woman. It wasn’t. It was quoted on the Victoria Derbyshire show, as a written soundbite – given in unknown circumstances – and put to the trans actor Rebecca Root. Root gave a dignified response.)
My first reaction here is to feel uneasy about the unitary view of political and cultural virtue that underlies these reactions to Greer. Just because she is, let’s assume, wrong on trans politics does not mean she is wrong on rape. That said, she is more complicit in the furore over On Rape than she at first appears. It is clear from Kleinhenz’s biography that throughout her career Greer has combined a tremendous capacity for persuasive argument with an equal capacity to annoy and provoke. In fact, anger and its provocation are very much part of her approach – as is her apparent inability to suppress a clever quip once she has thought of it. It reminds me of the criticism levelled at Cicero: he could never, it was said, keep an ill-advised joke in; it was as if he had hot coals in his mouth. Greer has always had hot coals in her mouth. In many ways we have reason to be grateful for this (where would The Female Eunuch have been without them?). But On Rape and her Hay lecture might have had more lasting power if she had resisted the temptation to sprinkle them with irritants designed to annoy – a bait she must have known would be taken. It does nothing for her argument, for example, to take pot shots (as she did at Hay) at the celebrity actors who exposed Harvey Weinstein, as if rape doesn’t count if you happen to be rich and famous. When she writes in the book, ‘the mere suggestion will cause an outcry which is one good reason for making it,’ it is an honest summary of the Greer method.