Germaine Greer Three generations of women respond to her controversial new book, On Rape
For nearly 50 years feminist icon and firebrand Germaine Greer has been inspiring and infuriating in equal measure – and the characteristically sweeping statements in her latest book, On Rape, have sparked fresh outrage. We asked three generations of women to read it and respond
The iconic cover of the The Female Eunuch, an international bestseller first published in 1970 and still in print, shows the stylised trunk of a naked woman, a handle on each hip, fresh off the conveyor belt. In the book, Dr Germaine Greer, then aged 30, explained in dazzling prose and with raw anger why men oppress women and hate them even more for their capitulation. “Women have been cut off from their capacity for action,” she told the New York Times. “That has got to be changed.”
Almost 50 years later, in On Rape, she returns to women’s inertia, their lack of agency, particularly in the marital bed. As feminism’s human electrical charge, she does what she has always done: she stirs and enrages. “I put ideas forward to give them a life, to let them go and see what people do with them,” she has explained.
I was a student at Warwick University when Greer was an English lecturer. She was 6ft tall with a halo of hair, thrillingly living out the sexual revolution with brio, a believer in the Reichian view that sexual freedom was the gateway to all other freedoms. Meanwhile, in the real world, we knew that a girl who “put it about” found herself labelled the campus bike. Magisterially, Greer has always assumed that her experience at any given time is universal to all women.
For me, The Female Eunuch, Greer’s vigorous attack on femininity, opened the door to a different way of behaving and thinking. I’m indebted. “The old process must be broken,” she demanded. “What will you do?” What Germaine, a libertarian, has since done, gloriously, eloquently and often, is change her mind on any number of major feminist issues. Motherhood, damned in 1970 as a prison, transformed decades later into a sacred calling. The contributor to Oz magazine, and porn lover – self-styled as Dr G, “the only groupie in captivity with a PhD” – in The Change in the 1990s, eulogised the joys of celibacy and railed against porn and promiscuity.
Dr Greer is a polymath and then some. Broadcaster, critic, academic, environmentalist, gardener, publisher, exhibitionist (perhaps explaining a misguided entry into Channel 4’s Big Brother house in 2005) – she is also a “bolter”, married for only three weeks, who has said she would have liked a husband “intermittently”. Yet On Rape is shaped by what she believes is a pattern in long-term relationships in which the man demands and the woman passively gives in. She rails against the “deadening spread” of “non-consensual sex”, “bad sex”, “banal rape”, that unjustly goes unpunished. “Most rape,” she writes, without possibly knowing, “is just lazy, careless and insensitive”.
According to Rape Crisis England and Wales, 85,000 women and 12,000 men are raped each year. Only 15% of rapes are reported to the police. Only 5.7% of rapes result in a successful prosecution. Myths still abound; consent is tricky to define; women’s sexual history is still an issue in court. Greer is right: “The system [is] not working.” As a victim of rape as a teenager, she rightly argues that rape is often not violent and it doesn’t destroy the victim. But it can.
Part of her solution is to effectively decriminalise rape so that, she writes, women don’t have to go through the ordeal of court (overlooking the due processes of law); perpetrators should be given 200 hours of community service or branded with the letter “R”. It’s an argument, not an edict.
What Greer ignores is that rape is always a violation, a breach of a woman’s bodily autonomy, even when there are no physical wounds. Rape feeds a culture of fear (one in eight Hollywood films features a rape). Better books have been written on rape, for instance by the late Professor Sue Lees and, more recently, Professor Joanna Bourke, but they didn’t act as catalysts. On Rape will. However, I hope that in the ensuing debate the focus will be less on personally taking apart Greer, the contrarian queen, who deserves a place on any plinth dedicated to female empowerment, and more on some of the truths she articulates, and linked issues not raised in the book.
Issues such as the notion of consent, which itself situates women as subordinate: a male acts, a female reacts. And how, in spite of pornography and the sexualisation of society, couples can and do have equal, consensual partnerships.
Sex is complicated. What Greer calls “good sex” can vary hugely, and at different times can encompass the rough as well as the gentle. However, what’s needed is a stronger interrogation by men about the kind of masculinity that still regards the appropriation and possession of a woman – banally or brutally – as what real men are supposed to do; robbing a woman of her self-worth and sexuality. As Greer once said in a different context, that has got to be changed.
‘As feminism’s electrical charge, she does what she’s always done: she stirs and enrages’