Skip to main content

Germaine Greer: Guilt poisons women

By Germaine Greer, Special to CNN
updated 12:52 PM EDT, Tue March 12, 2013
Indians protest the gang rape and murder of an Indian student, which forced the nation to confront its attitudes toward women.
Indians protest the gang rape and murder of an Indian student, which forced the nation to confront its attitudes toward women.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Germaine Greer: Study found women feel the poison of guilt more than men
  • Greer: Women are raised to take the blame for crimes against them, she says
  • When a rape victim is unnamed, she says, it supports the stigmatization of rape
  • Greer: Women must reject stigma and refuse to feel shame for the way others treat them

Editor's note: Germaine Greer, an Australian academic and journalist, is the author of "The Female Eunuch," "Sex and Destiny," "The Change," "Shakespeare's Wife" and "The Whole Woman." She is professor emerita of English literature and comparative studies at the University of Warwick in England.

(CNN) -- A Spanish study found women are more susceptible to guilt than men, and suggested that in the interests of equality, men should accept more guilt, women less. Equality considered in such terms is a shibboleth. Guilt is bad stuff; it poisons life, saps resolution and crushes orgasmic potency. No psychologist ought to wish more guilt on anyone of any sex.

Dr. Itziar Extebarria, who led the study of 360 men and women carried out at the University of the Basque Country and published in the Spanish Journal of Psychology, says the research "highlights the need for educational practices and socializing agents to reduce the tendency towards anxious aggressive guilt in women, and to promote interpersonal sensitivity in men."

Rescuing women from their burden of unwarranted guilt is going to require "educational practices and socializing agents" even more effective than the ones that have been relentlessly loading female humans with responsibility for other people's behavior from their earliest childhood.

Germaine Greer
Germaine Greer

Guilt is one side of a nasty triangle; the other two are shame and stigma. This grim coalition combines to inculpate women themselves of the crimes committed against them.

Opinion: Why women trash successful women

Women feel more guilt than men, not because of some weird chromosomal issue but because they have a history of being blamed for other people's behavior. You get hit, you must have annoyed someone; you get raped, you must have excited someone; your kid is a junkie, you must have brought him up wrong.

Any victim of sexual offenses who denounces the perpetrator should incur no shame. But she does. And to conceal the identity of a victim of a sexual offense, which is routine, is to endorse this profoundly misogynist prejudice. Until women feel free to identify offenders without shame, the wounds inflicted on them will remain unhealed.

For example, the Indian gang rape victim who was given the International Women of Courage Award by the U.S. State Department on International Women's Day recently is known only by a collection of sobriquets, of which the popular favorite is "Nirbhaya," or "Fearless."

Alleged Libyan rape victim talked to CNN
Clinton, Obama honor remarkable women

No member of her family was present at the ceremony to hear U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry say fatuously that there would be "no more stigma against victims or survivors" when he had perpetuated that very stigma by refusing to reveal Nirbhaya's identity.

Why can we not know who Nirbhaya was? Because to be raped by a gang of drunken goondahs is to be dishonored. The stigma extends to her family, her community and even to her university. She has been honored because she did the decent thing. She died.

She is not around screaming for justice; she is dead. Her achievement is to be a victim. When the Obama administration hooked its wagon to the star of a sex martyr, it did little for the women who endure humiliation and stigma every day.

Libyan Eman al-Obeidy has not been identified as a woman of courage, even though -- or perhaps because -- on March 26, 2011, she sought out the international media at the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli to denounce the 15 Moammar Gadhafi thugs who gang-raped her, beat her and pushed a Kalashnikov into her rectum.

She found temporary asylum in Qatar only to be handed back to the Libyans; she is now living in exile in the United States. Her mistake was to survive. Because she did not die for other people's crimes, the offenses against her are now described as "alleged." Her credibility is shot.

Eman al-Obeidy: When rape is a tool of repression

Women live lives of continual apology. They are born and raised to take the blame for other people's behavior. If they are treated without respect, they tell themselves that they have failed to earn respect. If their husbands do not fancy them, it is because they are unattractive. Dirt and disorder in the family home is their fault, though they created none of it.

In Shakespeare's "Othello," as Desdemona lies dying, strangled by her husband, Emilia cries out, "Oh who hath done this deed?" and Desdemona answers, "Nobody. I myself." The moment is extreme, but the phenomenon happens daily.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Women all over the world, across cultures, are excusing the violence that men mete out to them, often, most tragically, interpreting acts of pure brutality as evidence of love. According to the British Crime Survey, two women die at the hands of their male partners every week. The police can't help them if they won't leave a violent partner; they choose to stay and die.

Until we have unraveled this conundrum, we will never understand women. Until women themselves reject stigma and refuse to feel shame for the way others treat them, they have no hope of achieving full human stature. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt described the four essential freedoms as freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.

The fifth essential freedom to be fought for is freedom from shame.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Germaine Greer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT