Editor’s Note: Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
For someone who’s spent most of her life advocating for other people, Germaine Greer appears to have very little interest in other people’s feelings.
This week, at the Hay Festival of literature and arts in Wales, the 79-year-old author of “The Female Eunuch” and vocal figurehead of second-wave feminism claimed that we shouldn’t think of rape as “a spectacularly violent crime,” but as ‘bad sex … where there is no communication.”
Greer suggested a more lenient approach to punishing rape, perhaps “200 hours of community service,” or an ‘R’ tattoo on a man’s hand, as suitable penance.
“Why not believe the woman and lower the penalty?” Greer asked. ‘If we are going to say, ‘Trust us, believe us,’ if we do say that our accusation should stand as evidence, then we do have to reduce the tariff for rape.”
She cited her own survival of rape at 19 as testimony that it really isn’t that bad, calling rape “something that leaves no sign, no injury, nothing.”
“I wasn’t that angry,” she stressed.
Earlier this year, Greer also drew outrage with remarks around the #MeToo movement. She told The Sydney Morning Herald: “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.”
Where to begin.
These would all be strange things for anyone to say, let alone someone who has famously identified as a feminist for the past six decades. But they are far more than that: They are dangerous.
If, for example, rape is not that serious, as she asserts, then how are women’s feelings about it to be taken seriously? As someone so invested in women’s freedom, why would Greer place the burden of men’s crimes – as they are in her eyes – on women’s shoulders? If women are to value and treasure their bodies, free of shame, the violation of those bodies must be intolerable.
Her suggestion that we should demur because the prosecution of rape is difficult is curiously at odds with a career spent pushing back against establishment ideas. And at bottom, her statements make no sense.
Why is believing the victim of a crime – whom Greer assumes is female – incompatible with a proportionate penalty for the aggressor? A common whine of #MeToo decriers is the statistic that between 2% and 4% of accusations of sexual assault are false. The proportion of false accusations of murder and theft is the same, yet that contingent has yet to suggest we reduce sentences for those offenses.
So why cast doubt on rape victims, when the burden of proof is the same, and the odds of painting a target on your back for ridicule and abuse if you speak up far greater? “Prove you didn’t give him your wallet voluntarily,” said no one, ever.
If, as Greer suggests, the issue of consent is so hazy, then permanently inking rapists with an R is a weird contradiction. It’s also a dangerous idea. If someone is predisposed to violence enough to rape, it’s not out of the question they’d go further to silence someone entirely, rather than risk being identified later.
And if, having committed a grotesque act, a rapist genuinely repented and rehabilitated, branding them would impede their assimilation back into the community. So why bother? It’s as medieval a suggestion as saying that wives should just grit their teeth and take it every time their husband wants sex and they don’t.
The explanations Greer gives as to why many people feel more pain than she does over rape are outdated ideas of feminism.
She told the Hay audience, where she was speaking in advance of the publication of her forthcoming book “On Rape”: “You might want to believe that the penis is a lethal weapon and that all women live in fear of that lethal weapon. Well, that’s bull****. It’s not true. We don’t live in terror of the penis. … A man can’t kill you with his penis.”
This is laughably gendered. Men are raped too, and some women have penises. But like so much that is out of sync with her view of the world, Greer is happy to dismiss the transgender community, who are especially vulnerable to sexual assault, and likewise the idea that a person’s attitude to rape isn’t a corollary of their attitude to sex and gender.
Fear of rape and fear of sex are distinct: Sex is the result of a willing decision, and rape isn’t. Plenty of people who have been raped have enjoyed sex – when it’s not rape.
“Every time a man rolls over on his exhausted wife and insists on enjoying his conjugal right, he is raping her. It will never end up in a court of law,” Greer told the audience.
But that’s just the point – sex with another person is no one’s “right,” one to be “insisted” upon. When it is, that is an infringement of the other person’s rights, and it is the law’s job to protect those.
Like any form of violence, rape treads a strange line between impersonal and intimate. It is an act that has everything to do with the perpetrator’s incapacity for compassion, and nothing to do with the victim’s. But people have very different reactions to being violated, and that is wholly personal.
Violence may be brutish but it isn’t always physical, and it reverberates as much in the mind of the recipient as the body, if not more. Greer’s assertion that the severity of rape is related to the “’susceptibility,” as she would have it, of the victim is an alarming confusion. Rape is severe, and people respond to things differently. As Greer herself points out, communication during sex is of the essence, and so, it should follow, is communication around sex, and rape.
The dismissal of someone’s experience as just “bad” is actively damaging. Survivors’ feelings are theirs to bear, but the weight of the crime is absolutely not. The aftershock of an event that saw their body treated as disposable can be compounded if their feelings later are as well.
There’s less distance than we’d like to acknowledge between the thoughts “I’m making a fuss about nothing,” and “I am nothing.” The unwillingness to take someone seriously could be the difference between trauma that heals, and trauma that doesn’t.
Greer seems to have conflated strength with never having been hurt in the first place - as though the only way to claim ownership of a situation is to say that there is no situation.
Her head is deep in the sand, and offering a poor view of contributions besides her own.