Inside Story

On listening

Books | Germaine Greer has always been sharper as a critic than as a proponent of solutions

Sara Dowse 14 September 2018 1368 words

Times have changed: Germaine Greer at the 2018 Hay Festival in May. Aled Llywelyn/Alamy Stock Photo

On Rape
By Germaine Greer | Melbourne University Press | $14.95 | 84 pages

Fools rush in, and here I am. Responding to this essay risks detonating two highly explosive elements — the author herself and what she has chosen for her subject. For close on half a century, Germaine Greer has been feminism’s most famous, if sometimes most exasperating, polemicist; as a focus of feminist grievance, rape has proved the most intractable, the least amenable to a just solution. Combined, they’re dynamite.

Greer’s fame began with the 1970 publication of The Female Eunuch, one of three influential English texts that rode high on the crest of feminism’s second wave. The other two were Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics and Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, and all three owed a debt to Simone de Beauvoir’s monumental The Second Sex, which had burst on the scene two decades earlier and found its way into English soon after.

After Millett, Greer and Firestone came the deluge; the seventies and eighties saw so many feminist works appear that women’s bookshops popped up everywhere, and in mainstream bookshops whole shelves were reserved for women’s studies. All of this died down when the movement lost most of its radical edge and the media declared the beginning of the “post-feminist” era.

It was the media that made Greer, as much as Greer, for many, made feminism. To put it succinctly, The Female Eunuch alerted millions of women to men’s raw hatred of them. Until Greer spelled it out for us, many were inclined to believe that our grievances could be overcome by all the usual instruments in the armoury. We could march, we could petition, we could argue patiently and reasonably. But there it was in black and white: it wasn’t mere discrimination that was holding us back, but a culture built on centuries of misogyny. And this was not only an assertion to inflame the hearts of women; it set millions of men, particularly in academia and the media, stumbling on their back feet. It demanded rebuttal.

But people who weren’t around at the time may not appreciate just how exciting Greer was to the very men who had most to lose by her exposure. She shone in the public arena; not only was she witty, outrageous and learned, she was astonishingly beautiful. She certainly wasn’t alone in identifying the patriarchy and examining the extent of misogyny, but she operated as an individual, rarely if ever as part of what was already a galvanised and organised women’s movement.

And while The Female Eunuch unearthed the depth of the problem, her solution was rather fatuous, not to say suspect. For women who persisted in having children while entertaining ambitions for themselves, her advice was to hire Italian women for nannies. In other words, as a diagnostician and spokesperson for the cause she could be brilliant, but as a serious agent for change she had her limitations.

So, to her chosen subject: rape. In On Rape, Greer begins with the word’s origin in the capture of women in wartime and traces how it evolved into what it means now. At least she tries to, and in trying, she demonstrates all too clearly that there is no universally accepted legal definition. In some jurisdictions, it involves unwanted insertion of a penis into a vagina; in others, any object will do, as will other orifices. For her own argument’s sake, she limits it to non-consensual penile penetration of the vagina, but here again there’s trouble. What is consent? How is it determined? What are the values and assumptions that inform the police and juridical procedures that hold out the promise of justice for a victim but scarcely ever deliver?

As in her earlier works, no one better explores the many conundrums thrown up by what she has called the patriarchate. Take the issue of consent. Rape, as a crime, hinges on it. But how is the accused to know that his victim has not consented? The rituals of mating are said to include resistance. No means no. But how is the court to interpret a potential victim, intoxicated or not, entering a situation in which it is reasonable for the accused to assume there was consent? In a courtroom, the state has to prove, beyond doubt, that consent was not given.

Likewise with resistance. If the woman, fearing for her life, takes the safest of options by submitting, is this not a rape? Our courts, like our parliaments, are adversarial by nature and thus are demonstrably ill-equipped to provide redress for victims, who are not the plaintiffs in criminal prosecutions but merely constitute the evidence. And all this when there are usually only two witnesses, the rapist and his victim.

If rape is accompanied by violence, there is a better chance of conviction. But isn’t rape ipso facto violent? In Greer’s view, it isn’t. To support this contention she cites penetration while the victim is asleep, according to her a widespread occurrence that women still put up with. She finds this and other forms of non-consensual intercourse within partnerships most disturbing of all. “Heterosex may well be doomed,” she writes, by the lack of love characterising far too many heterosexual unions. Instead of “having sex,” she notes, we used to “make love.”

And yet, while Greer builds her case about the difficulties victims face, and why so few rapes are reported, and why so few of those ever get to court, and why fewer still end in a conviction, nowhere in this essay does she expressly call for reducing penalties as a way of ensuring more convictions, as she has in public discussions. Her contribution here is in exploring the issues, not in proposing policies, though some are clearly implied.

But times have changed, and for a younger generation in today’s resurgent feminism, Greer offers little that is new but a lot to find infuriating. They have their own form of outrage, and are fighting for genuine redress. What may seem to Greer as having reached a kind of wisdom, noting the persistence of patriarchal institutions and the ramping up of their virulence while lamenting most of all the lovelessness in heterosexual relationships, can seem in the light of the #MeToo movement a shocking cop-out.

What to do, then? So much has been tried and found wanting. We have sexual response units in police departments; some jurisdictions have abandoned the specific crime of rape, positioning it at the more serious end of a spectrum of sexual assaults; some victims have resorted to civil suits, where the evidentiary requirements aren’t as demanding as they are in criminal trials and the questioning of victims may not be as harrowing. Yet rapes are still committed and go largely unpunished.

Some of the reforms have taken a different tack, with mediation and restoration programs where victims can confront their rapists. It is here, Greer suggests, that women may find true redress: “Amid the insoluble inconsistencies in the law of rape one thing is becoming clear. Women are claiming the right to denounce their assailant. In a criminal trial they don’t get the chance to demonstrate to the perpetrator how he has wronged them.”

Being listened to. Finally listened to. Greer quotes victims who speak of the profound healing they gained through directly confronting their assailants. It is in such settings that women can relieve themselves once and for all of the burden of rape’s humiliation. For that may well be at the bottom of it. Whether violent or not, rape, as Greer says, is an outrage, a source of confusion and long-lasting shame. And though she does not take the idea any further, it’s occurred to me that rape is not the only issue demanding this kind of restoration. We’ve needed it in cases of child abuse. We need it now for the women bullied in our parliaments; above all, for Indigenous people in their call for a Makarrata. Such truth-telling will never provide full justice itself, but it’s always a necessary start.

Being listened to. How many times have our law-makers heard the demand, but not bothered to listen? ●