by Steff Humm. Steff is a writer and freelance editor based in Nottingham, UK. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of Ink, a digital magazine about comics and their social context, and is working towards her PhD in critical theory and cultural studies at the University of Nottingham. // CW: discussions of rape and sexual violence.
The headlines all say the same thing so it doesn’t matter where we read it. “Germaine Greer calls for punishment for rape to be reduced.” And it’s true, she did suggest that. But she also, technically, didn’t.
It’s unlikely that Greer is expecting to be defended on this. She’s been radically controversial for her entire public life, and seems to court the rage of everyone—like a second-wave Katie Hopkins—wherever she can get it. She has been on our bad side before—will be again, when her book about this topic comes out—and will not receive pro bono representation here to say whatever offensive thing she pleases.
But! But. If we’re going to throw words at a person, condemn and shame them and call them a bad feminist, we first need to understand the difference between what they said and how it was interpreted and distributed. Even if her main goal in stating that rape is often more annoying than destructive was to trend on Twitter for a day, which even the most outraged of us can assume it wasn’t, that doesn’t mean that her entire argument should be dismissed because the pull quotes are unpleasant and titillating.
Some disclaimers, before we begin. The first: I know very little of Greer’s work beyond vague notions of bra burning and her criticisms of the #MeToo movement. I have a copy of The Female Eunuch, which had been standing untouched on my “important feminist texts” shelf for two years until the evening after her talk at Hay when, having been isolated from the news all day by work, a thought about another essay I’m writing led me to its garish pink cover and persuaded me to carry it downstairs. I read the introduction, mentioned it to my partner, and found out from him that she’d been “in a bit of trouble” that day.
The second: rape is a persistent and systemic problem in our society. It should never be condoned or taken lightly. I know this in the way that all women know this.
The third: I was not at the Hay festival and did not witness the event. Like most of the people talking about it, my information is gathered and interpreted from news stories.
So. At this year’s Hay festival, famed second-wave feminist Germaine Greer was scheduled to give a talk about rape at 2:30 in the afternoon. And give a talk she did. The online programme for the event contextualises the subject by reminding us that “bestial or banal, a proven rape may carry a prison sentence of many years, even life, but very few rapes ever find their way into a court of law. The prosecution of a selected minority of cases seldom results in a conviction.”
“Most rapes don’t involve any injury whatsoever.” Greer said this, and seemingly every paper in the country quoted her saying it. It looks bad. Of course it does. Insensitive, shaming and cruel. If taken literally.
The talk at Hay was a promotional one, as most things are, to discuss the idea behind Greer’s upcoming book On Rape, which will be released in September this year. To a reportedly “silent” crowd, she explained that the justice system for rape cases doesn’t work. “The only result of desperate attempts to apportion blame and enact chastisement has been an erosion of the civil rights of the accused,” says the copy on the Hay Festival’s website, which may or may not have been written by Greer but catches her sentiments more accurately than The Guardian article from which I am quoting.
In summary, Greer is arguing that the current litigation for rape is a no-win situation in which the perpetrators are rarely punished but the survivors are, by the trauma of giving evidence (becoming “bits of evidence” as Greer puts it) and their experience being denied by a patriarchy that refuses to listen to women. “Why not believe the woman and lower the penalty?” she asks.
The point is that criminal trials for sexual assault contribute to the rape culture in which we live, by demanding evidence that can’t necessarily be obtained (consider the trials that take place decades after the offence) and effectively punish women for speaking up. By lowering the penalty for rape, Greer argues, it will be easier to actually convict the rapists.
We don’t have to agree with her on her proposed solution, but the overall debate warrants a conversation. It’s part of a larger topic that is already being considered by people who recognise that the justice system is, as Margaret Atwood put it in her 2015 essay We are double-plus unfree, “a gizmo for creating more criminals”:
“Shorn of its short-lived idealism – no longer a reformatory where criminals are to be reformed, no longer a penitentiary where they are to repent – it has become a warehouse where people are stashed. In its for-profit mode, it has also become a gizmo for creating more criminals, all the better to fill its available slots and extract money from taxpayers to foot the bill for it.”
We can all, even Germaine Greer, agree that all rape is wrong. Most perpetrators would probably say the same, and mean it. Because there is a distinction between the kind of violent rape that can result in bruises, vaginal lacerations, severe wounds that may require surgery, or even death, and the kind that Greer described as “every time a man rolls over on his exhausted wife and insists on enjoying his conjugal rights”. These are by no means the only possible outcomes. There are hundreds of other kinds of rape, of which organisations like the Everyday Sexism Project try to raise awareness.
The organisation’s founder, Laura Bates, responded to Greer’s talk by writing: “The decision to penetrate somebody’s body without their consent is a violent act, whether or not physical violence is involved. It doesn’t happen by accident.” She’s right. Every act of rape is wrong— is an extreme violation of human rights—but they are not all “violent” in the way the law understands the term.
It’s an important distinction, because we inherently know that the punishment for a case where a woman is stalked and threatened and beaten and forcibly penetrated and torn apart will never be the same as those of persuasion, coercion, feelings of duty, or muddled consent, and nor should they be. As with many things in life, each situation is different, and the harm it does to a person is entirely individual, which is why Greer also said “most rape is just lazy, just careless, insensitive”. Why she said “Most rapes don’t involve any injury whatsoever.”
Of all the rapes that happen—and they happen every minute of every day, have happened to almost every woman with whom I’ve discussed this—the majority are not violent by definition of the law. Even this fortified patriarchy could not support that type of epidemic. When Greer says they don’t involve injury, she means physically. And she means this because her own feminism, and probably her past experience of rape when she was a teenager, requires her to say that “a man can’t kill you with his penis”. Psychologically, she says, men can’t touch her. And her fundamental crime with this sentence is the assumption that she is right in contexts beyond her own life.
It seems clear to me that Greer’s view is that violent rape should be categorised with other violent crimes. It is assault and battery. Perhaps even attempted murder. Sometimes further. These are serious criminal offences, which no-one—even, I think, Greer—is suggesting shouldn’t be punished to the full extent of the law. But, separate from those attacks, she says:
“Instead of thinking of rape as a spectacularly violent crime, and some rapes are, think about it as non-consensual … that is bad sex. Sex where there is no communication, no tenderness, no mention of love.”
This quote, while indelicate, highlights that her overall points are about semantics and justice. Again, her solution has several obvious flaws, and we can debate about how far she thought realistically about the suggestions she made before stating her alternatives to “a prison sentence of many years”. Community service for 200 hours seems benign from the representations we see on TV. In The Gilmore Girls, Rory received 300 hours just for temporarily stealing a boat.
Her other suggestion was branding the perp for life with an “r” on the hand, arm or cheek. It’s interesting that she talks about the erosion of civil rights while suggesting that someone be permanently marked by their crime. Even the shitty justice system we have now allows for the chance that people might be reformed and returned to society and a productive life (although its failure in many cases to aid in that chance is another spin-off conversation).
From this, we can tell that Greer’s ideas about reforming the justice system surrounding assault are in the most embryonic of days, new book or no. On top of that, her entire argument is predicated on the idea that the “humiliation” of being discredited within the current structure of legal processes “must be even worse than rape”.
Consider that, within Greer’s own definition, almost every sexually active woman has undergone some kind of non-consensual sexual activity, whether by assault, Greer’s rolling husband example, or anywhere in between. The thought makes her position more shocking but also more within conscious reach. For those of us lucky enough to have only dealt with the rolling husband or an equivalent, that humiliation might seem worse. But again, Greer’s fundamental error is her tactless assumption that everyone does, or should, match her position.
“Germaine Greer calls for punishment for rape to be reduced.” It’s clearly not the whole story, which is a failing of those who wrote it down. But it is what she said and, semantics and intentions aside, it has caused legitimate pain. What is clear from the controversy, and its coverage, is that this conversation is something of a beginning; a public reminder that the issue of non-consent runs deep.
By blowing it out of proportion many of the journalists writing about Greer’s problematic delivery have, in this case, inadvertently supported rape culture by losing in the debris the necessary conversation contained within it. That the legal processes surrounding rape, which are supposed to protect us, require and deserve sensitivity, but also action.