There are moments, significant mostly in hindsight, when a stagnant discourse is rightfully disrupted. A new voice explodes onto the scene, turning conversation on its head, and we’re spun off in a new direction—positive, refreshing, energising.
On Rape, Germaine Greer’s new treatise on consent and sexual violence for Melbourne University Publishing, is unequivocally not that.
Even if I had not laid eyes on the book in a bookshop, nor read even a paragraph of Greer’s printed musings on rape, I would know this, because I know enough about Greer’s views on rape from the past weeks, months, and decades to guess with smug confidence what On Rape would contain between its shiny covers.
You see, just a few months ago I was reporting on Greer’s stance that rape should be reduced to a misdemeanour crime, including the bizarre caveat that rapists should, rather than be jailed or punished in any more traditional sense, simply be tattooed with ‘a small R’ on their hands to signal they have raped. I marvelled, along with legions of other confused individuals online, at Greer’s extraordinary and narrowminded suggestion that rape was just an unpleasant, inconvenient reality of the modern heterosexual relationship. Sharing a bed with a member of the opposite sex? Oh well, better expect—and accept—your lot: a non-consensual sexual experience that you should file away as part and parcel in modern dating.
Bizarre, deeply retrograde and disturbingly lacking in empathy, Greer has long been peddling the view that rape is not as traumatic as all us whinging survivors are making it out to be. She is well-known in consent discourse as a rape trauma denialist, who frequently marvels at the amount of empathy those of us who report on sexual violence extend to its victims. Long-time observers of Greer’s shit-stirring theoretical practice will find this unsurprising. For as far back as The Female Eunuch she has had an alarmingly defeatist view of women’s ability to wrest their own bodily autonomy from the debilitating patriarchal clutches of the penis, and that gender-essentialist male body-worship tracks with her current crusade as a confused kind of rape apologist.
Whatever you think of Greer’s impact on second-wave feminism and the positive effect parts of her earlier works have had on the evolution of women’s liberation, it should shock few people who’ve really paid attention to Greer’s commentary over the decades—and how little it’s been able to adapt and evolve with the times—that her views on consent and sex are confoundingly male-centric and anti-self-determinist.
Nevertheless, MUP commissioned Greer to write a polemic for them to include in their prolific On essay series—which includes works by Katharine Murphy, Sarah Ferguson, Leigh Sales, Don Watson and another by Greer herself, On Rage. And last week it was unleashed on the world to surprisingly little fanfare. Despite one or two satisfyingly scathing reviews, On Rape hasn’t managed to whip up quite the furore that it seemed MUP hoped it would, given Greer’s reputation for courting controversy.
But perhaps that’s because the manner in which Greer has been reintroduced into the discourse on sex, consent and violence in the past few months, simply to promote a book no one asked for and which has been roundly rejected by critics and the public alike in the short week since its launch, has felt so obviously antagonistic it’s become easy to dismiss her contribution as cynical, ill-informed and unserious. Unworthy of further scrutiny.
Last week, The Weekend Australian splashed Greer over the cover of their arts Review section, with an affecting illustration and a title that read: ‘We need to talk about rape’. And over the past few months, since Greer’s controversial appearance at the Hay Festival where she initially aired her musings about reduced sentences for rapists, Greer has been booked at (and then, in some instances, dismissed from) several festivals, tasked with ‘rethinking’ rape and consent. Last Thursday, in fact, she spoke at The School of Life in Melbourne on consent, examining the ‘practical implication’ of her ideas on the subject with a classroom full of eager attendees.
Except, here’s the thing: we’re already talking about rape. We’re already rethinking consent. Slowly, carefully, and more painfully than you could ever imagine, those of us who are invested in ending the global epidemic of sexual violence have been reframing the delicate discourse on rape culture to ask (and answer) difficult questions about the language of consent, the imperfect routes to justice for survivors, and the path to retribution (if there is one) for perpetrators of sexual violence. We are doing the hard yards on this, believe me; so much that it hurts.
I am a survivor, but I need not rip open my trauma wounds to mount a defence against Greer’s negligence; I can just hold a mirror up to her newly-released work. We deserve better than this.
More dedicated theorists and journalists than Greer, with far stronger methodologies than hers, have been ruminating on these subjects—and so publicly it’s baffling for MUP to suggest that her contribution is central to repositioning or redirecting the debate at this crucial stage. It’s not so much that Greer is ‘not allowed’ into the discourse, as she recently objected on Channel Ten’s The Project; more so that she is unwanted, because she brings little of value to the discussion.
Greer is unnecessary in this discourse because she’s ill-informed and isn’t willing to educate herself. A cursory look at how she’s conducted her myriad appearances in the lead up to her book’s release should tell you as much; but if you need more convincing, we can dive right into the first self-serving chapter of On Rape. ‘What Is Rape?’ asks Greer, before answering the question for herself, ‘in the interests of clarity’. ‘The word rape, as used in this essay,’ says Greer, ‘will apply only to penetration of the vagina of an unwilling human female by the penis of a human male. It will not be a portmanteau word into which are tipped sexual assaults of many kinds, involving outrages inflicted with different instruments in different parts of the body.’
Perhaps this is how a book purportedly on the complex subject of rape manages to be a slender 94 pages long, for it rejects so many of the legal definitions of rape accepted by most of the countries Greer uses as her case studies in the nearly incomprehensible work she’s produced. In the US, UK and Australia, for example, rape can occur anally, vaginally and orally, with instruments other than the penis, and can be inflicted on any person (male, female or non-binary) by any person—although we know a vast majority of rapists are male.
Greer’s frustratingly narrow definition of rape acts as a kind of thesis statement for her contribution to the rape discourse: vastly incoherent, regressive and lacking any informed theoretical framework. She even fails to satisfactorily define any of the concepts on which she bases her essay, for instance, what she means by ‘violence’ when she concludes, ‘Rape itself need involve no violence at all. You can rape a sleeping woman without even waking her up.’ I’d wager there are few—if any—victims of forced intercourse who would agree that the act is non-violent, even if it happens while they’re unconscious.
Throughout the book, which contains few threadbare paths of lucid argument onto which a desperate reader can grab and pray it leads them somewhere useful, Greer makes a series of unsubstantiated, unresearched and incorrect assertions about the laws around rape and consent in the West. Lawyer and author Bri Lee demolishes Greer’s legal reasoning astutely in Crikey, where she teases out Greer’s ‘lack of legal knowledge and lack of clarity of expression displayed throughout the entire work’. Lee also highlights an especially egregious misreporting of a legal case—the Luke Lazarus/Saxon Mullins case that has prompted a re-examination of consent laws in NSW. The Australian’s Beejay Silcox spotted another error (among many): the cruel misquoting of Gabrielle Union from her 2016 LA Times op-ed on historical assault cases. Greer seems to have done little to no real research for the book, and MUP has apparently not bothered pushing for her to check her facts.
So much of what Greer says is not just out of touch with current critical discourse on consent and sexual violence, but with the world in general. If we hadn’t been flooded by her appearance on every media platform available of late, I’d wonder if she wrote this buried in a bunker underground, unconnected to the outside world and its forward momentum.
Seriously, where has Greer been for the past ten months, since the Harvey Weinstein scandal reanimated discussions about sexual violence, consent and #MeToo that were initiated by Tarana Burke in 2007? Where has Greer been for the past decade, as television, film, books and theatre have become a showground for carnival horrors of sexual trauma, prompting mass debates about the boundaries between thought-provoking, controversial entertainment and gratuitous torture porn? Where was Greer when the Stanford rape trial made front-page news all over the world, or when the Steubenville High School rape case led us to consider how the media frames perpetrators and victims. Where was she when Anita Hill testified about Clarence Thomas’s alleged sexual harassment in 1991? It rankles somewhat to see how little a celebrated leader of women’s liberation has engaged with some of the most significant battles to dismantle our society’s perilous patriarchal shackles in recent years.
There are so many fronts on which one can build a defence against Greer’s egregiously bad work in On Rape—and the most common one comes from emotional lived experiences. Survivors are irrevocably damaged by Greer’s commentary because it so thoroughly denies (in the same way most rape apologist commentary does) their experience and their trauma. When Greer says most rape isn’t a violent crime, but just ‘lazy, careless’ and ‘bad sex’, she invalidates the deep violence inflicted on survivors whose PTSD is real and painstakingly, irrefutably documented by medical experts. Like all the #MeToo detractors and misogynists who tell survivors sexual violence is ‘not that bad’, Greer is retraumatising these people with her condescension and her frankly embarrassing lack of comprehension.
It’s a conundrum, indeed, how On Rape fails to live up to standard in both its content and expression. What was MUP to do with this manuscript they’d commissioned from Greer: feminist icon, rabble-raiser? It might be a piece of unmitigated crap, but a publisher must sell what they’ve paid for. So it’s easy to see how Louise Adler and co. have concocted this new persona for Greer as the disrupter of the stagnant consent debate. It seems Greer herself believes she is the voice of reason that’s needed to blow apart a discourse that’s going nowhere and helping no one, and MUP has been able to feed Greer’s delusion while shilling her unsellable product on this fallacy. And the more public outcry there is over her outrageous opinions, the more festivals that bow to pressure and disinvite her, the better the whole game looks. However undeservedly it comes about, Greer looks like the misunderstood radical once again.
When I pitched this piece originally, I was a little disgusted by the tedious work I could see MUP and Greer’s publicists doing in her honour to settle her in the margins of consent discourse as an agitator for reason. Disgusted because Greer’s ideas are so detestable and unformed they don’t deserve the kind of privilege she is afforded by the media and a vast portion of the public, simply because she is a high-profile and respected figure of the past (no matter her transgressions of late—and they are indeed egregious).
We give someone like Greer a platform to wax crazy about rape and consent because she’s a ‘feminist’ (debatable) and a woman; but does she deserve that privilege? She does none of the hard work so many of us do to understand and evolve this critical discussion around consent—work that costs many of us our sanity because it is so difficult and destructive. She does so little to engage with the actual facts of the matter at hand. Why does she get a seat at the table?
So it’s somewhat relieving now to see how little people cared about the release of On Rape, once it actually came down to it. Yes, Greer got her enormous platform: spotlights on, cameras trained on her and microphone set to decibel level *destroy all eardrums*. But the work itself, now it’s out in the world, seems to have slipped past our notice.
So, yes, let’s talk about rape; let’s keep talking about rape. It’s a difficult but crucial discussion we must have to evolve our broken culture. But we don’t need to make this work—or this woman—a part of it.
Matilda Dixon-Smith is a freelance journalist and cultural critic from Melbourne. She tweets from @mdixonsmith.