Perhaps the first serious, scholarly book I ever read for pleasure, rather than as part of a syllabus, was The Female Eunuch. I can’t remember now how I came across a copy or who recommended it to me, but I most certainly can remember the experience of reading it; I had never thought about my place in the world, my life choices as a woman or my body in those terms before. I had never thought there was another way of thinking about these things, to be honest, and I knew instantly that this book was dangerous in my small ‘c’ conservative, large ‘C’ Catholic home. I read it mainly in the library when I was at college or when I was alone in my room, and certainly never dared to leave a copy lying around the house where my parents might find it. Apart from its primary message of female liberation, I was struck by the tone of self-acceptance, of sisterly encouragement and the remarkable idea that we as women can be ‘good enough’ entirely on our own terms. As the kind of teenager who was crippled with shyness, hamstrung by feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and self-hatred, and who was sure she would never measure up to the standards of beauty displayed on TV and in magazines all around her, it was truly astonishing and empowering for me to read lines such as
“Status ought not to be measured by a woman’s ability to attract and snare a man.”
This book made me a feminist, without a doubt, but it also made me a kinder and more open-minded person too, I think; less likely to judge others by what passes for society’s standards relating to beauty, conduct, achievements or creativity, and more likely to seek out and listen to different and dissenting opinions from all sources.
Iconoclasm has always been one of Germaine Greer’s unique selling points, and of course a degree of this is necessary if any changes in society are ever to occur. For any change at all to happen, someone has to start by thinking the unthinkable, saying the previously unsayable and giving confident and articulate voice to unpopular opinions. Dr Greer has done this all her life, and while I have often disagreed with what she is saying, I have mostly admired her willingness to tackle difficult subjects. Over the years, it has been inspiring to hear her confident delivery of and navigation through problematic issues, particularly in a media world which hasn’t exactly been overburdened with eminent and articulate academic women. If I’ve ever previously thought that what she was saying was nonsense, well, so what? It would be a dull world if everyone cleaved to the same orthodoxy, wouldn’t it? And besides, where is the harm in listening to differing points of view? Surely that’s how we learn and progress?
But not this time. Not this time.
Speaking at the Hay literary festival this week, Dr Greer called for the lowering of punishment for rape, saying that it should be mostly viewed as “careless and insensitive” rather than as a violent crime. Warming to her theme, she said some rapes are just “lazy” and that the penalties for some rapes should be lowered. She suggested perhaps tattooing an ‘R’ on the hand, arm or cheek of rapists, and that community service would be an adequate and appropriate penalty. She also downplayed the trauma suffered by rape survivors, saying she doubted that the figures saying 70% of survivors suffer from PTSD are correct.
While it is worth bearing in mind that she was primarily speaking at the festival to promote her forthcoming book ‘On Rape’, and presumably believes that all publicity is good publicity, it is also likely that these views are included in the book itself. It is therefore almost certain that this conversation is a distillation of her real views, rather than just self-consciously controversial opinions dreamed up specifically to grab the headlines.
She is right, of course to start a discussion about how the current judicial system is failing when it comes to rape. Here are some 2017 England and Wales statistics illustrate the scale of the problem:
• 1 in 5 women aged 16 – 59 has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16
• Only around 15% of those who experience sexual violence choose to report to the police
• Approximately 85,000 women and 12,000 men are raped in England and Wales alone every year; that’s roughly 11 rapes (of adults alone) every hour
• Only 5.7% of reported rape cases end in a conviction for the perpetrator
• Around 80% of murders in the UK result in convictions
However, I cannot fathom how she thinks that the way to fix this appalling state of affairs is to minimise the crime itself, and trivialise the experience of the survivors. Blurring the lines like this is dangerous. Rape is never about bad manners, laziness or insensitivity. Rape is always an assault against and invasion of the person, and by ‘the person’ I of course mean your body. Someone physically invading your space in the most intimate way possible without your consent is an attack on your physical autonomy, whether accompanied by physical violence or not, and is always, always an abuse of power. It is worth repeating at this point that rape is always about power, and frequently about humiliation, and never about desire or lust alone. Men rape essentially because they can. Because they are stronger and more powerful than the survivor, and feel entitled to exercise that power to take what they want, when they want it.
The one characteristic shared by all the laughably few convicted rapists in this country (and presumably everywhere else) is denial. While some degree of remorse, and acceptance of culpability is necessary for most other prisoners before they can be considered for parole, this does not seem to happen with rapists. They can seemingly return to the town where their crime was committed on completion of their sentence, still denying that a) it was rape b) it was them or c) both of the above. This being the case, how on earth does Dr Greer think her remarks will be received by these men? Warmly, I would guess, as they will surely add her incendiary opinions as evidence to justify their warped narrative of events by adding d) it was no big deal anyway, so why the big fuss? to what passes for their worldview.
Dr Greer is a noted academic, a world-famous writer and broadcaster, and probably one of the world’s most celebrated feminists. She does not and never has claimed to speak for all women, but her position of prominence carries with it real responsibility for her words, and their message, and I cannot believe that she does not understand this. What she has said this week is dangerous, disingenuous, damaging, divisive and disgraceful; if it has been said with one eye on the headlines, it is also desperate. I never did believe in bra burning – neither did she, to be fair – and certainly would never advocate book burning, but that charring smell I can now scent is the bonfire of her reputation. She has forfeited the right to be taken seriously as a commentator by voicing these crass, insensitive and wrong-headed opinions, and I will never give credence or respect to a word she utters or writes again.