Germaine Greer’s On Rape ends up trivialising rape and offering only meagre legal solutions that do nothing to tackle the system of sexist oppression, writes Lucy Honan

The rape and murder of Palestinian exchange student Aiia Maasarwe in Melbourne has seen an outpouring of outrage, grief and bewilderment made worse by the fact that it is only a few months since the rape and murder of Eurydice Dixon in the same city.

The attack has stimulated more discussion about the causes of rape and violence against women.

The shock of the very public attack hides the reality that the vast majority of sexual violence against women is perpetrated by someone they know—70 per cent by a partner or ex-partner. Strangers are responsible for only 1 per cent of sexual assaults.

Something is fundamentally wrong with a society that produces such sexism and violence.

On Rape attempts to unravel some knots in feminist anti-rape politics. Greer opens a discussion on the scale and damage of unwanted sex women endure, and the epic failure of our society to understand rape, let alone end it.

What is rape?

Ultimately though, her book is no help. Greer does not break out of the feminist politics where rape is an “evil” that men use as a weapon against women, and her solutions are meagre legal fixes.

It takes an analysis not just of relations between men and women, but class relations under capitalism, to understand what rape is about and how we can end it.

Greer points out how loaded with baggage and confusion the general understanding of rape is, and she tries to cut through the “clear as mud” mess. Unfortunately, her understanding is even murkier and she trivialises rape in the process.

To start with, Greer “declutters” the term rape to make it, for her purposes, exclusively instances of men penetrating women’s vaginas with their penises. Having ruled male, child and transgender victims and the use of objects out of her analysis, Greer nonetheless thinks a far greater number of men are guilty of rape than the small percentage estimated by rape crisis centres.

She asserts that “non-consensual sex is commoner than deep communion between male and female”, and that “rape is a jagged outcrop in the vast monotonous landscape of bad sex”, implying that most men rape women, or at the very least, are on a continuum with rapists.

It is important to recognise the scale and impact of callous, alienating sex that women are enduring.

The #MeToo movement has thrown up countless case studies of sex that is violating and coerced. Some feminists have called this “grey rape”, while Greer creates her own category of “banal rape” for when a man has sex with a woman without concern that she is not into it and does not want it.

She gives examples of sex husbands have with wives that is begrudging and corrosive to the self-esteem of victims, and alienating to both parties.

But Greer’s analysis risks making rape itself mean nothing other than women’s reports of sexual discordance with men.

Collapsing these different categories of alienated sex into rape does not help us understand why some men “misperceive women’s reactions during sex” as Greer puts it, and why others correctly perceive their reactions and deliberately force sex; or why still others are not guilty of either.

Significantly, Greer wants to remove the relevance of a man’s will (and even to some extent, women’s will); their understanding and intentions in sex.

For Greer, as with much feminist analysis, men are still captive to a biological drive: “because the penis gives them so much pleasure, it is difficult for them to imagine that it is not doing anything for the recipient of their attentions.” And on a wider level, men and women are characterised as snared in a sexual culture that “may well be doomed” to rape.  

Is rape a cultural construct?

Greer ends up undermining even women’s testimony of rape by making rape and sex a matter of interpretation. Her emphasis on the “ordinariness” of what she includes as rape, combined with a reductive focus on male and female genitals, descends into a downplaying of the trauma of rape.

Greer cannot fathom a victim impact statement that describes a woman’s rapist taking away her self-worth, privacy, energy, time, intimacy, confidence and voice: “why should a sexual assault take away these precious, intangible things?”

Greer’s view is that women should not hold penises as any special instruments of damage, “an elbow, a thumb even can do you more harm” than a penis, and she reminds us that no one respects vaginas much anyway.

That lack of respect is blatantly obvious when the President of the United States can brag about grabbing pussies, or think that dismissing this at locker-room talk makes it acceptable.

But her implication is that women should not be so precious either. She chastises women for fearing rape, “most of us are in greater danger of being mugged than raped, but we are not aware of mugging as an ever present danger”.

But rape does not exist only in the world of ideas. The deliberate violation of a person’s sexuality is both a subjective and objective event.

There is a difference in quality between rape and non-sexual assault by thumb. People can express sexuality in vastly different ways. But sexuality remains a fundamentally distinct, and particularly intimate, aspect of our humanity, which can be disrespected and violated. Denying the independent existence of women’s sexual desires and autonomy will certainly not help end rape.

Recent Canadian research has also contradicted the long-argued feminist position that rape is a way of men exercising power over women, rather than about sex.

They found it is an indifference to “expression of refusal and displeasure”, not violence per se, that was a better explanation of rapists’ behaviour. 

Nor can we disconnect rape from the real social forces that create the dynamics of sexism and oppression that condition our lives, including our sex lives.

“Solutions” that focus on the way rape or consent is discussed, or how we negotiate our own personal relationships, cannot address the objective social conditions of oppression that make rape such an intransigent and predictable factor of life for many women under capitalism.

For Marxists, the unit of analysis for rape is not relations between men and women, or cultural ideas of sex, but the entire class relations of the society.

Under capitalism, women’s oppression in the family and the commodification of women’s sexuality, combined with social deprivation, create the conditions for rape.

Gender roles in the family

In Australia, gender roles in the nuclear family have undergone significant change since the 1950s, including women’s increased contribution to and control over family income.

But pay inequality, the privatised model of childcare, and tax and parenting payments that punish single women, still perpetuate social inequality and the traditional role of women as responsible for the burden of caring for children and domestic labour.

Media moguls and corporate advertisers use sex to sell anything and everything as they buttress and normalise traditional gender roles and inequality with sexist media. Magazines advise on how to be a “hot wife”, shareable columns provide 20 reasons to have sex with your husband even when you don’t feel like it.

Women are still represented as sexual objects to be obtained for permanent ownership and sexual control by men.

When sex is pervasively portrayed as a commodity, it is not surprising that some men “take” it.

What can we do about rape?

Greer’s trivialisation of rape contributes nothing to the fight against women’s oppression.

Alongside the scale of the coercive sex relationships that she describes, her solutions are pathetically constrained. Reducing sentences for rapists to encourage more convictions presumes the courts could have a role in dealing with rape.

Yet the prevailing social attitudes, and those of the police in particular, mean that most complaints of sexual assault don’t even get to court, and when they do, so often, it is the women who are on trial.

Women should be safe at home, at work, on the street. Rape is one symptom of a sexist society that creates the conditions for rape.

There is a very strong correlation between poverty and rape. It is a risk factor for both perpetrators and victims of rape, which is a compelling reason to see the fight against unemployment as part of the fight against rape.

The struggle to end rape is not a struggle of women against men and cannot be reduced to a struggle against male behavior. The individual acts of violence against women are embedded in a class society that systematically subordinates women; to end rape we have to end that system.

It is only in 2019 that Queensland has legislated to make it mandatory for state schools to offer pants or shorts for female students.

But across the country, private schools, including all-girls schools, are resisting the move.

Female bar staff at Perth’s Amplifier Bar have just won their fight against a boss who wanted them to wear low-cut t-shirts at work.

We are not doomed to patterns of rape. Ideas change in struggle, and women and men have a common interest to struggle against women’s oppression and the system that sustains it.

Every challenge to discrimination and sexist gender roles is a challenge to the prevailing system.

It will be women and men fighting together for union rights, equal pay, for job security against casualisation, and in campaigns for free childcare, and equal access to education that help to lay the basis to overthrow the society which creates the conditions for rape and sexual violence.

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