14:02, September 06 104 0 theguardian.com

2018-09-06 14:02:28
Germaine Greer's On Rape: provocative, victim-shaming, compelling, ambivalent

“What distinguishes the crime of rape from other assaults is the insoluble conundrum of consent.” So writes the feminist provocateur Germaine Greer in a small book, On Rape, that caused considerable fuss before it was published.

The reason was a few remarks pre-publication. Rape was often not a “spectacularly violent crime”, Greer said at the Hay literary festival, but more often than not, “lazy, careless and insensitive”. She distinguished between “violent” rape that caused physical injury and everyday, banal rape that often did not. Greer’s views were dismissed as offensive and outdated.

Her essay published by Melbourne University Press is more nuanced. Greer focuses on male rape of women and points out that it is not an unusual crime but a common one. Perpetrators are rarely “monsters”; usually the victim knows the assailant, and may not perceive the assault as rape at all.

“Non-consensual sex is banal and deeply ordinary but that is not to say that is not an evil,” Greer writes. She critiques the narrative that suggests raped women “are irrevocably damaged in soul and body, but that if they do not acknowledge this they are in denial ... the victim who takes over her narrative becomes a survivor”.

Greer argues that it is impossible for victims to get justice through a system that requires the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt that consent was absent, and in which only a tiny proportion of rapists are punished.

“While the law insists that while there is the smallest possibility that the perpetrator genuinely believed that his victim consented to her humiliation, he must be cleared of all charges, assailants will be reassured that they are practically certain to get away with rape.”

Greer suggests some ideas for change. She speaks favourably of women using technology to name perpetrators and to warn other women against serial assailants, especially on university campuses. She suggests that, if we want to rely on the victim’s statement that she did not give consent as sufficient – and not insist on a beyond reasonable doubt standard – then sentences for rape could be reduced to recognise a lower standard of proof. “It is the savagery of the sentence that pushes juries toward extending the benefit of the doubt.”

Guardian Australia asked four people to read the book and respond.

Carolyn Worth is the manager of South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault in Melbourne and the head of an anonymous reporting pilot program that is discussed in On Rape:

On Rape is provocative and erudite, wide-ranging and well-researched. Does it relate to the reality of sexual assault services in Victoria, which is the service sector I understand? Probably not. The advance publicity for the essay caused considerable distress among some of our clients, who only heard that there should be reduced sentences for rape. I responded with: “Wait to read the whole essay and then let’s discuss it.”

The majority of women, men and children are unlikely to read it and hence will not appreciate the well-turned phrase, the smart comments or the time that has gone into the research.

It is difficult when you are fighting for change to have an overview of what is happening. This essay is a good overview. Explanation and promotion of the fact that rape can cause great psychological distress to some people is valuable and needed. But, as Greer points out, when this communication slides into “everyone is irreparably damaged by rape”, it is not helpful because it is not true.

Her description of the use of technology to track and call out serial offenders is positive. Technology is neutral, so let us use it against the trolls and serial offenders. This is the modern, high-tech version of the old spray painting of slogans.

The South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault has an anonymous reporting, mobile-friendly website called sexual assault report anonymously (Sara). Women break their silence anonymously and half of them will then decide to report to police or attend counselling. This is Greer’s “victim who takes over her narrative to become a survivor”.

Are changes needed? Yes, they are. Has Greer started the conversation about specific changes that might assist in making life easier for rape victims? She has, and for that we should be grateful. Her essay is a provocative discussion that will assist in breaking the silence around legislative penalties, court processes, decisions to not report and what aids recovery. Read it and let us talk some more.

Lucia Osborne-Crowley is a journalist and writer. Her first book, about trauma and recovery, will be published in 2019:

Germaine Greer has made a name for herself as a feminist scholar but the ideas in this book are profoundly out of step with current thinking about sexual violence, trauma and recovery.

It’s a work of nonfiction but is based on the greatest fiction of all: that women are responsible for preventing the invasion of their bodily autonomy by men.

Her response to the under-reporting and low conviction rates for rape, as far as I can tell, is to accept rape as “part of the psychopathology of everyday life”. I am not willing to throw in the towel just yet. The answer is not to simply put rape in the societal “too hard” basket, force women to take responsibility for their own safety, and blame them when they fail to do so.

Greer tells stories of those who, in her worldview, constitute model victims. She praises a rape victim who is assaulted by her husband at a “country party” for staying with him and creating a family with multiple grandchildren. She lauds victims who “take control of their own narrative”.

On the other hand, she shames the victims who allow themselves to be deeply affected by rape and who live with its lasting effects. On this point, she makes comments like, “Why are women afraid of rape?,” describes women’s fear of men’s genitalia as “irrational” and notes that most rape is “not something that anyone but the participants can prevent”.

As a survivor of sexual assault who has been irrevocably damaged by the experience, it seems I would fall into the category of victims of whom Greer disapproves. I didn’t simply “get over it”. In fact, I am writing a book about the disastrous physical and psychological effects of trauma when it is held in the body, untreated and unrecognised, for many years. Even if one tries, as Greer seems to suggest, to get over it, the body keeps the score.

Perhaps Greer would give me some credit for “taking control of my narrative”. But the only reason I was able to do so is because I am a privileged woman with access to enough stability and income to spend more each week on specialists than I do on my rent. That does not make me a good survivor, it just makes me profoundly lucky.

When reading Greer’s work, I instinctively felt the shame she was ascribing to me as an imperfect victim. But now I am handing it back. It is not my shame. I don’t deserve it; none of us do.

Jane Gilmore is a journalist and writer. Her book based on the FixedIt project about media representation of women will be published in 2019:

Germaine Greer is better at nuance in her writing than in her public speech. At the Hay festival, Greer described rape as more likely to be “lazy, careless and insensitive” than “spectacularly violent”.

On Rape provides more subtleties than this bald statement. As she points out, rape often occurs without visible injuries, is rarely the stereotypical violent assault by a stranger, but is “always an evil”.

As Greer says , far too often the woman herself is unable to identify what happened as rape when the rapist is a man she knows and perhaps even loves. Not because she wasn’t violated – she most definitely was – but because women are accustomed to uncaring behaviour from men, and men are trained to dismiss empathy and thoughtfulness as unmanly.

Greer describes it as the contested ground of “giving in or giving consent” and presents a compelling argument about the conflict this presents for a criminal justice underpinned by the principles of a presumption of innocence and proof of guilt beyond reasonable doubt.

Women who have given in but not consented may not necessarily experience this rape as trauma but, as Greer says, they will always suffer damage. Perhaps part of their confusion is that this is not the narrative we give to rape victims.

Greer’s efforts to demystify rape and explore the wide variety of circumstances and responses to rape is not doing victims a disservice. It opens discussion to include women who aren’t sure they’ve been raped but do know they’ve been dehumanised by partners who treated sex as an entitlement.

Her greatest failing might not be in the concepts she’s presenting but in her inability to explain herself to a generation which understands the power of words to cause harm and is fearless in its rejection of careless language. The obligation is always on the writer to convey meaning, not the reader to interpret ill-expressed ideas.

Tim Marsh is a criminal lawyer and Victoria Legal Aid’s chief counsel:

Every so often, a rape will shock the public conscience: the rape and murder of the journalist Jill Meagher in Melbourne in 2012 looms large. But the reality is the vast majority of rapes prosecuted in our courts are far more complex. Victims know their assailants; perhaps some of the sexual activity was consensual and some not; perhaps one or more of the parties was drug-affected or drunk – the latter being of particular significance when the essence of the offence is proving the contents of one person’s mind (lack of consent) and the knowledge, by another person, of such an absence. These crimes go largely unreported in the news media; they remain firmly in the private, not public realm.

Greer recognises this complexity. Indeed, her opening paragraphs are an attempt to carve the complexity of rape down to a more manageable size. She boldly states that she will “declutter” the category of rape down to just the penetration of a vagina by a penis. In doing so, she swims against the current of modern law reform, which has recognised the myriad ways in which a rape can occur.

Having cut the Gordian knot in her first pages, Greer spends the bulk of her book tying it back together in at least as complex a snarl. In doing so, she implicitly poses the question why – when rape encompasses such a wide variety of human circumstances and interactions – do we assume that the method of redress (the criminal trial) and the punishment (increasingly long jail terms) should be the only answer?

Greer acknowledges as much when she speculates that, when faced with the complexity of the decision they are required to make and the knowledge of the likely outcome for the accused, juries struggle to return guilty verdicts. I suspect another factor is at work. Rape, as a species of offending, is almost unique in that the perpetrator and victim are invariably the only witnesses to what occurred. Forensic evidence, while ubiquitous, is unhelpfully mute on the issue of consent and knowledge of consent.

Alternative methods of redressing the harm of rape have been trialled in some jurisdictions. Greer nods to the restorative justice approach, while noting that it is entirely contingent on the willingness of the perpetrator to accept responsibility.

Ultimately, On Rape is provocative and thought-provoking but its fundamental ambivalence is dissatisfying. Greer repeatedly sacrifices complexity of analysis to further her argument, eliding much of the detail of ways in which rape and other forms of sexual assault cause significant harm to their victims. When faced with the choice between developing an argument or finishing with a bon mot, Greer consistently defaults to the latter.

That said, it’s difficult to avoid the force of her central argument: that the laws we create to serve our society are doing a poor job at recognising the complexity of how men harm women, and an even poorer job at remedying that harm.

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