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'Giving in': Germaine Greer on non-consensual sex
Germaine Greer is no stranger to controversy. In fact, some have gone as far as to suggest that she has now gone from a feminist firebrand to a professional troll.
Most recently, Greer's comments on sexual violence, which some described as "glib, ill-informed and potentially dangerous" landed her in hot water. But is there a chance that her comments were misunderstood because of her provocative communication style? Associate Professor Mary Walsh takes a look.
“Having a conversation is better than not having one at all, however you say that, and I quote, ‘Most rapes don’t involve any injury at all.’ Are you saying that being violated physically doesn’t come with any mental anguish? Anguish that can scar a woman, a man, a girl or a boy for life?”
This question from an audience member directed at the controversial author Germaine Greer on a recent Q&A panel ‘Rape, Racism and No-Platforming’ sets the scene for the conversation on non-consensual rape, and demonstrates the confusion over the main argument in Greer’s controversial new essay On Rape.
However, nowhere in her essay does Greer say this. What she does say is “rape itself need involve no violence at all”. One of Greer’s problems, however, is her trademark distinctive and provocative style of interaction, which distracts from the issue at hand and muddles her message.
The point that Greer’s makes in On Rape is that stranger rape is much less pervasive than what she describes as everyday ‘banal’ rape: “Banal rape, the kind that happens when a man has sex with a woman without concerning himself that she is not into it and doesn’t want it”.
As she explained, “Non-consensual sex is rape. Now, if you’re asleep, you can’t give consent. If you’re drunk, you can’t give consent. If you’re being terrorised, you can’t give consent. If your husband won’t speak to you for a week unless you spread your legs, you can’t give consent. You can only give in.”
In essence, Greer advocates for a rethinking of the laws of consent based upon the impending Istanbul Convention defining all non-consensual sex as rape.
In essence, Greer advocates for a rethinking of the laws of consent based upon the impending Istanbul Convention defining all non-consensual sex as rape
But in a public debate, her tendency to use extreme and colourful language does her significant disservice. When Greer claimed that ‘trauma is something that is dictated, really, by the sufferer,’ she used a spider analogy to demonstrate her point: "You know, I can't bear huntsman spiders. It is not their fault. It's my fault … I decided to be frightened of them". Predictably, this ended up being the most reported point of the entire exchange in the local and international media the next day.
Another panellist, Sisonke Msimang disagreed with the assertion that rape doesn’t involve injury, and argued that it is important that Greer brings to the fore that so many rapes are committed by those close to women. However, she acknowledged that Greer is making the point that women ‘giving in’ to the sexual demands of men does not constitute consent, and is a complex issue.
Hinting at the possibility that Greer’s views may be dated, school teacher Elena Jeffcoat argued that while ‘her generation’ owes a lot to Greer, overall, she is speaking of an older cohort.
And yet again, Greer’s immediate, highly emotive response did nothing to support her argument: “Oh, it’s because we are too old to fuck! Is that it?”
Jeffcoat continued, “I just think it’s wrong to characterise our marriages, the marriages of people of my generation, as being ones where the women are submissive and powerless, and I take offence to that.” It is important to note here that Greer hasn’t actually done that. Rather, she argues that we don’t know for sure if consent is the issue.
According to Jeffcoat, Greer should be more concerned with child brides forced to have sex: “This is the rape we should be concerned with”, rather than with women in long term stable marriages and relationships who ‘give in’.
No wonder David Marr refers to Greer’s book as “an eloquent work of despair”
Her comment encapsulates the nature of the problem - that ‘giving in’ is not consent and not seriously considered as rape but does constitute non-consensual sex under the Istanbul Convention - which is the point Greer is trying to make. No wonder David Marr refers to Greer’s book as “an eloquent work of despair”.
However, when asked to provide evidence to support her claims, Greer’s response once again leaves a lot to be desired: “None. We’ve never asked. There’s no evidence at all,” prompting another panel member to claim, “So, you’re asserting something, but you don’t have the evidence”.
Yet, Greer previously spoke of many testimonials online under the search 'too tired for sex' and noted that, “If you read the things that women say online about sex within their marriages, you realise these women are being systematically raped and they have never protested”.
Moreover, On Rape cites many examples of what Greer is talking about, as well as the more commonly understood instances of stranger rape. It is therefore unfortunate that the nature of this important exchange blunted her key message.
Cover image: Helen Morgan via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-ND