A Small Book About a Big Topic: Germaine Greer’s On Rape

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By Zora Simic

Better titles for Germaine Greer’s new provocation, the essay-length small book On Rape, would have been On Bad Sex or On Heterosex. For these are what she’s most interested in addressing and has been since at least the publication of her first book, the spectacularly influential The Female Eunuch (1970). Back then, Greer challenged the myth of the vaginal orgasm – and its reproductive imperative – by celebrating hers on the basis of pure sexual pleasure. At the same time, she also anticipated later feminist writing by cautioning against obsessing too much about orgasm one way or another – if given too much power to define ‘good sex’, it could get in the way of proper intimacy. At the height of the sexual revolution, Greer – the ‘saucy feminist that even men like’, as Life magazine put it 1971 – opined ‘sex has for many of us become a sorry business’. She wanted better, for women and for men, and she still does. She’s just not particularly optimistic about it. To start at the end of her new book, with no spoiler alert necessary if you’re at all familiar with the Greer canon, Greer gloomily suggests ‘Heterosex may well be doomed’.

Without due consideration of the women who were and continue to be traumatised by sexual assault, On Rape runs perilously close in parts to victim-blaming.

Greer makes clear from the very first page that heterosexuality is her target by narrowing her definition of rape to ‘penetration of the vagina of an unwilling human female by the penis of a human male’. And while this statement rides roughshod over decades of activism and legislative change aimed at expanding legal and societal definitions and responses to rape, it is integral to her overarching claim that heterosexuality is in peril. Throughout On Rape, Greer riffs on this theme by emphasising the ‘banality’ of rape. By this, she means it’s shockingly common, including in long-term relationships, and that women are more likely to be raped by someone they know than a menacing stranger. There’s certainly evidence to support the latter claim in particular, though showcasing statistics and other data is hardly her concern. Instead Greer relies on the reader’s prior or instinctive sense that she’s stating obvious truths (which is perhaps fair enough given On Rape is essentially a polemic). As something of an afterthought, she also offers anecdotes and hypotheticals about women she knows or conjures who are trapped in their various ways in heterosexual relationships in which rape – or what Greer calls ‘a jagged outcrop in the vast monotonous landscape of bad sex’ – sometimes happens.

The abiding impression is that On Rape was researched and written in haste, which is a shame because at her best Greer combines scholarly erudition with audacious commentary and critique.

From these starting points, Greer’s essay veers in a number of directions, some of them promising, though usually not for long because this is a work of cul-de-sacs and abrupt transitions – including within the same chapter. To take an example, a discussion about inconsistencies in sexual assault legislation across Australia segues to a tantalising but all too brief historical detour about what rape once meant (‘the stealing of a woman from the man or men who owned her’). Greer then lurches into a condemnation of Swedish rape law via an exasperated recital of the two rape charges Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was facing at the time he went into exile in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. And in the crucial final chapter, where she circles back to her opening focus on ‘banal rape’ in heterosexual relationships, Greer almost immediately digresses into a vignette about Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner staring into their phones rather than communing with one another.  Indeed, the abiding impression is that On Rape was researched and written in haste, which is a shame because at her best Greer combines scholarly erudition with audacious commentary and critique.

Still, given the topic, Greer in pyrotechnic mode can easily read as flippant. The most illuminating sections are more contemplative and balanced, such as her discussions of the Callisto sexual assault reporting system that has been rolled out across some US universities and various restorative justice initiatives. More contentious claims or suggestions – that rape is not necessarily or even usually violent; that rape need not be traumatising; and that the fear many women have of rape is irrational or disproportionate given that ‘it involves the most vulnerable part of a man’s body, his penis’ – do not read as badly on the page as they did in soundbites from the publicity circuit. Aspects of these arguments are compelling – a rape need not leave a woman ‘irrevocably damaged in body and in soul’, which Greer knows from her own experience of it – but without due consideration of the women who were and continue to be traumatised by sexual assault, On Rape runs perilously close in parts to victim-blaming.

Ultimately the modest size of On Rape cannot carry the weight of the topic or of Greer’s proposed interventions, which include advocating shorter sentences for men convicted of rape to increase the rate of prosecutions. The curious reader may very well learn more about current thinking and campaigns from the many reviews of the book than the book itself. In the interests of continuing ongoing conversations about rape and related issues, I would recommend more substantial recent books such as Bri Lee’s Eggshell Skull or Rape and Resistance by feminist philosopher Linda Martín Alcoff. On Rape is better comprehended or appreciated as the latest iteration of Greer’s ongoing campaign against ‘bad sex’, which, if it needs to be said, is not rape.

On Rape is out now.


Zora Simic is a Lecturer in History and Convener of Women’s and Gender Studies in the School of Humanities and Languages at UNSW. She has published widely on the past and present of Australian feminism, including her 2008 co-authored (with Monica Dux) book The Great Feminist Denial (MUP).

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