Rape is about male ownership of women, their bodies and their sexuality. To quote a 60’s women’s liberation slogan:
“Rape is about power, not sex”.
All sexual relationships between males and females take place in the context of patriarchy.
Rape is about male entitlement, whether it be stranger rape or a husband insisting on his rights to sex in any manner and at any time in relationships with his wife. Within the patriarchal construct male power is omnipresent.
Germaine Greer’s book ‘On Rape’ (Little Books on Big Ideas) has created much controversy and I would like to discuss in the context of patriarchy and its oppression of women.
Germaine restricts her discussion to rape as penetration of a woman’s vagina by the penis. And she questions why does the penis hold such power, and why the vagina is viewed as sacred. Greer briefly describes the historical roots of the meaning of rape – that of “…the stealing of a woman from a man or men who owned her” and that women were considered the possession of winners of war. A core issue is male control and ownership of women. Female adultery is a crime in The Ten Commandments in the Christian bible, but not rape. Rape of women in war has been and continues to be legitimate behaviour where women are perceived as goods owned by men and therefore rape is perceived both as a weapon and as a way of claiming the goods of men. Women are denied agency and seen as the spoils of victory.
The rape that hits the news headlines is the stranger, brutal physically violent rape. Greer rightly points out that many rapes do not include such violence.
“Non-consensual sex is banal and deeply ordinary but that is not to say that it is not an evil, with damaging consequences for both parties.” (p.7)
This makes us question how as a society we are to respond to rape. Greer rightly highlights that the criminal justice system poorly serves women victims of rape.
Prosecuted rape…” …represent a tiny proportion of the non-consensual sex that actually occurs, almost none of which is ever reported; most of what is reported doesn’t result in prosecution, and most of the prosecution doesn’t result in convictions” (p.9)
Greer points out how women have agitated and worked hard to highlight the inadequacies of our legal responses to rape and have succeeded in reform such as:
- Proof of resistance not being required
- Previous sexual history cannot be produced in evidence, and
- Rape in marriage being recognised.
However, this has not increased the rate of convictions which continue to be rare and maximum sentences are rarely imposed. (p.12).
There is also an exploration of the issue of consent. The lack of women’s consent is the core element in rape prosecutions. Greer rightly argues that this makes conviction very difficult.
“When 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” (p. 24-25)
Here we can see how complex the issue of consent is – particularly in the legal arena.
Of course, the impact of reporting, the investigation and prosecuting can also have devastating and traumatic effects on victims of rape. As Greer points out the victim becomes evidence in court proceedings. Evidence of injuries and resistance are documented and women experience a complete loss of privacy which is in contrast to the offender who has the right to remain silent throughout.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Germaine Greer’s perspective is her questioning of the traumatic effects of rape. She argues that research and literature on post-traumatic stress for rape victims does not take into account the influence of the reporting and prosecution process. She queries the view that women are “irrevocably damaged in soul and body”. And wonders if they are allowed to get over it.
Carolyn Worth who is the manager of South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault in Melbourne tends to agree with Greer:
“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.”
This is in contrast to Lucia Osborne-Crowley, a journalist and writer, who in the same article takes umbrage with Greer’s whole thesis:
“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”. The disastrous physical and psychological effects of trauma when it is held in the body – untreated and unrecognised for many years – can become, as they have for me, an undesirable controlling narrative. Even if one tries, as Greer seems to suggest, to get over it, the body keeps the score.”
However, in my reading of Greer, she does not discount that rape can be traumatising and devastating for the victim. What she is querying is whether, in our attempts to raise awareness of the seriousness of rape, we have given a life sentence of trauma to all victims of rape.
This leads us on to what I believe are important issues that Greer raises in this discussion.
The violent, stranger rape is the one that is usually uppermost in the community’s mind when rape is raised. Greer rightly points out that the true extent of non-consensual sex – between partners, friends, acquaintances – “remains unimaginable”; and therefore, the impact of these rapes on women is difficult to determine.
Consider the women who are in long-term marital relationships where non-consensual sex is relentless, long term scenario – if we explore this in the context of research on domestic violence, we begin to understand how such ‘banal’ rape can be humiliating, demeaning and degrading and can have long term consequences for women. The question then becomes how do we address and redress this in our legal and social systems.
Perhaps the concept that I find most difficult to come to terms with is Greer’s challenging the view of the power of the penis. It is here that critics of her essay argue that her approach is one of victim blaming.
“…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”. Lucia Osborne-Crowley.
Greer cites Patricia D Rezee who states that an intense fear of rape develops in women from early childhood, where we are warned of the dangers of stranger-rape. Greer also critiques Susan Brownmiller’s description of the penis as a powerful weapon.
“To buy into such a notion is to share one of the male delusions about the penis, that it is an awesome, powerful thing.” And “For Brownmiller to present the penis as capable of turning itself into a weapon is to present an irrational fear as a reasonable response to a present danger.” (p.53)
The problem for me with Greer’s perspective on this is her focus on the penis as being the powerful weapon. I would argue that given the patriarchal society in which we live, where male power is all-pervading and universal, it seems not unreasonable that women are well aware of male power and its capabilities to oppress and abuse women.
It is worth while here to look at the work of Liz Kelly. In her book Surviving Sexual Violence she conceptualises
“…forms of violence as a continuum of violence against women. She explores the connections, for example, between sexual violence and domestic violence, asking questions about the categories we use; who decides what is abusive; what counts as abuse and the connections between them.”
Kelly also talks of women’s reluctance to name unwanted sex as rape, but that such experiences do leave women feeling fearful.
“Liz Kelly describes this as a form of terror, in which the intention is to intimidate, to make women feel afraid, telling women that they “don’t have the same right to be in this space.”
Whilst as children we are taught to be wary of men, as women we are very aware of the reality of this strong message that men are to be feared. I would argue that this is a patriarchal strategy to maintain our oppression.
What Liz highlights is that many women’s experiences of violence are ‘everyday’, are perceived by society as ‘mundane encounters’ and yet they are the “fabric of women’s everyday lives”.
Liz Kelly clearly highlights that male violence against women erodes women’s agency and fundamental freedoms – it constrains every woman’s agency.
Unlike Lucia Osborne-Crowley I do not believe that Greer is suggesting that we put rape in the “too hard basket”. Rather she is highlighting the failures to adequately deal with the issue of rape – that our legal system, with all its varied responses to rape allegations, fails hopelessly, and in fact often causes further trauma and abuse. In addition, Greer shows how the stranger rape situations are only the tip of the iceberg to what women experience in their sexual relationships with men.
One cannot expect that such a small book would adequately address all of the issues but what Greer does do is provide a provocative discussion which can only lead to further analysis and exploration. This makes this an important and worthwhile book.