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April 10, 2007

Germaine Greer on Rape Laws in Britain

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Although Professor Germaine Greer is not able to attend ‘Women Writing Rape’, she has kindly given us a message of support and permission to distribute her article, ‘Rape’, among the conference delegates. You can find it on The Independent website here

In the article, Greer begins by telling the story of “Alison”, a young mother who is raped by a colleague that she is dating. Greer points to the different attitudes of men and women at Alison’s workplace to the rape, since while men assume that nothing untoward has gone on, the women in the office find it ‘obvious that Alison had not consented to sex’. The story ends with Alison leaving her job and the area with her child. This seems to be the only conclusion possible without the forensic evidence needed to tie the rapist to the crime and Greer rightly notes that the problem is the issue of consent:

There were no witnesses; the child slept through the whole thing. The man would say that she eventually consented; she would say that she eventually submitted. Any halfway decent lawyer could have destroyed her case in cross-examination. She would have had to relive the rape countless times, before different groups of strangers, retelling the humiliating narrative over and over again, only to see her tormentor finally triumph over her, because it was simply his word against hers. All he had to say to escape punishment was that he thought, or believed, that her silence was consent.

Greer believes that the answer to this lies in changing the rape laws. At the moment in Britain, rape, ‘is not committed against the victim, but against the state; the victim is Exhibit A in the case of Regina vs the rapist’. Greer suggests then that the victim of rape becomes ‘a piece of evidence’ to be ‘interrogated and tested in every possible way, because rape is considered to be so grave, second only to murder’.

Greer wonders why rape is seen as such a heinous crime and she suggests that this is the view of men rather than women. She notes how the penis is seen as weapon wreaking devastation and controversially she suggests that, ‘rape is the direct expression of male phallocentricity, which women should know better than to accept’.

Greer proceeds by asserting that all the other unpleasant experiences of abuse (physical and verbal) that accompany rape can be much more disturbing and traumatic than the act itself. Greer seems to think that the notion of rape as an extreme trauma is something of man’s making and she notes: ‘If you allow a man to put his penis into your body because otherwise he will cut your nose off, you clearly feel that having your nose cut off is miles worse, but the asinine law does not agree with you’. She adds: ‘The punishment for cutting your nose off would be less than the punishment for rape, but then you wouldn’t be suspected of having consented to having your nose cut off’.

Thsi point of view is controversial and I would be interested to see how others react. I have a number of questions such as the following:
  • Don’t the unpleasant experiences of abuse that accompany rape in fact constitute rape? Is rape only the act of the penetration or is it also all the other verbal and physical abuses that come with this?
  • Is the notion of rape as devastating and traumatic really something made by men? Could it ever be seen any differently?
  • Is it possible to compare acts of physical violence and acts of rape in order to decide which is worse?

In any case, Greer continues suggesting that rape is a crime that preoccupies men: husbands, fathers and guardians who seek redress for the unauthorised ‘use’ of a woman. Where women are implicated in relations, they are severely punished throughout Western tradition and Greer sees this history emerging from the British law courts and ‘the duty of counsel for the defence to build up a case to incriminate the woman in order to exonerate the man who has abused her’.

As a result of this unfair practice, a fog has fallen over rape cases as the victims retain anonymity, but this is not a bonus according to Greer. Rather anonymity suggests shame at the experience of rape and Greer praises women who try their rapists publicly.

Greer notes that one way for a woman to be exonerated is to fight to the death when confronted with the prospect of rape and this notion of needing to put up a fight is still resonant.

A woman who has no injuries to display and can provide no evidence of a struggle is already in trouble when it comes to seeking redress. The vast majority of raped women never even try. Every day, men rape women who are in bed beside them, with complete impunity, because the withholding of consent cannot be proved. Rape is not an extraordinary crime committed by a few contemptible individuals; it is part of everyday life for huge numbers of women. Being raped by a stranger is like being hit by a runaway bus; your injuries eventually heal. When the person you love and respect most in the world is indifferent to whether you welcome his attentions or not, the psychological consequences are lifelong and devastating.

Greer makes an important point here about the commonness of rape as an everyday act performed not be strangers but by husbands and lovers. Yet this is still not really recognised by the authorities and according to Greer, this proper concern is replaced by a preoccupation with the possibility of false accusations of rape. For Greer, this obsession is completely fatuous as only 5.6 per cent of complaints result in a conviction and most women have to fight their cases courageously in order to show guilt. More and more women are determined not to go to the police.

Greer’s solution offers solid points and more controversial suggestions. Initially she suggests that the crime of rape should be abolished and that instead there should be varying degrees of sexual assault to punish the abuse that accompanies rape as well as the act itself. This seems sensible and fair, but then Greer turns to the story of Alison from the beginning of the essay and she suggests that her case is one of “petty rape”, a term that seems oxymoronic to me. Her suggestion that the rapist in Alison’s case be punished with only 100 hours of community service does not seem like much of a punishment, but I would be interested to see what others think.

Greer adds: ‘To increase the penalties for the unlucky few who get convicted of this very common crime, while the vast majority get off scot-free, is not the way to go’. I understand Greer’s point of view and yet I wonder whether 100 hours of community service for the act of degrading, humiliating, physically and psychologically damaging a woman is adequate.

Greer suggests that if her system was adopted and offences were ‘downgraded’, it would be possible to ‘demand the lessening of the burden of proof’.

No one could take the uncorroborated statement of a complainant as sufficient basis for depriving a man of his liberty for years. But if what is alleged is common assault with a sexual component, and carries a lighter penalty, women’s testimony could safely be given more weight. And we would not all be subjected to the silliness of protracted and hugely expensive trials involving inebriated undergraduates who collapsed in bed together and woke up unable to remember exactly what transpired.

Again I have a number of questions:
  • Perhaps it is unrealistic to suggest that the authorities will ever protect women properly from rape and Greer’s method for improving rape convictions is probably more realisable. How do we feel about this problem?
  • Should we be reducing the seriousness of rape as a crime?



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