Books, Review, Spotlight

Germaine Greer’s ‘On Rape’—A Review

A review of On Rape by Germaine Greer. Bloomsbury Publishing (September 2018) 92 pages.

Germaine Greer’s On Rape is roughly the size and thickness of a Beatrix Potter story. And why not? As it happens, The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck also says a great deal of what young people need to know about the topic: beware of polite, well-dressed gentlemen (especially if they have foxy whiskers and black prick ears); don’t go uncritically into dismal summerhouses in the woods; and accepting a dinner invitation does not imply consent to everything the polite gentlemen is looking for.

Greer’s book is not as incisive as Potter’s and it is considerably more expensive. But that is not to say it is a complete waste of money. In some ways it fizzes along with ideas and raises lots of questions that others are frightened to ask. Why are we so afraid of the penis when a fist and a thumb can do more physical damage? Why do some women fantasise about being raped? Are sentences for rapists too long? Should rapists be compulsorily castrated? That it is less good at answering them is not necessarily a criticism. Indeed, as she says (of her proposal that rape sentences should be shorter) “the mere suggestion will cause an outcry which is one good reason for making it.”

On the whole, Greer’s focus is on what we might call “relationship rape.” She has little or nothing to say about serial rapists like John Worboys, the black-cab rapist, or about those who rape children or teenagers. Nor, despite having been written, presumably, during the height of the #MeToo storm, does her book have very much to say about powerful men who abuse their position to have sex with young women. She has nothing to say about “rape by deception” or “grooming gangs,” or the problem of historic allegations or false allegations of rape. Again, that is not in itself a criticism. Such a short book has to be very selective (although one might wonder why she didn’t simply write a longer one).

Greer’s book is, however, let down by two things: the lack of any coherent argument and the author’s tendency to be rather careless with her facts. Insofar as her book has a theme, it is that rape is not unusual. “The reality,” she asserts, on the basis of nothing except a hunch, is “that non-consensual sex is possibly commoner than the consensual variety.”

It is not a rare and catastrophic event or an extraordinary act carried out by monsters; from the banal to the bestial rape is part of the tissue of everyday life.

She supports this point by telling us about a “country house party” that she attended many years ago. Away from their magnificent formal rooms, many of Britain’s great country houses are often in a poor state of repair with notoriously bad plumbing and inadequate soundproofing in the bedroom walls. She was woken in the small hours by cries from the woman next door:

Rupert! Leave me alone. Stop it. Get off me. The protests went on. At one point someone fell out of bed. The cries subsided to be replaced by rhythmic creaking of bedsprings.

Greer was too polite to intervene or to say anything at the time, but she raised it many years later with Rupert’s wife. Did she remember the incident? It turned out that Rupert liked to read late into the night before turning to his wife for “sex that she didn’t want.” Rather than continue protesting, she had allowed him to have intercourse with her.

Apparently, Greer was told, it often happened like that. Even so, the couple remained in a loving relationship with several grandchildren. Rupert’s wife never had any wish to see him jailed. “Was it rape?” she asked. She might have done better to ask a lawyer, but Ms Greer replied that it probably was, thus demonstrating a central problem with rape and with her book. Not wanting something is not the same as not consenting to it. Greer herself accidentally illustrates the point with reference to gynaecological examinations:

These days the vagina is routinely accessed not only by the penis, but by a range of other instruments, to take cervical smears, swabs and samples for the diagnosis of a range of infections, for pregnancy terminations, for bimanual pelvic examinations, and for certain forms of ultrasound investigation.

Few women “want” to undergo a bimanual pelvic examination; but many consent to them because of the benefits that they bring. Had Rupert’s wife asked an English criminal lawyer her attention might have been drawn to the case of Zafar1 which seems pretty much on point:

C. may not particularly want sexual intercourse on a particular occasion, but because it is her husband or her partner who is asking for it, she will consent to sexual intercourse. The fact that such consent is given reluctantly or out of a sense of duty to her partner i[t i]s still consent.

So Rupert’s wife—and Rupert too, if he is reading—can relax. He was probably not a rapist, at least not on those facts, and she does not need to consider herself a victim. Greer’s slightly shaky grasp of the law rather undermines her argument that “non-consensual sex is banal and deeply ordinary.” Of course it is, if you don’t define rape correctly. She may well be right that rape is very common, but the evidence she produces doesn’t support her argument.

Nor do her statistics. “The statistics we have about the prevalence of rape and its effects are too soft to be called statistics,” she sniffs. But that’s an audacious statement when you consider some of the statistics she does use. The incidence of fake orgasms is presented as evidence of the ubiquity of rape. This seems, to put it politely, methodologically a little questionable; why not use per capita consumption of margarine in New South Wales, or the concentration of Ponderosa pine pollen grains in ice cores taken from the Greenland ice-cap?

Her data, it turns out, come from a report in the Sun of a survey carried out by the condom manufacturers Durex. To draw any conclusions at all from an obviously bogus news story, in a widely mistrusted tabloid, itself quoting a junk promotional survey designed to sell condoms is something less than rigorous. But, as judges sometimes say when summing up a hopeless case, there it is. The survey, according to Greer, suggests that there are “up to 100,000,000” faked orgasms in Britain every week. There are slightly over 20,000,000 women over the age of 16 living in Britain, so for Greer’s statistic to be accurate it would require the possibility that just about all of them are on average faking orgasms five times a week. As the same judge might say, you must decide for yourselves whether you accept that evidence and, if so, quite where it takes you.

It is not as if more reliable statistics don’t exist. The Crime Survey for England and Wales, for example, produces remarkably detailed surveys of the public experience of sexual offences, dealing not just with the incidence of offending, but also with attitudes towards the offence and the offenders, and the way that people feel they have been treated by the Criminal Justice System. Police forces collate figures for reported rapes. Similar bodies perform the same task in other countries. She could have made a powerful case for the banality of rape if only she had done a little proper research, instead of relying on anecdote and the meaningless witterings of corporations with condoms to sell.

She devotes a chapter to what she calls “the insoluble conundrum of consent.” Clearly this is a problem, not least because if Greer can’t grasp it, it is likely that others can’t either. Rape is sexual intercourse without consent, but (quoting Bianca Fileborn):

… it is not enough for the complainant to know in themselves that they do not consent—the defendant must have knowledge of this non-consent to be considered legally guilty.

Essentially Greer’s point seems to be—and I’m afraid her argument does get a little confused here—that since a man can never know whether a woman is consenting “it is quite unfair to allow him the right to decide the issue.”

Well so it would be, but nowhere in the Western world does the law give the man any such right. He can of course say that he thought the woman was consenting, just as a thief can say “I thought she would be happy if I took her purse,” but it is not enough just to say it: his evidence is often disbelieved. In any case, in England and Wales, and many other countries too, a man cannot escape conviction merely by genuinely believing a woman is consenting, that belief must also be objectively reasonable. Greer does indeed mention the point in passing, but she still seems to miss it as she comes to the end of her chapter on the conundrum of consent:

The burden of proof required to prove rape in a criminal court can never be satisfied; if we are to abandon the formulation used in many jurisdictions, that the defendant who reasonably believed that the victim consented is innocent, and instead rely upon the victim’s statement that she did not consent as sufficient, then … we will have to reduce the penalties for rape. 

This is all such a muddle. Why should the defendant who reasonably believes that a woman is consenting to intercourse be punished at all? By what possible standard has he done anything morally wrong, let alone committed rape? And what does she mean by “instead rely upon the victim’s statement that she did not consent as sufficient”? Seemingly, she means that a man should never be allowed to defend himself by pointing to the good reasons he had for believing a woman was consenting; and that a woman’s statement alone should decide the issue, irrespective of any evidence, however powerful, to the contrary.

Text messages after the event saying “what a wonderful night we had, I love you so much,” would be irrelevant. CCTV evidence flatly contradicting her account would have to be ignored. Greer realises that such an irrefutable presumption would be unfair, so to even things up a little she suggests reducing the penalties for rape, so that the punishment of blameless men wouldn’t matter quite so much. It is the approach to the law of the bench of magistrates who say “we find you guilty but we’re not quite sure so we’ll suspend your prison sentence.” As an answer to the conundrum of consent I don’t think much of it.

Greer adds to the confusion by picking her examples from different countries, sometimes without telling us very clearly (or at all) which country she is talking about. It may be a bit like her own life: one moment we are in New South Wales, the next in Queensland, then before you realise it we’re spending a few pages in Sweden before hopping over the Atlantic with a short stop-over in England. We are told, for example, about rape complainants in America who in 1996 were subjected to polygraph tests, voice stress analysis, handwriting analysis, and statement analysis tests, and “though the results are not admissible in court, lie detectors are widely used in the work-up towards a trial.” Maybe they were (and in some circumstances the results could in fact be admissible, for example if handwriting were in dispute). But in England I have never once come across a single one of the tests she mentions playing any part in any rape investigation.

On the other hand, suspects have it comparatively easy, apparently: “Defendants” she writes, “… are not obliged to hand over their phones and computers in the event of a rape investigation.” I’m sorry? Where is this country in which a suspect can get the police to back off by saying: “Thank you, I’d rather hang onto my phone if you don’t mind, it’s got some rather personal stuff on it that I’d prefer you not to see”? It’s certainly not Britain, where suspects’ phones and computers are routinely seized and examined in rape investigations. This bald assertion is unreferenced, so we can’t check for ourselves where she’s talking about. My guess is that it’s simply not true anywhere.

How much harm does rape do? Partly, she suggests, it makes women irrationally scared:

It is a nonsense for our daughters to be more frightened of penises than our sons are of knives or guns. … 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.

But rape itself, she suggests, may not do as much harm as is often assumed:

Accounts of the psychological consequences of rape attribute the woman’s suffering to the rape itself, which has the effect of making it sound catastrophic. Raped women will be told not only that they are irrevocably damaged in soul and body but that if they do not acknowledge this they are in denial.

She looks briefly—and rather sceptically—at the evidence that rape victims suffer “Rape Trauma Syndrome,” or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. For women who report their rapes however:

…we have no idea how much of her distress is caused by the work-up itself, by the compilation of the forensic evidence, by her having to tell her story over and over and in public and then to defend it both in the committal stage and later in the court-room.

Actually, we have quite a good idea about this, because there has been a lot of research on the subject. It has resulted (at least in England and Wales) in the abolition of committal proceedings, strict rules on the limits of cross-examination, the widespread use of video links to obviate the necessity for complainants to appear in court, and the practice of complainants normally giving their evidential accounts by way of a pre-trial video-recorded interview. Some of these changes have also taken place in Australia. That is not to say that Greer is wrong in her general point that the criminal process can still be incredibly distressing, but there should surely have been some acknowledgement that a serious effort has been made to reduce the distress on witnesses within the the context of an adversarial system.

Greer concludes that:

… the most catastrophic shock must surely come when, as far too often happens, the jury does not convict.

It goes without saying that an acquittal is usually very upsetting to a rape complainant but she provides no evidence, either for the assertion that this causes a more catastrophic shock than the rape itself, or that acquittals happen “far too often.” As so often, Greer simply presents her own opinion as fact.

Although many of her arguments are confused and much of her evidence is dubious, Greer’s book has still managed to stimulate debate about a topic in which calm discussion, rather than angry shouting, is sorely needed. That may have been her object, and she concludes on a conciliatory note (though, being Greer, she can’t quite avoid a small provocation too):

If we women love men, and we surely do, rather more I would say than they love us, we will have to find a way out of the slough of bitterness and recrimination into which we seem to have fallen.


Matthew Scott is a criminal barrister at Pump Court Chambers and a legal blogger. You can follow him on Twitter @Barristerblog


1 See the direction of Pill J cited with approval in Doyle [2010] EWCA 119 & the Crown Court Compendium (July 2018) at 20-4


  1. Five fake orgasms per adult woman per week? Sounds incredible but Greer could be correct – the women of Britain could be having fake multiple orgasms.

    • Debbie says

      Never mind the bogus stats the very idea that she’s using faked orgasms as a proxy for rapes is absolutely bonkers. I’m a woman and every time I’ve faked an orgasm it’s been because I realized I wasn’t just going to be able to get there not because I didn’t want to have sex. Orgasms for women are extremely psychological and no matter how bad you want it to happen its just not easy for tons of women. I’m not even able to consistently orgasm when I masturbate so apparently that means I’ve raped myself hundreds of times since I didn’t always orgasm.

      This isn’t just a thing for women either. My husband has been on anti depressants on and off for decades. Plenty of people know they can kill libido, but an even bigger problem is even when a man is horny they can make it extremely hard to orgasm. Doctors even prescribe SSRIs for chronic premature ejaculaters precisely for this reason. Anyway long story short my husband has told me he’s faked orgasm countless times because of these side effects going back decades. It’s been when he uses a condom so its not hard to fake I suppose. So apparently that means my husband has been raped by both me and his last 5 girlfriends count less times.

      Btw we now have more open more mature dialogue when we both just admit when orgasm isn’t in the cards that night. No need to worry about hurt feelings or bruised egos.

  2. Jolly swag man says

    I think the reviewer is being a bit stiff expecting Ms. Greer to support her assertions with facts and such.

  3. MickyC says

    What pray tell, is “rape by deception”?

    Doesn’t sound like a thing.

    • Caligula says

      The crime typically involves having sex in the dark with someone who is someone other than the person you think you’re having sex with.

      Although there are feminists who would expand the definition to include having sex with a man who has falsly represented himself as being rich or famous (etc.).

      As far as I know, no one has suggested expanding the concept to include men who have had sex with a woman who has artificially enhanced her appearance with cosmetics.

    • Debbie says

      The radical feminist definition is no doubt crazy, but there are very isolated situations where it could occur. Imagine identical twin brothers who have sex with each other’s girlfriends when those girls are under the impression their with their boyfriend not their boyfriend’s brother. That’s a rare possible example of rape by deception.
      Secretly pulling off a condom midway through sex might also be an example.

    • It often isn’t, although some have argued that it should always be. But it sometimes is: if a singing teacher persuades an innocent 14 y.o. pupil that sexual intercourse with him is a procedure to improve her voice, that would be rape in English law, even though she might appear to consent. (In England intercourse with a 14 y.o. is illegal but unlike in some jurisdictions it is not automatically rape).
      There have been cases in England where a deception about gender has also been held to vitiate consent. It’s a pretty complex area of law.

  4. Sydney says

    Sorry, Quillette, but a book “review” that compares Germaine Greer to Beatrix Potter isn’t worth reading, and I ventured no further than that sophomoric line.

    As the phone says, “Your call could not be answered: Please try again.”

    • Kelsey Travler says

      I was going to write the exact same thing, but I kept slogging through it. It only got even more juvenile and arrogant.

  5. Von Journo says

    Greer’s essay was originally one of a Melbourne University Press series of “Little Books on Big Ideas”. Twenty have been published so far, all with two word titles: ‘On Sleep’, ‘On Doubt’, ‘On Travel’ etc. etc. All are 20,000 words or less. Many are by journalists, often of greater fame than literary merit. They are not so much serious analyses as throwaway musings by celebrities. It’s perhaps unfair to judge this book as though it pretends to serious scholarship. ‘On Rape’ at least contains some original thought.

  6. Burlats de Montaigne says

    The actualité is that no one cares about Ms Greer’s thoughts or ideas any more. Her scholarship has become lazy and her intellect dulled.

  7. Morgan says

    “The reality,” she asserts, on the basis of nothing except a hunch, is “that non-consensual sex is possibly commoner than the consensual variety.”

    The absurdity of the statement is enough to ignore the rest.

    • David Turnbull says

      Only if you accept the reviewer’s claim that “Not wanting something is not the same as not consenting to it.”

      • Joosh Astle says

        Indeed. In which case I don’t “consent” to getting out of bed in the morning and working all day. I guess that makes me a slave by Greers calculus.

        • Morgan says

          @David Turnbull

          Please elaborate. Your comment makes as little sense as Greer’s.

  8. X. Citoyen says

    I can’t speak to misquotation or accuracy because I haven’t read the book. But this is how book reviews should be written but aren’t anymore. You stuck to the argument of the book: No motives, no arm-chair psychoanalysis, no guilt by association, no pandering to the audience’s prejudices.

    I hope to see more from Scott.

  9. Pierre Pendre says

    Greer’s suggestion that the accused should all be found guilty but let off with a slapped wrist is unlikely to appease the Boudiccas of American feminism for whom even castration is insufficient. The problem is there are so many shades of rape. What passes for campus rape seems to involve a lot of adolescent hormonal turbulence, pyschological confusion and alcohol which makes it hard to take as seriously as feminists would like. If it’s as bad as they claim, the sexes should simply be segregated. Casting couch sex is simply part of the cost of doing business. It’ll be interesting to see if Weinstein – the only man accused despite the vast fuss made by #MeToo – is convicted. Real rape out in the real world is a horrendous business and the campus dilettantes and #MeToo have done its victims no favours.

  10. jonfrum says

    “Why are we so afraid of the penis when a fist and a thumb can do more physical damage?”

    Damn good question. Boys grow up losening each other’s teeth, spitting mouthfuls of their own blood, and occasionally kicking each other in the head and breaking each other’s bones. And when those boys grow up, they STILL do it for some years. Some actually do it for a night’s good fun. So – granting concern for pregnancy/disease, etc – why is penis friction NECESSARILY such a monstrous wounding event.

    One of the best things we could to for our girls would be to de-sensitize them to unwanted sex. If girls didn’t believe that getting effed against their will was the worst thing that could happen to them, then when it happened, it wouldn’t be the worst thing that ever happened to them. They’d pick themselves up, like the loser of a bar-room punch-up, and get it taken care of. Note that my concern is for their well-being, not their virtuous victimhood.

    • DiamondLil says

      jonfrum: I will grant you that an unhelpful and archaic stigma of “the fate worse than death” does linger about all discussions of rape and rape victims, I can assure you, however, that rape is NOT comparable to having your teeth punched out in a brawl. I am a survivor of a violent rape–a man literally came out from behind a building and pulled me into the bushes–and the violation of one’s body is not comparable to getting punched in the face or having a bone broken. Assuming you are a man, try to consider your response to having someone’s penis shoved into your mouth instead of his fist. On the other hand, I have gone on to lead a normal life and have no patience with well-meaning people who want me to continue to suffer and let that one, horrible act be something I can never put behind me–all so that they can play at being my therapist/savior.

    • Kelsey Travler says

      No, one of the best things we can do is teach boys not to rape. But that would be horribly inconvenient to you, wouldn’t it, and it would be SO much easier for you, Jon, if we could just tell the girls to put up with it because you can’t be bothered to care about rape?

      • Kelsey Travler says

        Oh, also Jon– just FYI. The argument you make here sounds just like the kind you’d expect to hear from a rape apologist, or someone REALLY scared that stuff he’s done qualifies as sexual assault. Just sayin’.

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  14. D-Rex says

    This is perhaps one of those few times when it is literally the case that unless you are a rape victim, you can have no idea of the amount of trauma that one experiences. I have pondered the question myself of how bad could it actually be compared to getting beaten up by a gang of thugs, but as a male I know that I couldn’t possibly understand. If I had the misfortune to get but-raped, I could possibly comment that I’ve had shits worse than that. But this is one of those cases where there is a fundamental and profound difference between men and women.

  15. D-Rex says

    Thinking on this further, if my teenage son got badly beaten up at school, I would complain to the principal, want to talk to the assailant’s parents and maybe press charges, while telling my son that he’ll be OK in a few days, maybe teach him how to defend himself more effectively.
    If, on the other hand my teenage daughter had been raped, my and most other father’s response would be to find the bastard who did this and beat him to within an inch of his life and maybe cut off a few choice bits in the process. I think this response might be because men somehow know that the rape of a woman is a vile and catastrophic act (perhaps a genetic memory passed down through the female line) even if we don’t understand it.

  16. michael farr says

    i am pleased to have such a clearly reasoned argument presented in the magazine. Quillette is showing itself to be a truly wonderful publication, speaking out clearly and concisely. Quillette apparently takes no sides except the side of truth.
    well done you.

  17. Kelsey Travler says

    So this is the approach that Quilette takes to criticism– be as condescending and egotistical as you can in introducing your topic. It makes you look pretty nervous and agenda-driven, but it sure does make dismissing you all the easier.

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