Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 9, 2018

On Rape (2018), by Germaine Greer (Little Books on Big Ideas)

Germaine Greer’s contribution to the Melbourne University Press Little Books on Big Ideas series is called On Rape; the series is one of their Little Books on Big Ideas (of which I have reviewed two: David Malouf’s On Experience and Susan Johnson’s On Beauty.

Caution: if anything in this review is a catalyst for distress, please remember that help is available at Lifeline and Beyond Blue or counselling services in your location.

This is the blurb:

“It’s time to rethink rape. Centuries of different approaches to rape—as inflicted by men on women—have got us nowhere”.

Rape statistics remain intractable: one woman in five will experience sexual violence. Very few rapes find their way into court. The crucial issue is consent, thought by some to be easy to establish and by others impossible.
Sexual assault does not diminish; relations between the sexes do not improve; litigation balloons.

In On Rape Germaine Greer argues there has to be a better way.”

For a such a little book it has created quite a furore: it’s only 92 pages, of which four are endnotes.  Greer has been vilified and mocked for it, which she must have known was going to happen, but she has always been courageous.  She has been quoted as saying things which in the book are quotations from someone with whom she disagrees.  She is condemned for writing words and having opinions and making statements that are nowhere to be found in the book.  Greer seems to have a thick skin, but I wonder if she ever gets tired of the way her efforts to raise serious issues are treated in the media.  And now she’s got social media to contend with as well.

FWIW Greer is not, in this book, suggesting solutions.  She is raising issues for discussion because non-consensual sex, with or without violence, is a very serious problem.

Chapter one: ‘What is rape?’ shows that even defining what it is and what it isn’t, is contentious.  Chapter two: ‘Creating confusion’ is an analysis of the ways in which sincere efforts at law reform since the 70s haven’t helped.  Chapter three: ‘The conundrum of consent’ is a clear-eyed look at the intractable problem of proving lack of consent (he said/she said) in a court of law. Chapter four is called ‘Sex as a bloodsport’ and raises the problem of serial offenders in places like universities and how they get away with it.

Chapter five, ‘Victim or exhibit’ suggests that the legal system itself makes things more difficult, but solutions are not easy to come by since the accused —like any other person accused of a crime—has civil rights.  A woman who accuses a man of rape is not a plaintiff, still less a prosecutor.  She is evidence.  An exhibit. The whole process is a long, drawn out and horrendous ordeal for the woman, and so far, attempts at reform haven’t helped.

The chapters ‘Joystick or weapon’ and ‘Healing the victim’ are the ones that have generated the most anger against Greer.   I’ll just quote this bit:

As usual we are confronted by unanswerable questions.  Most rape is not accompanied by physical injury or carried out by men unknown to the victim, nor is it followed by flashbacks or is it ever identified as a crime.  In the case of a woman who chooses to report the event, 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 courtroom.  The most catastrophic shock must surely come when, as far too often happens, the jury does not convict.  Nothing in the literature of PTSD after rape deals with these experiences.  For all the intellectual effort and energy that has gone into getting the law of rape to make sense,  conviction rates are falling. Meanwhile the true extent of non-consensual sex remains unimaginable. (p.62)

Chapter six: ‘Cure, kill or castrate the perp?’ is depressing because it’s a reminder that rape is not a sex crime but a hate crime. Greer quotes a British judge arguing in 1982 that harsher sentences would encourage more raped women to come forward but perhaps this is counter-productive. Greer asks whether it is the savagery of the sentence that pushes juries toward extending the benefit of the doubt.  [Similar perhaps to the way juries wouldn’t convict for murder when there was the death penalty?]

‘Damage limitation’ explores the possibilities of civil actions, restorative justice and mediation, for cases of 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.  (She begins this chapter by saying that it’s not something that anyone but the participants can prevent.) These are cases which involve

… only one perpetrator who is known to the adult victim, no weapons, no injuries, and no plying with drugs or alcohol, the kind which is virtually impossible to prove in a court of law. (p. 75)

Ideas about informal negotiations between the parties, Greer says, are contentious, on the grounds that this would be traumatic for the complainant.  But…

When the complainant and the alleged perpetrator are members of the same community and will have spent time together before the alleged event and may expect to have to come into proximity with each other afterwards, it seems unlikely that coming face to face with each other will be shocking or terrifying. Many a complainant regrets that she gets no chance to tell her story, nor does she ever receive an apology, which can go some way to appeasing her justified sense of outrage. (p.77)

In reality, of course, mediation is a complex business, requiring highly skilled mediators to achieve anything satisfactory.  Greer has even greater doubts about restorative justice as an option: there’s very little research to commend it. However:

Amid the insoluble inconsistencies in the law of rape one thing is becoming clear: Women are claiming the right to denounce their assailant.

And not just for rape, so it would seem…

If this post has raised issues for you, support is available here, and in Victoria, here.

Author: Germaine Greer
Title: On Rape
Publisher: Melbourne University Press, Little Books on Big Ideas series, 2018, 92 pages
ISBN: 9780522874303
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Embiggen Books Melbourne, $14.99


  1. Always very interesting reviews by your good self Lisa. I have to admit to never reading Greer. With the subject of her book in mind though I am reading at present the rather long but extremely fascinating The Better Nature of Our Angels by Steven Pinker. The chapter The Rights Revolution has a sub chapter called “Womens Rights and the Decline of Rape and Battering”. I think if you have no inclination to read the entire book it may still be worth your while to get this from the library just to read this sub chapter alone. This sub chapter covers rape (among other things) from historical times through to modern times. Pinker is bullish for the future of equal rights. I would be very interested on your, and your readers, thoughts on this subject.


    • LOL I’ll trade: I’ll read a chapter by Pinker, if you do the same by Greer! (Or this book, which is shorter than a chapter. I read it, literally, in half an hour while waiting to meet a friend for lunch.)


      • Ok. :-)


        • I’m off to see if my library has it…


          • And off to get a copy now.


          • Done. Reserved at Port Phillip. It means a trip to St Kilda to pick it up but any excuse to have lunch at Lezzet in St Kilda Rd is ok with me:)


            • Love the eateries in St Kilda. Always make a trip when I travel down from Bris for my footy fix. I got a copy from my local independent and grabbed 3 more as well. Just what I need, more books on tbr list.


              • You might miss this one if you just go to Acland St. It’s on Brighton Rd (which becomes St Kilda Rd so it’s on the tramline). Here it is


                • That looks right up our alley. And will write up a review tomorrow.



                  Oh well in for better or worse. I felt so inept at writing about this essay. As a subject it kind of scared me. So out of my comfort zone but thanks for getting me out of it Lisa. Sometimes we need to be challenged.

                  Liked by 1 person

                • Wow, that was quick, I’m guessing you got an eBook version? I’m still waiting for the Pinker book to come in on reserve at library, but it shouldn’t be long. According to the website, there aren’t any reserves ahead of mine…


                • I actually bought a copy. And 3 other books while there I might add. I don’t need an excuse to go to a bookshop lol. I also support the independents and being in the printing industry all my life I have a deep ingrained support of ink on paper. Our industry are no longer chopping down old growth forest for pulp. The sustainable use of pulp came to the fore in the industry many years ago but we have not been very good at promoting our credentials in that area.

                  And I enjoy a reading challenge. ;-) On the Pinker book it is very long and I would not expect you to read it all unless you are really interested in the subject. The sub chapter in The Rights Revolution is “Women’s Rights and the Decline of Rape and Battering.” Page 475 to 500 in my copy. That is the one to check out. Children’s right from 500 to 538 was for me also fascinating.


  2. If anyone can tackle this topic with logic and clarity I’m sure it’s GG. My own humble opinion is that while I understand and agree with the educative force of the No Means No campaigns, I think feminists went too far in conflating unwilling sex between partners with forced sex between people who were not partners.

    The other problem of course is obtaining a conviction. I firmly believe that the victim should be able to make one statement, which should be videotaped and presented as evidence, probably with the possibility of supplementary questions by lawyers for the parties, but no cross-examination, no having to face the alleged perpetrator.


    • Well, we could have a long argument about both those propositions, but that is not the point. To me, the value of GG’s book is that it encourages reflection and discussion, and that IMHO might well be most productive when it takes place between people who are, or who want to be, in a relationship. Of all the things people talk about in a relationship, attitudes to non-consensual not-really-willing sex ought to be important, surely. (You do/I don’t is an inevitable situation: how are we going to handle this without damaging our relationship?) What we label it, and how it might or might not be conflated with other kinds of non-consensual sex, is not really the issue.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I am very one eyed when it comes to GG for without her insight I cannot imagine how my life would have gone. On the controversial topic of rape I am in line with her thinking for the most part. I have a ticket for her lecture in Perth at the end of the month and looking forward to hearing her words as always. Rape is something that I am not unfamiliar with so appreciate as always Lisa your willingness to engage with this divisive and important subject.


    • Thank you, Fay, I must admit to some hesitation about this… and your comment has reminded me that I should have added contact details for helplines… I will do that now.


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