Germaine Greer’s ‘On Rape’

Credit: Melbourne University Press.

Since the 1960s and 70s, sexual agency has not been the same. Relationships between men and women have altered significantly; with the decline in marriage, the rise of co-habitation, pornography, abortion and what appears also to be a rise in rape, and legal issues around what constitutes rape. This new frontier of sexual ethics is something that modern society is still attempting to navigate, as it strains the threads of our social fabric.

For the purposes of On Rape, Germaine Greer describes as rape ‘will apply only to penetration of the vagina of an unwilling human female by the penis of a human male.’* But when is she ‘unwilling’? When does consent begin and end? How does a women prove she resisted to be sufficiently believed? And how it is established? Is rape as severe as we make it out to be? These are the kinds of questions her essay attempts to answer, or at least discuss.

Greer’s essay does show sadly how difficult it is for women to prove that she has been raped. Part of this issue, is actually the definitions that hover around ‘rape’. She writes: ‘Rape is an awkward word, encumbered with all kinds of historical baggage, but its substitution by the express ‘sexual assault’… It has the effect of emphasising the level of violence at all. You can rape a sleeping woman without even waking her up.’ She highlights, for example, the many issues around women attempting to bring rape cases before courts, only losing due to the fact that definitions around consent and resistance are ill-defined, and prone to change between jurisdictions. Not to mention the fact that rape cases can sometimes take years to process and leave psychological scarring akin to PTSD.

Whether or not we may agree with how Greer positions rape, she relates rape as part of a version of bad sex: ‘Rape 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…Rape is a jagged outcrop in the cast monotonous landscape of bad sex; we can only understand its prevalence and our inability to deal with it if we position it correctly within the psychopathology of daily life.’ Such remarks may seem insensitive, but raise points that I think help us to get at the heart of the issue. Greer’s most interesting remarks are really pivoted upon how she views what men are doing when they rape women: they are committing a form of hate crime. This is part of the reason why she doesn’t believe castration is a useful penalty for rapists: ‘Just as it is not the penis that commits rape, and not testosterone that drive it and not overwhelming sexual desire either, castration whether surgical or chemical will not eliminate men’s hatred of women. Rape is not a sex crime, but a hate crime.’

Whilst some may view an infamous Feminist author such as Germaine Greer as a ‘man-hater’, the essay actually goes to the heart of what is wrong with how the sexes view sex generally and attempts to bring them to a mutually positive place in their sexual agency. She mentions several times the act of sex that lacks meaningful engagement, and defines this is as a form of ‘non-consensual’ sex:

‘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. A man who has sex with an unwilling woman alienates herself from intimacy with her. The woman who endures sex without pleasure suffers a stead corrosion of her self-esteem. Diurnal rape stifles love and imposes loneliness and withdrawal. The bitterest irony is that it is the unresponsive woman who will be blamed for the obliteration of what was once a mutual love.’

Greer does state later a form of ‘banal rape’ that occurs when a man doesn’t concern himself with whether the woman enjoys sex or not, but she states that this is not something but what the participants can prevent. I felt here that it was difficult at times where she was sliding between definitions of ‘non-consensual’ and then different forms of rape, but I think her point is that rape as we know it is not the only form of damaging or bad sex. But what kind of sex, then, would actually make for ‘good sex’?

The essay does highlight in the final chapter, that ‘Sex is at least as difficult as conversation; sex as a substitute for conversation doesn’t compute’. Greer recognises that there are forces that move us towards her definition of ‘non-consensual’ sex (which appears at the end to simply stand for sex without intimacy) such as pornography: ‘Sexual imagery is everywhere, but erotic imagery is not’. Sex is not something that should be done when the man or woman is too tired, or is in need of intoxication. She writes: ‘Men and women can between them create ecstasy if they invest time, energy and creativity in their lovemaking. Routine sex shades too easily into mere sufferance.’ This is a view of sex that is highly demanding and almost sacred. I think there’s a risk in idolising sex by placing it at such a high mark as to not be guilty of occasional banality, even in the most loving of relationships. But what is also curious about this argument is that it is almost puritan in some respects in its desire to direct men and women away from bad sex to good sex – which from what I understand is best experienced in a loving marriage where relationship ideals are nurtured under the loving care of God Himself. Not perfectly as sin would have it, but with the goal of making each person serve the other in joy and (sexual) pleasure with God’s strength.

Only a week since what has become a divisive case between Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, reading Feminist author Germaine Greer’s essay, On Rape, feels apt. Well, her book was already apt given the rise of the #metoo movement and its complexities. Rape is something that is inherently selfish – it spares no thought for the other person. There’s much that Greer states here that casts light on sexual acts that are bereft of mutual love and self-sacrifice, although I wish there was more said on the effects of masturbation, pornography and prostitutes on sexual behaviour. We should know enough now, either personally or through the research, that sex outside of something consensual, or committed marital love, is damaging for all involved.

Germaine Greer’s essay On Rape was a confronting read, and definitely one that surprised and challenged me.

Questions to think through:

  • Is rape an ill-defined concept? Or is it clearer cut than Greer makes it out to be?
  • All non-consensual sex (such as the banal), from which rape is a subset, is fundamentally damaging to men and women. Do you think Germaine Greer was right to have assessed things from this perspective? Why or why not?
  • What do you think makes for ‘good sex’ by contrast to ‘non-consensual’ sex accoring to Germaine Greer?


*All quotes taken from the Kindle version of ‘On Rape’ by Germaine Greer. Published by Melbourne University Press, 2018.



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