Should penalties for rapists be lowered, and is this a feminist stance?
In September, feminist academic Germaine Greer published a new essay On Rape, in which she argued penalties for rapists should be lowered and that most rape is ‘not something that anyone but the participants can prevent’. This followed controversial remarks she made pre-publication at the Hay literary festival in May, claiming rape was often not a ‘spectacularly violent crime’, but more often than not ‘lazy, careless and insensitive’. Sparking outrage in the feminist community isn’t unusual for the writer; earlier this year, she called women part of the #MeToo movement ‘whingeing’ and insisted more than once that transgender women ‘weren’t real women’. Similarly, the reaction to her stance on rape, was, to put it lightly, not good. The Women’s March retweeted Women United denouncing her a ‘Judas in feminist garb’, with its blogger Aisha Ali-Khan insisting that by ‘mollycoddling her rapist’, she was ‘trashing’ her reputation and it was ‘time for her to shut up now’.
The book is, overall, well-written and thought-provoking. Greer recognises that rape is not an unusual crime and perpetrators are rarely ‘monsters’, distinguishing ‘violent’ rape that causes physical injury from the more ‘banal’ rape that often does not. Because of society’s failure to separate the two, it has become impossible for victims to get justice through a system that requires the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt that consent was absent. Furthermore, the fine line between ‘giving in or giving consent’ has to allow for flexibility in punishment as well as a re-evaluation as to the narrative that we as a society give to rape victims that ‘everyone is irreparably damaged by rape’. If we rely on the victim stating no consent, however it is defined, was given, sentences for rape should be reduced to recognise a lower standard of proof- ‘it is the savagery of the sentence that pushes juries toward extending the benefit of the doubt’.
Critics question whether lesser sentences to lower the standards used to convict would actually increase the number of reported crimes, and argue that diminishing the crime could send the wrong message. Surely what survivors want is justice, which would be taking their attacker off the streets? The circumstances of rape make this impossible however- the two involved are almost always the only witnesses to the crime, forcing the victim to become not a party to the proceedings but a piece of evidence, the process often being equally, or more, traumatic than the rape itself. As a result of not knowing for sure if it was consensual, and being faced with the complexity of the decision they are required to make, juries struggle to return guilty verdicts. Greer essentially poses the question why, if rape encompasses such a wide variety of circumstances and interactions- do we assume the criminal trial and increasingly long jail terms are the only answer? She may have a point in saying the system isn’t working- according to Rape Crisis England and Wales, only 15% or rapes are reported to police, and a mere 5.7% of rapes result in successful prosecution.
However, the accusations and criticisms don’t come without reason by any means- the dismissive tone and attitude with which Greer addresses an often life-ruining trauma is out of step with current thinking about sexual violence and its victims. The central premise of the essay is that most rape is non-violent, with the rapists being a man a woman knows well. She often dismisses some really quite reasonable and understandable fears- instead of victims ‘being encouraged’ by society to be ‘terribly frightened’ of rape, facts justify this fear: numbers for sexual crimes being reported continue to increase unlike the consistently low rates of actual convictions, and the number of recorded sexual offences are now at their highest since records began, according to the Office for National Statistics. Despite her insisting rape cannot kill a woman, studies by Porter and Alison find over 20% of gang rape victims in the UK and US died from their injuries.
Greer presents her ideas in a new period in time where society has developed a strong belief in the power of insensitive language which means a majority of people, especially those for whom the comments are particularly distressing, won’t accept it. In the essay, Greer seems to laud victims who ‘take control of their own narrative’ and ‘get over it’, almost shaming those that are irrevocably damaged by an experience that has become inexplicably normalised in our society. Although she acknowledges that rape is ‘always an evil’, she implies that women are responsible for the disastrous physical and psychological effects that rape brings them, merely allowing themselves to feel violated. By decriminalising rape, she proves that women wouldn’t have to go through the ordeal of court. By doing this however, she ignores the fundamental fact that rape, with or without physical wounds, is an inherent violation of a woman’s bodily autonomy. She relies too heavily on the separation of physical and mental suffering, which in itself isn’t feasible: in practice, this would only open up the possibility of some women settling for a lesser form of justice. There are other ways to go about solving the problem; if men understood the modern definition of consent as something that should be ongoing, enthusiastic and active, for example, it would take ‘banal’ rape cases out of the equation, meaning juries would only have to deal with violent rape cases. Additionally, providing better support for victims and better training for police would increase the conviction rate without compromising the victim’s justice.
That said, she makes a valid argument in the necessity for clarity and flexibility in jurisdiction when dealing with sexual crime. She highlights how our laws are doing a poor job at recognising and punishing the complexity of how men harm women, as well as opening the discussion to women who know they’ve been dehumanised by partners even though they aren’t sure if they have been raped. Ultimately however, Greer’s solution to the problem is unrealistic, and lacks consideration of the trauma victims of rape suffer. Just as it was society that was responsible for the inexplicable normalisation of rape culture, it can be society to change it too, and a lessening of prison sentences isn’t the only way towards that.