By Julia Gasper
Germaine Greer, who appeared at the Oxford Union last night, interviewed for Al-Jazeera TV, is now aged eighty. She is frequently asked to endorse new campaigns and give leadership to younger women who are finding new feminist causes to fight for, but she is not very comfortable in the role, and when Mehdi Hasan, the interviewer, reminded her “You are a feminist icon,” she replied with a self-deprecating laugh, “I never asked to become an icon.”
She was rambling, perverse, semi-serious, sometimes digressing and becoming incoherent, always refusing to do what other people want her to do or say what other people want her to say.
Greer has been very critical of the #MeToo movement and she exasperated the panel of modern feminists by saying it was achieving nothing, and that it is pointless to put old men in their eighties into prison. Surely #MeToo has revealed the widespread nature of job-related sexual pressure and exploitation in countries around the world, where it has been taken up enthusiastically? We are learning a lot about the power-dynamic in which apparently successful women pursue their careers, bargaining with sexual predators all the way.
Some years ago Greer revealed that she herself has been a rape victim. Yesterday she talked again about how she was raped violently by a stranger at the age of nineteen, beaten and left unconscious. Yet that does not make her ideas on the subject of rape, how to deal with it or even how to define it, useful or insightful. She kept rabbiting on about how any non-consensual sex is rape, even between a husband in bed with a wife whom she believes could remain asleep while it happened (I’m sure she’s wrong). In the first place, that is an argument about timing, not a rape. It takes place in a context where long-term consent to the union has been given. In the situation of a marriage breaking down, horrible assaults may take place but that does not mean we can classify any “bad sex” as rape. Secondly, is she seriously suggesting that all badly timed embraces should end up in court and in prison? Rape is what happened to her, when she was nineteen. Strangely she is still in denial. Thirdly, she never mentioned the embarrassing fact that in several recent prosecutions the accuser has been revealed to be lying. Men are not always guilty. On the topic of rape, Greer is just being silly.
Greer has argued that the legal category of rape should be replaced with “sexual assault”, but why make it less specific? The fact is that Greer herself for many years campaigned with permissive, anti-censorship, libertarian, pro-pornography groups that are regarded by many feminists as promoting the attitudes implicit in rape.
Greer further exasperated the panel by refusing to condemn FGM and clinging to cultural relativism, presumably because she is scared to be called racist or “islamopobic”. This rightly drew sharp criticism and disappointed comments from the panel and the audience.
Where Greer did shine, was on the topic of transgenderism. The interviewer confronted her with things she has said in the past few years maintaining stoutly that “woman” is a biological category XX and that men who “masquerade” as women never really become female. At this point, Mehdi Hasan got quite aggressive and unpleasant, accusing Greer of “bigotry” and “transphobia”. She stood up to him admirably, not letting herself be provoked, remaining pleasant and calm, and staying adamant in her view that men such as Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner, who now call themselves women, are still men. She commented that these male>female transgenders are “caressed by the media” and given enormous amounts of airtime and publicity, while there are far more important causes that we should be supporting. I am glad Greer did not let herself be bullied into conformity on this point.
Personally, I regard the behaviour of such men as a symptom that there is a crisis about male identity that we should be addressing. Affirming people’s delusions is not always wise or right. It is absurd to criticize a definition of “woman” as exclusionary. Any definition has to exclude something, in order to exist, and “woman” is the category that excludes men – and vice versa. There are many women’s rights that will be undermined if we allow the basic definition of woman to be eroded, replaced with a stereotype of “feminine” behaviour which is exactly what feminists have been rejecting for the past forty years!
So in some ways, present-day feminist activist groups, with new issues to cope with, in a changing world, can still regard Greer as a pioneer, a leader and an intellectual guide. We should remember her for the things she got right and forget the things she got wrong.