Germaine Greer, the controversial feminist academic, has called on universities to rethink how they handle allegations of rape and sexual assault on campus.
Professor Greer’s new book, On Rape, has already attracted significant controversy for proposing softer sentences for sexual assault. Discussing the book, she has suggested that many rapes are little different from “bad sex”.
Much of the text, however, addresses specific issues within universities. Professor Greer recalls teaching at the University of Warwick 20 years ago and “observing first-hand the effects of sexual depredations on my female students”. She describes “the shockingly high incidence of rapes on college campuses”, which has led to “deeper confusion and bitterer antagonism between the sexes”.
Yet she dismisses the initiatives of some US universities that “ask individuals intending to have sex to set out the conditions under which they are prepared to go ahead, specifying condom use, orifices accessible, ejaculation where, as if sex could be programmed in advance”.
Victims of rape were often keen to tell their stories, yet legal processes frequently made this humiliating and traumatic. “Women are now being encouraged to speak out and pursue redress through the courts,” Professor Greer told Times Higher Education, “even though they seldom succeed in having the offence recognised, let alone expiated. To be discredited instead of vindicated is probably more traumatic, certainly more public, than the rape itself.”
It was also while at Warwick, according to her book, that “it became clear to [Professor Greer] that the perpetrators of sexual harassment were…a self-selecting group of serial offenders”. This suggested possible ways forward. Some universities have adopted a website called Callisto, where victims of sexual assault can report their experiences in a secure document that gets passed on to the institutions concerned only if an alleged perpetrator is named several times. This might certainly have flagged up the dangers presented by a college footballer twice accused of rape (although the two women, unable to face the court process, withdrew their complaints) who went on to assault other women and was later convicted of murder.
Yet Professor Greer admitted that even this option presented a number of difficulties. “The problem with Callisto and similar attempts is that the women’s narratives must be securely encrypted so that even the original institutions and contributors cannot access them,” she said.
“If this proves not to be the case (and hackers are everywhere), the institutions could face ruinous litigation on the grounds of libel. What is more, if the accused individuals are potentially guilty of a serious criminal offence, the institutions involved would be guilty of dereliction of duty if the police had not been informed in the first instance.”
In the longer term, Professor Greer added, “the only way forward is for women to define the nature and gravity of the offence by investigation, argument and discussion”. Universities might be among the best places to carry out this essential work, she suggested.
Germaine Greer’s On Rape is published on 6 September by Bloomsbury.