Are women responsible for all the extreme sexual violence on screen?

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Germaine Greer has stirred up a hornet’s nest with her latest claims, suggesting women are more enthusiastic than men when it comes to depictions of sex and violence. We asked leading crime writers for their views

Zoe Williams

You can say what you like about Germaine Greer, but she’s not afraid of anything – not controversy, swimming against the tide or sounding like the feminist who doesn’t like women very much. In a Radio Times article this week, she lays the proliferation of sexual violence in TV drama – almost all of it against women, of course – squarely at the feet of the female viewer. Women consume 60% to 80% of crime fiction (that is quite a large tolerance band, but let’s not nitpick), and are the main viewers of true crime drama. Why? Because fear of being raped occupies our consciousness, posits Greer, and imaginary rapes bedeck our fantasies. She cites a study by the University of Texas, which found that nearly a third of women regularly fantasise about being violated: “In my view, the fantasy is commoner than these figures suggest,” writes Greer.

What it means for a woman to fantasise about violence is quite an interesting fissure in feminist thinking. It is surprising to see it raised, by Greer, in relation to the Scandi crime noir The Bridge – the latest series opens with a woman who has been buried up to her neck and stoned to death (as fantasies go, I doubt that is in anyone’s top 10). But it does come up a lot in discussions about feminist porn. People assume that “ethical” porn will just be more softly lit and with better storylines, but that’s not the case: some of it is, sure, but there is an evolved BDSM (bondage, domination, sadism, masochism) strand that is, if you take it literally, more violent to women than gonzo porn, which is just sex, only faster.

The existence of female rape fantasies isn’t proof that, contrary to #MeToo, we all (or a third of us) want to be literally raped. Denise Mina, author of the compelling Alex Morrow series and, most recently, the true crime story The Long Drop, says that rape fantasies are “about women wanting to be forgiven for their compliance. It’s not about women wanting to have their heads stoved in with a brick and left at a railway siding”. Nobody watches a drama such as The Fall – one of the subjects of Doon Mackichan’s brilliant radio documentary about screen violence against women – in order to identify with the victims. The locus of the drama is all either in the killer or the detective; it’s all in the puzzle. The sudden popularity of Scandi noir was not because of the jumpers or any revolution in storytelling; the radical bit was that the detectives, and therefore the emotional wellspring of the genre, weren’t (or weren’t all) grey-haired men.

“This is a complicated and nuanced issue,” says bestselling crime writer Val McDermid, “and there are a lot of factors involved. But I do think women are drawn to watching crime dramas because we have been conditioned into thinking of ourselves as potential victims, and we want to understand how that prediction comes true. There’s also a sense in which it feels almost talismanic, like watching lightning striking someone else’s house – ‘Thank God it’s not me.’” That would locate a fascination with violence against women firmly in the realm of fear – the way you sometimes visualise yourself jumping off a footbridge, or new mothers get hyper-real visions of stabbing their baby with a nappy pin (that’s actually an example from a 50s psychiatry manual, if it sounds a little dated). The mind neutralises, or at least copes with, fear by creating it as a mental hologram.

Joan Smith, crime author and critic, has a different take: “I suspect viewers are watching these series in spite of the sexual violence and the victimisation, not because of it. It’s a cheap thrill, a way of grabbing attention – the more subtle ways, that depend on the creation of tension, are much harder to do. Presenting a really shocking image is much quicker.” But you don’t linger on it; you’re driven immediately to the question of who did this, and why, “and then what viewers do is identify with the detectives, these anguished figures”. That doesn’t mean the violence is purely incidental, but it is essential to the character arc of DC Pointyhead, whose humanity is established by the fact that he cares for the vulnerable dead girl – he can then get right on with being smart. Yet just because the viewers aren’t watching for the blood doesn’t mean this trope is without consequence. “The victims become incidental,” Smith says. “That does worry me about the nastiness of some crime narratives, that the victims get completely overlooked, and we become desensitised.”

“One of the problems with crime fiction at the moment,” Mina points out, “is people talking about it who know nothing about crime fiction. It’s like having a conversation about television, in which you could be talking about This Morning or The Wire.” There is difference of opinion here – Mackichan’s view is that TV should attempt to go a year without any violence against women, because all of it has a brutalising effect on the viewer, not to mention the young actors who get their first break spending 17 hours filming a rape scene. Yet, as a viewer, I would still parse the difference between watching two hours of Hannibal (the TV show, not the film) – elegant lighting and loving cameras lingering interminably on the exquisite rotting flesh of an 18-year-old college student – and two hours of The Bridge, in which the torture seems less pornographic (though, granted, I haven’t seen the new series).

The idea raised by Greer – that women are aroused by the idea of violent sex – is one that defines the pro-sex and anti-sex schools of feminism, explored by thinkers including the French feminist philosopher and film-maker Virginie Despentes, who made the film Baise-Moi (Rape Me) in 2000. In the 70s, the feminist lawyer Catherine MacKinnon made the case that all sexual encounters occurred under the patriarchy, therefore “hostility and contempt, or arousal of master to slave, together with awe and vulnerability, or arousal of slave to master” are its building blocks. In those conditions, the true feminist eschews sex. The pro-sex rebuttal was that this view relied on women being void of sexual desire themselves.

Twenty years later, Despentes made a triangulated argument (how 90s!). As she defined it, fantasising about rape and being raped were completely discrete (she had experienced both). It’s not like dreaming of winning the lottery, and then winning the lottery: the dream is an idiosyncratic interplay between social shame and sexual desire, while the reality is being disempowered and afraid, and those are different things.

In other words, you can accept that living under the patriarchy has informed your sexuality and not just still enjoy sex but incorporate, even own, that power dynamic. To police or close off the alleyways of your own arousal would simply be submitting to the patriarchy in a different, less diverting way. The contemporary philosopher Amia Srinivasan resolved whether or not a rape fantasy was unfeminist, to my satisfaction at least: “If a woman says she enjoys … engaging in rape fantasies – and even that she doesn’t just enjoy these things but finds them emancipatory, part of her feminist praxis – then we are required, as feminists, to trust her. This is not merely an epistemic claim … It is also, or perhaps primarily, an ethical claim: a feminism that trades too freely in notions of self-deception is a feminism that risks dominating the subjects it wants to liberate.”

One thing is unarguable: women do seem to consume more crime fiction than men (though men are the main consumers of true-crime books), and women watch more crime drama. It is also true that women read more than men generally, and also watch more telly. So the question of why women are interested in this dark subject matter does seem to be freighted with the unspoken expectation that we should prefer nice things. “It’s really – why aren’t they at home stroking kittens and making scones?” Mina says, and describes to me the trial of a serial killer in the 50s, at which there were 60 seats in the public gallery, all taken by women. “And at that time, newspapers were saying: ‘It’s because women are attracted to powerful men.’”

There is a constant here: grisly crimes are compelling to women. But the explanation of this interest changes according to what society thinks women are like at any given time – or, more specifically, what’s wrong with us.

 

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