She sinks into a chair across from me, large gray-blue eyes drinking her
interviewer in, warily, as one would sip from a possibly poisoned beverage.
This reticence matches my own: Germaine Greer, the fiery founder of "cunt
power," author of eight books on sexuality and gender including the
groundbreaking "The Female Eunuch" (1969), and now its less earth-shattering if no
less contentious sequel, "The Whole Woman," is not known for placating
journalists or anyone else. ("She can be difficult," one feminist writer
warned. "Should I wear a skirt to show off my hairy legs, so she knows I'm
a kindred she-warrior?" I ask jokingly. "That wouldn't be a bad idea," she said.)
But after the beating that "The Whole Woman" has taken since its
publication last month, I wasn't surprised to see a trace of weariness in
her answers to questions about the book tour. (It has been suggested that
the book is destined to be remaindered rather than remembered, and Margaret
Talbot, in a scathingly exhaustive essay in "The New Republic," declared that
Greer wasn't simply a simplistic man-hater but a world-class misogynist as
well.) "It is hard," she conceded. "But I don't do this Camille Paglia thing: 'Do people like me?' I've done this for 30 years. I just do it."
Entering the gender battlefield again, "The Whole Woman" functions
both as sword and shield -- lashing out in all directions, and at the same
time remaining remarkably impenetrable, if only because it's so convoluted.
Her fiery rhetorical power is still blazing at full guns, but the logic of
her arguments is often difficult to follow, not to mention swallow. One
minute she's critiquing the popular misreading of "The Female Eunuch," which
allowed "hacks" and "hackettes" to advertise her philosophy as an "exhortation to get laid more often by more men," then within the same
paragraph she generalizes that "there are many, and more and more each day,
who think a rectum has more character and that buggery is more intimate
than coitus." A mere page later she launches into an inquisition of the
handbag, "Why do women always carry bags, and why are those bags so often
heavy? Why is it that most women will not go out of the house without bags
loaded with objects of no immediate use? Is the tote bag an
exterior uterus, the outward sign of the unmentionable burden?" How she
gets from point A to point C involves passing through Connie's first experience of anal sex in "Lady Chatterley's
Lover" and writer Fiona Shaw's mistakenly referring to her womb as her stomach and her obsession with
having a suitcase packed as a little girl. Both presumably prove that
women have lost touch with the literal and symbolic importance of their
uterus -- resulting in the rectum becoming the sine qua non of intimacy
and the handbag burdening womankind everywhere.
She rattles on a bit about her imperviousness to criticism. Though her gray
hair and gray pantsuit frame a beautiful, elegant face, her
British/Australian accent often sputters with intensity. What they say
about her charisma is undeniable: A mix of bravura and vulnerability merge
into something irresistible. Then suddenly she knocks her head softly against the wall.
"My ex-husband just stood me up," she says mournfully and frowns. "Not that I didn't deserve it."
She stares off, pensively. She explains that they were married a very long time
ago and that he later married Maya Angelou, who lasted longer in her
marriage. (He was a construction worker; Greer was married to him for three weeks.)
A moment later she describes an old student of hers, an African-American
quarterback for the University of Texas, whom she tutored privately for her
Shakespeare class because he kept missing class. "It wasn't hard," she said
of the tutoring, "because he was gorgeous." Soon after, she begins
to talk about her love of baseball, recalling that before Sammy Sosa "got
all that lard and became a heavy hitter," he was "chocolate eros."
From our casual chatter, I'm getting more comfortable but also more
befuddled. How can the author of "The Whole Woman," which casts men as hate-filled victims of their own quasi-innate desire for control, preface our
interview with not one but three wistful recollections of ultra-masculine men?
But Greer doesn't pretend to be uncomplicated. In some way, she's made a
career of making herself a creation of unlikely juxtapositions. From her
professional to her personal life, she's bushwhacked a path of controversy.
"The Female Eunuch" made her the so-called mother of pro-sex feminism. Now
in "The Whole Woman," critics are accusing her of changing her tune and
becoming a murky-headed essentialist who feels just as comfortable suggesting
that much of what passes as feminist sexual liberation is really just the
triumph of a penetration-fixated male sexuality. Yet this about-face isn't
quite so sharp or recent. By the mid-'70s Greer was recommending that men
pursue a path of orgasmic abstinence, modeling themselves after Burmese
villagers and Zinguano Indians.
As she ate a lunch of grilled chicken and shrimp tacos at San Francisco flavored-vodka bar Infusion, Greer discussed her fury over sexual crimes
against women, her likeness to her mother, the way she'd like to die and
whether I could find her a 20-year-old man for the evening without her having to pay for him.
What were the things you saw in contemporary culture that made you want to write this book?
There are things every single day. In America there is a lot of prattle now about hate crimes. They don't understand that when some girl's
body is fished up out of the Everglades, that that was a hate crime. So he fucked her. It's a hate crime? Get it? He hated everything about it. He
hated the fact that he wanted to fuck her. He hated the fact that he did
fuck her. And he hated her. It's hate in spades. And they seem to think that sex crimes are somehow different. No, sir. Just as you sexualize the
black man and humiliate him and stuff a stick up his ass the way those policemen did in New York. I don't care if you do it with your penis or
with a stick. In fact, it is worse with a stick. I can talk to your penis, I just can't talk to you, you know?
I kept waiting for someone to say,
well why do you hate me so much? Why do you sexualize me? Brutalize me? Turn me into nothing but an assemblage of parts? But they didn't do it.
People like Jan Breslauer, teacher of feminist theory at Yale, were saying, Gee, I'm empowered because I have got these store-bought boobies. Oh,
please. And I was prepared to be silent forever and let somebody else speak. But they didn't. I couldn't believe it. How many insults do you have
to take before the iron enters your soul?
It seems now that feminists, the sort of mainstream popular feminist movement, have become increasingly focused on issues around sexuality rather than all the other ways women might become more equal.
Yes, but women in this country aren't getting the sex that they want, are they? Are they in San Francisco? They are certainly not in New York. Some may very well be sexually liberated but great ... you can be as liberated as all get out, but if nobody fancies you, it is kind of an academic concept.
What is interesting to me is that your book seems to critique sex-focused feminism --
That is generally supposed to be my fault.
Well, that's what I was going to ask you. There is the sense that
you were part of the beginning of that -- the proto-
Well, but pro- what sex? You know, being reamed with a super large
dildo is not my idea. There is an Australian magazine called Cleo. And the
letters to the doctor are chilling. They say things like, "My boyfriend
used a super large dildo on me and my vagina is all torn. What should I
do?" And I keep expecting the doctor to say, Ditch the boyfriend, then go
to the doctor. It says, Go to the doctor. And "I was having anal intercourse with my girlfriend the other night and I noticed all these
little white things wriggling around her ass." And the doctor says, "These are bloodworms."
Oh no, yuck. Well how do you feel about that being attributed to your earlier work? Do you feel like people misunderstood you?
Yes. Well, they didn't read me, they read about me. And journalists can only grasp ideas of enormous simplicity, so if I said ...
Not all journalists.
Oh, well ... I said that there is no such thing as
promiscuity, as long as the woman chose all her sexual partners; and if she
didn't choose them, then she was in deep trouble and it was something more serious than promiscuity.
So I was really arguing against the division of women into two kinds. Good women and rubbish. But I don't think I was arguing for sexual activity as a
path to liberation. Because it depends entirely on what the understanding
is. Women like Monica Lewinsky will always interpret very low-level
interaction as evidence of commitment and real interest and so on. So that
women will constantly put the best construction on a relationship and then end up humiliated and ripped off. Because eventually it becomes undeniable, you know?
Have you heard of Wendy Shalit, the young woman who wrote "A Return to Modesty"?
Oh, yes, modesty is a better aphrodisiac.
But Shalit also argued that the old paternalistic system was actually more
protective of women's freedom and women's autonomy than the new system, which she attributes to the feminist movement where sex feels required and
every young woman should be extremely sexually active.
Why does she blame feminism? Feminism is the world's most impotent political movement. Feminism exists to be blamed. It is like motherhood. But I think that ... she's right. There was no sexual
revolution. What there was was a change in the law that meant that commercial pornography could be published with impunity. That was all that
So there was a tremendous outgrowth of sexual fantasy. But there wasn't real sexual freedom. People who are ugly or old or poor never had any
sexual revolution at all. Nothing happened for them.
That is one interesting thing about a lot of San Francisco's sexual subcultures: They are filled with people who don't seem to care about the
culture of beauty. There will be a gorgeous diva having sex with an incredibly fat man. Or fat women being worshipped by a bunch of young
studs or young women. Sometimes in these fringe sexual subcultures all those rules about what is beautiful and what is not beautiful have been
turned on their heads.
Without money changing hands?
Without money changing hands, absolutely.
Lead me to the granny porn. [Laughs.] Did you say old ladies and boys? Where does that happen? Old men and young women is the norm.
Yes, I know, but this is different.
Where can I get me a 20-year-old? Tell me now. I have very limited time. I have got to be out of here tomorrow morning.
I am sure we could do ... find someone for you very easily. But ...
But I am sure money has to change hands.
Have you read the new Christine Wallace biography of you?
Have you heard much about it?
No. I didn't help her do it and she doesn't know what she is
talking about. I mean, practically everything I have had pointed out to me has been wrong.
Her focus seems to be on your big ideological changes --
There are no such changes. She thought she had a commodity that she
could sell. But the commodity turned out to be alive and then she had to
put it together, but also she was stupefyingly lazy. I mean, speaking as a
journalist to another journalist -- her whole construction of my childhood,
which, thank God, I haven't read, is based on two telephone calls to my mother.
I find that absolutely shocking. She didn't even go to see how my mother lives, which would have given her the clue that my mother is not entirely
in her right mind. My mother's address is in the phone book, and it was no big deal. She just looked in the book and dialed the number. My mother, being a lot smarter than Christine Wallace, told her all this stuff which Wallace believed. I mean if we were doing a story like that, we would take the mother's story as one version. Try and stand it up by talking to the siblings and -- she didn't do any of that. And my mother just told her
complete bollocks as far as I can make out. For instance, that she breast-fed me for two years. She was too busy fucking American soldiers! Give me a break.
What is your mother like?
She is too like me.
Too like me. She is not as tall as I am, but we are roughly the same shape. She doesn't look very like me either. But she is very ... I think she
is extremely narcissistic. She doesn't really believe that other people
exist. She thinks she can just make them up and make up their actions and
she can manipulate them endlessly. [Her] perception of how she stands in relation to other people is either to assume that she is
enormously superior and needn't trouble herself about this, or that she is
low as the dust between their chariot wheels.
What you can't get my mother to understand is that she is a person like everybody else. It is completely unimaginable to her. And she doesn't
believe in truth. She doesn't believe in communication. She uses language as a weapon.
Do you think that is like you? To a certain extent?
Maybe. Except that I do believe in truth. And so when I used to try and argue with my mother and she changed her position all the time, I
would get really agitated and she would look at me as if to say, who is going to stop me, da, di, da da. And she still does this to me. She is
Maddening. But she maddens everybody, not just me. She is really weird.
For someone who is a feminist and thought so much about motherhood and the meaning of the womb, and the larger implications of valuing our
mothers, was this difficult to reconcile your philosophy with your own
feelings about your real mother?
Very much so. My mother had difficulty with me because I was the child that threatened her nubility. She was barely 20 when I was born.
And so I thought when I left home, she might be reconciled to the role of the mother with regard to her younger children.
And I only just found out from my sister two years ago that that didn't happen. And that when I left home, my sister lost the only mother she had ever had.
In what way?
She lost me. And I had concealed this from myself. When she reminded me [of] the things I used to do for her, I felt really terrible. I am looking
into those eyes and seeing this anger: "When I really needed you, you ran out on me." And me having to say, Look, I was afraid I was going to murder our mother, that I was going to kill her. Because I sleepwalked and I woke up one night at the foot of the stairs and I didn't know if I had done it or not. I had been dreaming that I had beaten her with a stick in her bed
and she was dead. So I went and looked in her room and there she was. Alive. I hadn't killed her, but I think I left the house the next day.
In the first part of "The Whole Woman" you deal with a lot of the unspoken rules about
beauty and submission to medical authorities and eating obsessions, etc., that govern women's and girls' lives.
The body, yes. The body as a battlefield.
Do you feel constrained by these issues yourself or do you feel more like you're an outsider looking into a culture that seems very distant?
No, no. I have, still, at 60 years old, the pressure to be attractive or good-looking or not to be fat, or to limp or whatever. And also I am
under pressure to use estrogen, replacement estrogen, and not using it is seen as bad behavior. It is storing up trouble to come. And I have had to
explain for years that I am not likely to have osteoporosis. I still have 146 percent of normal bone density for a woman of my age.
And then they say, what about heart disease; so I have to say, OK, chief medical officer of blah blah: Don't you want to die of a massive infarct?
Don't you want to be walking down the street one bright day full of
optimistic thoughts and bang, it is all over?
In my family, like my mother, we die of dementia. We die of softening of the brain. And because we are physically so strong, it takes years and
years and years to kill us, so that we sit around in nursing homes sucking up money. We don't know where we are or who we are. We use up all the
substance that might pay for the education of our grandchildren. And if I am likely to have an infarct -- and in my family history I am probably not likely to, but supposing I was -- I would walk toward it with open arms.
Strike me down. You have to die of something. I choose not to die of dementia. Not to die a vegetable or a puddle. I'd rather be struck down,
just like you, in the middle of a productive life. Please may I have my heart attack? Can I please not take estrogen?
And they sort of say, OK, as long as you know what you're doing. I don't
want to buy a longer life. Friends of mine die every year, and every year I
am amazed. Why am I outliving this person? Died at 58, died at 45.
I am beginning to feel, even now at 60, like a survivor from an already extinct generation. I don't want that to go on for too long. I don't want to outlive all my friends and the culture that I grew up in and all of
that. Death doesn't frighten me.
In your book you sound like you are defending female genital mutilation.
I am so sick of this argument. I mean, most of the people I have this argument with have no idea what they are talking about. If I ask them to
tell me what they think goes on in FGM, they really don't have the vaguest idea.
Well, I studied it. I know a lot about it.
OK. Well how many forms are there?
I would say there are four.
At least four, and it can be subdivided by four again. And even some of the ones we thought we understood, like Somali infibulation. I headed a
panel on FGM at one of the London teaching hospitals where this really interesting surgeon who has been reversing infibulations found that in
43 out of 45 cases, which is a large sample, the clitoris was intact.
And so where was it then?
It was sewn together -- under the abraded scar tissue. And it seems [the ritual] was about actual penetration of the vagina and not about lack of pleasure at all. Until we find out from them what they think they are
doing, I don't think we have any right to run around criminalizing it or ... I can't understand why Americans are hypnotized by it. They just
want to keep on talking about African women's genitals. I think it is part of their own anxiety.
We do an awful lot of genital mutilation right here. We do normalization surgery on newborns. We do construction of fake vaginas for intersexual
children. And we do episiotomies ... [then] we say to the women, We'll make you nice and tight for your husband and all this stuff because
you are afraid of any malpractice suit because you have got a relaxed
vagina, blah, blah, blah. They say there are 120 million FGMs, but they are
not all the same, and we have got women in America who are having things
inserted in the hood of the vagina. Why?
I don't know why.
Well, don't ask me.
But a grown woman choosing a procedure for herself is different from a 7- or 8-year-old girl being forcibly held down
against her will or a newborn having something done to them which removes --
We don't know what it removes. You and I both have lots of friends who get a huge amount of pleasure of taking a cock up the ass. I don't get a huge amount of pleasure out of that, but I am not going to tell them that they don't. When I talk to women in the Sudan, they were the horniest women I think I have ever met. They were really funny. They were very hot for their husbands. They were all circumcised. And they said to me for the sex it is no problem. For the childbearing, yes, but for the sex, no problem.
I am not about to tell them they don't know what sexual pleasure is. That is the height of arrogance and it actually ...
Well there are a lot of women that who don't want it to be done ...
And we support them in their struggle. But what we don't do is criminalize FGM so that if we have African women giving birth in our
hospitals we refuse to close them up again. And that means they go to a
traditional practitioner. The Somali women in England have a very tough
time. They go in to give birth as closed women, we cut them open as the
midwife would do in Somalia and then afterwards we refuse to close them.
If I can have cosmetic surgery on my genitals. Why can't I have that cosmetic surgery?