IT’S how Martin Amis gets his kicks. Always has been. The inveterate controversialist baits his victims – be they women, Muslims or the elderly – with inflammatory comments, then, when they bite, whines they are too stupid to grasp the subtleties of his argument.
Always spoiling for a fight, he lobs his grenade into a highly charged environment, then affects astonishment when it explodes, sending shards in all directions. He was a troll before the internet was invented.
As a novelist, Amis has a better-than-average understanding of the potency of words, and as a bête noir of the feminist movement he has a better-than-average understanding of what will noise up his (many) female critics, so it is unlikely he was taken aback by the reaction to his latest foray into women’s sexuality. In a documentary, Martin Amis’s England, on BBC4 today, he appears to imply some women like to be raped – sorry, “ravished”. This has led leading campaigners, including clinical psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos, to accuse him of glorifying sexual violence.
His get-out – and the slippery, old codger always has one – is that he doesn’t say that, precisely. What he says is that English novels of the 18th century catered for female fantasies because the heroines only got raped if they were drugged. Amis explains women have told him this is a good fantasy “because, if you enjoy it, then it’s not your fault”. So there you have it. Amis has said nothing wrong. He has merely told the truth about books. And about rape fantasies, because studies do suggest 30-55 per cent of women have them, although their appeal is probably more complicated than he suggests.
But is it really OK to treat such a sensitive subject so casually? If Amis wanted to have a discussion about literary portrayals of rape, wouldn’t it have been better to analyse how they helped perpetuate myths that persist today? And if he wanted to examine the roots of women’s rape fantasies wouldn’t he have been better to highlight how they differ from reality; how, as Brooke Magnanti, has pointed out, the whole point of fantasising about a loss of control is that you are in control of the fantasy?
Perhaps Amis’s comments would have been more acceptable coming from someone else. Were the novelist renowned for his groundbreaking portrayal of women then maybe his contribution would have gone unremarked. As it is, from The Rachel Papers on, Amis’s books take a mostly reductive view towards the female sex. And yes, I understand having a misogynistic protagonist is not the same as being a misogynist, but when the author once denounced Katie Price as “two bags of silicone” it’s easy to see how the lines get blurred.
Nor is it axiomatic that the reason women in English novels of the 18th (and 19th) century have to be forced to have sex is because this plays up to female fantasies; it could just as easily be seen as playing up to male fantasies of female submission, or that a woman secretly desires her attacker, even while fighting him off.
One of the most famous and problematic literary depictions of rape comes in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Sixteen-year-old Tess is asleep when Alec D’Urberville approaches her and does whatever it is he does to her. And therein lies the problem – the reader is never told if what follows is a rape or a seduction. Though on one level, it seems clear he forces himself on her, Tess herself seems unsure if she was to blame. The ambiguity is heightened by the way in which her sexuality is emphasised and by the fact she consents to sex in the weeks after their encounter.
One way to view the novel is as a searing indictment of Victorian, and, alas, modern attitudes; Tess feels guilty because society tells her she was asking for it. And she is destroyed because that’s the punishment society doles out to fallen women. But the novel can also be seen as peddling the myths it sets out to debunk. By fudging the “rape” scene, Hardy, while sympathetic, still offers up the possibility that, though Tess kept saying no, she meant yes.
More than a century later, Amis is fudging too, and with the same effect. He says women fantasise about rape because they enjoy the thought of sex without guilt. But, by failing to clarify his point, he offers up the possibility they might like the real thing for the same reason.
Such obfuscation is not merely irritating, it’s irresponsible as these myths – which make it easier for men to rape and get away with it – continue to have a hold on the public consciousness. Last year, Ranjit Sinha, the head of the Central Bureau of Investigation in India compared online betting to rape, which “if it can’t be prevented, should be enjoyed”. In the West too, the same old prejudices prevail. Women who wear short skirts are asking for it, teenage victims are “predatory” and juries won’t convict men who look like their fathers because they can’t believe they could be capable of such of a thing.
Much time and money is invested in tackling these misconceptions, and blatant trolling such as Amis’s sets this work back. There is a place for controversialism – the mooting of provocative ideas to stimulate debate – but, in a society where rape convictions are still shockingly low and a US congressman can claim victims of “legitimate” rape don’t get pregnant, this debate is emphatically not it. «