“In order to stay sane” says Thordis Elva of the night she was raped, “I silently counted the seconds on my alarm clock. And ever since that night, I’ve known that there are 7,200 seconds in two hours.”
Thordis could have spoken alone about her rape, and it may well have attracted attention. She is a well-known journalist, advocate and speaker in Iceland. But it was the inclusion of her rapist, Australian Tom Stranger, in the discussion that gave it international reach. And it’s causing considerable distress for other rape survivors.
A story of rape and reconciliation
Tom Stranger raped his then girlfriend Thirds Elva in 1996 while on a student exchange in Iceland, the two share their extraordinary journey of reconciliation. Vision: TED
Humanising the monstrosity of rape, truly, is both a blessing and a curse.
Thordis and Tom’s confronting TED talk, our story of rape and reconciliation, has been viewed over two million times since it went live two weeks ago. On Thursday night, they will appear in Brisbane at the State Library of Queensland’s UpLit event.
In the video, the pair describes how they met in Iceland when she was 16 and he was an 18-year-old exchange student. They fell in love and went to the school Christmas ball together, where she tried rum for the first time. The alcohol made her so sick that someone suggested calling an ambulance. Tom refused offers of assistance, carefully helped her home, removed her clothes and raped her.
In the TED Talk, Tom Stranger speaks first and establishes himself as a Nice Guy before we know the details of the rape. He’s articulate, attractive, sensitive, funny and relatable. And therein lies both the danger and the benefit of his participation.
Tom Stranger raped a woman. Because of that, he now has an international platform from which he is lauded and praised. In the Q&A, he said “I was caught off guard by the gratitude received from women and men who came up to me and voiced their support.”
Gratitude and support for admitting to rape? Liv Wynter is not the only one who finds this viciously insulting to the millions of victims who’ve endured shame, disbelief and suffering because of the same crime he committed against Thordis.
His journey of self-discovery was not something he initiated, it happened in response to Thordis reaching out. He is praised for emotional labour he only did at Thordis’ insistence, and almost certainly with her help.
The very idea of a rapist taking assistance from his victim to finding peace for his crime is abhorrent, and has rightly attracted opprobrium.
And yet, Thordis cannot be denied agency, and, as she wrote on her website, she needed to forgive him for herself, to save her life, not his. “The underlying message seems to be that I would’ve been of more use to the fight against sexual violence had I simply died.”
It’s the uneasy dichotomy of the personal becoming political. This was a personal journey for her own healing, but it risks being lost in the public acclaim given to her rapist, and to her for forgiving him.
We have to allow the monsters to become human. Because the truth is: they are.
Most rape victims know their rapist. This can put an enormous burden on victims to ease the discomfort their community feels in acknowledging the rapist among them. A public platform, where the rapist is forgiven and everyone can relax, increases that burden and removes the pressure to recognise the reality of rape. Further, it makes the survivors who need to hold on to anger, because that’s what they need to heal and stay alive, look, or even feel, less worthy by comparison.
Despite all this, there is still undeniable benefit in his participation. Because the one thing he does well is utterly debunk rape myths.
Rape myths are both the underlying cause of rapists like Tom Stranger, and an ongoing danger to rape victims seeking redress.
They’re based on the belief there is such a thing as “real rape”, which only happens when a rapist – a stranger and an identifiable monster – attacks a ‘good’ woman, who fights back, has visible physical injuries from the attack, goes straight to the police afterwards, and cries when she discloses the details of her rape.
Rape myths say men are at the mercy of sexual urges they cannot control, and women are responsible for protecting themselves from men in the throes of those urges.
Any victim (which is most of them) whose rape sits outside the myth is perceived to be either lying about their rape, or is, at the very least, responsible in some way for its occurrence.
Such myths explain why rape has the lowest rates of reporting, investigating, trial and conviction of all the crime in Australia. Only around 15% of rapes are reported to police, and less than 3% of those end in a rape conviction.
Feminists and survivors are rightly objecting to the plaudits Tom Stranger was given after the TED talk, and might well receive again after his appearance with Thordis at the All About Women conference next month.
But these same people also understand, more than anyone else, the vital importance of debunking rape myths. They know, as Thordis does, that it is not women who need to change to prevent more rapes occurring, it’s men.
So we have to allow the monsters to become human. Because the truth is: they are.
Tom Stranger doesn’t look like the mythical rapist, but he does look like a real rapist. And he admits to being a real rapist.
Because of that, he has something valuable to say to the men who commit rape but are unable to conceive of themselves as rapists, or their attitudes to women’s bodies as violent.
Continuing that work could be a strong and valuable role. He needs to share what he’s learnt with boys and men at sport clubs, schools, and other male-dominated spaces – places where women will not be heard and rape myths abound.
If he can do that work, unaided by women’s emotional labour, then he might have some reasonable claim to participating in restorative justice.
Without it, he’s just a guy who did a terrible thing and, when forced to face up to it, did so while sheltering behind the women he injured so terribly that she almost took her own life.