RAPE AND RECONCILIATION
Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger’s 20 minute TED talk is purposefully radical. It is billed as a “story of rape and reconciliation” and both Elva and Stranger deliver. They spend some time setting up the story of how they knew each other, young loves in high school but only about 1 minute talking about the actual rape itself. Instead, they focus on the story after the rape. After nine years of silence, the two reconnect and Elva forgives Stranger for his transgression. They meet together for a week in South Africa, hash things out and then decide to write about the experience. It is good. It is healing. It is what both of them needed to move on from this tragic event that altered both of their lives so negatively.
Before I launch into a critique of what exactly made me feel so uncomfortable about this TED talk, I want to state that I don’t harbor any ill willing to Elva for undertaking this project and journey. For her to truly heal from her rape, she decided to undergo a process of forgiveness and reconciliation. She found this process to be restorative. That is wonderful for her. She also states at the end of her talk, “what we did is not a formula that we're prescribing for others. Nobody has the right to tell anyone else how to handle their deepest pain or their greatest error. Breaking your silence is never easy, and depending on where you are in the world, it can even be deadly.” I’m glad Elvira recognizes her privilege and issues this important caveat but I don’t think it goes far enough. She seems to imply that the only thing stopping a victim from wanting to reconcile with his/her rapist is a cultural threat of violence (ie other Non-western cultures). What about Western culture that causes women to constantly not be believed? Beyond a cultural threat, what about the very real physical danger that a rapist can represent? Statistically, unlike Tom Stranger, most rapists are repeat violent offenders. Who is to say that meeting your rapist for a week of peace and reconciliation couldn’t lead to another violent outcome? Also, despite her caveat, she then spends the rest of the TED talk allowing Stranger to share his perspective and describing why reconciliation is so important in the case of rape. If you didn’t think this was the best option for rape victims, why spend so much time selling it as one?
I also think that Tom Stranger presents in the manner of an “ideal rapist.” He is tall, handsome, WHITE, well-educated and polite. He is a self-admitted surfer-boy and hippie. If you are going to forgive someone for your rape, it is Stranger. For a TED talk about a rape, Stranger spends less than five seconds talking about that evening. He describes what he did as a “self-centered taking” but offers no further description of the violence he inflicted. Perhaps he did so out of a desire to protect Elva from a further description of the violence she endured (although Elva spends about a minute and a half describing the trauma she endured). However, I think what his palpable omission does is distance himself from the act. Rape is a harsh term, yes, but it’s also vague. By refusing to discuss his specific actions that night, as a listener, I find it easier to empathize with Stranger and his emotional journey. It’s easier to paint him as a “good guy” who just did a “bad thing” if he never really confronts us with what this “bad thing” actually was.
Stranger does say something in his speech explaining the role of responsibility taking that I really appreciated. He states: “Saying to Thordis that I raped her changed my accord with myself, as well as with her. But most importantly, the blame transferred from Thordis to me. Far too often, the responsibility is attributed to female survivors of sexual violence, and not to the males who enact it. Far too often, the denial and running leaves all parties at a great distance from the truth.” WOW, awesome. This statement is wonderful at face value. As we’ve seen in multiple cases this year, rapists have escaped responsibility and the victim has been pilloried in the press. However, the underlying subtext of this quote bothers me. Stranger is saying that by reconciling with Elva, he was able to accept responsibility for the rape. But what if they had not reconciled? What if she was unable to forgive him or didn’t want to forgive him or thought that he was the worst? Would he then be able to continue his denial of the events? Is the only way to get a rapist to admit wrong-doing to befriend him? I would hope that a reformed justice system could help force rapists to admit wrong-doing rather than leaving that burden on a survivor to create a friendship.
Elva also describes how she rejects the labels of victim and rapist which she claims can be “dehumanizing in their connotations. Once someone's been deemed a victim, it's that much easier to file them away as someone damaged, dishonored, less than. And likewise, once someone has been branded a rapist, it's that much easier to call him a monster — inhuman.” However, I believe labels are important. They allow survivors to identify what happened to them as assault. They allow survivors to pursue claims in court and in their schools and in their jobs. Naming the violence done to you as rape is the first step in healing. Without an ability to recognize the trauma you experienced as trauma, how can anyone begin to process their emotions surrounding the event? Labeling someone as a victim does not mean that they should be made to feel “damaged, dishonored, less than.” It is the fault of the society in which we live not the fault of the label. I also don’t think that the issue in our society currently is having rapists be labeled as “monsters” or “inhuman.” Just look at Brock Turner’s case to see the “severe impact” and “adverse collateral consequences” the judge was thinking about for the Stanford swimmer. I don’t think labeling rapists as monsters is really the issue here. If anything, I think we overly humanize perpetrators and demonize victims.
Lastly, I find Elva’s closing statements to be the most troubling part of her entire TED talk. She exclaims to thunderous applause, “it's about time that we stop treating sexual violence as a women's issue. A majority of sexual violence against women and men is perpetrated by men. And yet their voices are sorely underrepresented in this discussion. But all of us are needed here. Just imagine all the suffering we could alleviate if we dared to face this issue together.” I’m sorry… but WHAT. I agree that sexual violence is both a men’s and women’s issues (not just because men are also victims of sexual assault). But to imply that it should be a men’s issue because men are the majority of rapists!? What!? By implying that the men’s role in this movement is to come in as the “rapist” in this conversation implies that most men are rapists. That is NOT true. Not all men rape. In fact a very, very tiny minority of men rape. The men we need involved in caring about sexual assault and gender-based violence are not the rapists but the billions of men who do not rape and who care about eradicating sexual assault.