Content warning: This article will discuss sexual violence.
Last Monday, there was a Q and A discussion about feminism and women's rights in honour of International Women's Day. On that panel was Thordis Elva (pictured), an anti-violence campaigner known for hosting a TED Talk with her rapist Tom Stranger, 20 years after the rape took place. They are currently touring for their book, South of Forgiveness, which was published in February.
I watched Thordis argue that forgiveness was a type of reconciliation with yourself and not really about the rapist. When asked about giving Tom a platform she said, 'It's not about applauding a rapist but giving them a voice to the immeasurable hurt that he has caused.'
So I kept vacillating on my position, with debate on Q and A emulating my internal monologue. Is there a place for rapists in the conversation about rape? Did I want to hear what a rapist had to say? It was heightened by the fact that as I watching it, I was on the phone to someone close to me who had been sexually assaulted in the past. Would I want her anywhere near her rapist again? No.
The fact is that statistically, once someone has been raped, they are at a higher chance of being raped again. This can happen when a victim is caught in an abuse cycle of increasing violence and decreasing honeymoon periods, where unless the signs are caught early, it becomes incredibly difficult to leave the relationship. It also occurs because of revictimisation, where victims can feel a compulsive need to reenact their trauma, leaving them vulnerable to manipulative and predatory behaviour.
So with this knowledge I read and watched Thordis' story feeling like my stomach was tearing itself apart. After watching the segment, I paced around my dining room table for about half an hour. Because I understood how Thordis' story could have gone so very wrong.
Revictimisation and the abuse cycle aren't widely understood by the general public. Active consent isn't taught in our schools. Truthfully, I am afraid of the worst case scenario, that because their story has been so highlighted by the media, it could lead to access for rapists to contact their victims or gain platforms like Tom's, and abuse their access to safe spaces with particularly vulnerable people.
But there is also a significant benefit to Thordis and Tom sharing their story together. Tom is in direct opposition to the a common misconception about rapists known as 'the monster myth'. Tom is well-spoken and had a caring upbringing. He was dating Thordis at the time of the rape, when she was 16 and he was 18. He doesn't look or sound like a 'monster'. It is hard to dismiss him as inhuman.
"When the majority of perpetrators are men, they are the ones who need to be educated the most."
It hammers home something anti-violence advocates have been saying for a long time. Monsters don't rape, real men do. Rapists can exist on a broad spectrum. It is likely that a rapist will have a relationship or is acquainted with their victim. They are part of a culture of entitlement to women's bodies. They can be manipulative, commit horrible crimes and might not even connect in their minds that what they have done is rape.
There are still deep cultural misunderstandings about why men rape. One of the most effective ways to address those myths is for people like Tom to tell their truth. So even with my concerns that Thordis has opened a floodgate, I have to hope that Tom will speak directly to boys and men who need to hear it. When the majority of perpetrators are men, they are the ones who need to be educated the most.
While it's imperative that the safety of victims should always be placed first, we should talk about both sides of the story. It's uncomfortable and I still have deep reservations. But the problem won't get solved if only women are participating in the conversation. We need to break down the dehumanising labels of victim and rapist to get to the truth. As Thordis says, sexual violence is not a women's issue, it's a human issue.
Neve Mahoney is a student at RMIT university. She has also contributed to Australian Catholics and The Big Issue.
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10 March 2017
When rape occurs, both people are impacted very adversely for the rest of their lives. I didn't watch the Q&A episode in question but I have read about the book written by Thordis and Tom. I think you are right, Neve, to be uncomfortable and have deep reservations about this sort of dialogue. It is a crime, a very serious crime.
10 March 2017
"Would I want her anywhere near her rapist again? No." This is at the heart of your analysis. Your friend, if an adult, has to decide that for hersel, however much you might wish to protect her. Thordis has helped by opening up the possibility.
10 March 2017
Thanks for a very topical article Neve. I was at Adelaide Writers Week yesterday and bought the book 'South of Forgiveness' I believe this discussion must be had and must include both parties. As Thordis Elva has made clear, this is not a woman's issue so much as a societal issue, and to not deal with it as such will in fact 'not deal with it'. Another interesting point about this is that I hear messages coming in that some crimes can never be forgiven; that forgiveness will always be a weak sham in these cases. I believe otherwise and see forgiveness as an attribute of the strong. I wonder what others think about this.
10 March 2017
Thank you for this clear-eyed, balanced look at a social and often gender-implicated issue involving violent abuse of power. As you seem to suggest, the dynamics of this issue are still obscured by lack of awareness, prejudice and misconceptions, and any means of clarifying and addressing the motivation for, and impact of, this form of violation can potentially contribute to a necessary, though painful, conversation.
10 March 2017
Thank you, Neve. This is such a difficult discussion - at best uncomfortable, at worst, deeply traumatic - but, for all that, it's one we need to have. And keep having.