In my previous piece on the TED talk ‘Rape and Reconciliation’ I touched on the privilege aspect of Elva and Stranger’s talk. I would like to further elaborate on why this part of the talk is so problematic.
Privilege is briefly mentioned by Elva during her talk but she does not acknowledge the privilege of already being a celebrity in her home country, being white, wealthy, healthy and having the connections that come with celebrity status.
Elva describes her path to healing from the rape she experienced aged 16. This path involves contacting Stranger to start a conversation with him about what he did to her and leads to the two of them flying to South Africa to reconcile. They say in the talk that South Africa felt like the perfect place to do this work due to its history of truth and reconciliation. So we have two white people travelling to a country where white people slaughtered, raped, abused and oppressed black people (and where the healing of that is still an ongoing process) using the suffering of people of colour as a canvas to paint their story on. This is the height of white privilege. For any white person to draw comparisons of their problems with the systemic murder and abuse of an entire race of people is despicable.
Where would people of colour have to travel to to be able to soak up the energy of a place where people of colour oppressed white people and then reconciled?
Elva knowingly takes the stage at an event that is specifically designed to spread and amplify new ideas and then disingenuously tells us she is aware that her path to healing (via forgiveness of her rapist, co-writing a book together and going on a book tour together) isn’t for everyone.
There are a tiny amount of people who have the privileges Elva has. And I wonder how many of those who do would even want to meet the person who raped them, write a book together and go on tour?
I am not trying to silence or deny Elva as a victim her agency. And at this stage even if people wanted to silence her they could not as she has already delivered a TED talk, has a book tour scheduled and been given a huge amount of publicity. Her story is already out there. This is not a person who has had her voice silenced.
Nor do I seek to silence the voices of those who feel that they have gained something from watching the video or reading their story. I think for many women there is a sense of relief that finally, here is a man willing to be publically accountable for his crime against a woman. And there is a sense among some women that this is a step in the right direction, the crucial involvement of men in the discourse of sexual crimes against women is finally here. And in order to hold onto that glimmer they are willing to overlook the many great problems with this particular talk, and potential harm it could (and I believe will) cause women long term.
I have come to realise that this talk is something of a Rorshach Test, where viewers can see and experience very different things. Those who defend it cannot see how it could be harmful and those who see it as harmful cannot see how others are unable to see that.
Despite Elva’s insistence that they are not holding their story up as a template they believe others should follow, it seems clear to me that a dream is essentially what is being sold here. A dream of confronting your abuser and being acknowledged and affirmed in your experience. Receiving an apology. A dream of male abusers with an openness to self-reflection and contrition. Even perhaps a dream of many men learning from and embodying Stranger’s example. A dream of men seeing themselves and their actions reflected back at them by Stranger and mending their ways. A dream of a shift in the dialogue around rape away from the victim and onto the perpetrator.
We cannot however divorce the dream presented in this telling from the patriarchy and privilege of which it is infused. For it is it’s resonance as a document and exemplification of the intersection of Privilege & Patriarchy with Rape & Reconciliation that has in my view played a large part in its success.
This is rape and reconciliation through the lens of patriarchy and desirable outcomes for the abuser:
The victim forgives her abuser
They become friends, even collaborators, business associates
The abuser suffers no legal consequences for his actions
The abuser profits from admission and remorse with a book deal, Ted talk, Speaking Tour, Brand building celebrity/Cultural capital/Prestigious platforms etc.
Viewing the story through this lens I feel it is hard to argue that beyond the possibility of his victim never contacting him at all there could be a more desirable outcome for the rapist.
As well as this the talk introduces the harmful idea of forgiveness being upheld as an ideal for victims of sexual violence. Elva has become a powerful symbol of ‘the woman who forgave her rapist’. How long before that message seeps into popular culture becoming the benchmark other victims will be held up to?
The value of this idea to a patriarchal culture should not be underestimated. The idea of the woman who forgives her rapist and not only that goes on tour with him is an almost impossibly high expectation to make of most rape victims. It is wonderful for Elva that she found such a deep level of peace with what Stranger did to her and that she was able to move on in a healthy way with her life. But for us to set this up as an ideal, or even as a possibility for other rape victims is to set most of us to fail.
The reconciliation utopia Elva and Stranger are selling us can only be accessed by those with enough intersecting privileges; white privilege, class privilege, economic privilege, health privilege, celebrity privilege.
The requirement of so many intersecting privileges demonstrates the remoteness of the dream being sold here from the overwhelming majority of women and rape victims/survivors who do not share them.
The essential message of the talk is a man who claims he didn’t really realise he had raped a woman finally admitting; in public that he raped a woman. This is a man who will never experience any legal consequences for his crime as it is now outside the timeframe of the statute of limitations in Iceland. Added to this, this man has and will continue to profit (financially and in status and celebrity) from his admission of rape.
Wilfully or not, Stranger has found a way to capitalise from raping a woman.
And all those who grant him a stage aid him in doing this.