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Patriarchy’s Wet Dream

View story at Medium.com

After the controversial TED talk ‘Rape and Reconciliation’ was programmed to be part of London women’s festival WOW 2017 there was outcry from survivors and individuals who felt that having a rapist at a woman’s festival was inappropriate, offensive and upsetting. In response the WOW organisers moved the event to one day outside of the festival and made it open to both WOW pass holders and the general public. Where the talk had been originally scheduled they instead held a panel discussion with the very loaded title of “Deciding Whose Story Gets Told”, where some of the people who were opposed to the talk going ahead at WOW joined those who wanted it as part of the festival. I thought the idea of ‘Deciding Whose Story Gets Told’ would be an interesting jumping off point for further exploration of this talk.

A quick breakdown of’Rape and Reconciliation’ for those who are unaware: 16 year old Elva was raped by her boyfriend Stranger who was 18 at the time, many years later she emailed him and they begin to correspond, resulting in Stranger admitting he did indeed rape Elva. They meeting in South Africa where they ‘reconcile’. They co-write a book together and rehearse for their TED talk. They are now touring the world to promote their book “South of Forgiveness”. A shorter version of this analysis is “Rapists admits to raping a minor. World Applauds”.

In the UK only 15% of rapes are reported to the police and only 5.7% of reported cases will end in a conviction. There are women who struggle to get their friends and family to believe they were raped, women who will never tell a soul, women who tell the police but aren’t taken seriously or who are told there isn’t enough evidence to prosecute, women who are silenced, women who are threatened, women who are raped as a tool of war, women who make up the 31% of UK women who have experienced sexual abuse in childhood and many more women who experience sexual violence in a range of different circumstances- and all of these women have stories that deserve to be told. However the story that the media, the book publisher Scribe, TED and Southbank have decided to tell is Elva and Stranger’s, a story of rape, forgiveness and reconciliation.

I am not suggesting that Elva not be able to tell her story, nor am I suggesting Stranger not be able to tell his either. I would however like to propose a few questions, like would they have been gifted so much publicity and so many stages if say, one or both of them had been a person of colour? We only need to look to Hollywood to see how white men accused of sexual abuse are treated very differently to black men accused of same. What if they were Muslims? What about if they were both physically unattractive? If they were in their 70’s? If they were both obese? It is hard for me to not think that the fact that they are both white, slim and attractive allows them access to stages and places that many other people would be denied. It feels likely that their white, middle class, attractive privilege gave their story a leg up when it came to  “Deciding Whose Story Gets Told”.

Elva states that by putting her story out there she hopes it will create a change of conversation around rape. She says we need to start talking to men about rape and include them in these types of conversations. I agree. It is a shame that the majority of media and festival opportunities Elva and Stranger have been given have all had primarily women audiences. As most survivors of sexual assault are women who do not need to be taught that it is men we know who are raping us. 90% of us are raped by men we know, this is not news to rape victims (1 in 3 women) nor is it (for the most part) news to the men who rape us (we don’t know how many in 3 that is, as we only ever talk about how many women get raped, not how many men will rape). We also do not need to be taught about why men rape us. We know why men rape. They rape because they feel a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, and this sense of entitlement has been socialised into them by a culture that pictures women through a lens of largely unattainable and restrictive gender stereotypes. We know they feel that they are of a higher status than women, they do not see women as their equal – and again this is where gender stereotypes play into these ideas men have that lead them to harm women.

Given Elva and Stranger’s stated desires for the talk and the fact that this knowledge (of why men rape) is so widely available I had hoped that Stranger’s part of the TED talk would be quite different from what he offers. I’d like to see him dissecting his toxic socialisation. I’d like to see him admitting to where society failed him by teaching him to have so much entitlement and so little regard for women that he would chose to rape a woman and manage to fool himself for years into pretending it wasn’t rape. I’d like to see him placing his actions in the context of it being considered ‘normal’ male behaviour and showing it up as the awful, degrading, harmful and abnormal behaviour it is. I’d like to see him explore rape culture from the point of view of someone who drank from it’s waters. I’d like to see him challenging other men to consider what they perceive as  a ‘normal’ way to treat women, and giving men tools on how to get help for themselves or the other men in their lives.

I completely agree with Elva when she says we need to change the discourse around rape. I believe we need to be talking mostly to those who rape (as in men and boys) and we also need to be focusing on parents. They are the people who are socialising the coming generation and if they aren’t talking about consent and role modelling it for their kids then we are going to have another generation of sexual and domestic abuse ahead of us.  Parents are, I believe the way forward and the way out of the abuse against women epidemic. We need a parenting revolution, one that teaches our sons to be respectful of girls and women, to understand the many ways in which someone says ‘No’ or ‘I’m not happy/comfortable’, we need sons who are critical thinkers, who can see through the patriarchal dream the media is selling them.

How amazing would it be if Tom Stranger fully owned all his previous toxic masculinity and combined his youth work with this knowledge to prepare and deliver talks for teenage boys? And for parents so they could learn how to raise sons who will NOT rape women? There is a great opportunity in the seed of Elva and Stranger’s collaboration. I just feel disappointed that have not grabbed it and instead the primary angle we are getting is on the ‘reconciliation’ and ‘forgiveness’ aspects of their story. The idea of a cosy reconciliation with your rapist is a largely unattainable dream which will be and is denied to the majority of rape victims. I should add that for many, myself included it is also an unwanted outcome.

A dream is what is being sold here, and when you think about it it’s a patriarchal wet dream. A lovely, attractive, quiet, forgiving woman who does not rail and spit and claw at her rapist, or even try and have him arrested. Instead she meets him, forgives him and they co-write a book together. Then they go on to tour the world together as business associates promoting their book. On their website it stated initially that Stranger would be donating a portion of his profits to charity. That has changed in the last week to now read that he will be donating all profits to charity. However he will (and already has) profited in many other ways – status and celebrity, platforms and contacts. I do not know if he is financing his own way around the world on the book tour (it seems unlikely as I’d imagine they would be keen to tell us that if he was) but he will undoubtedly be offered other opportunities off the back of having raped a woman. And that is a bitter pill for many of us who are victims of rape to swallow. A white privileged man who has never had any legal consequences, profiting from raping a woman –  it’s hard to see how the real winner in this story isn’t patriarchy (served with a side order of capitalism).

 

My previous writing on the ‘Rape and Reconciliation’ talk can be found at these links:

Deconstructing the TED Talk: Here

View story at Medium.com

On the Privilege and Patriarchy in the talk: Here

On Southbank’s decision to move the event and their statement: Here

View story at Medium.com

 

Intersectional Patriarchy

Intersectional Patriarchy

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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.

 

Rape, Reconciliation and Peak Patriarchy

TED talks are supposed to offer blueprints and ideas for a more ideal world. Their tagline is ‘ideas worth spreading’. Last month a TED talk aired by a rapist and his victim, both sharing a stage. Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger’s TED talk, “Our Story of Rape and Reconciliation” already had me nervous, as we live in a world that victim blames, silences and dismisses women’s testimony about their abuse and assault and as a rape victim myself I was somewhat alarmed by the idea of Rape and Reconciliation being sold as an ‘idea worth spreading’. Not that I have a problem with reconciliation, or healing after rape and I am glad to hear that Elva has found healing in her process but her path is one that is unavailable, unwanted and potentially dangerous for many rape victims to pursue.

The scene is set by Stranger, an affable physically attractive Australian man. We hear about his life as a teenager just moved to a country (Iceland) where he doesn’t speak the language, and we hear about how vulnerable and homesick he is. Stranger cracks a joke and the audience laugh along. The set up focuses on his background, his origins, his humanity. He is established as sympathetic character within the first 2 minutes. Then Elva speaks and describes their early relationship she is a 16 year old dating Stranger who is 18. Elva goes on to recount the night Stranger raped her. When Stranger speaks again he skips over the actual rape. He tells us how he re-contextualised it and then went back to Australia shortly thereafter.

The piece is primarily about Stranger. We get a humanising origin story about him. His story is placed in the context of his wider life. We hear of his love for sport and his career as a youth worker but the primary narrative of Elva is is her role as a broken woman in the context of the rape, first of all as his girlfriend, then in the context of what he did to her and then in the context of her struggle to deal with that. We are told she has a husband and son and attends conferences on sexual violence but have no other insights into her interests or humanity. This illustrates the difference between how the two parties are presented,the aftermath of the rape is primarily framed through the eyes of the man who raped her, a man who is set up as sympathetic figure who has the audience in the palm of his hand within moments of speaking.

Stranger never speaks in specifics about the rape, we never hear his story of that night, but he talks in grand platitudes. This is one of the great parlour tricks of this talk, the rapist is granted permission to remain detached from the specific details of his crime. He doesn’t mention or acknowledge the fact that Elva had to do all the emotional labour that lead to their reconciliation, or that it should have been him seeking Elva out to apologise and make reparations to her and not her seeking him out to hold him accountable.

Elva frames her journey as a need to forgive in order to heal. That is fine if that is what works for her but this is not the case for many of us who are survivors of sexual assault. Forgiveness and healing are not the same thing. There are many women I know, including myself who have healed from their experiences but do not forgive the person who raped them. I do not forgive because the rapist never admitted they did the wrong thing, were never bought to justice of any kind and I have had no apology nor any attempt to repair or any reparations made. This is unfortunately the case for many rape victims. I do not need reconciliation or to forgive in order to heal. I do not need anything from the man who raped me in order to heal. In fact the thought of contacting the man who raped me makes me feel sick to my stomach. While I appreciate that Elva has a different journey and experience to me I am alarmed by the context of their talk — as a TED talk — ‘ideas worth spreading.’

I feel it is irresponsible of Stranger, Elva and TED to purport their very unique story of forgiveness after rape as an ‘idea worth spreading’. Especially as the talk is called “Rape and Reconciliation” and their book is titled “South of Forgiveness”.  Both are framed around the idea of needing to forgive in order to heal. This slyly introduces the idea of a “good rapist” and a “good, forgiving victim” which is dangerous in the extreme in a world that already does not believe women. Rapist are regularly forgiven by society and rarely bought to justice. The forgiving of a rapist is not news, it happens every day all around the world by families and communities that do not call the abusive person to justice or accountability. There are so little consequences for abusive men that worldwide 1 in 3 women will be physically or sexually assaulted in their lifetime. The platforming of a victim forgiving her rapist as an ‘idea worth spreading’ is in my view very dangerous. I am not suggesting that Elva not have a space to share her story, I’m concerned that TED was the chosen platform. It is not hard to imagine people judging rape victims in the future for ‘not forgiving their rapist like that woman on TED did’. While Elva does admit during the talk that her process is not something she is advocating for everyone, it is not hammered home that  most victims may never get, nor indeed want this outcome or situation. As my friend Victoria Patterson said: “It is reminiscent for me of the myriad ways in which women are expected to overcome insurmountable emotional challenges, swallow our feelings and appear to be reasonable at all costs.”

How many victims of sexual violence struggle to get the police to take them seriously or listen to them, yet so much public attention is being given to two wealthy white people who were able to travel to South Africa to spend a week discussing the rape and aftermath and who have since had years of coaching. If this IS an idea worth spreading then you will need to begin this process with a certain amount of privilege. You will need the privilege to have enough money and time to get help and therapy, the privilege to have enough money and time and perhaps help with your family to fly halfway around the world or to where ever your rapist/victim is, the privilege of not having been so destroyed by what happened to you that you cannot even support yourself, the privilege of having enough mental health/well being to be able to deal with meeting your rapist. These levels of privilege are not acknowledged by Stranger and Elva and is disingenuous of them to say they know what they did isn’t for everyone, while setting the whole thing up as aspirational and telling their story on a platform designed specifically for creating aspirational visions for the future.

That two privileged white people have received so much press coverage and were given a TED talk platform displays the selective bias of the media regarding what rape stories get told. An alternative headline for this talk could be “Man agrees (years after the fact) that he raped a woman. World Applauds”. When the talk has been framed through this man’s journey and “Gasp” accountability and ownership of “Gasp” his own actions, the media wets itself with excitement over this brave man. And there is a joy to be taken from a man owning his actions. If he truly does.

But does Stranger truly own it? Yes he does admit to having raped Elva. That is a fact. Should he be applauded for that? I can see why some people think his admission is great. As a society we have set the bar so low for men, especially for white men. They are mostly unaccountable for their actions no matter how harmful to others. This message is constantly re-enforced. Think of Woody Allen or Casey Affleck being lauded and awarded despite the allegations women have made against them. Does he deserve applause just for taking responsibility for his actions and telling the truth? Does the rapist in the courtroom who pleads guilty also deserve applause? No, it’s just the right thing to do.

During the TED talk Stranger speaks of how the family and culture he grew up with had lots of good role models of people being respectful to women. And perhaps his family were all role modelling respect to women, however I find it VERY hard to believe he was not untouched by the wider sexism that exists in Australian culture. Having grown up there I can tell you that it is a deeply misogynistic society, where men are bred on entitlement. But don’t just take my word for it. As of 2015 two women a week die at the hands of a partner or a former partner. Shocking statistics for a country with such a small population and indicative of the disposable view many men have regarding women.

But Stranger does not talk about rigid and systemic gender stereotypes, toxic masculinity or any of the other factors that no doubt contributed to his younger self thinking that he had ownership over Elva’s body. This is the great missed opportunity of the talk. We are offered a floundering ‘I didn’t even realise I had raped her’ vague pronouncement and lack of accountability with no willingness on Stranger’s part to look at or acknowledge the cultural conditioning that lead to his despicable actions.

We do not hear about Stranger’s journey of soul searching after Elva’s initial letter. We do not know if he quietly consulted lawyers to find out what his options were before contacting Elva again. He very well may not have, but I have to wonder if he considered the legal ramifications of admitting in writing to committing a rape. Did he ever consider taking himself to the Police station to confess to the crime he committed? Did his willingness to own his actions extend to actually living with the legal consequences of that?

The world has gathered round to applaud a man who, many years after the fact, due to the emotional courage and tenacity of his own victim has now admitted to raping her. And as far as we know has incurred no legal consequences for his criminal act. We expect so little from men who abuse women that we have granted this man one of the most influential stages in the world, and a book deal. It is hard to know how many more platforms will be offered to Stranger now that he has become a poster boy for a reformed rapist. This my friends is peak patriarchy. Where a self-confessed rapist actually gets rewarded, applauded and financially profits from admitting he raped a woman. Slow clap for the man at the front for admitting he’s a rapist. There is something sick and dark about so many people lapping this up as a step in the right direction.

It is of interest that Stranger does not explore his life before or after he raped Elva. We know that rape is caused by male entitlement and a feeling of ownership over women’s bodies. We know that rape is about power and control and not sex. It is an act of violence towards a woman. The mindset that creates this sense of entitlement is not something that you can turn on and off at will. While I think it is brilliant that Stranger has so clearly decided to explore this part of himself, and that he is doing it so publicly, I am interested to know what else he may have done in his life before he realised he was a rapist. What were his other encounters with women and girls like? Can he honestly say that he never crossed a line with any other woman? I would find it hard to believe as Stranger himself says he didn’t recognise what he had done as rape for many many years. Perhaps he had zero interactions with women and his sexism didn’t emerge during those years after he raped Elva. I feel there was another missed opportunity for Stranger here, for him to fully own up to any and all harm he may have caused women. As the piece stands the rape is made to sound like a one off event, an anomaly in the otherwise happy life Stranger lived. Again, I feel the idea of a nice guy who “Ooops, one day raped his girlfriend and didn’t even know he had” is a dangerous message to be sending out into the world on such a large platform. That is simply not the way sexual assault and the toxic belief system that leads to men feeling entitled to assault women works. It is NOT a one off event.

I feel there was a golden opportunity here for Stranger to fully step into the causes of male entitlement, to own up to his part in it, to talk to other men about where he now knows he went wrong and why they all need to do some serious soul searching as well. It had the potential to be one of the most amazing conversation changing pieces — a man laying bare and dissecting toxic masculinity through the lens of his own story. Owning every uncomfortable bit of it and explaining how and what brought about his change, creating a pathway and vision for future men and boys to follow.

Now THAT would be an idea worth spreading.