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.