First Man Standing

A Rape Perpetrator and a Survivor Tell their Story Together

26 February 2017 — — General A Rape Perpetrator and a Survivor Tell their Story Together

Twenty one years ago, Australian exchange student Tom Stranger raped his girlfriend, Thordis Elva, after their school ball in Reykjavik, Iceland. Four years ago, the two agreed to meet in South Africa to seek closure – and were surprised to discover that ‘something constructive could be built out of the ruins’.

A couple of months ago, Thora and Tom shared their experiences in a joint TED talk entitled ‘Our Story of Rape and Reconciliation’. They tell the story together, taking turns to speak and intently listening to the other person.

In a way, it is a sad story and one which is all too common – a story of a man seeing ‘women as having less intrinsic worth, and […] men having some unspoken and symbolic claim to their bodies’. But as Thordis Elva, now an campaigner on issues of sexual violence in her native Iceland, says, it is also a ‘unique’ story; it is so unusual to hear both the rape perpetrator and the survivor standing up and talking together. Indeed, it is rare to see any men engaged with tackling sexual violence. Thordis has been travelling and speaking at conferences about these issues for a decade now and, in her experience, ‘the attendees of such events are almost exclusively women’.

As they both explain how the rape affected them, striking parallels emerge in their stories. Just after it happened, neither of them thought of it as rape. For Thordis, ‘this incident didn't fit my ideas about rape like I'd seen on TV. Tom wasn't an armed lunatic; he was my boyfriend.’ And Tom tells of how he ‘repudiated the entire act in the days afterwards and when I was committing it. I disavowed the truth by convincing myself it was sex and not rape. And this is a lie I've felt spine-bending guilt for.’ They could only really understand it when Thordis sent Tom a letter eight years after the rape, initiating a dialogue which allowed both of them to come to terms with what had happened. Tom says: ‘Don't underestimate the power of words. 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.’

Similarly, they both felt oppressed by silence. Thordis explains how her ‘self-worth was buried under a soul-crushing load of silence that isolated me from everyone that I cared about, and I was consumed with misplaced hatred and anger that I took out on myself.’ Whilst she was weighed down by shame, Tom distanced himself from troubling, uncomfortable thoughts about what he had done: ‘I sunk the memories deep, and then I tied a rock to them.’ And again, freedom only came for both of them through talking and listening to each other. After eight years of writing, Thordis suggested that they both meet for a week in South Africa, halfway between Iceland and Australia. In Tom’s words, ‘Over the course of this week, we literally spoke our life stories to each other, from start to finish. And this was about analyzing our own history. We followed a strict policy of being honest, and this also came with a certain exposure, an open-chested vulnerability. There were gutting confessions, and moments where we just absolutely couldn't fathom the other person's experience. The seismic effects of sexual violence were spoken aloud and felt, face to face. At other times, though, we found a soaring clarity, and even some totally unexpected but liberating laughter. When it came down to it, we did our best to listen to each other intently. And our individual realities were aired with an unfiltered purity that couldn't do any less than lighten the soul.’

The power of stories and the power of dialogue is evident in every aspect of their talk: from the physical presence of both of them on stage at the same time, to the healing they both have found in this shared process. They have co-authored a book, South of Forgiveness, which Thordis calls ‘a story that we would've needed to hear when we were younger’. It certainly is a powerful story, one of bravery, honesty and reconciliation – not without difficulty and conflict, but all the more moving because they have overcome differences to reach a point where they can tell their story together.

On the whole, men have been absent from dialogue about sexual violence. But Thordis’ parting words from the TED talk emphasise why this has to change if we are to make progress on the issue: ‘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.’

To watch the TED talk, click here. Warning: This talk contains graphic language and descriptions of sexual violence.