Culture

No, I Don’t Want To Watch A Rape Survivor Reconcile With Her Rapist

Social media can be a battleground for survivors of sexual assault – especially this month.

This post discusses sexual assault.

It’s happened again: a notification has popped up on my Facebook app, and I’ve opened it up to an ambush.

“@Matilda Dixon-Smith, this is intense!!”

Someone had tagged me in a comment below a video: a TED Talk featuring Icelandic rape survivor Thordis Elva and her rapist, Australian Tom Stranger, called “Our Story of Rape and Reconciliation”. I’d noticed the video several times already; it was doing the rounds on my social feeds. And each time I scrolled past it my stomach dropped into my shoes.

The internet is a difficult place for anyone to navigate. No matter how our newsfeeds are curated into ever-tighter sociological circles, at some point we’re all bound to come across something that we don’t want to see, hear or read. But for a trauma survivor that difficulty is magnified 10,000 times. The internet is a minefield; it’s a battleground.

As we become more open about how women are affected by male violence — emotional, physical and sexual violence that is an epidemic not just in Australia (where one in four women will experience sexual assault in their lifetime and where 71 women were killed by violence in 2016) but all over the globe — horror stories of abuse and assault fill our screens and populate our feeds. The stories are unavoidable, shared by Facebook friends and Twitter followers for reasons good and ill. Anyone fatigued by this deluge of extreme real-life violence might seek out a fictional escape, though sometimes it feels like there isn’t one. Our TV shows and movies, our books and podcasts are increasingly distinguished by a voracious attention to the violence through which cis and trans women regularly suffer.

My friend who tagged me in the TED Talk video doesn’t know my history of assault; she doesn’t know that I’m a rape survivor. All she knows is that I’m an outspoken feminist who abhors violence against women, so she rightly assumed I might be interested in an outrageous story of a rape survivor sharing the stage with her abuser. How could she know that seeing that video might send me spiralling?

The Story Behind South of Forgiveness

It’s true that Elva and Stranger’s TED Talk is unusual; as far as I can tell, there are few (if any) stories of a survivor joining with her abuser to discuss her assault in this way. This is no doubt why my newsfeed was periodically filled with articles obsessing over the strange situation.

The TED Talk is actually one part of a campaign for Elva’s upcoming book, South of Forgiveness, which is co-authored by Stranger and chronicles their reconciliation after Stranger raped Elva (his high school girlfriend) while on school exchange in Iceland. Years later, Elva reached out to confront Stranger, and together they waded through the aftermath of the assault, reaching a kind of resolution.

The book, which is being published by indie publishing house Scribe in Australia, is unprecedented because of its dual focus; as in the TED Talk, South of Forgiveness maps the effect of the assault on both Elva and Stranger.

It’s this dual focus, as well as Elva’s apparent reconciliation with Stranger, that forms the thrust of the controversy surrounding their project. Many of the articles that reported on the TED Talk (as well as a large chunk of the comments online) exclaimed at (and applauded) one recurring motif of Elva’s presentation: “Forgiveness is the only way, I tell myself, because whether or not he deserves my forgiveness, I deserve peace.”

At this point, I feel the need for a disclaimer: the notion of forgiveness after an assault is incredibly personal and controversial. There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to process trauma, but there is a persistent idea that forgiveness is the end-road to peace. Whether or not I believe this is an appropriate way to overcome extreme violence is irrelevant: Elva has the right to address her rape in any way she chooses. I am not here to judge her.

What’s interesting is that a large portion of the positive responses to Elva’s TED Talk — and her upcoming book release — have focused on Stranger’s involvement. When South of Forgiveness is released this year, Elva and Stranger will tour Australia. They have booked out two major Australian engagements: one in The Wheeler Centre’s latest events season, and another at the Opera House’s annual celebration of International Women’s Day, All About Women.

Elva and Stranger’s TED Talk has been viewed well over 1 million times. In each one of these public broadcasts, Stranger is allowed a platform to gain some capital from his assault of Elva. His professional biography is hosted on the pages of The Wheeler Centre and the Opera House websites, as though his discussion of a crime he absolutely committed is some kind of professional engagement. And although the rumour is that Stranger will donate his portion of the proceeds from South of Forgiveness to charity, the fact remains that he has bartered a publishing deal off the back of a rape.

It’s no surprise Stranger is coming out of this experience a winner. He is an attractive, well-mannered, intelligent white man with an appealing Australian accent. We can’t wait to pat men like Stranger on the back for doing ‘the right thing’. In a world where rape is considered an everyday danger for women, where we are taught as girls how to travel home in the dark with our keys threaded through our fingers in case we are attacked, a man admitting he has raped is considered an act of bravery. Regardless of whether or not Stranger is reaping an economic reward for his involvement in South of Forgiveness, there is no doubt in my mind that what he gains is an undeniable boost in social and cultural capital.

Though the TED Talk was released online at the start of the month, the story has re-emerged on my timeline this week after writer and activist Liv Wynter published a piece for Huck Magazine entitled ‘Stop Applauding A Rapist For Admitting He Raped Someone’. Reading Wynter’s piece — which was bold, eloquent and uncompromising — felt to me like a life ring tossed into a rough ocean. Finally someone had articulated what I had previously struggled to find words for: why this particular story, of a rape survivor’s trauma management, felt so ugly and harmful to me. Why I saw spots behind my eyes and felt the clunk of shame in my chest whenever this story came to find me during my casual internet scrolling.

Knowing that there were certainly other women in my social circles who might have struggled with Elva and Stranger’s story, I shared Wynter’s piece in the hope that they could get a similar kind of relief. It was okay to find the idea of South of Forgiveness painful and sickening. I could breathe again.

The Persistent Controversy of Trigger Warnings

I’m sure all of you know what a trigger warning is. Perhaps you have seen one on your Facebook feed, or outside a theatre, or on the event listing for a panel talk like the one being hosted by The Wheeler Centre for Elva and Stranger (it reads: “Please note, a warning: this will be a confronting discussion focusing on a true story of a sex crime”).

Those little abbreviations, tw (trigger warning) and the alternate cw (content warning) are in fact a controversy themselves. As our social understanding of trauma deepens, the calls for protection for those who have been traumatised have grown louder. Some feel a need to protect others (or themselves) from the pain of seeing something that might trigger a past trauma — particularly on the internet which is largely unmoderated. But as these calls increase, so too do the cries of “coddling!” and “p-c policing gone mad!”

Not everyone believes that victims of trauma should be allowed an opt-out clause when it comes to reliving their pain. In September 2015, The Atlantic ran a controversial cover story, ‘The Coddling Of The American Mind’, which argued for the use of trigger warnings to be abandoned on college campuses, where young minds were being coddled in the name of comfort over intellectual growth. The piece went viral and sparked a divisive discussion over the value (or harm) of the trigger warning. This little abbreviation, tw, designed to protect trauma survivors, was under attack from all sides.

I’d wager you’d be surprised by some of the people who are ambivalent or even against trigger warnings. In Roxane Gay’s excellent book of essays, Bad Feminist, the academic and activist writes beautifully on the contradictory pain/relief of trigger warnings. As a woman of colour and a rape survivor, Gay is almost the archetypical person for whom trigger warnings were created. She has experienced racial violence, gendered violence, emotional, physical and sexual violence in her past. She is a trauma survivor. But she also notes that trigger warnings “cannot save me from myself”.

In her piercing essay ‘The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion’, Gay describes the kinds of experiences that can trigger her trauma: “When I smell beer on a man’s breath. When I smell Polo cologne … When I see a woman being attacked in a movie or on television … When I read about experiences that are all too familiar”. Some of these experiences are to be expected — reading about or watching assault are the kinds of things to which trigger warnings are generally attached. Others are more esoteric, and those are the ones that take you by surprise.

The man who raped me played The Wombats, a band I loved and an album I had listened to extensively. Now, if I hear a Wombats song, I have to turn it off or leave the room. I feel sick, I feel dizzy. The Wombats are touring this year, and I’ve had to hide all mentions of the band from my timeline, because even seeing that My Mate [Insert Name Here] is attending their Melbourne gig makes me want to cry.

No one knows that The Wombats are a trigger for my deeply buried trauma. But I cannot really escape them, or the other mundane things that can trigger a panic attack and a rush of memories I try daily to destroy. I cannot save me from myself.

The trigger warnings debate is, as Gay points out, “impossible”. “There is too much history lurking beneath the skin of too many people,” she writes. “Few are willing to consider the possibility that trigger warnings might be ineffective, impractical, and necessary for creating safe spaces all at once. The illusion of safety is as frustrating as it is powerful.”

Like Gay I oscillate between feeling like trigger warnings are essential and useless. It’s nice to be able to opt out when I see “tw: rape” on Facebook; but, though I firmly believe the anti-pc-ers who advocate for the abolishment of trigger warnings are ignorant assholes, I agree with them that there is no trigger warning for life. Our trauma is complex and deeply embedded in all of us; we can’t always protect ourselves.

A ‘Right’ and the ‘Wrong’ Way of Doing Things

The problem with Elva and Stranger’s monopolisation of recent sexual violence discourse isn’t even to do with Stranger’s involvement in South of Forgiveness, or Elva’s choice to absolve her rapist for his violence towards her. The problem with the debate is how it contributes to the dangerous idea, essential to our rape culture, that there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to be a rapist or a survivor. Even as it sickens me to write that sentence, I know it is true, and I know that this is where a large portion of my own shame as a survivor comes from.

It’s been nearly six years since my assault, and I still worry that people to whom I disclose my story will react badly (most don’t, but some have). I’m still terrified that I’ve missed my chance at peace by not reporting when I was raped five years ago, because I now have no chance of confrontation or resolution (reporting assault is complicated and I still feel guilt at the thought that my attacker may have harmed another woman, but I have learned not to feel shame for staying silent when I did). And I always, always worry, deep down, that what happened to me was my fault.

Being a rape survivor is a suffocating and (it sometimes feels) never-ending struggle not to blame yourself for anything and everything. You feel shame; you hate yourself because you are still suffering. And the truth is that there is no right way to respond after you have been attacked. Elva may feel better now she has confronted and forgiven her attacker, but I have to believe there are other ways to process my trauma, because that road is not an option for me.

We should not applaud Elva for being a ‘good’ survivor, any more than we should applaud Stranger for owning up to his crime. All this does is perpetuate the misguided idea that rape survivors should be strong and stoic, that they should follow ‘the rules’; or that rapists can’t really help themselves, so all they can do is apologise afterwards and all will be forgiven.

I love Scribe, The Wheeler Centre and All About Women, but I am horrified that they are giving this story a platform; I can’t see that it will do anything other than shame and harm other rape survivors who feel that if they’re not like Elva they are wrong. It’s virtually impossible for us to protect ourselves from the things in the world that will harm us, that will drag our trauma back up to slap us in the face. But we can protect ourselves from hearing from a man like Stranger, and from watching him profit from his vile attack on Elva.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.

Men can access anonymous confidential telephone counselling to help to stop using violent and controlling behaviour through the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491.

Matilda Dixon-Smith is a freelance writer, editor and theatre-maker, and a card-carrying feminist. She also tweets intermittently and with very little skill from @mdixonsmith.