Rape & Freedom of Speech

On Tuesday evening, my wife and I went to a piano concert at Southbank Centre.  As we approached the entrance, staff diverted us to another entrance around the corner.  When we turned the corner, we found we were in the midst of a demonstration, complete with portable loudspeakers, signs and angry people – mostly women.  We hurried through and found an entrance at the far end of the building.  I couldn’t help wondering what in the world a demonstration at Southbank Centre would be about.  On the way home that night, I picked up a copy of the Evening Standard, and found what was the issue: Tom Stranger and his ex-girlfriend, Thordis Elva were going to tell their story of rape and reconciliation.

The story is this: at the time of the rape, 20 years ago, Stranger, who is Australian, now married and a youth counsellor, was on an exchange trip to Iceland.  There, he met Elva, an Icelander who was 16 at the time (he was 18), and he became her first teenage romance.  The Evening Standard article continues: “The pair went to a Christmas party, and, wanting to impress him, Elva tried rum for the first time.  She became very drunk and spent the night being sick in the toilets – staff at the venue wanted to call an ambulance to get her home but Tom volunteered.  She was incapacitated and remembers how grateful she was to him for removing her vomit-stained dress and high heels, and how alarmed she suddenly felt when he started to go further.  He raped her.   She remembers it being painful.  She never reported what happened because it didn’t fit with her idea of what rape was.  Or his, he says: ‘I presumed that after a night out with your girlfriend, a boy is deserving of sex.  I sanctioned my own perceived needs and sexual urges, and had no regard for Thordis’ well-being.  I did not have an intent to hurt Thordis, but that is what I did.’

“Nine years after the rape, Stranger, long since back in Australia, all thoughts of Elva buried, received an email. ‘It was detailed and clear.  Her words took me back to that room nearly a decade earlier.  They told me what really happened and revealed the effects my actions had on her. . . . But I also felt I was being offered something really rare, something that needed to be understood, respected and not questioned. . . . He wrote back and they spent the next two years corresponding in long emails, unpicking the events and repercussions of that night.”  She proposed that  ‘in six months time we meet up with the intention of reaching forgiveness, once and for all.  In person.’

“They met on neutral ground – a hotel in Cape Town.  Talking was difficult.  At one point Stranger broke down. ‘I’ve come to understand the damage that I caused.  It’s been a long journey for me to be totally able to acknowledge that it was rape, and to comprehend how Thordis has had to live with the effects of my actions.’

The two have written a book: South of Forgiveness, published by Scribe.

Tom Stranger & Thordis Elva

Their appearance at the Women of the World festival at Southbank Centre last Saturday was cancelled.  2364 people objected to his appearance, but it was rescheduled for last Tuesday.  The petition to cancel said: “By giving the rapist in question a platform to relay their narrative the event will inevitably encourage the normalisation of sexual violence, instead of focusing on accountability and root causes.”  Those who opposed the appearance said it would set a precedent in which rapists can be applauded simply of admitting their crime, “and may even encourage rapists to contact survivors, an action that would severely disrupt their process of healing.”

Stranger says he disagrees with the female judge who warned that drunk women put themselves at higher risk of rape.  “I would say that’s a continuation of victim-blaming.  Once again the scrutiny is on the actions of women. . . . I would not speak about the choice of women in that way.  I want the focus to be on the young men making their choices and why they do what they’re doing. . . . It’s about time we started looking at sexual violence as a men’s issue.  It’s very clear – unless it’s a mutual thing, unless there’s consent, then it’s wrong.”

In reading the Evening Standard article (which covers two entire pages), the writer, Stefanie Marsh, leaves one with the impression not only that Stranger is contrite, but he understands why he is a hate figure, and is willing to suffer abuse to get his point across: It’s a Men’s Issue.

As to whether the Women of the World appearance should have been cancelled, I take a neutral view: it’s up to the management of the festival, and more generally, I think it depends on the time and place.  What I would object to is if the government were to interfere in the decision.  Having said that, I have an issue with the protest petition.  My issue is not about freedom of speech but about willingness to listen.  It seems to me that there is an increasing tendency in our society today when a subject is introduced to say: we don’t want to hear about that!  There are three words in the petition to cancel that make me believe this is an example of refusal to listen.  Narrative: have the petitioners considered what Stranger’s narrative might be instead of assuming what it is?  Accountability: the petitioners want to focus on accountability; that’s exactly what Stranger does: his own.  Root causes: Stranger identifies the root cause as being a men’s problem.  Is that not correct?

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