CN: This blog post contains references to rape and sexual assault.
This week in dumb viral content circulating the internet: Thordis Elva and her rapist, Tom Stranger, go on a book tour to share their story of reconciliation years after he raped her while she was incapacitated. If you really want to watch the video for context, you may do so below.
I’m not going to lie, I couldn’t even make it through the whole video, I was cringing so hard. But I think more important than the video itself is the reaction it’s received online. I see feminist publications all across the internet sharing the living daylights out of this video, and I want to explain to everyone who took the time to read this angry, reactionary post to know why I see this as extremely problematic. These two say they don’t want their story to speak for all victims and rapists, and forgiveness and healing are all individual journeys, but — aside from my disgust at this problematic narrative literally being sold for profit and fame — this viral piece of content is actually quite dangerous.
Here’s the thing: we don’t need more narratives that make us sympathize with rapists, especially when they’re white men. How many victims are pressured out of pressing charges because they’re “ruining a good guy’s life,” or are shamed for doing so if they press charges? How many school headshots and sports team portraits replace white men’s mugshots in articles and newscasts when they’re accused of sex crimes? How many backgrounders are published online and in magazines where accused rapists’ friends and family and coaches and teachers can’t speak highly enough of their star athlete/student/son/friend/not possibly a rapist?
Even though Elva is the one who was raped, by the end of this talk, we’re somehow supposed to feel bad for someone who felt guilty for raping a woman. Basic human decency shouldn’t be applause-worthy, it should be standard. They say they want to end the stigma surrounding rape, but if we’re sympathizing with nice-guy Stranger in the end, what stigma are we ending? This pair’s story sort of starts to challenge the “type” of person who mainstream media constantly depicts as incapable of rape (i.e. Brock Turner-esque nice white boys who “don’t realize” they’re raping a woman because they’re drunk), but I wholeheartedly believe this is the absolute wrong way to convey that message. A nice guy who rapes is still a rapist, and research shows he will probably rape again and will likely never be prosecuted. You know what would have been nicer than this years-too-late apology? If Stranger hadn’t felt entitled to Elva’s body in the first place, or if he would have taken responsibility for his actions, to begin with. Instead, we have a woman who traveled halfway across the world to reconnect with her rapist so he could make amends? How backward is this? This narrative has been described as revolutionary, and it still revolves around the woman in this scenario doing the emotional legwork, and her attacker never being held accountable by the justice system.
Believe me when I say I am so glad Elva has found peace and some sort of closure, even if I can’t understand how. I can’t say I have, and I know many survivors who are in the same boat. And Elva is right, everyone’s journey toward healing is unique, and they’re definitely right when they say their experience does not dictate what’s necessarily the best for others. The problem is that their story fits the dominant narrative being shoved down survivors’ throats already. Their story is ammunition to further silence victims. Their story aligns with the narrative that victims of horrible, violent, traumatizing crimes should seek reconciliation instead of justice; that rapists can apologize and never be held judicially accountable for committing heinous crimes.
In their TED Talk, Elva makes some solid (though oftentimes tired) points about rape culture and self-blame, but those are not the key takeaways from her story. It’s a narrative that has been told time and time again by survivors. What makes her story unique and “share-able” is this reconnection she has with Stranger, and this empathetic picture she paints of him. That is the problem. Because regardless of whether or not you acknowledge a pre-existing systematic problem or stigma, a single story about a positive experience with the police doesn’t do anything to end police brutality, while it does feed the fire of the dominant narrative used to silence Black Lives Matter. A single story about someone regretting an abortion doesn’t detract from the millions of people whose lives are saved by the procedure every year, but it does fall in line with an anti-choice agenda.
Everyone’s experiences are valid and should be discussed. But before we sell our story for profit or share it online for a few minutes of internet fame, it’s important for us as storytellers to consider where our narrative fits in a broader context. What agenda (even if it’s unintentional) is our story pushing? Whose voices are we amplifying through our storytelling? Are we diversifying the pool of voices contributing to an ongoing conversation, or are we rehashing the dominant narrative in an unproductive way?
Who are we advocating for?