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How to deal with being raped: two incompatible points of view

On ABC Qanda last night, Icelandic writer Thordis Elva spoke about how she had, over a seventeen year period, communicated with and finally forgiven Australian Tom Stranger, who raped her when she was sixteen and he was eighteen.

Stranger raped Elva as she lay literally paralytic from the effects of alcohol, in her own bed. He’d taken her home from a party, where friends were so concerned they’d wanted to call for medical assistance. Stranger undertook to protect and watch over her until she recovered. The rape took place over two hours, and so damaged Elva she was unable to walk properly for some time.

The two have since given a TED talk on their many email encounters, which were initiated by Elva and culminated in a physical meeting in Cape Town. Stranger remarks on the suitability of this country for their purpose, given the truth and reconciliation project of the Mandela government that sought to address crimes against humanity during decades of apartheid in South Africa, employing a process that involved admissions of guilt, and subsequent forgiveness by victims.

Stranger and Elva have written a book about their long experience of seeking a resolution to their victim/perpetrator relationship. They finally reached a point where Stranger was able to take responsibility for his actions, and name himself as a rapist. This ownership of his behaviour has allowed Elva to find relief from her feelings of hatred, rage and desire for revenge.

While I don’t find it at all difficult to imagine the relief and liberation I’d feel if a perpetrator admitted his crimes against me, I do find it difficult to imagine wanting a relationship with him that would see us co-authoring a book, and travelling the world together, sharing a stage.

As Elva notes, and I agree, forgiveness is something victims do for ourselves, not for the perpetrator. However, what I couldn’t extrapolate from the TED talk or Qanda, or interviews I’ve read, is how she moved emotionally and intellectually from regarding Stranger as an assailant, to interacting with him as a colleague.

Or perhaps not so much how, as why? Releasing myself from dark feelings and desires so as to get on with my life is both sensible and healthy. But keeping the rapist in my life?

I can forgive the perpetrator for my own sake, but that doesn’t mean I ever want to see him again.

Also on the panel last night was Josephine Cashman, Indigenous lawyer and business woman. Ms Cashman’s take on rape is situated at the opposite end of the continuum, and she was rather dismissive of Elva’s story. Ms Cashman stated unequivocally that sexual assault should be dealt with by the legal system, women must go to the police, the perpetrator must be charged, tried, convicted and incarcerated.

Which in theory sounds quite logical, however, as this must-read article by Jane Gilmour points out, that apparently logical process is rarely the outcome of sexual assault allegations. The legal system can be brutal to victims of sexual assault, and conviction rates are notoriously low.

I admit to feeling not a little creeped out by Mr Stranger when I watched the TED talk. I was unable to get past my knowledge of him as a man who had cruelly and opportunistically raped an entirely helpless woman, over a two-hour period. I didn’t really care what he had to say about his later realisation, self-evident to me, that at the time he’d been more concerned about his wants than Ms Elva’s needs and safety.

In the spirit of truth and reconciliation I tried quite hard to find a point of contact with Stranger. All I felt was dizzy and sick. Yes, I can imagine the miserable, criminal psychopathy of a man who rapes a very ill and barely conscious woman he’s promised to care for. Yes, I can pity it. I just don’t want it or him anywhere near my life.

It seems to me on reflection, that both Ms Cashman and Ms Elva are unrealistic. For very many victims of sexual violence and other violence against women, engaging with the perpetrator is the very last thing we want to do. Taking the legal option is often described as being raped all over again, and it is disingenuous of Ms Cashman to pose that option as a logical process that results in justice. It isn’t, and more often than not, there’s no justice to be had.

It is possible to achieve a state of comparative peace or forgiveness without any involvement with the perpetrator, and preferably with help and support from others.

A woman is forever changed by the experience of sexual assault, and it’s impossible to recover the self who existed before the attack. This is just one of the many losses caused by rape: the loss of who I was before.

I don’t think there’s such a thing as “closure” or “resolution.” There is only finding a way to live your life as fully as you can, in spite of what has happened to you. There’s no formula for this. There’s no prescription.

It’s the victim’s task, and how unfair it seems, to find her way through the hell of rape. It can take a lifetime. And nobody can or should tell a woman how she must do it. If you don’t do it Ms Cashman or Ms Elva’s way, you haven’t failed. You’ve succeeded in searching for and finding your own way to take back your life. And you might have to do it more than once.

This article was originally published on No Place For Sheep.


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  1. wam

    such a need for societal rethinking.
    To a man the basic gene drop, shag, quickie f..k is the reason for being on this earth. When alcohol is involved any warm hole will suffice.

    Do you imagine any process of education in the world that teaches boys to think differently?

    There are millions of men who realise the massive difference in effect of penetration and ejaculation in consensual sex who would find it very difficult to rape but they are self-taught.

    Perhaps down grading rape to assault may be the only way to get a message through.
    A pretty drastic method when hundreds of men and boys go to gaol and get criminal records.


  2. @RosemaryJ36

    He was her first boy friend and they were in love in teenager fashion. That entirely alters the dynamic of their initial relationship and leaves a foundation to be able to communicate effectively once fault is recognised and owned. There was also a very significant time lapse between the rape and her making contact with him and this is also a significant factor. SHE needed to know why he had raped her. AND HE needed the opportunity to feel the shame of what he had done.

  3. SimsonMc

    Ms Wilson writes:

    “If you don’t do it Ms Cashman or Ms Elva’s way, you haven’t failed.”

    I listed to Ms Elva’s story on ABC Conversations and she made it quite clear that she was not prescribing her journey as the way to deal with rape. It was her personal story which worked for her and she acknowledges that there is no one size fits all approach to dealing with the trauma of rape.

    Whether Ms Wilson meant to or not, her article comes across as judgmental, implying that Ms Elva is wrong for telling her story because somehow it is unrealistic and doesn’t line up with her view what a victim experiences after being raped.
    As a victim of s.. child abuse, I too have been judged as to how I dealt with my experiences, especially from people who had never experienced it. I’m not suggesting that Ms Wilson has never experienced it, I don’t know her. However, there is no right or wrong way in dealing with such things. To me, the thing is to encourage people to find their own solutions and not judge the solution. If Ms Elva or Ms Cashman views for that matter, help one person along their journey then the airing of such stories (views) can only be a positive thing. When it happened to me, I had no opportunity to reflect on my own situation by hearing how others had dealt with their experiences.

    I wish I had.

  4. bobrafto

    Another way of looking at it, and something that I practiced all my life is turning adversity into a positive, or to try and find a silver lining to the adversity.

    And in this instance Ms Elva has found a way to profit from her ordeal.

  5. Florence nee Fedup

    I agree being able to forgive brings a end to the trauma. Trouble is one has to admit to guilt, to offer an apology. This rarely happens, especially in family situation. I longed to hear the words, “I am sorry for what I did” Not for me but for my kids. He is long dead, now a great grandmother. Sadly effects of trauma linger.

  6. Maeve Carney

    Forgiveness is important for the victim to be able to move on with their life. But one cannot forgive someone who is not prepared to own and admit his culpability and apologise for it. In this I feel that Ms Elva was fortunate, far too many victims of sexual assault have to try to deal with the consequences of the attack without the attacker even admitting any wrong-doing at all, or worse, blaming the victim. In such circumstances forgiveness is impossible.

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