Over the last week, a TED Talk, 'Our Story of Rape and Reconciliation', has been shared across social media. Thordis Elva, an Icelandic writer, journalist and public speaker shared a platform with Tom Stranger, an Australian landscape gardener. Their story began over 20 years ago. Tom was an 18-year-old exchange student attending the same school as 16-year-old Thordis. They began a relationship and just over a month later Tom raped Thordis.
Thordis describes being raped by Tom: 'The pain was blinding, I thought I'd be severed in two. In order to stay sane, I silently counted the seconds on my alarm clock and ever since that night I have known there are 7200 in two hours. Despite limping for days and crying for weeks this incident didn't fit my ideas about rape like I'd seen on TV.'
Tom's actions continued to severely affect Thordis and nine years later, she describes finding herself writing 'I want to find forgiveness' in a journal. She goes on to say these words 'stared back at me, surprising nobody more than myself. But deep down I realized that this was my way out of my suffering, because regardless of whether or not he deserved my forgiveness, I deserved peace. My era of shame was over.' Soon after this Thordis, emailed Tom.
After eight years of correspondence, described by Thordis as 'everything from gut-wrenching to healing beyond words', they spent a week together. Thordis describes this time: '…our search for understanding in Cape Town felt like an impossible quest, and all I wanted to do was to give up and go home to my loving husband, Vidir, and our son. But despite our difficulties, this journey did result in a victorious feeling that light had triumphed over darkness, that something constructive could be built out of the ruins.'
This reconciliation that Thordis and Tom experienced led them to write a book together, South of Forgiveness.
Within the TED Talk, applause interrupts Thordis as she says: 'Once someone has been branded a rapist, it's that much easier to call him a monster — inhuman. But how will we understand what it is in human societies that produces violence if we refuse to recognize the humanity of those who commit it?'
Yet no applause is forthcoming when she says that labelling women 'victims' dehumanises them. Underneath the video the comments include those applauding Thordis and Tom, with some particularly focusing on Tom's 'courage'. Others suggest Tom should face justice and be imprisoned. Someone responded to this: 'I'm fairly certain from what was spoken of here, he did suffer, probably more than he would've in prison.' One man says their story 'speaks [to] the intelligence and compassion both have.' That. They. Both. Have.
Many Christians have shared the video, describing it as powerful evidence of how forgiveness can liberate and linking it to Jesus' teaching about forgiveness and the redemption narrative dominant within Christian culture.
The liberation Thordis has found must be celebrated! Women's stories are rarely given such careful attention and her skill as a communicator, her courage in speaking her truth and living in huge vulnerability should be honoured. Yet, there are also huge concerns with this TED Talk.
Within the talk, Thordis makes it clear that she does not intend for her story to be used as a model for others. Yet, by sharing it on such a large platform, that is inevitably what will happen. The talk is given by two people who are conventionally attractive. The messages given include that liberation is found in women's self-giving. That men don't do any of the emotional work until women take the initiative and insist they do. And that when men are given the opportunity to do the hard work of reconciliation, they will. That men who rape are often unaware of the reality of consent and the impact their actions are likely to have, yet concurrently, that men rape because they believe they have entitlement over women's and girl's bodies. This stands alongside less contradictory views challenging victim blaming attitudes and stating sexual violence is a men's issue.
Thordis' story and Tom's involvement in it is not the norm. There are millions of women who have forgiven men for raping them, torturing them, emotionally abusing them, lying to them, cheating on them. And most of those women would be able to stand on a platform and explain how it made no difference. They would explain how their forgiveness became a weapon wielded against them. Some of them would not be able to stand on a platform and say anything, because some of them were subsequently murdered by their partner. Others committed suicide. Still others are so highly traumatised that they can't function any more. And even the ones who could speak, would not be applauded, given standing ovations or told how intelligent and compassionate they are. They are vilified day in and day out. By the media. By a justice system that rarely successfully prosecute the abusers. By their family and friends. By people in their churches who tell them they should forgive harder and submit better and that he's such a nice man, so it can't really be abuse.
And some of those people in those churches will then go on Facebook and Twitter and share that TED Talk as an example of how redemption is possible. They may even send the video on to women who have been raped, abused or tortured, and encourage them that forgiveness and reconciliation is the way forward. That's what God wants. Even if they don't send the talk on, it will be seen by women who are their Facebook friends and Twitter followers. Some may take it as a sign; your love can save him. Your forgiveness will make it better.
Even though it won't.
Thordis was given an opportunity to share her story because it is extra-ordinary, not because it provides us with a common path to healing. It can be celebrated as an individual journey, but it must never be represented as more than that. The risk of it being used by abusers and their allies is too great. As is the false hope it gives to women and girls in denial about the abuse they are being subjected to, who are desperate to believe that their partner can change.
I assert this as a specialist in addressing male violence and as a woman who believed forgiveness was the solution, who would have watched that video and trusted it was a message from God. I forgave my ex-husband and reconciled with him when he had affairs. I forgave him and reconciled with him after he raped me. I forgave him and reconciled with him when he was convicted of sex offences against teenage girls. I forgave him and reconciled with him when he goaded me into attempting suicide. I forgave him and reconciled him when he raped me again and caused my son to be born premature. Forgiveness and reconciliation are rarely the solution to male violence. But that isn't a very inspirational message, and people prefer the inspirational exception. We must exist in the tension of honouring the exceptions while not losing sight of reality. Women's lives and liberation depend on it.
Natalie Collins is a Gender Justice Specialist. She is the Director of the DAY Programme and works to enable individuals and organisations to prevent and respond to male violence against women. She is on Twitter: @God_loves_women