March 7 2017
More than 20 years ago, Tom Stranger raped 16-year-old Thordis Elva. Years later, she emailed him to discuss her assault. That conversation launched an odd partnership, and the two have since written a book, South of Forgiveness, and delivered a TED talk.
But the duo’s planned appearance at a London women’s conference on March 11 has created controversy.
A Change.org petition, which garnered more than 2,350 signatures, called the scheduled Women of the World speech “triggering for many survivors” of sexual assault.
“By giving the rapist in question a platform to relay their narrative, the event will inevitably encourage the normalization of sexual violence instead of focusing on accountability and root causes of this violence,” the petition said. “This is also problematic as it sets problematic precedent for rapists, suggesting they can be platformed and applauded simply for admitting to rape they have committed, and may even encourage rapists to contact survivors, an action that could severely disrupt their process of healing.”
After receiving the petition, the Southbank Centre, which is hosting the Women of the World conference, said it may cancel the Saturday speech. In an emailed statement to Heat Street, Southbank Centre’s artistic director, Jude Kelly, said that organizers were soliciting feedback before deciding how to proceed.
“We programmed this talk for one woman to share her journey of coming to terms with the devastating impact of her rape and her decision to invite her perpetrator to take full responsibility for his actions,” Kelly said. “As demonstrated by the strength of feedback around this talk, the sensitivity of this issue hugely divides opinion and we are taking the time to listen to different viewpoints before deciding the most appropriate way forward.”
By deadline, media contacts for Elva and Stranger did not respond to Heat Street’s request for comment.
But in an interview with the Guardian last week, Elva said she knew that teaming up with her rapist to tell her story would be controversial. But she also said there was no “right way” to deal with sexual violence.
“I want to say [to survivors of sexual assault] that you did nothing wrong,” Elva said. “The way in which you carried on with your life may not have been clean-cut, it may have been messy and incomprehensible to those who don’t share your experience, but it was your way to survive a trauma. Nobody has the right to tell you how to handle your deepest pain.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.