Trigger warning: references to sexual violence
Earlier this month I set up a petition in an effort to get London's Southbank Centre to reconsider their decision to platform a rapist at the Women of the World (WOW) Festival. South of Forgiveness, also the title of the talk, is a collaboration between rape survivor Thordis Elva, an Icelandic author and activist, and her rapist, Tom Stranger. The project, they argue, is about "shifting the focus" and scrutiny of behaviour from the rape survivor to the perpetrator, and presenting rape as a "men's issue". However, their approach has received a lot of criticism, with over 2,000 people signing the petition I set up, and other groups embarking on similar campaigning. The talk was eventually rescheduled (with protests on the day). The process that led up to that rescheduling highlighted the complexity of the issue, where there were numerous positions taken by various groups, including survivors. It also showed the need for critical engagement with the question of how rapists can be involved in conversations on rape.
Thordis' narrative does not exist in a void. Given how scarce survivor narratives are in the mainstream, hers carries a lot of weight in terms of framing the debate. This is at the expense of other survivors who have wholly different stories that are invisible in that space, from being forced to live with their rapists, to not having the option to contact them (or even access to the same resources Thordis had to embark on her project should they wish to). There are survivors who wholly oppose the idea of forgiveness, and those who would be triggered by the platforming of a rapist (as many have relayed to the organisers). There is an issue of privilege here that is barely engaged with by Thordis and Tom. Had Tom been a refugee would this story have been heard? How about if the story was a criticism of the notion of reconciliation? Why some stories appeal more than others and how they make it into the mainstream are crucial questions to ask.
In the rescheduled talk, which was no different to their problematic TED Talk, Tom relied more on the tokenisation of him as a self-confessed rapist to do the work than him actually addressing "rape as a men's issue". He did not centre the roots causes: male privilege, toxic masculinity, and the socialisation of men to feel entitled to women's bodies. Instead, these appeared as afterthoughts. Tom sought to humanise himself and argued that the shame rapists carry hinders them from 'contributing to society'. Read alongside his argument that the term 'rapist' is a "weaponised term", it becomes imperative that we question the added value of having him on that platform. This should not be about making language more palatable, where there is a quest for humanising the perpetrator. It is not about dehumanising them either, but having a clear focus on addressing the root causes of rife sexual violence. Instead of disrupting the system through the platform he is given, Tom is essentially saying that 'should a man rape, there is a way out'; not that 'men can rape and this is why it happens'.
In group discussions that followed the talk there was extremely healthy conversation in which many men were involved. I am not going to deny that this talk opened up space for these discussions, however, I will have to question why it is now that there is a room full of people who are interested in discussing the problem. Why does it have to take a rapist to go on stage to kick-start this? Is it that women's/survivor's voices appearing in endless campaigning on this front are not sufficient? I also have to ask why there was no real discussion by the audience on male privilege and toxic masculinity, and instead more emphasis on the need to humanise rapists?
The project's aims of "shifting the focus" sadly led to the new focus being the humanised rapist. Addressing "rape as a men's issue" is expected to take place as a result of Thordis and Tom starting a conversation that they were not there to take part in, and that they did not lay the groundwork for. Tom's presence on stage as a rapist owning up to it is potentially useful, however, he cannot rely on the public's labelling of him as a self-confessed rapist to do for him the work he should be doing. Especially given the dangerous precedent that he risks setting and how he takes up space at the expense of other survivors' healing. In a context of normalisation of sexual violence and male privilege that makes a male rapist believed more than a woman survivor, it is only right to expect and demand that, if/when given platforms, rapists tackle these issues head-on.