A rape survivor and the man who raped her stood side by side on stage to deliver a powerful message about consent.
Thordis Elva was just 16 years old when Tom Stranger, then 18, raped her after their high school Christmas dance in 1996.
At the time, neither recognised the incident as rape, but it went on to affect each of them in their adult lives.
Nine years later the pair reconnected to share their version of events with one another. They realised the world is in the midst of a “global pandemic of sexual violence” so hosted a Ted Talk to tell their story.
During the talk, Australian Stranger, who was on an exchange programme abroad when he met Icelandic Elva, described how the pair where in a budding relationship when they went to the dance together.
“We shared a lovely teenage romance and would meet at lunchtimes to just hold hands...I met her welcoming family and she met my friends,” he said.
Elva also described how she was excited to attend the dance with her new boyfriend. The night was going well, until she became drunk after trying rum for the first time. Stranger offered to take her home.
“It was like a fairy tale, his strong arms around me, laying me in the safety of my bed,” she said,
“But the gratitude that I felt towards him soon turned to horror as he proceeded to take off my clothes and get on top of me.
“My head had cleared up, but my body was still too weak to fight back, and 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’ve known that there are 7,200 seconds in two hours.”
Despite knowing that what had happened was wrong, Elva did not recognise it as rape and did not report it.
“Despite limping for days and crying for weeks, this incident didn’t fit my ideas of rape like I’d seen on TV. Tom wasn’t an armed lunatic, he was my boyfriend,” she said.
“I was raised in a world where girls get taught that they get raped for a reason - their skirt was too short, their smile was too wide, their breath smelled of alcohol. I was guilty of all of those things, so the shame had to be mine.”
Stranger also said he woke up with an unnerving feeling the next day, but did not initially identify what he had done as rape.
“It’s important to now state that I didn’t see my deed for what it was. The word ‘rape’ didn’t echo around my mind as it should have and I wasn’t crucifying myself with memories from the night before,” he said.
“I disavowed the truth by convincing myself it was sex and not rape. And this is a lie I’ve felt spine-bending guilt for.”
Stranger broke up with Elva two days later and by the time she realised she’d experienced sexual assault, he’d moved back to Australia.
The Ted Talk comes after a growing number of universities both in the UK and abroad have introduced “consent workshops” to help students identify situations where consent may or may not be given and emphasise that non-consensual sex is rape.
Similarly, Elva and Stranger decided to speak out, saying “it’s a story that we would have needed to hear when we were younger”.
Nine years after the incident, Elva decided to write to Stranger to tell him what he had put her through, adding that she wanted to “find forgiveness”.
The pair met and co-authored a book together, which they hope will tackle sexual violence by telling the story from both perspectives.
Elva called for an end to using loaded words to describe those involved in rape - such as “victim”, “rapist” and “attacker” - as we need in engage those on both sides in conversations around consent to stop sexual violence.
“It’s about time that we stop treating sexual violence as a women’s issue,” she said.
“A majority of sexual violence against women and men is perpetrated by men. And yet their voices are sorely underrepresented in this discussion. But all of us are needed here.
“Just imagine all the suffering we could alleviate if we dared to face this issue together.”