This Saturday (11 March) , rape survivor Thordis Elva was due to give a talk on stage alongside the man who raped her, Tom Stranger.
Elva was just 16 years old when Stranger, then 18, raped her after their high school Christmas dance in 1996. Years later, the pair reconnected to discuss the incident and penned a book on rape, titled ‘South of Forgiveness’.
Last month, the pair were catapulted onto a global stage when a joint Ted Talk they gave received more than two million views.
But in a change.org petition, campaigners argued that their appearance at WoW would be “triggering for many survivors” of sexual assault.
The petition, which was launched by Londoner Amira Elwakil, read: “We urge you to reconsider hosting this event in its current format, which will be triggering for many survivors and which we believe goes against the values espoused by the WoW Festival.
“In its current format, the event will see a rapist given a platform to talk about the rape he committed, where his narrative will unavoidably be given equal weight to that of the survivor’s.
“By giving the rapist in question a platform to relay their narrative, the event will inevitably encourage the normalisation of sexual violence instead of focussing on accountability and root causes of this violence.
“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.”
In their TED Talk, Elva and Stranger said they’d decided to share their story to spark important conversations around consent, as when he was 18, Stranger “didn’t see [his] deed for what it was”.
Elva also called for an end to using loaded words to describe those involved in rape - such as “victim”, “rapist” and “attacker” - arguing that we need to engage those on both sides in conversations 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.”
Those behind the petition said they support Elva’s choice to share her experience, but they do not think the event is suitable for an festival aimed at empowering women.
In response to the petition, Southbank Centre director and Wow founder Jude Kelly reportedly met with Elwakil and a group of activists to discuss the petition.
Elva and Strangers’ talk will now take place on the 14 March, as a separate event not linked to Wow.
In a statement given to the BBC, Kelly said WOW was created to be “an open, balanced platform for discussion and debate on gender equality and the related critical issues that women and men struggle with every day”.
“Rape is one of these critical issues and we need to shift the discourse around it, which too often focuses on rape survivors rather than rape perpetrators,” she said.
“Following their Ted talk we programmed survivor Thordis Elva to share her journey of coming to terms with the devastating impact of her rape and her decision to invite perpetrator Tom Stranger onto the stage, to take full responsibility for his actions,” the statement added.
“Having considered the importance of this debate for the widest possible public, and after having further conversations with survivors, support organisations and audiences, we have decided to stage this event on the Tuesday 14 March rather than on Saturday 11 March as originally scheduled, to enable as many people as possible to contribute outside a festival context.”
Southbank Centre will be hosting group discussions after the talk for anyone affected.