Were Women Of The World Festival Right To Drop An Event Featuring A Rapist Talking About His Experience?
The Debrief: The narrative around rape has changed, for the better, But, if we accept the numbers of women who have said they been raped, do we also need to reconcile ourselves with the fact there are men around us are rapists?
In spite of alleged abusers winning Academy Awards, and the current President of the United States being an admitted perpetrator of sexual violence, society has (for the most part) moved forward when it comes to myths surrounding survivors of rape. No longer are we always expected to only be white, young and virginal victims, attacked in dark alleys while wearing floor-length shapeless smocks. Instead, the world is slowly coming around to something many of us have unfortunately known for a long time: there is no ‘perfect’ way to be a survivor of sexual violence.
From Delhi to Dagenham, women who are raped do still hear that they should have been dressed differently or somehow kept themselves safer. But those claims now often come hand-in-hand with quick rebuttals refocusing the conversation on why instead a man made the choice to rape. On a larger scale, there has been recent media and governmental acknowledgement that women can have children resulting from rape; this has been the only sensible chat amongst the mess that are government plans to limit the number of children that mothers can claim tax credits for. Similarly, high profile cases where victims of CSA (Child Sexual Abuse) have come forward may still be viewed as witch hunts in the right-wing press, but broadly we’ve arrived at a point where - despite the prevalence of the structural and societal causes of rape - people are at least questioning what it means to be a ‘good’ survivor.
But what does it mean to be a ‘good’ rapist? It seems as though the answer is as simple as a request for you to admit your crime. Over the past few weeks, the Southbank Centre’s Women of the World festival has found itself heavily criticised following the announcement of a joint talk from a woman who was a teenage survivor of rape, Thordis Elva, and Tom Stranger, the man who raped her. They have written a book together, South of Forgiveness, and were booked to speak at WOW on Saturday 11th March. But in the wake of cold reactions from feminist groups and anger from women online, as well as a petition to cancel the talk that amassed over 2000 signatures, the Southbank moved Elva and Stranger’s talk to the Royal Festival Hall on the 14th March (officially the day after the festival) instead.
I have a lot of love and respect for Women of the World. Despite the fact I’ve rarely seen them label themselves a feminist festival - seemingly in an attempt to appeal to people who shy away from the dreaded F word - they’re one of the few mainstream women’s events that has made a marked effort to diversify. Year on year, a growing number of working class and black and brown women have been both on the WOW stages, as well as behind the scenes. Apart from odd exceptions like this year’s decision to host a discussion on the so-called Sex Buyer Law without any actual sex worker groups on the panel (seemingly because they, like human rights groups like Amnesty International, unanimously oppose the Sex Buyer Law), Women of the World is known for its broad stances, bridge-building, and general attempt to look at both sides. I might have more radical views than them as a whole, but I see their purpose and want them to challenge and further feminism in this country. No movement can progress without reaching out to as many people as possible, and WOW has been a great place to send people like my mates, the teens I work with, and even my Mum.
The problem, however, comes when looking at both sides does, at best, nothing for women, and at worse, actively causes them harm. I am amazed that anyone thought having an admitted male rapist on stage at a women’s festival would be a good idea. Women who are survivors are so often called upon to forgive, to confront their trauma and reconcile their feelings with those of their rapists, whereas men are so rarely asked to look at their own past behaviour and accept themselves as perpetrators. Here is the bar. Lowered each and every time a man does anything, and we live in a world where a book about how you raped someone will earn a man more money and attention that 99.9% of the memoirs women write about surviving rape. Thordis Elva is totally within her rights to forgive her rapist, and even perhaps to insist he shares her platform, but large organisations have a responsibility to look at whose testimony they are sharing and presenting as ‘good’. If the millions of views Elva and Stranger’s joint TED talk says anything, it’s that this is the way the world wants survivors of sexual violence to behave. Elva is a ‘good’ survivor: calm, eloquent, attractive, slim, white, now happily married, having ‘moved past’ her trauma, and able to forgive her abuser.
Forgiveness is both part of the title of their book and the crux of Elva and Stranger’s narrative. Not healing, nor acceptance, and definitely not anger - something that so often is deemed overly feminine and hysterical, as opposed to a normal and often necessary reaction to violent trauma. No, anger is bad, and so we must forgive despite the fact forgiveness looks outwards, when we as women who are also survivors should be focusing on looking in and at and after ourselves. Our forgiveness, we are told by the platforming of this talk, can be radical. Our anger, though? The emotion that has fuelled rebellions and fights for human rights? Not so much.
While the symbolism of the talk being moved out of the official Women of the World programme is perhaps a small victory, the protest organised by a working class women’s group (Class War’s ‘Women’s Death Brigade’) is still going ahead. I can see why. The Southbank’s official statement skirts around any real apology or deep analysis, instead claiming the talk is being moved 'to enable as many people as possible to contribute outside a festival context'. Stranger is apparently donating ‘some’ of the proceeds to charity, and according to the statement is taking 'full responsibility for his actions'. But what does that even mean?
Amongst the annoyance and hurt, the whole case has come across to people like me (black, female, and from a working class background) as an exercise in white privilege amongst a jumble of dodgy class politics. While young African-American rapper Tyler, The Creator remains banned from the UK because of the violent lyrics he wrote as a teen 8 years ago, here is Tom Stranger, an admitted rapist who is allowed to not only be a youth worker in his native Australia (despite being a sex offender), but also has easily obtained visas to travel around the world to continually admit his crime. If he was a black man, he would not be allowed to stand on a stage and admit he was a rapist. Working class men with criminal records are not given congratulatory platforms by arts organisations, places that so often are hubs for the middle classes to analyse and self-congratulate their own liberalism. His ongoing commitment to telling his story - and in this case, explicitly telling his story to women - leaves a sour taste in my mouth.
Saying all that, I admit to being slightly conflicted at the calls to stop Tom Stranger speaking out all the time, everywhere. Unlike a lot of my female friends who find the idea of ever giving a platform to a rapist grotesque, I also wonder if it’s possible to find a way for this testimony to be useful. If we accept the numbers of women who have said they been raped, we also need to reconcile ourselves with the fact that more of the men around us are rapists. You know a rapist. If you sleep with men, you have likely slept with a rapist. You are almost certainly related to a rapist. So while I mostly believe that rapists should be punished to the point they're scared to rape again, a tiny part of me wants to find some way for the same men to move forward in our society. Prison does not work. The so-called justice system, where women are routinely re-victimised in court, does not work. As someone who has been through the hell of the British court system, I might always tell my friends who have been assaulted to do what feels right for them, but my first unvoiced guilty thought is always, always 'don’t do it'. I don’t know exactly what the world I want looks like, but I do know that the police, court and prison system we have at the moment can’t be a part of it. They don’t stop rape, don’t help women, and the woeful conviction rates continue to allow men who have raped to truly believe they are innocent. And had Tom Stranger decided to speak at the Southbank’s Being A Man festival, I would have at least seen the point. Men are overwhelmingly the people who rape. Repentant rapists should look towards other men, not at women who have their own trauma to deal with.
The question we need to ask perhaps is this: who is the talk for? Women of the World is supposed to be, first and foremost, for women. This talk, I’d argue, is not. What are survivors supposed to learn here? Despite Elva’s insistence, she is not advocating everyone follow her example, their TED talk did little but make me feel bad I couldn't respond to my own attacker like Elva did. The whole forgiveness narrative simplifies the complexities around rape and ignores so many of us along the way. It ignores the working class women and women of colour, the queer women and disabled women and sex workers, the mothers and sisters and daughters, who for many reasons attached to parts of our identities (some of which we don't understand ourselves) can't find our way to a place of calm, positive forgiveness. It ignores the 90% of us who know our rapists, who don't forgive because that would mean accepting something wrong happened, and we don't want to think that way. It ignores those of us who aren’t privileged enough to be able to reach out to our attackers for a reconciliatory chat because they will hurt us, or our children, or rape us again, or worse. It glosses over the myriad of feelings that those of us who are still married to our rapists have, and those of us who are related to them and don’t want trouble. It ignores and pressures those of us who are just angry, who will always be angry: the women who want to stab their rapists and cut their limbs off, the women who got their friends to beat up their rapists and felt better, the survivors who wished they knew where to hire hitmen, the women who actually did kill their rapists or attempted rapists and don't feel remorse. And then there are those of us who simply do not want to forgive or forget or see or even think about the men who raped them ever, ever again.
Perhaps the saddest thing is the fact there are women out there skewing the narrative around rape, who are having frank discussions about things relating to their rape (including forgiveness), but who won’t get anywhere near as much attention as this one man will. Councillor Madeleine Black does work with The Forgiveness Project, and while I may not feel forgiveness is as necessary as she seems to, listening to her speak about her experiences moved me to the point of tears. Artist Imogen Butler-Cole is about to embark on a tour of her new play, Foreign Body, a piece I saw it last year about healing after sexual violence. Imogen also talks to her rapist for the piece, but as opposed to putting him alongside her on stage, she instead plays a recording of his voice. Disembodied, nameless and faceless, Butler-Cole proves in a way I haven’t seen on stage before just how any man can rape, turns ideas of how a survivor ‘should’ behave on its head and even questions what ‘rape’ means by lawful definition around the world. It's a great piece of art that moved me deeply and made me think, and I am furious we are talking about Tom Stranger and not Imogen Butler-Cole. Similarly, a few years ago, I went to a talk that was nothing more than five women sitting on a stage. One by one, they spoke for some time about the fact they had been raped. The didn’t all say they were 'ok now', they didn’t shy away from the details, they weren’t interrupted at all, and they revealed as much or as little about their lives beyond that one room as they wanted. The panel was at the WOW festival, and it was life changing. Survivors talking to survivors and for survivors, and nothing else. Perhaps that should be the focus whenever we talk about rape and not an afterthought caused by the need to hear a man’s point of view.
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