South of Patriarchy
Thordis Elva, author of the new book “South of Forgiveness” published by Scribe this month (March, 2017) is proof of women’s bravery and strength. She, like so many other women, has survived a violent assault on her body and personhood and it is not the most important thing in her life. She has clearly achieved great things; it doesn’t sound like it was easy, she speaks and writes of wrestling with shame and emotional pain for many years. Despite that, or perhaps to spite that, she is a writer, journalist, public speaker, activist, a mother and a partner. I have nothing but respect and awe for what she has achieved, it is an admiration I am struck by time and again in the women’s movement as I meet one Amazon woman after another, each doing amazing things. And, as always, I wonder too: if this is what women can do when we are subjected to so much marginalisation, structural violence and ridicule, just imagine what we could do if the other half of the population wasn’t so committed to keeping us down. That potential is the whole point of feminism, that future is why women work so hard to leave the world a little bit nearer to that destination.
Like millions of others, I’ve watched the TED Talk online, where Elva talks about her journey of survival alongside the man who perpetrated the crime of rape against her, a man called Tom Stranger. He speaks his part in the crime that changed both of their lives in 1996, while both were still teenagers. He was two years older than her that night though, and seemingly a slightly more experienced young adult, having travelled from his home Australia to live and study in Iceland for a year and writing about how he was already used to partying and drinking, knowledgeable about alcohol poisoning and hangovers. In contrast, his girlfriend at the time, Elva, had tried rum for the first time at their school dance and was having a terrible reaction including convulsive vomiting and was falling in and out of consciousness. So ill was she that she remembers school officials recommending an ambulance be called. That did not happen though. It didn’t happen because Stranger stepped in and promised he would take her home. Unfortunately, the myth that men are women’s natural protectors is just that, a myth. Like so many women, Elva was raped by the man she should have been able to trust. The man that older adults and officials felt she should be safe with, relieved that he was escorting her, trusting millennia of patriarchal propaganda rather than the brutal reality of crime statistics.
Elva and Stranger will soon be bringing their gripping story to the UK, booked to speak in London this weekend and Bristol later this month. There is currently a protest and petition to block Stanger from his part in the tour at the Women of the World festival at the Southbank Centre in London on Saturday 11th March. Those against his appearance object to the platforming of a rapist at a festival celebrating women’s achievements and highlight that his presence may be triggering for festival attendees, including those who have survived sexual violence themselves. Like many others, I too felt uncomfortable about the presence of Stranger on the stage and on the front page of Elva’s book. Raping somebody is not an interesting life experience for one to utilise in an after-dinner speech or to profit from in writing and appearances, in the way that people write about personal challenges such as surviving cancer treatment or living after the death of a child for example. I feel instinctively that choosing to commit a crime is not a noble act that deserves any kind of aggrandising public recognition or reward. To clarify, Stranger has said that this is precisely his stance as well.
One of the most telling points I observed in their TED Talk is when Elva rightly points out that we need to understand what it is about human societies that produce this kind of epidemic male violence against women and children. She highlights that we will not be able to do that if we cannot recognise the humanity of those who commit this violence. At this point she has to pause in her scripted speech because the audience interjects to applaud. Her next sentence is a call to recognise the humanity and dignity of survivors, but nobody applauds that.
My problem is how this speaking tour will be perceived by others, not that Elva can in any way be responsible for that. She is narrating her truth and her journey and I will not tell another woman how she should or should not traverse that terrain for it is her choice and what works for her, works. If we step back from this individual case though, and take a wider perspective, I don’t think that our society does have any problem recognising the humanity of men who rape and abuse, far from it. Like the audience in their famous TED Talk, our culture is one that is actually already predisposed to forgiving men and blaming women, including blaming women for men’s crimes against them. The appeal of a narrative of redemption and renewal is strong, when it’s from a man. Men as a class have pulled off quite a feat, in response to the slow progress of women’s equality they have managed to paint themselves as the underdog. While the world remains pretty much unchanged in terms of who holds power and who doesn’t, we are told that revolution has taken place and that men have been left behind. This refrain is a popular and radicalising one, which has infatuated many young men; not least those who populate pick up sites and attend Trump rallies.
Men’s humanity is in fact rarely in question. It is women’s humanity that society struggles with. Men’s humanity is recognised time and again. It is why Brock Turner was described the world over as an elite swimmer, and served less than six months, it is why his family said it was time for campus tours about the dangers of alcohol and fraternity culture – dangers for men that is. It is why footballers who rape can put forward as their defence the damage to their careers. It is why men who murder their entire families can be portrayed as kind family men who were provoked by stresses and strains into out of character violence.
Of course, Elva is right, we do need to humanise rapists. We do need to recognise that men who rape are not monsters, they are ordinary men who do monstrous things. It is the ordinariness of them and their crimes that is the very problem. It is the everyday nature of sexual violence that leads us to see it as a natural hazard, like flooding. Men can’t help themselves so women should defend themselves. These men are boyfriends, husbands, fathers, neighbours, policemen and priests. They may be very good at their jobs; they may be good swimmers or surfers or youth workers. They are of course human, and, like all humans they commit crime in a context; for them this is a context that minimises and condones their actions. That backdrop is one that sexually objectifies women and children, and which blurs the lines between sex and violence until the two are frequently interchangeable. As Stranger says in his talk, it is a culture which tells men that they have a birth right to sexual access to women’s bodies.
It is true then, that rape and sexual violence is therefore not a women’s issue. It is a men’s issue because it is about men’s issues with women’s humanity and subjectivity. It is about men’s issues with control. It is about men’s issues with masculinity. There is perhaps a psychic legacy which affects all men; the desire for and fascination with controlling and possessing women’s sexuality and sexual autonomy. Rape comes from this place. Society backs it up by crying over men’s ruined reputations and spitting on the “slags” who called them out.
Because our society has some kind of inbred, compulsive reaction to men’s authority and agency their stories are always heard, they will always have a platform. Their tales of sin, damage, redemption and recovery are the backbone of many a Hollywood movie or bookclub novel. Don’t get me wrong, I welcome and encourage honest, unglamourised communication amongst men and by men about the effects of growing up in a patriarchal culture with all the implicit and explicit messages that sends and all the privilege it bestows. Men should talk about that and definitely talk to other men about it; they should call on other men to address these pressures in themselves. They should create progressive, safe spaces where men can open up about these issues and attempt to change the record. They don’t need a medal for doing that. They don’t need us to cry over them. They don’t need book deals. They don’t need our praise, applause or thanks. We women shouldn’t forget that of course it is only men who can stop rape. They can stop rape by not raping women.
Author: ‘Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement’ (Palgrave, 2015).